As not everybody now remembers, the wars of Yugoslavia began not in Bosnia, not in Croatia, but in Kosovo. The chain of events that led to the Srebrenica massacre and the bombing of Belgrade started there, in the late 1980s, when Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic launched a series of repressive measures against this mostly Albanian, semi-independent, “autonomous province” within Serbia. These culminated in 1990, when Milosevic ended the semi-independence, revoked Kosovo’s autonomy, installed a new police force, shut down Albanian newspapers, fired university professors, and generally inflicted economic and political chaos.
Milosevic’s intention was to reassert Serbian and Orthodox dominance over Kosovo, the site of a historically significant battle between the Serbs and the Ottoman Empire in 1389 (the Serbs lost), and home to a genuinely substantial Serbian minority. And the result? This week, nearly two decades later, Kosovo — an Albanian-speaking, majority-Muslim state in which, it’s safe to guess, Serbs will be less than fully welcome and no Orthodox church will be safe from vandalism — has just declared independence from Serbia. A more eloquent demonstration of the law of unintended consequences would be hard to find.
In fact, while watching on television as the crowds celebrated Saturday night in the streets of Pristina, I wondered whether there isn’t a deeper lesson here for other would-be neighborhood bullies. Milosevic’s stated goal was, after all, the greater glory of Serbia (he had other, unstated goals as well, such as the perpetuation of a communist-era power structure, but never mind). Spouting Serbian nationalism, he helped turned Serb minorities across Yugoslavia into mini-militias. They, in turn, inspired the creation of other mini-militias — Croatian, Bosnian, Albanian and others — which began fighting one another in a series of small, nasty wars.
You can fairly accuse me here of oversimplifying this chronology, but I think it is nevertheless correct to say that the result of this activity — discrimination, ethnic cleansing, warfare — was a disaster for Serbia. The Serbian economy went down the tubes; the Serb dominance of the former Yugoslavia evaporated; Belgrade, the Serb capital, was bombed. Now Serbia looks set to be dismembered as well: Some European countries and the United States
have recognized Kosovo’s independence, something that wouldn’t have happened two decades ago. Milosevic the super-nationalist — the would-be leader of a revived, powerful, successful Serbia — damaged no country nearly so much as he damaged Serbia itself.
Keep that lesson in mind over the next few months as others in Europe — and possibly elsewhere — attempt to use the Kosovo example as a precedent. After all, if the Albanians can be independent from Serbia, the Abkhazians and South Ossetians would like to be independent from Georgia, the Basques and Catalonians don’t see why they shouldn’t be independent from Spain, and who knows what could happen in Cyprus.
In some of these cases, there are other, larger neighbors that might be interested in facilitating the split, just as Serbia was keen to encourage ethnic Serbs in Bosnia or Croatia. Most notably, and most notoriously, the Russians have made ominous noises and dropped dark hints about those Georgian separatist groups, and one can certainly see their logic. What a perfect way to take revenge on those difficult, NATO-loving Georgians: Encourage Georgia’s ethnic minorities to launch civil war. Besides, the timing could hardly be better. In the waning days of the Bush administration, is Abkhazia anybody’s central concern? During the most interesting U.S. presidential campaign in decades, is anyone going to spare a thought for South Ossetia?
Except that if Abkhazia and South Ossetia were to secede, and civil war in Georgia were to follow, the Russians would then have a failed state on their borders. And, as we know from Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Africa, ethnic and religious civil wars have a nasty way of spreading to their neighbors. Chaos in Georgia might be in the short-term interest of a small group of Putinites, desperate to raise the specter of warfare, annoy the West and cling to power (much like Milosevic, once upon a time), but it is most definitely not in the long-term interest of Russia.
Russia’s policy toward these would-be separatists over the next few weeks will therefore reveal a great deal about the mentality of Russia’s ruling clan. If the denizens of the Kremlin have a shred of concern about their compatriots’ future well-being, they’ll shut up and try to calm everyone down. If not — well, I hope they remember that the law of unintended consequences applies to them, too.