By William PfaffAre hopes for a multiethnic Kosovo unrealistic?
Paris, Saturday, March 4, 2000
PARIS - The precarious situation in the town of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, now partitioned between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, demonstrates the fragility of the international community's policy to establish a multiethnic government in Kosovo.
Here, as in Bosnia in 1995, NATO made war to undo ethnic cleansing and partition. This admirable ambition has since met endless difficulties and frustrations in both places, imposing doubt as to its realism. Yet what is the alternative, even in purely expedient terms?
NATO placed Mitrovica under French zonal command, assuming that the substantial Serbian population would trust the French to protect them from the revenge of Albanians. The French unwisely allowed the Serbs to partition the town. This left looted Albanian apartments and some isolated Albanian residents in Serb-controlled northern Mitrovica, and a few Serbs in the southern part of the town, dominated by the returning Albanians.
Since then, NATO forces have struggled to separate the Albanians, demanding their property in the north, and bands of Serbs, tele-guided from Belgrade, blockading their part of Mitrovica with the aim of creating a de facto cantonization and eventual partition of all Kosovo.
Serbian expansionism and "greater Albania" ambitions collide in this struggle. Albanian activists are harassing the Kosovo Serbs in order to drive them into Serbia. Albanian radicals have reportedly infiltrated Serbia itself in an effort to control Albanian-populated towns inside the country, where Yugoslav military forces are massing just across the frontier from the American-controlled zone of Kosovo - a potentially explosive situation.
The Western powers have had small successes in disarming hatred and installing multiethnic institutions. Sarajevo is one such, but Sarajevo was a liberal and cosmopolitan city before Yugoslavia's destruction began. The prewar situation has merely been restored.
Elsewhere, in such East European states as Romania and Bulgaria, there have been considerable successes in reconciling national minorities. On the other hand, Slovaks insisted on separating from the Czechs in 1993. Throughout the region, Gypsies fare badly.
The UN special representative in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, concedes that Kosovo's Serbian and Albanian populations, given what has happened to them since 1989, probably "will indeed prefer to live separately for a period." He argues, however, that "history shows that divided cities and divided communities reunite eventually."
This has only limited truth in describing events in the 19th and 20th centuries, when national consciousness and modern nationalism found full expression in the regions formerly part of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires.
It would seem a basic principle, or simple realism, to say that it is legitimate for people with a common cultural heritage to want to live in their own state. The problem is feasibility.
If it can be accomplished peacefully, fine. The reality is that Woodrow Wilson's idealistic notion of national self-determination for all has come about in Central and Eastern Europe mainly through war, persecution, population transfers and redrawn borders, and with immense human suffering.
The entire Polish state, during and after the two world wars, was moved westward, millions were murdered, and others displaced by Nazi and Soviet forces, for Poland finally to become entirely Polish in population. Modern Lithuania and Ukraine emerged from that frontier shift.
Germany lost the greater part of historical Prussia in World War II. German minorities in the East and in the (Czech) Sudetenland were expelled after World War II.
The Soviet Union of 1989 has seen five nations on its western borders declare independence.
Successful multiethnic nations have, in modern times, mostly been the creations of settlers and immigrants, at the expense of indigenous peoples (the United States, Canada, Australia). Multicultural immigration in the two most successful immigrant nations, France and the United Sates, has depended on the existence of powerful and culturally assimilative national ideologies.
The international community's decision to establish multiethnic societies in Kosovo and Bosnia is highly ambitious, more so than most were willing to admit when the policy was established.
In the short term, the international community has no alternative to pressing on to establish liberal, ethnically neutral political institutions in those societies, counting such successes as come, resisting the continuing effort of the Milosevic government to exploit ethnic division in both places.
Whether this will provide a permanent solution, successfully uniting warring communities, is another matter. It would be unwise to count on success. The patience, persistence - and armed presence - of the international community will, for the foreseeable future, remain indispensable.