Kosova: just another Western-dominated post-colonial Muslim nation-state

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On the face of it, Kosova’s declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17 should have been grounds for celebration across the Muslim world. For much of the 1990s, the plight of Muslims in the Balkans was a major issue for the global Ummah, which mobilised massive resources to support the Bosnians against the Serbs’ attempted genocide during the first part of the decade — until the US-brokered Dayton Agreement in 1995 — and also supported Muslims in Sandjak and Kosova as best they could when Serbs turned their attention to those communities later in the decade. The fact that, a few short years later, Kosova’s declaration of independence, and its recognition by much of the international community, should be greeted with so muted a response among Muslims requires some explanation. As for so much in the Balkans, the explanation lies in history, albeit recent.

The situation of the Kosovars — ethnic Albanian Muslims living in an area of southern Serbia — emerged as an issue with the break-up of Yugoslavia after the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989. Communist Yugoslavia was a multi-national confederation, consisting of four major communities (Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and Slovenians), each identified with a state within the confederation. There were also other communities — Macedonians, Albanians and Sandjaks, for example — living in some or all of these states. As the post-Tito state fell apart, the first fault-lines to appear were political ones between these states; these problems were then exacerbated by the facts that the areas in which particular communities lived did not match state borders; that many areas had mixed communities; and that the Serbs regarded themselves as the senior community in the country, entitled to power beyond their own borders. The result was that the first major issues in the region were between these states, while the situation of the Kosovars — a community within Serbia — remained relatively low-key until after the end of the Bosnian war (which was in fact a three-way war also involving Croatia).

Early in the war, which began in March 1992, the West’s attitude was to sit back and allow the Serbs and Croats to defeat the Bosnians, eliminating the risk of a Muslim country emerging in Europe. It was during this period that global Muslim support was crucial in enabling the Bosnians to survive and even fight back. It was only once it was clear that Bosnia was not going to be defeated, and was actually turning the tide on the Serbs in particular, that the US and European states got involved, resulting ultimately in the Dayton Agreement. Western claims to have saved the Muslims from genocide — recycled whenever the US is accused of being anti-Muslim — are therefore hypocritical in the extreme.

The nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic cracked down on Kosovars as soon as it came to power in 1989, but it was after Dayton that Kosova emerged as a greater issue, partly because Serb nationalists turned their fervour in a new direction, and partly because the Kosovars increased their agitation against Serbian misrule. By this time, the Western powers were closely involved in the region. The Kosovars found more powerful friends than the fragmented Muslim Ummah, and the issue of Kosova became an international one rather than a Muslim one. In the spring of 1999, NATO — dominated by the US, of course — launched over two months of airstrikes against Serbian forces in Kosova, and in Serbia itself, forcing them to relinquish control of the region. By UN Resolution 1244 on June 10, 1999, Kosova was effectively made a protectorate of NATO, controlled by a multinational military force, KFOR. Since then, Kosova has effectively been under NATO rule, which Kosovars have seen as a stepping stone to formal independence.

The Kosovars have been encouraged in this by the US for reasons of its own, none of them altruistic. Indeed, US claims to have intervened in 1999 for humanitarian reasons, in order to save the Kosovars from Serbian aggression and repression, can also be dismissed. Throughout the period, the US has acted for its own selfish reasons, as it does in all foreign policy issues. In 1999, a major reason was to extend its influence into eastern Europe, formerly part of the Russian sphere of influence, and latterly regarded as a responsibility of the EU. The Clinton administration also had pressing domestic reasons for seeking a successful foreign policy distraction at the time. It may also have been aware of the benefits of being seen to be helping a Muslim people at a time when it was under attack for its policies in the Middle East; US crimes against Iraq, and Muslim anger at them, did not begin after 9/11, after all. More recently, under Bush, the US has also been concerned to limit the influence of a resurgent Russia in Europe, and with regional oil and gas politics, concerning both Russian plans for the region and recent confirmation of oil reserves in the region.

Muslims’ awareness of these American interests, rather than an Islamic movement of any kind, pushing developments in the region has been one major reason for their response to Kosova’s independence being muted.

Another has been that the great hopes placed in Bosnia in the 1990s have largely been disappointed. As Bosnians fought for survival, and Muslims rallied to their support, many Muslims had unrealistic expectations that an independent Bosnia would become a beacon of Islam in Europe. Instead, Bosnia-Herzegovina has become just another Muslim nation-state, closely aligned with Europe and the US, and more interested in its own local interests than supporting the causes of Muslim peoples and Islamic movements. This is disappointing, but not particularly surprising. Bosnian Muslims had a particular and unique history as a European Muslim people within the Ottoman Empire, then under Austro-Hungarian rule, and then in a communist Yugoslavia. There were few grounds for expecting this history to produce an understanding of Islam and the contemporary Islamic movement beyond that achieved in countries such as Pakistan, Turkey or Malaysia, to name but a few examples. And in the 1990s, emerging from the Bosnian war, it was hardly surprising that Bosnian Muslims should choose to identify more with the US and Europe than with a fragmented Muslim world dominated by pro-Western dictatorships and beset with problems. All the same factors apply equally to Kosova today.

Kosova’s independence is not a fait accompli. Serbia has come out strongly against it, supported by Russia. There remains a Serbian minority of some 10 percent of Kosova’s population, with a far higher proportion in the town of Mitrica and the surrounding area in the north of Kosova, bordering on Serbia. With Russian support, Serbia is likely to use this minority to try to destabilise Kosova by terrorism and similar tactics. There is every risk of Kosova becoming a battle ground characterised primarily by Serb refusal to accept the fact of Kosovar independence, but complicated also by superpower interference and rivalry in the region. The declarations of independence last month may, in hindsight, be regarded as the beginning of a new phase of Kosova’s troubles, rather than an end to them and a dawn of a new beginning, as many Kosovars must hope.

And if that happens, Muslims around the world may yet have to support the Kosovars as fellow Muslims in whatever form their future struggle may bring, as we support the Palestinians, Afghans and Iraqis, regardless of the reservations we may have about their political understanding of the geo-political realities of the world we live in and true nature of the Islamic societies and states we must build in future.

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