Page last updated at 08:21 GMT, Friday, 22 February 2008

Could Balkan break-up continue?

By Tim Judah
Balkans analyst

Kosovans wave the new Kosovan flag as they celebrate the declaration of independence (17/02/2008)
Critics fear that Kosovo's secession could spark further breakaways

An interesting debate is taking place in the cafes of Kosovo. The question concerns the six stars of the country's new flag.

Officially they are supposed to represent six ethnic groups here. But some suspect that they actually represent six areas where ethnic Albanians live and out of which extreme nationalists would like to fashion a Greater Albania.

Those six regions are: Kosovo, Albania, western parts of (FYR) Macedonia, parts of Montenegro, the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia and parts of northern Greece.

The truth is probably that when officials of the European Union saw the original version of the flag - with 12 stars, like the European flag - they demanded a change and so the Kosovans just randomly chopped the number in half.

Having said that, the question does arise: is Kosovo's independence the end of the disintegration of the old Yugoslavia or might it continue?

Ethnic mix

Several regions spring to mind. First and foremost are Serb areas of Kosovo, especially the north, which is already de facto part of Serbia and home to more than 40,000 people.

Population about two million
Majority ethnic Albanian; 10% Serb
Under UN control since Nato drove out Serb forces in 1999
2,000-strong EU staff to take over from UN after independence
Nato to stay to provide security

Some Kosovo Albanians would not actually mind if northern Kosovo was ceded to Serbia, but only so long as Serbia exchanged it for areas of south Serbia, including the Presevo Valley where some 60,000 ethnic Albanians live.

Serbia has always rejected this idea though, partly because its main north-south road and railway link run through there.

A far more significant and adjacent ethnic Albanian-inhabited territory is that of western (FYR) Macedonia, an arc of land which borders Albania, Kosovo and Serbia.

A quarter of (FYR) Macedonia's population of two million are ethnic Albanians and they have close links with Kosovo.

The former Yugoslav republic, which calls itself simply "Macedonia", is engaged in a long-running name dispute with Greece, which has a northern region called "Macedonia".

To Kosovo's north-east is the Sandzak, an area divided between Serbia and Montenegro and which has a significant Slav Muslim population with traditional close ties to neighbouring Bosnia.

In the Serbian part of Sandzak, Muslims are in a slight majority but they are in a minority in the Montenegrin part.

Disintegration halted?

A woman cries during a pro-Serbia rally in Mitrovica, Kosovo, on Monday

Bosnia itself is made up of two entities: a Serb one called the Republika Srpska (RS) and a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim)-Croat federation.

Bosnian Serb leaders have often said that they would call for the right to secede if Kosovo became independent.

In Serbia itself the only other significant minority - apart from Roma, who are widely dispersed - are ethnic Hungarians, who live in Vojvodina in the north and sometimes raise the issue of autonomy for their areas.

There are estimated to be some 290,000 of them but as a whole Vojvodina, which has some limited autonomy of its own, is a majority Serb area and so is extremely unlikely, as some have predicted, to ever demand its own independence.

In fact, despite the worst fears of many, it may well be that, at least for the foreseeable future, the disintegration process has stopped.

Serbia itself could well now be heading for a period of isolation as its European integration bid has, for now, stalled.

Thus, the leadership of the RS - who are always keen to use the Kosovo issue in their battles against attempts to make Bosnia more of a centralised state - may well, rhetoric aside, do nothing.

Many Serbs believe that Kosovo's independence means Balkan borders have already been redrawn

They may calculate that the prosperity of their voters - and thus their support - is better served being inside Bosnia than attached to an isolated Serbia, in which they, as leaders, would no longer count for anything.

Likewise in (FYR) Macedonia, ethnic Albanian leaders have committed themselves to the state, believing the interests of their people are better served in moving as quickly as possible towards the EU, and also not to risk new Balkan conflicts simply to be attached to Kosovo.

Besides this, large numbers of ethnic Albanians live in and around the capital Skopje and the very idea of dividing the city inevitably conjures up the appalling memory of the siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, between 1992 and 1995.

Never say never

Meanwhile in the Presevo Valley, which ethnic Albanians call "Eastern Kosovo", it appears that for now people are resigned to living in Serbia whether they like it or not.

However, many there also believe that if the de facto partition of Kosovo between Serb and Albanian areas, particularly in the north, were ever somehow legalised then it would be inconceivable for them to remain in Serbia.

As for other regions - Sandzak and Hungarian parts of Vojvodina - there is no chance of their status changing unless, of course, all Balkan borders were somehow up to be redrawn, something (almost) no-one wants to do.

Many Serbs believe that Kosovo's independence means Balkan borders have already been redrawn, because Kosovo was technically part of Serbia.

However, Kosovo is being recognised within the borders it had not just as a Serbian province, but also as an entity in its own right within the old Yugoslavia.

Kosovo Albanians argue that they were not a republic with the right to secede, like Croatia or Slovenia, only because when the last Yugoslav constitution was drawn up in 1974 they were the only part of that state which anyone could ever imagine seceding.

And that is a reason why one should never say never in politics. Just because something is now unimaginable and undesirable, does not mean it might not happen.


Tim Judah covers the Balkans for the Economist, and is writing a book on Kosovo for Oxford University Press. You can see some of his recent pictures here.

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