Thursday, 19 March 1998

Kosovo Shows What Divides Europe Today

This article appeared in both Czech and English in Britské listy on 19 March 1998, and then it ended up in various forms in Central European outlets like Prostor, Svobodné slovo and the Hungarian magazine Beszélő.

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At London University's School for Slavonic and East European Studies on Wednesday evening, a roundtable discussion was held on the subject of Kosovo. Seated on the panel and in the audience of perhaps 150, were not just dusty academics but also diplomats and activists highly involved in the issue.

Speakers included the Albanian ambassador in London, the director of the London Kosovo Crisis Centre (a lobbying initiative), BBC correspondents, an official from the UK foreign office and the former British ambassador to Belgrade. The panel was admittedly lopsided because the invited Serb representatives declined their invitations, but that hardly prevented the conversation breaking out into a boisterous argument.

Its true that everyone in the room agreed that the situation in Kosovo was desperate, and everyone agreed that Belgrade's intransigence was the major barrier to solving the problem. Everyone in the room who opened his or her mouth noted the parallels between Bosnia in 1990-1 and Kosovo today. Still, a heated argument took place, and several speakers eventually left in a huff.

Right from the beginning, as speaker after speaker made his or her points, the seeds of the disagreement were sown, and it was clear to this observer that two sides were clearly lining up for a strong debate during the following question period.

The primary cleavage was between what I'll loosely call the post-modern, cosmopolitan group comprised of some of the academics and the members of the Western diplomatic community. They rationally assessed the case of Kosovo in terms of international law. Above all, they stressed the inviolability of borders. Noting the possibility of creating a precedent for cases like China/Tibet, Russia/Latvia even Hungary/Romania&Slovakia, they tried to explain that the implications of how the international community acts in this case go beyond Kosovo. They tried to explain that Russia and China, being on the Security Council, have enormous influence in these matters and are concerned that no precedent is set which could damage their interests in future. In short, these Western diplomats were completely rational.

Their solution was that the Kosovars should enter talks with Belgrade (talks which they are presently boycotting), and let the talks fall through as they undoubtedly will due to Milosevic's intransigence. Then the diplomats can say to their reluctant counterparts in the Contact Group and in the Security Council that they have exhausted the talking option, so it is time to take more drastic action.

The other side to the main argument of the evening was the Kosovars themselves, both Albanian and Kosovan diplomats and student activists who saw the problem much more emotionally. They've seen their friends and relatives die horrible deaths and thus obviously are much less interested in the particulars of international law. This side's arguments went further, however, and ultimately some radically nationalistic voices were heard. One gets the feeling that constant Serb nationalist chanting over the past 15-20 years (at least) combined with the international community's lack of attention to this problem (decades now) have led these people to adopt what can now only be called a Greater Albanian (or Greater Kosovo) outlook.

The Kosovars saw no point in entering talks with Belgrade because they would not be at the negotiating table with any force behind them. If fact, not even the safety of the negotiators could be guaranteed. Therefore, they intended to continue their boycott of the talks and pleaded for immediate Western intervention.

Not only could these two sides not see eye to eye, they were hardly speaking the same language. As members of the latter group spoke of Kosovars' "1000s of years" living in Kosovo "long before the Serbs came", one could watch the representatives of Western diplomacy simply turn themselves off. No arguments beginning with "my people" and "we" in the tribal sense made any headway with them whatsoever. To the "rational" group, such nationalistic language simply seemed out of date, and one Western diplomat even hastily labelled it "nineteenth century thinking". The representative from the British foreign office simply shook his head and looked down at the ground every time the Kosovars spoke in these fiery nationalist terms and blasted the Westerners for not knowing anything about "our people's history".

Certainly I agree that such language should be outdated today in 1998, but I also know that such language is very current for many people in many countries. Throughout the loud argument, I couldn't help but thinking: surely the representatives of the "international community" have to understand that these nationalist feelings still exist in many parts of the world. It may appear outdated to them and to me, but it was so obviously very current for the Kosovars. The world is not as free of national sentiments as many would like to think. It seemed, however, that the Western diplomats were living in some kind of nationalism-free world that simply doesn't exist yet.

Before Serbs and Kosovars ever come to a lasting understanding, the Kosovars and the representatives of the "international community" will have to find common ground in this matter. The Western diplomats will have to realise that there are many people who think in ethno-national terms whether they feel these ideas to be outdated or not. For their part, the Kosovars will have to lose some of their radical nationalism or at least learn to modify their language to suit their audience of Western diplomats.

The Kosovars must come to understand that no one in the West cares about "the Albanian nation" and their "1000s of years of existence long before the Serbs". They must try to understand that to the rational Western diplomats that sounds like foolish old-fashioned nonsense. Of course, the diplomats don't have to watch the violent and senseless deaths of people who talk like them and live in houses like they do in a country which looks similar to the one they grew up in, so it is easier for them to discount these Kosovan emotions. The Kosovars need to understand this if they are to win points for their cause on the international scene.

There is no need to talk about 1000 years ago or about an outdated nineteenth century outlook. The argument that people are being murdered en masse today should be reason enough for both sides to come together and act swiftly against Milosevic.

Of course, this conflict between the "rational" internationalists and the "emotional" nationalists is an issue that stretches far beyond Kosovo today. It is essentially the primary conflict of self-identification that defines today's Europe and the wider European debate. Some in Europe talk in nationalist terms about "Greater X-land", they attack "foreigners" in the street, they base citizenship on "blood" ties or, as in some communities in France which are dominated by Le Pen's people, they pay "pure-bred white French women" extra money to stay home and procreate. These people have got to realise that a new world is forming. Other people, truly optimists, feel themselves to be citizens of the "global village" and would like to see a new Europe and the erosion of national identities. The members of this group have to be careful not to get ahead of themselves and believe that such a world already exists.

Just as the nationalists have to realise that Europe is coming together, the European idealists have got to face the fact that changing people's self-identification is not going to happen as quickly and as easily as they'd like.

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