The Dangers of Rejecting Balkan Partitions

This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on September 30, 2011.

Morton Abramowitz and James Hooper are horrified that I urge the West to consider the partition of Bosnia and Kosovo as a partial solution to the ongoing problems in the Balkans. But those gentlemen, and most others in the foreign‐​policy community who share their views, are marvelously selective about their outrage regarding the acceptance of secession and partition as a policy tool. Relatively few among the European or U.S. political and policy elite had any problem when the NATO powers helped break up Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Even fewer expressed qualms about forcibly detaching Kosovo from Serbia.

Let’s remember that the NATO/EU fostering of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 was an endorsement of secession from a fellow democratic country, not Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia. And to compound that astonishing insensitivity, the Western powers blatantly bypassed the UN Security Council to impose their will. Why, then, the squeamishness about considering a new Balkan strategy that involves a modest territorial adjustment in Kosovo and a decision to abandon the clearly failed nation‐​building project in Bosnia?

Such moves are criticized because there are restless ethnic minorities elsewhere in the region, including in Serbia and Macedonia, and so there are worries worry about the precedent that would be set. But that is a less‐​than‐​compelling argument. First, these critics didn’t worry about setting a precedent when the West amputated Kosovo from Serbia. Second, many countries in the world have unhappy ethnic or religious minorities, and it is clearly impossible to accommodate the wishes of all of them. The key issue is whether the minority in question is both numerous enough and geographically concentrated enough to pose a serious, ongoing threat to the unity of the state. In most instances, that is not the case. (The Albanian minority in northwestern Macedonia may be a partial exception.)

There is a big difference between the problem posed by small, geographically dispersed, restless minorities and the situations in Kosovo and Bosnia — especially the latter. It is absurd to argue that Bosnia in its current incarnation is a viable country. And if it still is not viable after sixteen years of a nation‐​building mission, when do proponents of the status quo think that it would be? After sixty years? After 160 years? Clearly, the current approach is not working. And the only proposed alternative to partition — imposing a stronger central government by Western edict — is a nonstarter. The primary problem in Bosnia is not the lack of a strong central government. It is that the central government — indeed, the Bosnian state itself — has zero legitimacy with fully half the country’s population, the Serb and Croat factions. Trying to preserve such a political entity is a fool’s errand.

Kosovo, on the other hand, would still have the potential to be a viable state if the Serb minority north of the Ibar River were allowed to remain with Serbia. It has always been puzzling why so many Western statesman and policy wonks seem to believe that the United States and the EU countries have an obligation to back the maximalist demands of the Albanian Kosovars. Merkel’s confrontation with Serbian president Boris Tadic was simply the latest example of that mentality.

No one suggests that partition is a panacea for the problems in the Balkans or anywhere else. But one ought to ask: What are the probable alternatives if partition is rejected? In the case of Kosovo, it means an angry, resentful Serbia whose leaders and population will continue to believe, with good reason, that whatever Belgrade does, it will never be enough to placate Serbophobes in the West. It means that dozens of countries in the international system will continue to refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence and block that country’s bid for membership in international institutions. And it means yet another headache involving a persecuted ethnic minority — the Serbs stuck in an independent Kosovo that they loathe.

In the case of Bosnia, it means preserving an international political and economic ward that has no prospect of becoming a viable country. It also means the existence of a political time bomb that could go off at any time and reignite the fighting that so convulsed the region in the 1990s.

Partition is no panacea, but it certainly beats the likely alternatives.