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Kosovo independence may not be bombshell some seem to fear

The controversy over the province of Kosovo formally declaring independence from Serbia on Sunday may not turn out to be as explosive as some observers think.

But the move is an example of how decisions taken during emotional periods can have consequences years down the road that are not necessarily beneficial for the original decision maker, in this case, the United States.

Kosovo’s independence has its roots in the 1991 breakup of what used to be Yugoslavia into what are now the separate countries of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and parts of Albania.

But independence became virtually inevitable after a series of events that began in 1999. A Kosovar separatist movement was put down by the Serbian government of then-president Slobodan Milosevic, the United States led a bombing campaign and NATO-justified intervention that led to the United Nations and NATO assuming almost full responsibility for Kosovo’s security.

There are still 16,000 NATO troops in Kosovo all these years later, including about 1,600 Americans.

The fate of Kosovo was never central to core U.S. interests, and sober reports in the wake of the war confirmed that while Serbian action against Kosovar separatists was hardly gentle, it didn’t amount to genocide, as was widely advertised at the time. Once the intervention was undertaken, however, the die was cast for the United States; it would have to support whatever Kosovo’s titular leaders wanted, regardless of geopolitical consequences.

In the aftermath of that bombing war, Kosovo, about 90 percent of whose inhabitants are ethnic Albanians, protected against Serbian control by NATO troops, began agitating for independence. Last Sunday they declared it formally.

Rather than taking the usual step of applying to the United Nations for membership, however, the Kosovar government sent letters to the 192 countries, asking for formal and diplomatic recognition. That brings us to the unforeseen (though inevitable in retrospect) consequence of supporting Kosovo’s desire for independence from Serbia.

For reasons that go back centuries and are not necessarily coldly logical, spanning radically different forms of government, Russia has long considered Serbia a special ally. Since Serbia has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence and says (now) that it never will, Russia let it be known that it would use its veto in the Security Council to prevent U.N. recognition of Kosovo. Thus the complex procedure that circumvents the U.N.

Today, thanks to shrewd leadership from President Vladimir Putin and a dramatic rise in petroleum prices, Russia is once again in a position to assert itself on the world stage as a Great Power — and its leaders have discovered they seldom get as much attention and respect as when they pull Uncle Sam’s beard. They have done so recently by protesting U.S. determination to place missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic and generally griping about U.S. neoimperialism.

In general, countries that have active separatist movements opposed the idea of Kosovo independence, while those without such movements approved it. Thus, Russia (Chechnya), China (western provinces. Tibet, Taiwan), Spain (the Basque region), India (Kashmir) and Cyprus (already divided) have said they won’t recognize Kosovo. Most but not all European countries, led by Britain, Germany and France, and, of course, the United States, backed independence.

Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and international relations studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Russia uses the Kosovo precedent to step up support for pro-Russian separatist movements that it already backs covertly in Georgia and Ukraine. He also expects the Balkans region, which has been relatively quiet for the past half-dozen years, to become more tense and prone to violence.

In general and in the abstract, given that we would look to see the world move toward recognizing full independence down to the level of the individual person, we are sympathetic to separatist and secessionist movements. But support for specific cases sometimes depends on circumstances.

With 60 percent unemployment and security and a rudimentary legal system provided by NATO and U.N. troops, Kosovo’s prospects for genuine economic and political independence are not exactly bright. It is more likely to remain a dependency of NATO than a proud country in its own right. And its move toward independence could spur further bloodshed in the region.

So we offer 1 1/2 cheers for Kosovan independence, with a prayer that the region be spared the tension and violence that could very well follow in its wake.