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Bob Seely: We shouldn't have supported Kosovan independence

Bob_seely Bob Seely, a former foreign correspondent, CCO special adviser, and parliamentary candidate, makes the case against Kosovan independence. His new book, The Third Cold War, is being published later next year.

It could have been the 1990s all over again. Flag-waving, photogenic young people, a wave of national euphoria, and major western nationals rushing to recognise the latest brave country to emerge from the shackles of Socialism.

Except this picture is different, Kosovo is neither Poland, Lithuania nor even sleepy Ukraine. This time our rush to recognise the inevitability of nationalism may be wrong.  Indeed, it is an example of an indulgent and foolish foreign policy where a marginal victory is won at the expense of significant damage to our national interest.

The decision to support Kosovo independence is a false step. It will have three outcomes. It will harm our relationship with Russia, extending and worsening the new Cold War. It will diminish the prospects for stability and order in many parts of the world, not least in the Balkans as well as the arc of instability which rings the southern flank of Russia. It will result in a loss of credibility for Western diplomacy.

That the Kosovans were oppressed by the Serbs is not in doubt, although the levels of bloodshed were nowhere near those seen in Bosnia. The territory achieved separation from Serbia so quickly largely because the Kosovo Liberation Army achieved in three years what the IRA failed to do in 30: kill police loyal to one’s ethnic enemy, wait for reprisals, claim victim status and then, after you have sucked in the international ‘community,’ ruthlessly ethnically cleanse your rivals. 

The KLA’s brilliantly simple plan succeeded due to the naivety and arrogance of liberal imperialists Tony Blair and Robin Cook. They bestowed on these ethnic Albanians, whose most successful contribution to British life thus far is running violent rackets in central London, victim status. Labour may have been right to criticise Conservative inaction in the Balkans, and as a reporter in eastern Europe in the 1990s I rejoiced in the righteous bombardment of the Serbs in Bosnia. But for the last decade it is the Serbs who are now the victims in Kosovo. Without international protection, they would not last a day. They would be driven out by our new ‘democratic’ allies.

In Kosovo the UK and others acted in haste, and now, bored of repenting at leisure, we’re giving the Kosovans what they want at the expense of a pro-Western and pro-EU Serbian leadership. In doing so, we’re driving a coach and horses though the one principle that we and other Western states have rigorously adhered to for 50 years: territorial integrity. Whilst we have often proclaimed human rights as our motivating factor, that’s only occasionally been true, and as often as not, it’s been a superficial justification for action, as in Iraq. The true consistent in post-imperial Western policy was unswerving respect for international borders, a message delivered consistently to regimes in Africa, eastern Europe, Asia and the former Soviet empire. Until now.

Serbs are already asking if ethnic minorities within Serbia can demand independence from Serbia, why shouldn’t Serbian minorities in Bosnia demand that the same rule apply to them? The most unrealistic state in the Balkans isn’t Serbia or Kosovo, but Bosnia, one of the few places on earth where even allies have hated each other. Indeed, why stop in the Balkans? How about a Kurdish Iraq? Or how about dismembering Turkey?

Russia, with some justification, will see Western Governments choosing to select where and how to apply rule. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov spoke of Kosovo "opening a Pandora's box". He is right. Some commentators and Governments, including our own Foreign Secretary, naively claim that this will be the last chapter in the demise of Yugoslavia. No, the dismemberment of Bosnia will be, but that aside, it is also likely to be the next chapter in the carve up of Georgia, and in time even Ukraine, because by tinkering with the map of Europe we risk the Russians doing the same in their own back yard – that is far more strategically damaging than recognising Kosovo is strategically beneficial.

Any Sovietologist will tell you how the internal borders of the Soviet Union were drawn up to ensure that ethnic territories overlapped, or how ethnic groups found themselves ruled by historic rivals, all so that those in the Kremlin could play an extremely ugly game of divide and rule amongst ethnic groups. All those boundaries still exist, but they are no longer Mickey Mouse internal dividing lines designed to enflame discord, but international borders.

There are half a dozen areas that Russia could - with relative ease - reactivate and reenergise secessionist campaigns. Places that have had peacekeepers as long as Kosovo and which, like Kosovo, have already been thoroughly ethnically cleansed. Strategically useful areas such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, where dislike of the Tbilisi Government is matched only by the desire to see Russia as protector. Donetsk and Crimea in Ukraine have strong pro-Russian sentiment too. And for those who think this scenario too far-fetched, it’s worth remembering that politics is played by different rules in eastern Europe, as Alexander Litvinenko, the murder KGB agent, and Viktor Yushchenko, the poisoned and pockmarked Ukrainian Prime Minister, have found out.

This article isn’t a defence of Russia. Quite the opposite. The Russians deserved to lose their Soviet empire. The problem is that we are at the opening stages of the third cold war against the Russians. The first two, approx 1830-1900, and 1945-1990, were fought over imperial power and global ideological battles. This third cold war is likely to be short; its ingredients are Russia’s re-emergence as a confident and significant power, it desire to be respected, and its desire to dominate the territories around it, especially in former Soviet territories, pushing back US and EU influence. It’s complicated by Russian bitterness over the loss of the first Cold War and a certain willingness to define Russian identity as anti-Western.

Yet our foreign policy leaders appear neither to be focusing on this problem. Indeed, if we made a list of things to undermine our relationship with Russia and stoke the paranoia that many of those in Russian politicians feel, we couldn’t be doing better: expanding NATO in lieu of coming up with a better plan for the organisation, announcing a missile defence shield on Russia’s border, and now dismembering Moscow’s closest ally, Serbia.   

The last leader of Russia, Victor Putin, allegedly came to power through an engineered war in the northern Caucasus. It is not impossible to imagine the future Russian leaders will come to power on the back of small but glorious wars in to reclaim ancient Russian lands.  Any attempt to dissuade the Russians by using the argument of territorial integrity will be likely met with the simplest of Russian replies: ‘net.’


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