As not everybody now remembers, the wars of Yugoslavia actually began not in Bosnia, nor in Croatia, but in Kosovo. The chain of events that led to the Srebrenica massacre and the bombing of Belgrade started there in the late 1980s, when late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic launched a series of repressive measures against this mostly Albanian, semi-independent, “autonomous province” of Serbia. These culminated in 1989, when Milosevic ended the semi-independence, revoked Kosovo’s autonomy, installed a new police force, shut down Albanian newspapers, fired university professors, and generally inflicted economic and political chaos.
Milosevic’s intention was to reassert Serbian and Orthodox dominance over Kosovo, the site of a historically significant battle between the Serbs and the Ottoman Empire in 1389 (the Serbs lost) and home to a genuinely substantial Serbian minority. The result? This week, nearly two decades later, Kosovo—an Albanian-speaking Muslim state in which, it’s safe to guess, Serbs will be less than fully welcome and no Orthodox church will be safe from vandalism—has just declared independence from Serbia. A more eloquent demonstration of the law of unintended consequences would be hard to find.
In fact, watching the crowds celebrate last Saturday night in the streets of Pristina, I wondered whether there isn’t a deeper lesson here for other would-be neighborhood bullies. Milosevic’s stated goal was, after all, the greater glory of Serbia (he had other, unstated goals as well, such as the perpetuation of a Communist-era power structure, but never mind). Spouting Serbian nationalism, he helped turn Serb minorities across Yugoslavia into mini-militias. They, in turn, inspired the creation of other mini-militias—Croatian, Bosnian, Albanian, and others—that began fighting one another in a series of small, nasty wars.
You can fairly accuse me here of oversimplifying this chronology, but I think it is nevertheless correct to say that the end result of this activity—discrimination, ethnic cleansing, warfare—was a complete disaster for Serbia. The Serbian economy went down the tubes; the Serb dominance of ex-Yugoslavia evaporated; Belgrade, the Serb capital, was bombed. Now Serbia looks set to be dismembered as well: Unenthusiastically, Europe and the United States will recognize Kosovo’s independence, something that wouldn’t have happened two decades ago. Milosevic the supernationalist—the would-be leader of a revived, powerful, successful Serbia—damaged no country nearly so much as he damaged Serbia itself.
Keep that lesson in mind over the next few months as others in Europe—and possibly elsewhere—attempt to use the Kosovo example as a precedent. After all, if the Albanians can be independent from Serbia, then the Abkhazians and South Ossettians would like to be independent from Georgia, the Basques and the Catalonians don’t see why they shouldn’t be independent from Spain, and who knows what could happen in Cyprus.
In some of these cases, there are other, larger neighbors who might be interested in facilitating the split, just as Serbia was keen to encourage ethnic Serbs in Bosnia or Croatia. Most notably, and most notoriously, the Russians have made ominous noises and dropped dark hints about those Georgian separatist groups, and one can certainly see their logic. What more perfect way to take revenge on those difficult, NATO-loving Georgians than to encourage Georgia’s ethnic minorities to launch civil war? Besides, the timing could hardly be better. In the waning days of the Bush administration, is Abkhazia anybody’s central concern? During the most interesting U.S. presidential campaign in decades, is anyone going to spare a thought for South Ossetia?
Except that if Abkhazia and South Ossetia were to secede, and civil war in Georgia were to follow, the Russians would then have a failed state on their borders. And—as we know from Yugoslavia, from the Middle East, and from Africa—ethnic and religious civil wars have a nasty way of spreading to their neighbors. Chaos in Georgia might be in the short-term interests of a small group of Putinites, desperate to raise the specter of warfare, annoy the West, and cling to power (much like Milosevic, once upon a time), but it is most definitely not in the long-term interests of the Russian nation.
Russia’s policy toward these would-be separatists over the next few weeks will therefore reveal a great deal about the mentality of Russia’s current ruling clan. If the denizens of the Kremlin have a shred of concern about their compatriots’ future well-being, they’ll shut up and try to calm everyone down. If not—well, I hope they remember that the risks of the law of unintended consequences apply to them, too.