Nationhood: ties that bind, or free?

Author:Williams, Ian

In February 2009, Kosovo--the last component of the former Yugoslavia to win independence--celebrated its first anniversary of freedom. Three months later, it was welcomed into the International Monetary Fund, a critical step toward international recognition of its status as a truly self-governing, self-reliant nation. But it does not exercise effective authority in its northern enclave and is heavily dependent on foreign aid, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops and UN resolutions. These defining moments impel reflection on the question of what independence, sovereignty, and citizenship really mean in today's globalized world.

It brought me back to just how much--and how little--has changed since the summer of 1999, just after NATO had moved into the former province of Serbia, before independence or peace had become even a possibility in this violent corner of the world. Dumped from the Skopje bus at the Kosovo/Macedonia border, my Kosovar colleague and I had to drag ourselves and our bags to the other side to get a UN shuttle bus to Pristina. At least I was in short sleeves. The U.S. troops in the stalled convoy that I trudged past wore helmets and full body armor in 90 degree-plus heat, and were probably beginning to understand why the Crusader knights did not stay the course in the medieval Middle East.

In those years, millions of families across the Balkans had suddenly, often violently, been forced to cope with such new realities: that what once had been a local trip--the equivalent of passing, say, from Brooklyn to Queens in New York--now involved crossing international frontiers. My Kosovar companion grumbled that it was taking us longer simply to clear the border than it used to take him to drive the 76 miles from Pristina to Skopje for a night out on the town. Back then, all he needed was his driver's license and some cash. Now he needed to change currencies and carry a passport--with the appropriate visa. We were crossing an international border, as impenetrable for many as was the Iron Curtain in the era before glasnost. Welcome to the new millennium.

In a world where tiny, indefensible, and drowning atolls claim a sovereignty they could only enjoy on sufferance, where previously academic exercises in cartography suddenly make people aliens in their place of birth, and where most of Western Europe is incrementally abandoning many of the traditional prerequisites of nationhood, it bears looking at how shaky many of our axioms on sovereignty and nationality really are.

On the Macedonian border, which bisects (regardless of local wishes) a majority Albanian area, families found that what had been an imaginary line on the map was now a militarized barrier separating them from their relatives in Macedonia. In the north, the Serb minority who lived in Kosovo watched truculently as the United Nations erected boundary posts between Kosovo and Serbia after the latter's military withdrew.

A Militarized Frontier

Modern Yugoslavia's godfather, President Jozep Broz Tito, had tried to square the circle of nationalisms by keeping Kosovo as a titular province of Serbia, but giving it practical autonomy and an equal and independent voice in the Yugoslav Federation. It was a nominally successful arrangement for 40 years, but depended too much on Tito's personality. The Rube-Goldberg machinery of a rotating collective presidency that he designed to replace himself fell apart at the first proddings of Slobodan Milosevic, who pandered to Serb nationalism by overturning those arrangements. The Kosovars had been uncomplaining about their previous autonomy in the Yugoslav federation, but their experience after Slobodan Milosevic had instituted direct rule and ethnic Serbian hegemony from Belgrade meant that despite the weasely language in UN resolutions after the NATO occupation, it was clear Kosovo would never be part of Serbia again. (In any rational consideration, a state that tries to deport the majority of citizens from a "province" as Milosevic did in 1999 after depriving them of their rights for the preceding decade has terminally severed any claim to their loyalty.)

Even so, the Kosovars had no great ambitions to be part of a putative "Greater Albania," uniting Macedonian and Kosovar Albanians with their compatriots in Tirana. This was the bugbear of Serb nationalists, who spoke of it as axiomatically bad even as they assumed the self-evident merits of a Greater Serbia. Kosovars chose independence, despite total dependence on Western aid, NATO security, and even its adoption of the Euro as currency--all calling into question just how independent it can ever be.

Indeed, its "independence" is in some ways reactive. A linguistically distinct population chose to sever the sovereignty that Serbia had claimed over them. Serbia has referred the question of Kosovan independence to the International Court of Justice, which may return--probably years hence--a verdict that Belgrade does not like. Indeed, Serbia's foreign minister has pre-emptively declared that the government would disregard any adverse judgment. In any case, over 60 nations have recognized Kosovo. Belgrade is no more likely to resume sovereignty over Kosovo than the United Kingdom is to re-annex the thirteen American colonies or indeed than the former principality of Serbia is to resume its former status as part of a Turkish empire in Europe.

Ironically, Albanians, Kosovars, and Serbs--along with all their neighbors in the Balkan cockpit of nationalities--unite in sharing the same overriding ambition. They all desperately want to join the European Union, which would entail them giving up much of the sovereignty that they have been so zealously squabbling over. In stark contrast to the splintering of former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, Western Europe is becoming a new borderless nirvana. It is possible to travel from the shores of the Arctic Ocean to Spanish enclaves in North Africa without showing a passport. European Union citizens can live and work anywhere they want within the EU, claim education, healthcare, and welfare benefits--and even vote in many elections. For all those nations, whose working definition of sovereignty seems to include the right, indeed the duty, to harass foreigners at the borders and inside them, this is serious self-denial in the interest of a broader human or economic security.

Self-Determination and Statehood

The origins of many of the problems we see in the Balkans today may be traced back to 1919 and Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points--or rather popular perceptions of the Points. In fact, while encapsulating the concept of self-determination, his points also included a host of messy and somewhat less principled details about their application amid national boundaries drawn with only a cavalier gesture toward the real desires of the people who would be forced to live within them. Neither the League of Nations nor the peacemakers who concluded the Treaty of Versailles were quite as insouciant as they have since been depicted, at least when dealing with those who did not lose the war.

Still, it would be difficult to claim that the post-Versailles world represented unmitigated progress or freedom. During the twentieth century, the application of...

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