Is Kosova’s independence a sham ?
Many arguments are being mustered to do down Kosova’s independence, most of them ill-willed, insincere and easily refuted. But one or two are serious and worth addressing. For example, the argument made by Philip Cunliffe and Dragan Plavsic, among others, that Kosova’s independence will be no more than symbolic, as it will remain in practice an EU protectorate in which it and its people will not enjoy any real control over their destiny. This is a seductive argument for anyone who comes from a radical-left background, as Philip, Dragan and myself do. But it is wrong. It sets up an ‘ideal model’ to which a newly independent state should supposedly adhere, and then inevitably points out that Kosova is not living up to the ideal. In doing so, it ignores the fact that several Balkan states that today enjoy very real independence themselves began as the protectorates or satellites of the Great Powers.
When Greece was established as an independent state in the 1830s, it was as a ward of Britain, France and Russia. The three Great Powers imposed a Bavarian German royal dynasty on the new state, in scant regard to the Greeks’ feelings. The Greek Canadian historian Leften Stavrianos writes that following independence, ‘Athens became the diplomatic cockpit of the three Allied Powers… Under these circumstances Greece, like other small states, was independent only in a nominal sense.’ Greece’s transition from nominal to real independence was a long process, arguably not completed until well after World War II.
Serbia was finally recognised as an independent state in 1878, but soon after, its Prince Milan Obrenovic signed a treaty with Austria-Hungary, effectively turning Serbia into an Austro-Hungarian vassal. Serbian minister Milan Pirocanac complained that ‘by such a convention Serbia would stand in the same relation to Austria-Hungary as Tunis to France.’ Others said bluntly, ‘Your Majesty, you have sold Serbia for three thousand ducats !’ Milan wittily responded: ‘You don’t think, surely, that I could have got more ?’ In fact, barring Milan’s unfortunate war against Bulgaria in 1885, Serbia’s period as an Austro-Hungarian vassal compares favourably with the following period, beginning in 1903, when the ultra-nationalists who overthrew the Obrenovic dynasty led Serbia to military and humanitarian catastrophe in World War I.
Bulgaria was effectively liberated from Ottoman rule in 1878, marking its first step toward independence. The new, semi-independent state began as a Russian vassal under a German prince, Alexander of Battenberg, and a largely Russian officer corps. In 1882 Alexander appointed two Russian generals to be Bulgaria’s prime minister and minister of the interior. Yet within a couple of years Alexander had broken with the Russians and shaken off their tutelage; Russia, having confidently expected to enjoy a loyal satellite in Bulgaria, permanently lost its control over the country (until the Soviet occupation in 1944). Bulgaria, like Serbia and Greece, was then free to embark upon an imperialist policy of its own that led it to repeated disaster.
Albania emerged as an ‘independent’ state in 1913 under the tutelage of the Great Powers, particularly Austria-Hungary and Italy, which rescued it from partition between Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. The Great Powers determined its borders and imposed another German prince, William of Wied, as its ruler. Albania’s path to full independence was long and painful, passing through periods as an Italian colony and Soviet and Chinese satellite; the subsequent period of ‘real independence’ and isolation under the Communist tyrant Enver Hoxha was perhaps as bad as any.
Even Tito’s Communist Yugoslavs, so idealised by radical leftists since World War II, took power in Yugoslavia as the satellites of the Great Powers. They achieved victory through massive British, US and Soviet military assistance; the British and American airforces bombed Tito to power; Tito’s HQ for part of 1944 was an Adriatic island under British naval control. The role of ‘Western imperialism’ in creating Titoist Yugoslavia was vastly, incomparably greater than its role in destroying it (in the latter case, the West merely passively acquiesced in the destruction of Yugoslavia by Milosevic’s Serbia, and imposed an arms embargo on Milosevic’s victims). The Soviets, too, played a major role in establishing the new Yugoslavia; the Soviet Army liberated Serbia on Tito’s behalf in 1944 and enabled him to assume power in Belgrade. Tito’s Yugoslav Communist regime was initially a satellite of the Soviet Union. Yet his break with Stalin is legendary.
Kosova’s status as a Western protectorate, replete with a banal, EU-style flag, is therefore entirely in keeping with the tradition of earlier Balkan states that successfully achieved their independence under Great Power guidance. However nominal the independence of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria(1) or Albania may have been in their early years, it was their recognition by the Great Powers that proved decisive. The state of vassaldom in each case proved transient; the independence, and the recognition of that independence, have been permanent.
(1) Bulgaria’s full independence was not formally proclaimed and recognised until 1908.
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