The cold reality of separation

Small nation states with clear ethnic majorities might be the least bad solution for the Balkans
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THE FRESH red blood on the fresh white snow in the village of Prilep looks unreal, like a new exhibit at the Tate. But it is entirely real. This is the blood of two dead Serb policemen, shot at dawn, almost certainly by the soldiers of a tough local commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, violating the ceasefire. The blood lies, symbolically, just beneath a ruined mosque in the middle of an Albanian village which those Serb forces have systematically destroyed. Now the women of one of the few Albanian families to remain here are telling us how the Serb police beat them up after the killing. Welcome to Kosovo, Europe, at the end of the 20th century.

The province is in fact divided. Blue-uniformed Serb police, heavily armed, in blue armoured vehicles and a few sinister unmarked white ones, patrol the roads and the main towns. Soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), in army surplus gear of varying hues of orange and khaki, control much of the remaining countryside, driving in battered Ladas down muddy lanes - their own little Ho Chi Minh trails. You meet them as soon as you turn off into the hills. In places, the two forces are just 50 yards apart. This is not peace. It is frozen war.

The war is frozen, quite literally, by the heavy snows that came down a fortnight ago, signalling the start of the winter intermission now traditional in this decade's Balkan wars. It is also frozen metaphorically by the so-called "international community". Between the Serb boys in blue and the Albanian boys in orange, there cruise burly Americans, tight-lipped Britons (usually "with a service background") and earnest Scandinavians, driving white or bright orange armoured vehicles - including, I am told, some Land Rovers previously deployed in Northern Ireland.

Now formally under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), their brief is to "verify' compliance with the ceasefire and other security provisions negotiated by the Americans with the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic. But unless a political deal is agreed in the next three months, all the planned 2,000 unarmed OSCE "verifiers" will not stop the bloodshed starting again when the snows have melted.

That political deal is being negotiated in countless rounds of exhausting shuttle diplomacy by America's ambassador to Macedonia, Christopher Hill. His latest draft plan would restore the far-reaching autonomy of which Kosovo was robbed by Milosevic in 1989. It would devolve much power to local communes, thus allowing purely Albanian areas to have Albanian authorities and police, while mixed areas would supposedly have mixed ones. The Hill plan foresees direct international supervision, especially for the reconstruction of the police and new elections. In effect, the OSCE mission under the American William Walker would run those parts of the show. And the whole arrangement should be reviewed in three years' time.

Of course, this would be the world's largest piece of fudge, excepting only the Dayton agreement on Bosnia. At the moment, it's still unacceptable to both sides. The Albanians, 90 per cent of the population of Kosovo, want guarantees that in three years' time a door will be open to eventual independence. Not just the Milosevic regime, but also many moderate Serbs I talked to in Belgrade, want a province which they regard as a historic cradle of their nation, to remain at least notionally part of Serbia. It is far from certain that Hill can make the poles meet. Not even by deploying the political Cruise missile called Richard Holbrooke. Not even with a renewed threat of Nato air strikes.

If he does not succeed, there will again be low-level war. If he does, while General Winter holds the combatants apart, then Kosovo will rapidly become a quasi-protectorate, like Bosnia. For in these troubled provinces of the Balkans, a strange new version of the Austro-Hungarian empire is being re-created, with Americans taking the part of the dominant Austrians and us Western Europeans as the second-string Hungarians.

Except that this is not direct colonial rule as it was under the Habsburgs, and the quasi-protectorate covers a reality of far-reaching ethnic partition. For the Bosnian model is a wonder of the world in international relations: half-protectorate, half-partition. And with no obvious exit, save the faint hope that one day Milosevic will be removed by his own people (with a little help from their Western friends) and a more democratic government in Belgrade will countenance more lasting solutions.

But what would those be? The truth is that we in the West are now on the horns of an insoluble dilemma. It is a hard, sad conclusion of the last decade that probably the least bad, most durable framework in which the peoples of the former Yugoslavia might start their slow journey to a civilised, liberal, democratic Europe is as a group of small nation states with clear ethnic majorities. This statement can easily be misconstrued. I am not arguing that separating out into nation states was the inevitable consequence of "ancient tribal hatreds". Buried hatreds there surely were, but to revive, exacerbate and exploit them was the culpable responsibility of bad leaders: Milosevic, above all, but also Franjo Tudjman of Croatia. But now, after all that has happened, a period of separation would be the least bad solution. Good fences might eventually make good neighbours.

Nor is this peculiar to the Balkans. We in Western Europe have long since separated out into nation states, with a few exceptions, and even those exceptions - such as Belgium, or Scotland in Britain - are now proving difficult to sustain. (Yes, I know, there'll always be Switzerland, God bless her.) It's precisely on this basis of clear separation into nation states that we are getting together - in so far as we are - in the European Union. In Central Europe, the process happened more recently. It happened through war, the redrawing of frontiers and ethnic cleansing in Germany, Poland and the Czech lands; then through the "velvet divorce" between Czechs and Slovaks. The former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia had the good fortune to have a clear ethnic majority already. In each case, the relative ethnic homogeneity has, in the medium term, helped the country's return to the civilised, democratic community of states.

Yet this is not achievable in the case of Bosnia, or even of Kosovo, without methods that are simply unacceptable to the modern liberal conscience. In Bosnia, final partition would surely result in further bloodshed and hundreds of thousands more people fleeing their homes, as well as the creation of a resentful rump, Muslim state. Even in Kosovo, to say "independence now" would almost certainly mean at least another 100,000 Serbs being uprooted. Actually, we did accept that in 1995, when we let Tudjman "cleanse" the Krajina of more than 150,000 Serbs. And, yes, as a result, the now more homogeneous Croatia may have a better chance of returning sooner to more civilised, democratic ways. But once we are present on the ground, in our bright orange vehicles, in a quasi-protectorate, we cannot countenance this; we cannot be party to ethnic cleansing. In short, we may, intellectually, will the end, but morally and politically we cannot will the means. This is the dilemma upon the horns of which we are garroted. Winter is freezing the war, but we will be trying to freeze history.

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma, but it is a long and complicated one. The least bad rationale that I have heard for our neo-Habsburg quasi- protectorates is a piece of almost Hegelian dialectics.We are there to create conditions in which, if people do still want to separate, they will at least do so peacefully. We keep them together, the better for them to part. Failure would be our ultimate success! But will our voters and taxpayers, especially American taxpayers, really let us spend another 10 years and billions of pounds doing such a strange, complicated, even quixotic thing? Or will history again move forward, as it usually has, through more blood in the snow?