Disintegration of the Soviet Union into 15 secessionist states and the collapse of the former Yugoslavia heralded the greatest tectonic shift amongst Europe’s borders since World War 2. Notwithstanding a cordial parting of the Czech and Slovak republics, it was widely assumed that continental nationalistic upheaval was firmly a thing of the past. The subsequent breaking away of Kosovo, annexation of Crimea, and Catalonia’s sprint towards autonomous rule’s sunlit uplands shows Europe is still a restless landmass, pockmarked with these and other potential flashpoints that were considered low risk, or swept under the carpet for another day that many hoped would never come to pass.
Quite aside from the simmering disputes in Transdniestria and Ngorno-Karabkh – the latter now known as Arsakh – the current tensions stoked by Catalonia’s bid for freedom has in many minds placed at the very heart of its situation comparisons with Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. Although several European nations, including Spain, to this day fail to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state, the general attitude towards the fledgling south-east Europe state from the global community is that it can do little wrong, whose declaration of independence was completely meritorious. Have the Catalans, as many commentators posit, been encouraged by Kosovo’s transition to an independent nation, or simply wish to make the first move to potentially avoid a Crimea-type outcome that has seen Odessa’s semi-autonomous power significantly watered down since Russia’s land grab?
Where Kosovo and Catalonia do differ is the initial sympathy, and subsequent international intervention in Kosovo, whose population were allegedly persecuted by the Serbian authorities. Kosovo, although at the time a province within Serbia contains an ethnic Albanian majority, is particularly pertinent to Serbian history and identity – especially due to the 14th century Serb-Ottoman conflict on land colloquially known as the Field of Blackbirds. This meant Belgrade was never going to cede ‘its’ territory without a fight, although subsequent events unfavourably bracketed its actions within Kosovo amongst the hideous Balkan Wars of the early and mid-nineties. It was therefore deemed necessary for the seemingly oppressed Kosovars to become masters of their own destiny, with secession being in the international community’s eyes the only suitable outcome.
The reality in Kosovo has though been anything but sunshine and happiness. Unemployment is high and whilst educational standards of its young are impressive, commensurate job opportunities are non-existent. Far from being able to stand alone Kosovo has been propped up by overseas aid and cannot rely on tourism to bankroll its future ambitions in the same way as Croatia and Slovenia, two of its former Yugoslav stablemates. Pristina did though seem to hold the whip hand over Serbia, who would find imposing law and order in the province difficult to almost impossible, times which could potentially usher in paramilitary militias who have been known to exploit such vacuums. Subsequent claims of genocide and intimidation would inevitably play into the hands of those seeking an independent state, although at the time I was mystified as to why Albania never sought to integrate Kosovo within its own borders. Ethnically that would have made sense, although an impoverished state (by Europe’s standards) absorbing an area that hadn’t been funded to the same extent as other parts of Serbia (and at the time Montenegro) and lacking in modern infrastructure was perhaps more than Tirana would have been able to inherit. It would also have been minded that international aid would bankroll what it never could.
Whilst inspiration might have been drawn in Catalonia from Kosovo’s journey to sovereignty, there are in the end few comparisons. All secessionist nations and those classed as breakaway states but without international recognition often begin from a desire for self-determination, although each example ultimately differs from one area to the next. The Catalonia crisis, whilst a shock to Europe’s already fragile post-Brexit system, is hardly unprecedented on a continent that has weathered many such storms in the last century. The status of Chechnya and Gibraltar are two issues that will also not be going away any time in the future, although wheels within wheels dictate that the redrawing of national boundaries and the acquisition and loss of sovereign territory are not new phenomena, and shouldn’t necessarily be treated with the levels of hysteria and hyperbole present within today’s mass media.
Where there are humans, there will always be discord and conflict. Less will never be more, nor will the biblical principal of being grateful for what one already has ever be universally embraced. Although many examples demonstrate legitimate claims for freedom, one wonders if a baseline criterion will ever be benchmarked or if every bolt for freedom will be considered entirely on its own merits.