Kosovo and Serbia: has the powder keg been lit again?

My love for history actually started from a childhood fascination with (as all boys probably do) war and soldiering. When my dad bought for me Marvin Perry’s excellent History of the World all the way back in 1990, little did I think that the summer I read it would lead to a lifetime fascination with history in general, and military history in particular.

Of late, I’ve deviated for a time from my “studies” of World War II to bring a special focus on the big war that preceded it: the so-called “war to end all wars”, the Great War of 1914 – 1918, otherwise known as World War I. I realized that I seemed to know so little about how it started (other than Gavrilo Princip assassinating Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Francis Ferdinand), much less on how it went, and even scantier on how it ended.

From the relatively straightforward retellings from your off-the-shelf history book, encyclopedias and wikipedia, to tour de force works like John Keegan’s excellent work, The First World War, and discussions on the political goings-on from Dr. Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, I began to have a vivid picture of the Great War, realizing that there was more drama to the whole thing than with its “successor.” For that matter, I can think of few, if any wars, that have started out so… small in scale than with the Great War.

Keegan’s blow-by-blow account of how what would have been a “localized” crisis blew out of proportion into a worldwide conflagration brings home how, in hindsight, it was all so… absurd. But at the core of it all, aside from the history class-staple of a system of alliances gone wrong, was rampant, even unbridled, nationalism, mixed with a good dollop of realpolitik.

And at the center of it all were some of the most conflict-ridden locales in the world: Sarajevo (where the Archduke was assassiated, future site of massacres), Bosnia-Herzegovina, and, the cause of the initial belligerence… Serbia.

I suppose the recent declaration of independence by Kosovo wouldn’t have been so… problematic if not for the reactions of the various players, as well as the starkly differing reactions of the Kosovars and Serbians.

The key here is the reaction of the Serbians and Russia. It has to be that combination. Serbian ire at the separation of what it considers its heartland from the country is a given; I would feel the same if, say, Southern Tagalog, suddenly declared itself separate from the Philippines. Russia flexing its muscles once again since the end of the Cold War would have been easy to counter if there was no solid reason backing its standing up to the West. As it is, the confluence of Serbian indignation with Russian warnings of Kosovo’s independence as a precedent to more similar incidences sends alarm bells ringing in my mind.

But why the war scare? Although my primary concern has been issues local to the Philippines (I am, after all, a Guardian to this country; let the Guardians of other countries worry about them), I have kept several levels of attention on international developments because, nationalist as I am, I do admit that what happens abroad does affect local concerns. Like if a war happens somewhere, we could get involved, whether as part of our security agreements with our Western allies, or as a member in good standing with the United Nations (and Filipinos have always acquitted themselves well in UN Peacekeeping missions).

And something I’ve been noticing for some time is this resurgent confidence of Russia to be a belligerent to the West. I’ve always wanted to comment about it but couldn’t find either the time or the full interest to do so. China appears to have mellowed out, but the Russian Bear is growling once again.

Do a trackback of issues. Find the ones about the oil pipelines. Notice the escalation with Great Britain over the death of that former KGB spy. There are many more that escape my mind right now, but growing Russian belligerence to the West is there. How and why, and what the hell for, I really don’t know at this stage because it really wasn’t in my immediate threat zone, given all we’ve had to handle here in the Philippines alone since 2000.

Dr. Kissinger makes an interesting point in Diplomacy about possible Russian reasons for its actions since its empire started expanding centuries ago. According to him, the concept of Russian security was always predicated on gobbling up as much territory as possible. “As Russia expanded from the area around Moscow toward the center of Europe, the shores of the Pacific, and into Central Asia, its quest for security involved into an expansion for its own sake,” Kissinger would say (p. 140, Diplomacy).

As history showed, particularly when one considers the Balkans, this “expansion” wasn’t necessarily direct territorial control. Russia has always considered itself the protector of what were then the minority Christians of the former Byzantine Empire and Eastern Europe. Kissinger quotes the Russian national publicist Mikhail Katkov about the Russian view that it was the “Third Rome”: “The Russian Tsar is more than the heir of his ancestors; he is the successor of the caesars of Eastern Rome, of the organizers of the church and of its councils which established the very creed of the Christian faith. With the fall of Byzantium, Moscow arose and the greatness of Russia began.” (p. 143, Diplomacy)

World War I started when Austria-Hungary felt unsure about its position vis-a-vis Serbia. Keegan makes the point that, had Austria-Hungary reacted quickly by immediately “punishing” Serbia for the death of its Crown Prince, few of the Great Powers at the time would probably not have condemned the move. A war between the two would have been similar to the others after the Peace of Westphalia, which were largely localized conflicts.

But the Hapsburgs were worried about their huge cousin to the east. Serbia wasn’t the question; in decline as Austria-Hungary was at the time, surely little (if scrappy) Serbia wouldn’t have been able to resist the might of one of the Great Powers.

It was the specter of Russian involvement, abetted by the system of alliances that existed prior to World War I, that stayed the hand of the Hapsburgs at the one time it would have made a difference for them to have been assertive. The ancient family that once reigned as Holy Roman Emperors had to be sure the Entente Powers would not be interfering. And that Bismarckian Germany would be behind its every move.

And so because of a relatively little state in what would have been a localized conflict, what the world got at the dawn of the 20th century was the start of decades of bloodletting on a scale unimaginable. Keegan even blames the Great War for having shattered the cosmopolitan and liberal culture of Europe, lamenting the fall of Christian empires that would be replaced by godless authoritarian regimes.

Serbia wouldn’t even begin fighting until five months into the war.

Right now, the confluence of Serbian nationalism and Russian confidence and protectionism is, to my mind, eerily similar to the events leading to the Great War. The Serbs have shown how much they’re willing to fight for their rights as a people: this is a nation that managed to free itself from the Ottoman Turks, bloodied the Austrians, and fought NATO itself. Add to that the fact that the Russian Bear is on the prowl again, it seems.

I was surprised that, after so long since the Fall of the Wall, many still regarded Russia as the threat. The Soviets are gone, I remember contending. “Look at China!”, I reasoned out, yet a whole lot of people still looked farther north (from where I sit).

I only hope this is all just a scare. I really do.

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2 Responses to Kosovo and Serbia: has the powder keg been lit again?

  1. Pingback: Kosovo and Serbia: has the powder keg been lit again?

  2. Pingback: Ursine nightmare « Phoenix Eyrie, Reloaded

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