PARIS -- The Kosovar Albanians, like the Kurds, are inconvenient peoples of the Ottoman Empire, left behind when the empire collapsed and the great powers remade the political geography of Europe and the Middle East after the World War I. They were left out when the national homes were distributed.
The Allies preferred an integral Turkey to an unpredictable Kurdistan -- which was equally unwelcome to Iraq, a British League of Nations mandate, and to Iran, a British protectorate in the 1920s.
They still prefer Turkey today, as the west Europeans have demonstrated by their willful past indifference to the Kurdish problem of Turkey, which is now a candidate for European Union membership. The United States has indicated its choice by helping Turkey capture the Kurdish insurrectionist leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Europeans and Americans also prefer a Serbian-linked Kosovo to an independent ethnic Albanian Kosovo. They do so, whatever the partial and provisional agreement reached on Tuesday at Rambouillet, near Paris. A basic consideration in the West's original draft of that agreement was to limit the consequences Albanian Kosovo's autonomy could have on Albanian nationalism elsewhere.
The Kurds have come closer than the Kosovars to political frontiers and nationhood. They took their claim to be recognized as a nation to the Allied powers in 1919. The Allies had rashly promised national self-determination to the peoples of the defeated Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. The Treaty of Sevres in 1920, dismantling the Ottoman Empire, promised an autonomous Kurdistan.
Three years later, the Treaty of Lausanne replaced the Treaty of Sevres but made no mention of Kurdistan. Kemal Ataturk had in the meantime revived and re-established a strong and secular Turkey.
An exploited group
The Kurds have since been used and exploited by all of their neighbors, and by the United States as well: on behalf of Iran in the 1970s, again when Washington wanted risings against Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War and today, as Washington tries to mobilize opposition to him. All of this has been to no Kurdish advantage, since Washington, in the end, prefers a centralized Iraq to a fragmented one, which could permit Iranian domination of the region.
To be fair, the West prefers liberal solutions in dealing with Middle Eastern and Balkan problems, but these are hard to find. In the Balkans, the Allies' program in the 1920s for universal national self-determination proved strictly unrealizable in territorial terms (the populations were too scattered), and it sowed more ethnic irredentism than it calmed. Inter-war fascism exploited the result.
A liberal program is being applied by the international community in Bosnia. There is a chance of success because Sarajevo, dominating Bosnia, was a cosmopolitan center before the Bosnian war. But Croatian and Serbian nationalism and Islamic integrism have been temporized with, rather than disarmed, in Bosnia.
The Contact Group's Rambouillet plan for Kosovo was fundamentally ethnic-nationalist, with liberal appendages, but it contained a fundamental contradiction, which is why it remains unaccepted: It seemed to offer the Kosovar Albanians the nation they have been struggling for since the late 19th century, but it actually was meant to prevent it.
The first Albanian nationalist program was proclaimed in 1878, calling for a unified Albania, including Kosovo, of roughly the geographical dimensions of that "Greater Albania" that some Kosovar Liberation Army militants demand today.
In the 20th century, Hungary and Italy sponsored the independent Albanian state that exists today because they expected it to become their protege. The Albanians who lived in Kosovo and Macedonia were left out.
Some supported the Italians and Germans in World War II because the Axis powers promised support to Albanian nationalism. Others joined the Communist partisan movement, which renounced nationalism as a primitive sentiment that would disappear in the conditions of a multinational socialist state. Under Marshal Tito, Kosovar Albanians became part of Yugoslavia's national leadership.
There is considerable irony in what happened after Tito's death. The 1974 constitution, decentralizing power in Yugoslavia, had the effect of re-establishing separatist ethnic interests throughout the country.
Kosovo acquired an independent university, and cultural links with Albania developed. At the same time, a reactionary Serbian nationalism was revived in Serbian intellectual circles, and found a fateful political expression in the nihilistic policies of Slobodan Milosevic.
The oil shocks of the 1970s brought the International Monetary Fund to Yugoslavia, demanding austerity in exchange for loans. This meant stronger central government, rather than the decentralizing reforms from which the Kosovo Albanians had been net beneficiaries.
Austerity, and Western market ideology that called on Yugoslavia to give up commodity exports for added-value manufactures, dealt further economic blows to Kosovo, the most backward of the Yugoslav regions. This fed Kosovar separatism and provoked increasingly aggressive Serbian nationalism.
That is the history that brought Kosovars and Serbs to Rambouillet. It is the reality to which they now return.
The military part of the Rambouillet proposals, yet to be signed by either side, envisions 30,000 NATO troops in Kosovo. Their mission would be to deny Albanians and Serbs what each believes to be its historical destiny.
Rambouillet proposes a liberal solution in compensation. But the people to whom the offer is made have heavily invested in the idea that their national interests lie in illiberal solutions.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 2/26/99