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Paul Vallely: Religion can be a solution in Kosovo

20 February 2008

The debate on independence echoes conflicts in other backyards

There has been little mention of religion this week, in the news about the declaration of independence by the small Balkan region of Kosovo. Perhaps it is because, just as the media have only the brain space to report one international crisis at a time, our politicians can afford only one diplomatic incident at any given moment. The current row is about whether Kosovo should be recognised as the world’s 193rd state. The battlelines that have been drawn are interesting.

The pro-Kosovo corner is led by those big Nato states that participated in the air strikes against Serbia, which brought to an end the ghastly parade of ethnic cleansing, forced expulsions, and genocidal atrocities in which 10,000 people died after the break-up of the former communist state of Yugoslavia 17 years ago. The United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy all want to recognise officially the independence of the region that has lived under a UN protectorate since the end of the war in 1999. The bitter legacy of the killings and ethnic cleansing, they insist, has effectively ruled out any restoration of Serbian dominion in Kosovo.

In the other corner are a series of governments that fear that support for Kosovo could fan separatist and secessionist movements in their own countries. Thus Spain, with its Basque problem, has led opposition in Europe. Elsewhere, Russia sees in Kosovo an unnerving reflection of its problems in Chechnya. China thinks of Tibet, Taiwan, and several other regions with yearnings for independence.

Other opponents include Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia. They all speak of “an issue of principle”, “respect for international law”, and “the need for the consent of the entire population of Serbia”. But they are all looking over their shoulder into their own backyard.

In a world where we are constantly hearing from Dawkinsite secular extremists about how religion is the cause of the world’s problems, Kosovo stands out as a revealing counter-example. There is a religious divide: some 90 per cent of the two million people are Muslims, and the small Serb minority are Orthodox Christians. Yet, for all the viciousness of the conflict, religious rhetoric has been largely absent. Among the Muslim community, mosque attendance is low, and public displays of conservative Islamic dress and culture are minimal. Among the Christians, the language is overwhelmingly nationalistic.

What has driven the bitter divisions has been ethnicity, which is why there is more at stake for Russia than a bad example to the Chechens. There are bonds of cultural and ethnic kinship between the Serbs and Russians, a nation that has become increasingly truculent with, if not hostile to, the West in recent years.

The vast majority of Kosovans are ethnic Albanians. Many of them have grown up looking towards Tirana for a sense of identity, and dream of one day merging into a greater Albania. It is not hard to see why the Greeks, with their ethnic Macedonians, are uneasy. One of the big debates among Kosovans is whether their new nation will be “a society of values”, or one based on “blood and belonging”. It is a debate with echoes of Gordon Brown’s on Britishness.

Ethnicity is all too often, of course, merely a scapegoat, as it is now in Kenya, where tribal differences surface in a climate of fear, exclusion, and resentment. The real problems in Kosovo are unemployment running at more than 40 per cent, corruption and organised crime, and poverty: the wealth per person is just five per cent of the EU average. In all this, religion is the dog that did not bark. If it is not part of the problem, then perhaps it could be part of the solution. And that applies not just in Kosovo.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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