After years of violence and diplomatic wrangling, Kosovo, on Feb. 17, declared its independence, and within a day the world's most powerful nation, the United States, congratulated and recognized the newborn state. Britain also immediately recognized the war-torn nation, and in the days and weeks to come other big and wealthy nations would do likewise: France, Germany, Italy and Australia and two dozen others have all recognized Kosovo's sovereignty, representing, by one count, just more than half the world's GDP, and a majority of the members of NATO and the European Union.
But those figures obscure a central fact: while Kosovo has largely won its battle for recognition in Europe, Serbia is winning over the rest of the world. The vast majority of the United Nations' 192 members have withheld recognition, either by silence or explicit rejection. Brazil, China and India have all thus far refused to recognize the nascent nation, and Russia has not only rejected Kosovo's independence, but has become Serbia's proxy at the U.N. Security Council, vowing to veto any resolutions that would help clarify its status or grant Kosovo the ultimate symbol of sovereignty: a seat at the United Nations itself. Even some stalwart U.S. allies have rejected or remained silent on the Kosovo question, including Israel and Canada, as well as members of the European Union and NATO such as Spain, Cyprus and Slovakia.
Now, in a move that is virtually unprecedented in diplomatic history, Serbia is trying to reverse Kosovo's declaration of independence. At home, its leaders are threatening to retake Kosovo, stoking violence against the West with fiery rhetoric that echoes the former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Abroad, Serbian officials are recalling ambassadors from nations that recognize Kosovo and lobbying to stop further recognitions by insisting Kosovo's actions are an illegal and dangerous precedent. Last week, in a speech at the U.N. Security Council, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic urged nations that have already recognized Kosovo to "reconsider," and called upon those that have not "to stay the course."
So far, Serbia has been remarkably successful. While there's no magic number after which a country is considered truly sovereign, diplomats from the United States and Europe say Kosovo will acquire a critical mass after receiving recognition from somewhere between 50 and 100 countries. But as of mid-March, only 32 nations have recognized Kosovo, and though more may be forthcoming, the Serbian government expects a total of just 50 to sign on in the near future.
Countries have been slow to recognize for all sorts of reasons, including as a result of their own internal legal bureaucracies. Brazil, and to a certain extent India, are waiting for a critical mass of nations to form before going ahead themselves. Both countries want a seat at the U.N. Security Council but fear that getting too far ahead of the world on the Kosovo issue will antagonize Russia and China, both Security Council members with veto power. Islamic countries, noticeably slow to recognize a new Muslim nation, appear to be waiting for the nod from Saudi Arabia, which has thus far made no official statement on the matter.
But the numbers suggest countries the world over are also rejecting U.S. ideals of human rights, self-determination and what U.S. Sen. Joe Biden has called the "sacred trust between government and its people." For the United States, which declared its own independence after the people lost trust in King George, Kosovo's independence "upholds the ideal that people are entitled to govern themselves" when those people are minorities mistreated by their rulers, says Daniel Serwer, a former diplomat now at the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank.
To many nations, that American ideal looks self-defeating in a world of multiplying separatist movements. Spain, Cyprus and many others say they fear accepting Kosovo's sovereignty would establish a precedent for separatists in their own countries. Canadians have voiced similar concerns, though Canada has stopped short of rejecting Kosovo altogether. Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, argued recently that Kosovo's independence would be a "very good example for other parts of countries that are not happy with what is going on around them."
Kosovo argues that it has on its side the countries that truly matter—the United States and the biggest EU nations. But Vladimir Petrovic, temporary chargé d'affaires at the Serbian Embassy to the United States, points out that Kosovo is missing virtually all of Africa and Latin America. After all, he says, "there's not a single country in Africa that doesn't have some kind of minorities of different ethnic groups." Also in Serbia's camp is China, navigating its issues with Taiwan's longstanding quest for independence, and its belief that Kosovo is a European issue, with few links to Chinese economic or security interests.
Then there is Russia. Linked to Serbia by cultural and ethnic ties, an independent Kosovo poses a danger to its expansionist goals. Diplomats say Russia is trying to divide the United States from Europe, and regain the influence it lost in the Balkans during the 1990s, when Russian geopolitical power was at a low point. Russia has also used its support for Serbia's position on Kosovo as leverage to get a better deal from Belgrade on a natural-gas pipeline that Russian energy giant Gazprom wants to run from Russia through Serbia to the rest of Europe. Last month, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president-elect, was in Belgrade with the head of Gazprom to work out details of the pipeline deal, and to blast Kosovo's "illegal" declaration of independence.
Russian support gives Serbia a proxy vote in the U.N. Security Council, which prevents Kosovo from taking a seat at the United Nations. Yet this may be something of a Pyrrhic victory. While Serbia is tied to Russia, increasingly a pariah state, little will change for Kosovo. It can join the ranks of Taiwan and others with a quasi-official diplomatic status, backed and protected by the 32 (or possibly more) countries that ultimately recognize it. More crucially, this poor nation can have access to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And notwithstanding the concerns of Spain and some other EU members, it will retain the support of NATO and the European Union in their ongoing mission there.
Much depends on how Serbia resolves its internal confusion. For most Serbs, the idea of giving up Kosovo is a nonstarter. Yet polls show that 70 percent of Serbs want to move closer to Europe, not to Russia or the big Asian powers. For now, however, that is the way the Serbs are moving: farther from the West, closer to the rest of the world.