Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.12.27

What does Kosovo mean to Japan?

the japan times on December 16, 2019

My friends and colleagues in Tokyo asked me "Is it safe there?" before I left for Kosovo last week. I said of course, although I was not 100 percent sure then. Upon arriving in Pristina, however, I felt fully confident that I was correct. Yet many in Tokyo don't even know Pristina is the name of Kosovo's capital.

The Balkan Peninsula is one of the areas I had never been to prior to now. The main objective of the visit, however, is to directly see what is going on in this region. One of the lessons in the history of the 20th century Europe is the danger that an unstable Balkans might pose to the rest of the world.

In Kosovo international entities assist the nation-building of this young republic. The United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was active even before its "independence" in 2008. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is more effective, but this is not the end of the story.

Major national players are also working hard. The United States has the biggest embassy in the region. Europeans are mediating between Pristina and Belgrade. Turkey is still influential in this neighborhood. Russians are active through Serbia. China is getting involved. And Japan is opening a new diplomatic office in Kosovo.

Pristina needs a solution to the issue of Kosovo's status. Otherwise, given recent waves of nationalism, populism, xenophobism and discrimination in Europe and elsewhere, the entire Balkan region could eventually become destabilized again and, as we witnessed in 1939, Japan's national security policy could be undermined.

The following are the reasons for my concern:

1. The last war was not World War II

In Tokyo, when we talk about the "latest war," we're referring to World War II or the Pacific War. But in Pristina the latest conflict is the war of 1999. Although I saw almost no physical signs of the tragic war involving Kosovo and Serbia-led Yugoslavia, in Kosovo the memories of the war are still vivid since all too many lives were lost on both sides.

Nonetheless, Tokyo must keep in mind that the obstacle for the solution is not only the memories of the latest war. The Balkan area has been a crossroads for major powers' invasions for centuries, be it the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Western Europeans or Russians. The complexity of the problems dwarfs the ongoing Tokyo-Seoul dispute.

2. The third historical experiment

In retrospect, now seems to be the third historical experiment for the Balkans. The first was the 1918-1942 Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the second the 1945-1992 Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under President Josip Broz Tito. Neither was successful in stabilizing this area. Thus the third ongoing "independent nation-state" approach cannot fail.

The challenges are many. Although Kosovo is at least a de facto independent state, about 80 United Nations members still do not recognize it. The Republic of Serbia considers Kosovo to be an autonomous region of its country. In reality, however, no one can erase the virtually independent entity of Kosovo from maps.

3. A new "Great Game"

Kosovo is tragically landlocked. It is bordered by Serbia to the northeast, North Macedonia to the southeast, Albania to the southwest and Montenegro to the west. The latest challenge facing the secular Muslim Albanians in U.S.-assisted Kosovo is posed by Belgrade's nationalistic Serbians, who are supported by the Russians.

Moscow has enough reasons to be concerned. The excessively rapid expansion of the European Union and NATO in the 1990s has accelerated the comeback of the Russian Empire. Moscow aims to take advantage of the Kosovo issue, as it did in the case of Syria, to force the West to lift the economic sanctions that were imposed following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

4. Empires strike back

Russia is not the only empire that is striking back. This year China has engaged 17 Central and Eastern European countries to enhance its influence through regional cooperation. Turkey, with the memory of its 500 year rule of the Balkans, has been actively promoting its traditional influence again.

5. The West is divided

In contrast, the EU, despite its strenuous efforts to stabilize the region, has not been as unified as it wishes. Britain, a strong promoter of regional peace, is exiting while France killed accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania. Germany is not a driving force in the making of EU foreign policy to stabilize the Balkans.

6. The need for a liberal international order

Kosovo needs the free and open international order that Tokyo is now promoting globally. A solution to Kosovo's status could easily deny Russian influence and/or intervention in Balkan affairs. In other words, as long as the problem of Kosovo is unresolved, Russia as well as China and Turkey could use the Balkan issues to their advantage.

7. Tokyo must analyze the Balkan situation

It is sad to see that the games the major powers and the Balkans play in this region seem to be zero-sum. A silver bullet solution to the Kosovo issue is not in sight for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, I have too much Middle East experience to be optimistic.

Having said that, Japan must monitor the situation seriously and be actively involved as much as it can in Balkan affairs. Not because it has malicious political ambitions in the region, but rather because it has no ambitions there and thus its goodwill will more easily win the trust of the Balkans, including Kosovo.

Why does Japan have to pay more attention to those small nations in southern Europe? Because throughout their history, the Balkans, for their survival, have always needed to know precisely what forces endanger the region most. Helping Kosovo is helping Japan. As an English proverb says, "More haste, less speed."