On Sunday, a majority of the voters in Montenegro opted for independence and for severing the remaining tenuous links that bound them to Serbia. By a majority slightly larger than the required 55%, they voted for the establishment of another independent state on the ruins of Yugoslavia, the multi-ethnic country founded on the basis of Serbian hegemony after World War I.
It was this Serbian hegemony that led to the country's first disintegration after the Nazi invasion in 1941. After the war, under the communist banner of Tito's partisans, Yugoslavia was reestablished under a complex system which created a balance of power among the various ethnic groups - Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Slav Macedonians, Montenegrans and Kosovar Albanians.
With Tito's disappearance and the weakening of communist ideology, this balance cracked in the 1990s and led, through wars and brutal ethnic cleansings, to the establishment of four new independent states: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia. Serbia managed to maintain a sort of state union with Montenegro, and it is this that has now come to its end.
BUT THERE still is some unfinished business - the former Serbian province of Kosovo, with its 95% Albanian population, now under a virtual UN protectorate after NATO's military intervention against Serbia in 1999. This intervention came after more than a decade of brutal Serbian repression of Kosovo's Albanian population, which under Tito had enjoyed an autonomous status within Serbia and which was abolished by ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Only NATO's intervention prevented a massive ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians by Serbian forces.
LIKE IN all national and ethnic conflicts, the issues in Kosovo are complex and fraught with historical and religious memories that go beyond current politics. On the one hand, the population of Kosovo is now almost 95% ethnic Albanian; on the other, for Serbs the area is the cradle of their medieval kingdom; the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, in which the Serbs were defeated by the Ottomans, is a central part of their national narrative.
More recently, Kosovo Albanians have been subjected, since the province's annexation by Serbia in 1913, to systematic "re-Serbianization"; yet after NATO's intervention, more 100,000 Serbs were expelled from the province by vengeful Albanians.
No one comes out of this with clean hands.
IN THE current UN-sponsored talks in Vienna, the Kosovo Albanians, led until recently by their extraordinary philosopher-president, Ibrahim Rugova, insist on their right to self-determination; Serbia, on the other hand, claims that the region should remain part of Serbia, though they are ready to grant it extensive autonomy.
At the end of the day, the issue is simple: whatever the historical claims, the ethnic Albanians are a preponderant majority in the province. Just like Palestinian Arabs, Albanians are entitled to a state of their own: for generations they have viewed the Serbs as oppressors, just as the Serbs have viewed the Albanians, most of whom are Muslim, as an extension of their Turkish oppressors.
Yes, there are Serbian historical sites, mainly monasteries, in Kosovo; yes, there are areas - like Mitrovica in the north, and some enclaves, where Serbs live now in virtually besieged communities, and their rights have to be protected, perhaps through some international presence for the foreseeable future. But neither the UN, nor the EU, can reasonably reject the right of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo for a state of their own.
The question is how this can be achieved through an agreement with Serbia. Given the political climate in Belgrade, it is difficult to envisage.
Serbia is a wounded nation, and it needs empathy and understanding. With the dismantling of Yugoslavia, the Serbs have lost their hegemonic position in what had been the largest country in the Balkans: They lost a war against Croatia; they lost the war in Bosnia, where they brutally tried to annex parts of this republic and ethnically cleanse the Bosnian Muslim population; now Montenegro has gone its own way; and the whole Serbian nation feels stigmatized because of the crimes of the Milosevic regime.
SERBIA NEEDS reassurance and a time to rebuild its society. A generous European policy, paving the way for a relatively quick entry into the EU, could be a way to assuage Serbian sensibilities, help underpin its transition to democracy and wean it from its hegemonic memories.
But all this can be done only if Kosovo becomes independent. Serbian rule over Kosovo Albanians was the last colonial rule in Europe; NATO put an end to it. Now the outcome - independence - has to be granted international legitimacy. There is no other way.
The author is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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