THE BLOG

A "Great Fear" in Kosovo

04/14/2015 03:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

The global Muslim community is suffering a deep crisis. The failure of the "Arab Spring" led, most prominently, to horrendous bloodletting in Syria. In this carnage, both the Damascus dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad, which is supported by the Iranian regime, and the ultra-Wahhabi "Islamic State" that opposes the civil resistance to Bashar, are guilty.

Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish Kurds, mainly leftists in politics, have offered the only effective direct resistance to the "Islamic State," although the Kurds are helped by U.S.-led bombing. Obsessed with its opposition to Kurdish political and cultural demands, Turkey has allowed aid to flow to the "Islamic State." Qatar is accused similarly of assisting jihadists in Syria.

In Iraq, the Shia-dominated government of prime minister Haider Al-Abadi is further challenged by the "Islamic State." Devastating conflict has spread to Yemen, which has, effectively, no government. Significant in Islamic, Jewish, and Christian history, Yemen is now fought over between Sunni advocates and a heterodox Shia tribal group, the Houthis, that is backed by Iran and adherents of the former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a non-Houthi Shia. Iran has sent naval vessels to the straits of Bab Al-Mandab, between Yemen and the African coast. But the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based, highly professional news channel Al-Arabiya reported on April 11 that the weak Yemeni authorities under besieged president Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi ordered a ban on landing of any foreign ships in the country's ports.

An inflow of thousands of foreign "mujahidin" to Syria has already been observed, with many coming from Muslim-majority and minority communities scattered from North America to Malaysia. While the Saudi kingdom has taken leadership of a Sunni-based military coalition against the "Islamic State," and initiated action against the Houthi usurpation in Yemen, Riyadh has failed in seeking help from beyond the immediate region. As described in the London Financial Times of April 10, Pakistan refused a request from the Saudis to send ground troops to Yemen. Pakistan is an ally of the Saudi kingdom, but has a significant Shia minority in its population and a long common border with Iran.

Recruitment to the so-called "Islamic State" has been accompanied by an increase in terrorist incidents in Western countries. Authorities in Kosovo (approximately 80 percent Muslim) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (about 45 percent Muslim) have criminalized participation in jihadist terror in Syria and Iraq and arrested alleged participants in campaigns for the "Islamic State."

Balkan Muslims -- particularly Kosovo Albanians and Bosnians -- have additional problems. Neither country is truly independent of foreign interference, and neither society has been able to function normally since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s in which they attained formal independence. Bosnia-Herzegovina remains partitioned by the Serbs, who threaten to declare a permanent independence for their zone in northern and eastern Bosnia. The north of Kosovo is the object of similar intrigues.

Kosovo's young people are fleeing, in an attempt to find a new life in the more developed Western countries. Most Kosovo Albanians who depart from their native land try to secure asylum in Germany. The ways and means of attempting this effort are demoralizing for them. At least 30,000 Kosovar Albanians left the Balkan republic in January and February 2015, according to German government sources.

I recall that, while living in Kosovo in the aftermath of the 1998-99 war, I observed Albanians in the territory and outside it, some having gone with their families to Bosnia-Herzegovina to evade Serbian terrorism. But they were then tormented by their inability to gain travel documents recognizing their nationality. If they were willing to do so, they could apply for a Yugoslav (i.e., at that time, Serbian/Montenegrin) passport. But few wanted to suffer the disgrace, after the conflict in which they were liberated from the rule of Belgrade, of accepting such identification.

I argued then, with no little sense of guilt, that the Kosovo Albanians should go home and build a new state, since the U.S. and NATO had committed to defend their rights on the ground, not to encourage them to seek refugee benefits in the European Union. I was criticized by some non-Albanian friends as "anti-immigrant." I was not; I was pro-Kosovo.

Almost 16 years have passed and I have come to recognize the intense anxiety that compels the Kosovo Albanians to attempt an escape from their country. Under the mandate of the EU, which still rules Kosovo in effect, 60 percent of young people are unemployed, according to BBC News. Kosovo achieved formal status as a separate state in 2008 but remains blocked in its path to EU membership. In 2012 the EU declared its role in Kosovo ended, but the latter is still excluded from European visa-free travel.

And so young Kosovo Albanians who would have refused a Serbian passport at the end of the 1998-99 combat, now accept such a designation. Since Serbia has an open border with Hungary, crossing from Kosovo into Serbia makes it possible to reach Hungary, Austria, and Germany. Kosovo Albanian youth seem to have given up on any prospects in their own home.

Albanian leaders now appeal to their young constituents to refuse the path of illegal immigration. On March 19, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) produced a dismaying report on how emigrants from Albania proper, which has open borders with Macedonia, Bulgaria, Austria and Spain, are smuggled by that route to Mexico and then across the southern border into the U.S.

The numbers of Albanians captured on the U.S.-Mexico border is small -- 56 in 2012 and 487 in 2013, according to BIRN. This scenario would be made for anti-Islamic paranoia, since Albania is 70 percent Muslim, were it not that cases described in the BIRN report involved Catholic Albanians from the border zone with Montenegro. In sum, however, the image of Albanians as "illegal aliens" harms all members of their community.

The permanent dependence of Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina on the authorities of the EU have presented serious obstacles to economic recovery in these countries, notwithstanding that their levels of education and entrepreneurship are high. Kosovo foreign minister and former prime minister Hashim Thaçi said, in an interview with the EurActiv Germany news portal posted on February 18, that his fellow-citizens "want European standards fast, and are tired of the transition. Economic growth has not created enough jobs."

The "great fear" is a term used to describe rural discontent, sometimes violent, at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Large districts of the kingdom were seized by panic and revolt.

A similar collective anxiety appears to be increasing through southeast Europe. Its sources may be found not only in dissatisfaction with local conditions. German chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that Putin's Russia may extend its strategy of aggression, visible in Ukraine, to the Balkans. The Greek government of leftist ideologue Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza coalition have made defiance of Germany the basis of their administrative course. Instability is spreading beyond the borders of the Arab lands.

Who is to blame for the breakdown of the social consensus in Kosovo, which once united to resist Serbia? Western Europeans -- in Britain and France, notably -- accuse the EU of limiting their countries' sovereignty. But Britain and France have had undeniable sovereignty and wealth for centuries. Brussels promised Kosovo sovereignty and prosperity, and failed to deliver it. In the hearts of many Kosovo Albanians, the EU is as resented as it is in the rich Western states, if for markedly different reasons.