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Breakaway Role Model: Separatist Movements Seek Inspiration in Kosovo

By Stephan Orth, Nadine Michel and Maike Jansen

Kosovo is turning out to be a huge source of conflict, both in the Balkans and across Europe. Six EU member states are against recognizing Kosovo’s independence, because they fear it could lead to problems with their own ethnic minorities.

It was probably the most important day of Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s term in office. After issuing the new country’s declaration of independence on Sunday, Thaci announced in the capital, Pristina, that his country is now an official member of the “European family.”

Ethnic Hungarians in Romania have long been interested in independence from Romania. Kosovo's declaration of independence has whetted their appetite.
AFP

Ethnic Hungarians in Romania have long been interested in independence from Romania. Kosovo's declaration of independence has whetted their appetite.

But in the excitement of that historic moment, it probably didn’t occur to him that it is sometimes a rather moody and divided family. Only a few hours later, Europe’s lack of unanimity over recognizing Kosovo revealed what a heterogeneous entity Europe still is.

It also raises the question of whether such a divided Europe will ever be capable of conducting an effective joint common foreign policy. Serbia withdrew its ambassadors from Germany and Austria Wednesday, after Berlin and Vienna recognized Kosovo as an independent nation. Then, on Thursday, Serbian protesters rioted in Belgrade, setting fire to the US Embassy.

While Denmark, Austria, France and Great Britain hold similar positions on Kosovo’s independence, the EU countries that have minority conflicts of their own are opposed to Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. They fear that their separatist groups could choose to emulate developments in the Balkans.

But what are these conflicts, and why has resolving them proved to be so difficult? SPIEGEL ONLINE profiles six countries that are refusing to toe the EU line.

Spain: The Basques and the Catalans

The Spanish central government in Madrid fears that Basque separatists could see Kosovo’s declaration of independence as a precedent and as new fuel for their cause. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Spain was one of the first EU countries to announce that it would not recognize the independence of the small Serbian province.

In early 2008, the Basque terrorist organization ETA announced that it would make its future actions dependent on the situation in Kosovo. ETA’s goal is to liberate the Basque region from what it calls Spanish “occupiers” and to establish an independent, socialist Basque nation. It was established in 1959 as a military resistance group against Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who had banned the use of the Basque language and done everything in his power to suppress the Basque minority. There are 3 million Basques today, 2.5 million of them living in the northwest Spanish Basque region and the rest in the southwestern tip of France. The conflict, however, has transpired mainly on Spanish soil.

Basque nationalists demonstrate in the Basque city of Bilbao. Spain is worried the separatists could be inspired by the example of Kosovo.
AFP

Basque nationalists demonstrate in the Basque city of Bilbao. Spain is worried the separatists could be inspired by the example of Kosovo.

In 1979, after the end of the Franco dictatorship, the Basques were granted substantial autonomy. But this wasn’t enough for ETA, which continues to fight for complete independence using bombings and intimidation campaigns as its preferred tools. The group’s struggle has already claimed more than 800 lives.

Another minority group in Spain, the Catalans, also wants more than the autonomous status it was granted in 1978. About 7.2 million people live in the Catalan region in northeast Spain, which has the country’s strongest economy. Catalonia has had autonomous status since the 18th century. It wasn’t long ago that Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira, the head of the Republican Left party and the deputy of regional President Jose Montilla, demanded a referendum on independence by 2014.

But the difference between the Basque country and Catalonia, on the one hand, and Kosovo, on the other, is that these regions, despite their continued efforts to gain independence, already enjoy substantial rights of autonomy.

In Madrid, the government’s decision not to recognize Kosovo could also affect domestic politics -- general elections will take place in Spain on March 9.

Cyprus: The Turkish Cypriots

While Kosovo celebrated independence on Sunday, the same day brought new hope of reunification for Cyprus. In the Greek southern part of the island, President Tassos Papadopoulos, whose isolationist policy has seriously damaged relations with Turkish Cypriots in the north and with the European Union, was voted out of office. The candidates to succeed him have indicated a willingness to resume negotiations with the Turkish Cypriots, raising new hopes that reunification is possible.

The two ethnic groups on the sun-baked island have been separated since 1974. In 1983, the predominantly Turkish northern part of the island declared itself an independent state, the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. However Turkey is the only country that recognizes it.

The Greek Cypriot southern part, where three-quarters of the island’s roughly 1 million inhabitants live, is known as the Republic of Cyprus and has been an EU member since 2004. Traveling across the border has becoming easier since then, but there are still no direct contacts between the ethnic groups today. A barbed-wire fence marks the border between northern and southern Cyprus. United Nations troops monitor the line of demarcation.

In 2004, an attempt by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to achieve reunification through a referendum failed when the majority Greek Cypriots voted against it. Turkey has a special interest in a unified Cyprus, because it would represent a milestone on the road to its own EU membership.

A runoff election next Sunday will decide who is to become the next president: Dimitris Christofias, the 61-year-old chairman of the reformed communist Akel party, or conservative Ioannis Kasoulidis, 59. While Christofias is one of the few Greek politicians who are respected in the north, voters see Kasoulidis, a member of the European parliament, as being more likely to improve the country’s troubled relationship with the EU. But whoever wins the election, reuniting the conflicting parties will remain tremendously difficult. The Turkish Cypriots, who voted for reunification in 2004, are disappointed, because they feel that they were never rewarded for their willingness to compromise at the time.

This defiance could reinforce a tendency to emulate Kosovo and seek public recognition for independence for the north. The change in the administration could be coming at just the right point, in that it could help prevent this.

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
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