When it was announced almost exactly a year ago, Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia immediately generated an avalanche of intense political reactions about "Europe's newest state".
In Prishtina, the capital of the contested Balkan region, the declaration was widely characterized as an affirmation of the right to self-determination, and sparked massive celebrations by Kosovan Albanians. On February 17, 2008 thousands rallied around a monumental typographic sculpture that spelled out, in English, the word Newborn. Fireworks accompanied live appearances by pop stars and elected officials.
The Serbian government had been bracing for this moment as well. Its official stance—summed up in its slogan "Kosovo is Serbia"—claimed the province as an inalienable and quintessentially Serbian territory that had historically belonged to the Serbian nation, but which the Kosovan Albanians allegedly usurped for themselves.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica reacted to the news from Prishtina by vehemently denying the legitimacy of the Kosovan declaration and expressing outrage at the "appalling violation" of Serbia's territorial integrity.
On February 21, 2008, a government-organized protest in Serbia's capital Belgrade brought together well over one hundred thousand demonstrators, some of whom vandalized local sites associated with those countries that supported Kosovo's independence, especially the United States.
Many foreign observers saw in the controversial declaration of independence an enormous legal problem that put at risk the future of international law as we know it. For these writers, the unilateral declaration of independence and the subsequent recognition of Kosovo by over fifty countries (so far) could set a dangerous precedent for hasty and potentially violent resolution of similar disputes across the globe in places like Kashmir, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan, and Taiwan. [For more on these regions, please see the recent Origins articles on Taiwan and South Ossetia/Georgia.]
Other analysts turned to the past to understand these tumultuous events. They traced the twists and turns of what they considered a centuries-long ethnic rivalry between the Serbs and the Albanians, telling their versions of what "really happened" in such nationally charged historical moments as 1389 (the Battle of Kosovo, when Ottoman forces defeated the Medieval Serbian state) or 1690 (when the Serbian Patriarch of Pec led tens of thousands of Serb families out of Kosovo).
Others still have explained the violence that swept through former Yugoslav societies in the 1990s and the early 2000s as a result of the special historical character of the Balkans. It was a barbaric relic from the past, a vengeful ghost that continues to haunt the different Balkan nations locked into patterns of mutual hostility stretching back for hundreds of years.
In contrast, many other analysts dismissed the notion of "ancient hatreds" as too simplistic and instead tended to perceive the violence as a recent political development. For them, the brutality was as a crude instrument wielded by unscrupulous and power-hungry Balkan politicians who derailed the otherwise cheerful post-1989 transition from communism to market economy.
In either case, however, they assumed that the recent violence was a passing political phase that can now be replaced with processes of democratization and legal reform. These processes, in turn, would enable the new post-Yugoslav states to enter a promising European future unburdened from their "tragic Balkan past."
As compelling or politically useful as they may be, such interpretations tend to overlook just how formative and decisive the political violence of the 1990s was in the attainment of nationhood and the establishment of recent political relations in the western Balkans.