Vol. 1, No. 4 (March 15, 2008)

Kosovo’s long-term impact on Europe: The implications for Azerbaijan

Fakhri Karimli, Dr.
Manager of External Relations
State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic - Romania (SOCAR)

Many analysts have discussed the possible impact of Kosovo’s declaration of independence and European recognition of that act on the so-called “frozen” conflicts in the post-Soviet space, including Nagorno-Karabakh.  But there is a larger if longer term set of implications of these events for Azerbaijan that so far have attracted little attention.  They involve the possible effect of the inclusion of the Muslim population of Kosovo and other parts of the Balkans on Europe’s future willingness to accept Turkey and in the more distant future Azerbaijan as members of the European Union. 

With Kosovo’s declaration of independence and the EU’s expressed willingness to consider it for possible membership even before it becomes a member of the United Nations and with the possibility that other Muslim areas in the Balkans will also be included in the EU, the peoples and governments of that international group will for the first time have direct experience with members that have a predominantly Muslim population.  Moreover, Europeans will be dealing not with immigrants but with indigenous Muslim communities whose moral standing is likely to be fundamentally different in the minds of many.  And this process could thus have the effect of undermining if not completely destroying the image and self-image of the EU as a “Christian club” and thus become the basis for extending the EU’s fundamental principles of supremacy of law, respect for human rights, and equal treatment of all without regard to race, language or religion.   

While such a development is certain to take time, the nature of the Muslim communities in the Balkans makes it especially likely.  Muslims in that region have been traditionally among the most moderate in the world.  Even during the Bosnian war of 1992-95 and despite the atrocities committed by Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croatians, they were not radicalized.  

Given how significant that longer term possibility could be for the future of Azerbaijan, it is important to give more attention to the Muslim populations in the Balkans than most analysts in Baku and elsewhere have done up to now.  This article provides a brief introduction to the most important of these groups, less to point to any final conclusions about what is likely to happen in any particular case than to suggest the possibilities this remarkable set of communities may present for Azerbaijan.

Kosovo.  According to the Kosovar statistics agency, the total population of that province in 2005 was between 1.9 and 2.2 million people, of whom 90 percent were Albanians, five percent Serbs, three percent Bosniaks and Goranis, one percent Gypsies, and one percent Turks.  The Albanians, Turks, Bosniaks, and the Goranis, a Slavic group from the Gora region, are all followers of Islam.  But most have a very relaxed attitude toward religion, and only about half practice their faith. 

Albania.  Following its declaration of independence in 1912, Albania became the first European Muslim country.  Despite efforts by the communist regime to wipe out religion, approximately 70 percent of its 3.8 million people are Muslim, of whom some two-thirds are Sunni and one-third Shiia (the Bektashi).  Christian missionaries made significant inroads in that country in the 1990s, a development that explains why most of the political elite is Christian and why even Tirana’s airport is named after Mother Theresa. 

Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Until the Ottoman Empire conquered this area in 1463, most of the people in this region were Bogomils, a protestant response to both Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  But after that time, many converted to Islam.  By 1991, 41 percent of the population of this region was Islamic, 33 percent were Serbs, and 17 percent were Croatians.  Because the languages were so similar, religion was an important marker, but not so much of one as to prevent extensive intermarriage.  Indeed, until the breakup of Yugoslavia, nearly a third of all marriages there were “mixed.” That has now changed, but Islam there remains relatively moderate.  Today, the Muslims form just over half of the 4.5 million people of this territory. 

Macedonia.  Following the civil war which ended with the Treaty of Ohrid in 2001, Muslims, who include Albanians, Turks, Bosnians, and the Torbesh, as the Slavic Muslims are known, form roughly a third of that country’s two million people.  Again, most of them practice a relatively moderate form of Islam. 

Montenegro.  Approximately 18 percent of Montenegrins today are Muslims, a group that includes Albanians, Bosniaks and some other converts.  As elsewhere in the Balkans, the Muslims are extremely diverse and remarkably relaxed in their approach to their faith. 

Serbia. Muslims form a little under five percent of Serbia’s 7.5 million people, far fewer than before the break-up of Yugoslavia.  But despite their experiences over the last 15 years, few have been radicalized.  

Bulgaria.  Despite many migrations, deportations and conflicts, slightly more than 12 percent of Bulgaria’s eight million people are Muslims.  Three-quarters of this religious group are Turks, whose ethnic relations with Bulgarians have been more troubled than their religious ones.  The second largest Muslim group is the Pomaks, and the third are the Muslim Gypsies.

Romania.  There are only a relatively few Muslims in Romania – some 58 000 or only three percent of the total population.  Most are Turks and Tatars. 

Croatia. There are some 60 000 autochthonian Slavic Muslims, 20 000 Bosniaks, and 10 000 Muslim Croats, who together form fewer than two percent of the country’s 4.4 million people. 

Slovenia. Muslims who identify themselves as Bosniaks or simply as members of a Muslim nation form approximately one percent of Slovenia’s population. 

That said, the inclusion of the Muslim communities of southeastern Europe either directly or through the membership of the countries of which they are a part in the EU would be an especially effective response to those who believe in the theory of the clash of civilizations.  Once inside, their likely behavior would set the stage not only for the inclusion of Turkey as a member but also of Azerbaijan.