PRISTINA, YUGOSLAVIA — It was a peaceable revolt. On a sultry Balkan summer day last July, 114 members of the provincial Parliament of Kosovo, enough to constitute a quorum, assembled in front of their offices in this shabby capital. Discovering they had been locked out of the building by higher-ranking authorities, the motley collection of farmers, peasants and local businessmen decided to vote in the open air.
The ballot was unanimous: Tiny Kosovo, a land-locked and desperately poor province in the southeast corner of Yugoslavia, declared its independence.
It was a case of one fragment breaking away from another fragment. Kosovo, with a population that is 90% ethnic Albanian, was rejecting domination by ethnic Serbs. They in turn are struggling against Yugoslavia's other major ethnic groups, the Croats and Slovenes. The divisions run so deep they could bring on civil war, but for members of Kosovo's Parliament, the overriding issue was not national unity but freedom to express their Albanian identity.
"The Albanians, being a small people, want to preserve the traditions they have," declared Ibrahim Rugova, a wiry, intense literary critic and leader of Kosovo's Democratic Alliance.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 21, 1990 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Serbia--In referring to the creation of the state of Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War I, an article in the Dec. 18 edition of World Report failed to take note that before the war Serbia was an independent nation, neither part of the Ottoman Empire nor the Austro-Hungarian Empire. An accompanying map of the Balkans before the 1914-18 war also failed to reflect the existence of an independent Serbia.
At one level, Kosovo's action simply reflects the increasingly dangerous conflicts among rival nationalities in a Balkan state that did not even exist until 1918, when it was fashioned from the rubble of World War I by the victorious Allies.
At a deeper level, however, the vote in Pristina reflects powerful forces that are tearing at governmental institutions all around the world--forces that may redraw the map of nations, usher in decades of new instability and pose difficult and unfamiliar challenges to even the strongest powers.
From China to Czechoslovakia, from South Africa to the Soviet Union, political movements centered around ethnicity, national identity and religion are re-emerging to contest some of the most fundamental premises of modern statehood. In the process, they are reintroducing ancient sources of conflict so deeply submerged by the Cold War that they seemed almost to have vanished from history's equation.
Ten years ago, for example, Czechoslovakia was gripped by a struggle between liberal reformers and one of the most rigidly Stalinist governments in the Communist world. Today, the liberal reformers control Hradcany Castle, but ethnic tensions may split the country into two separate nations--and the reformers themselves are divided over what to do.
"The thought that ethnicities and nationalisms and all the other primordial loyalties would disappear as a result of modernization was premature," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist at the American University of Cairo, in assessing the post-Cold War era. "That was probably one of the big lessons of the 20th Century: Ideology is no substitute for interest or for geography. That's what we are rediscovering."
And the implications of this resurgence of national, ethnic and religious passions are profound:
* A host of modern nation-states are beginning to crumble because the concept of the "melting pot," the idea that diverse and even historically hostile peoples could readily be assimilated under larger political umbrellas in the name of modernization and progress, has failed them.
Even in the strongest nations, including the United States, the task of such assimilation has proved difficult and the prognosis is for even greater tension in the decades ahead.
* Turmoil in the Soviet Union and parts of China threaten to blow apart the last remnants of an imperial age that began more than 500 years ago. The turbulent dismantling of 19th Century European empires after World War II may be matched by new waves of disintegration within the Soviet and Chinese Communist empires, with incalculable consequences for the United States and other world powers.
Stretching from the Gulf of Finland to the mountains of Tibet and beyond, the sheer scale of the potential instability would tax the world's capacity to respond. Ethnic unrest could spill into neighboring countries, old border disputes could reignite and, if the central governments tried to impose order with force, civil wars could erupt within two of the world's largest nuclear powers.
* Around the globe, fundamentalist religious movements have entered the political arena in a direct challenge to one of the basic principles of the modern age: that governments and other civic institutions should be predominantly secular and religion confined to the private lives of individuals and groups.
Since the end of the Middle Ages, when religion dominated not only government but every other aspect of society, the pervasive trend in the past 500 years has been to separate church and state. Now, in many parts of the world, powerful movements are insisting on a return to God-centered government.