Like a man, a country is better known by its enemies than its friends. This applies to the newly born Kosovo, in the war-ravaged Balkans. It has many friends, mostly among the members of the European Union. But it also has some enemies, starting with Serbia and Russia.
The first nation to recognise Kosovo's independence when it was announced on Sunday was Ireland, followed by the United States. Kosovo is now recognised by many other members of the EU. Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, Romania, and, for some strange reason, Spain, appear to be hesitant.
The Kosovar leadership expects close to 100 recognitions by the end of the month. All that, however, might not be enough to ensure Kosovo's membership of the United Nations. Russia and China, veto holders in the Security Council, oppose Kosovo's secession from Serbia, to which it had been attached as an "autonomous republic" during the lifetime of the now defunct Yugoslavia.
The Americans helped drive the Serbs out by bombing Belgrade, thus frustrating Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing plans against the Muslim Albanians who account for almost 90 per cent of the population in Kosovo. Those of us who covered the Kosovo war almost a decade ago recall the dark days when almost everyone believed that Milosevic would succeed while supine European leaders passed meaningless resolutions.
Once the Serbs were driven out, the Europeans regained part of their lost honour by helping administer and rebuild Kosovo. But why are Russia and China determined to oppose Kosovo's inclusion in the community of nations?
As far as Russia is concerned there are three reasons. The first is the fear that acknowledging the right of self-determination for the Kosovars may make it harder to deny the same to Muslim nations, such as the Chechen, the Ingush, and the Daghestanis, not to mention the Tatar and the Bashkir, inside the Russian federation. Although shorn of most of its imperial possessions after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia remains a multinational empire.
The second reason for Russia's hostility towards Kosovo is Putin's desire to play the old pan-Slavic card. Serbia has a Slav majority and has always looked to Russia as the big brother in the family. It is also in the name of pan-Slavism that Putin hopes to persuade the Bilorussians to abandon their indolence and re-attach their country to Russia.
Finally, Russia opposes Kosovo's independence as part of Putin's overall strategy of thumbing his nose at the United States. The Russian leader is playing a new version of the old French game of diplomatic gesticulation as a means of concealing one's strategic weakness. "When you cannot do anything else, just say no to the Americans!" advised Michel Jobert, once a foreign minister of France.
The reasons for China's opposition to Kosovo are somewhat different. To be sure, Beijing is also afraid that the right of self-determination may be applied to its "captive nations", notably the Tibetans, the Uighurs, the Mongols and the Manchurians.
Nevertheless, the main reason for China's attitude may well be its desire to have a bargaining chip against Europeans in case they threaten the Beijing summer Olympics in the name of human rights and other uncomfortable issues.
My guess is that China, once it has received EU assurances that the games would not be threatened, would lift its veto against Kosovo's application to join the UN. Others who oppose Kosovo's independence have other motives.
The Greeks and the Cypriots fear a precedent that could lead to the recognition of the Turkish mini-republic set up in northern Cyprus and as yet recognised by no capital outside Ankara.
The Greeks also fear that their Macedonian minority might wish to imitate the Kosovars by breaking away and attaching itself to neighbouring Macedonia. The Slovaks wish to advertise their solidarity with brother Slavs in Serbia. The Romanians fear that their ethnic Moldovans may break away and join neighbouring Moldova.
There is also the argument that the EU and the US maintain double standards.
And the fact that some captive nations remain unable to shake off their shackles does not mean that those, like Kosovo, that can do so, should be remain bound against their will.
There are also those who claim that Kosovo would join Albania and force the ethnic Albanians in neighbouring Macedonia also to break away, creating a Greater Albania. Even if this were to happen, something unlikely in the foreseeable future, why should Kosovo remain a slave of Serbia to prevent a hypothetical redrawing of the Balkans' map? By declaring independence, Kosovo has taken an historic risk. Ahead of it lies a minefield of unknown, and as yet unknowable, dangers. But this has been true of all nations that have fought for their independence.
Kosovo is Europe's poorest nation with unemployment topping 40 per cent. For 8 years it has lived on US and EU handouts. The collapse of its old institutions created a fertile ground for all sorts of criminal gangs and racketeers. Nevertheless, those who have come to know the Kosovars over the past decade or so, know of their exceptional determination. Ten years ago, they decided to defy the heaviest odds and refused to die. Today, they wish to live in freedom. They deserve sympathy and support.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author based in Europe.