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Interests and Principles

By Shaun Walker Russia Profile 08/01/2007

Posturing over Kosvo’s Future Reveals Realpolitik

As negotiations over the final status of Kosovo continue, Russia finds itself isolated, facing a united front of Europe and the United States supporting supervised independence from Belgrade for the province, which has been under UN administration since 1999.

A draft UN Security Council resolution based on the Ahtisaari plan was finally ditched on July 20 after the United States and European Security Council members failed to convince Russia to back the plan. Russia continues to insist that no solution is acceptable that is not agreed on by the Serbian government in Belgrade. With Kosovan leaders stating that they will declare independence whatever happens on November 28, and the United States hinting that it may well recognize Kosovo whether or not it’s done through the UN, Moscow is perhaps banking on the EU to start feeling queasy over U.S. unilateralism and baulk at recognition not sanctioned by the UN.

Another round of negotiations will be held between Belgrade and Pristina, but will almost certainly not result in any agreement. The issue of status is a red line which neither side will cross. “The independence of Kosovo is not up for discussion,” said Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu earlier this week. “The new negotiations are the last chance to ensure support for the idea of Kosovo’s independence.” Meanwhile, Serbian Education Minister Slobodan Vuksanovic told a local news agency that “the position of the Albanian minority in the Serb region of Kosovo” was the main item on the agenda. “There is no such thing as the Kosovo problem because this region is an inseparable part of Serbia. There is just the open question of legally creating autonomy for the Albanian minority,” he told a local news agency.

But whatever happens, it seems exceptionally unlikely that Kosovo will return to the fold of Serbia proper, and Moscow understands this. There had been talk previously that Moscow might “give up” Kosovo for concessions in other areas of international affairs, but with a general frosting of relations over such issues as missile defense, Russia has stood firm in its support for Belgrade.

Moscow may be trying to play hardball to extract maximum leverage out of a scenario where the United States is forced to act outside the bounds of international law. One such area where Moscow might seek to gain the moral high ground is over the breakaway states on post-Soviet territory. While the West has repeatedly tried to insist that Kosovo would not set any precedent, Russian leaders have repeatedly compared Kosovo with territories such as Abkhazia and Transdniestr. 

“No conflicts are precedents and all conflicts are different,” said Sergei Romanenko, a Russian expert on the Balkans. “I’m against the practice of trying to link what happens in one conflict with others.” But other analysts state that while all conflicts are of course different, the Kosovo decision cannot but act as a precedent or rallying point for other separatist regimes. This has long been clear from comments made by the regimes themselves. Kosovo's sovereignty is all but recognized now,” de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh told Kommersant on Tuesday. “If this decision is made toward the end of this year, as we all expect it to be, it will enable other countries to recognize independence of Abkhazia, Transdniestr Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia.”

“In both cases the current situation is a result of the collapse of Communist empires,” said President Vladimir Putin after the G8 summit this year. “In both cases we have inter-ethnic conflicts, in both cases, this conflict has long historic roots and in both cases crimes were committed. In both cases there are de facto independent quasi-state structures.”

Another possible reason for Moscow’s steadfast refusal to bow to pressure over Kosovo is the long historical relationship between Serbia and Russia, and a feeling that they let down Serbia in 1999. Oksana Antonenko, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in a recent publication for IFRI (Institut français des relations internationals) that the current Russian leadership, with its newfound assertiveness, remembers the events surrounding Kosovo in the late 1990s. “The first NATO campaign over Kosovo was the beginning of the end for the post-Cold War strategic partnership between Russia and the West. This campaign did more even than NATO’s eastward enlargement to shape Russian perceptions of the Alliance,” wrote the analyst. “To many Russians, particularly among the political elite, NATO operations in the Balkans—lacking a UN mandate and outside NATO’s immediate area of responsibility—were a watershed between the post-Gorbachev world and a new era of increasing Russian-Western rivalry.”

Romanenko played down the often-mentioned “special relationship” between Russia and Serbia, based on historical factors, and the common Orthodox faith. “All the things about a spiritual or intellectual partnership I think are slogans that are used to cover the real confluence of political interests,” said the analyst. “There is no real strong strategic partnership between Russia and Serbia. Even in the past – right back to the beginning of the twentieth century, both sides were always looking out for their own interests, and now that same game is continuing.”

Even if this is the case, Antonenko points out that the economic relationship between the two countries is well advanced. “Russia accounts for the greatest proportion of Serbia’s imports, 16.1%, compared to 10.8% for the EU. Russia is also Serbia’s largest export market,” wrote the analyst.

But even if almost all elements in Serbian politics would draw the line at giving independence to Kosovo, and are thus grateful for Russian support, and even if bilateral economic links are sizeable and growing, there is more and more of a sense that the long-term future of the country lies with the EU, and not to the East. “Serbian leaders are happy to use Russian support, but there’s no guarantee that the situation won’t change and Russia will be in the strange position of calling for things that the Serbian leadership is not even calling for any more,” said Romanenko.

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