Will Russia Block Kosovo Independence?

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"We agreed to seek a solution that will satisfy all parties," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on recent talks between President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Kosovo. Except, added Lavrov, "No such solution is immediately in sight."

The Serbian province of Kosovo, whose 2 million people are predominantly ethnic Albanians and want independence, has been administered as a U.N. protectorate since NATO's 78-day bombing campaign forced Serbian withdrawal in 1999. Now, U.N.'s special envoy Marti Ahtisaari has proposed de facto independence under European Union supervision for Kosovo, with a view to subsequently integrating both it and Serbia into the EU. Ahtisaari's plan is backed by the U.S. and NATO countries, but Russia strongly objects to what it describes as a dangerous precedent for separatists elsewhere. And as an historical ally of Serbia, Russia cannot turn down Belgrade's pleas of help, particularly at a time when Putin is promoting an image of himself as a strident defender of Russia and its allies against the designs of NATO. In the year of Russia's parliamentary and Presidential elections — however token those may be — Putin wants Russians to feel proud of Moscow's growing readiness to challenge the U.S. and bully the EU, which is increasingly dependent on Russian fuel supplies.

Still, the grim reality for Russia, summed up by Secretary Rice to Echo Moskvi Radio station during her recent visit, is that "Kosovo will never again be part of Serbia. It's not possible." And Russia does not have sufficient leverage to change that reality — although it can use its U.N. Security Council veto to freeze the process, once the Ahtisaari plan is put to vote. Off the record, Russian officials indicate that this is, indeed, what Russia will most likely do, for the lack of other options.

The separatism theme is played differently by Moscow in different contexts: Russia brutally burns out separatism in Chechnya, but it endorses the efforts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to break away from pro-NATO Georgia, as well as those of Moldova's breakaway region of Trans-Dniestria. Russia uses these separatist entities to turn up heat on Georgia and Moldova, and the separatist movements in all three demand Russian recognition, and subsequent incorporation into Russia. Hence, Moscow's headache: Should it go along with the Ahtisaari plan, it must insist that the same approach be applied to Russian allies, lest it loses face both with them and with its own increasingly nationalist population. But should Russia derail the Ahtisaari plan on grounds of opposing separatism, it has to find a better rationale to encourage its own separatist clientele.

The issue also has implications for the image of the protagonists in the Islamic world: Helping Muslim Albanians win independence may help the Western powers repair their image in the Muslim world, whereas resisting the Albanians' secession will cause a lot of bad blood in the Muslim world for Russia. Another factor is Serbia's own unreliability. Over centuries, Serbia always asked for Russia's protection first, and ended up siding with the West second, leaving Russia with a lot of egg on the face and in a lot of trouble for all its pains. Even with the current rise of Serbian nationalism, piqued by the West's position on Kosovo, Belgrade is more likely to cut a deal with the West and opt for the EU's patronage rather than for Moscow's.

Serbia certainly has reasons to be piqued. Despite the NATO countries pledging even handedness, they appear oblivious to the fact that the tables in Kosovo have been turned since 1999. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244 on Kosovo, demanded to guarantee the safe and free return of all refugees and displaced persons to their homes. But since 1999, the Albanians have forced out some 200,000 Serbs, who cannot freely return. NATO peacekeepers are not always able to calm down clashes between Albanians and the few Serbian enclaves still remaining in Kosovo. Though Kosovo will never again be a part of Serbia, the U.S. might be too hasty seeking to have both peoples integrated into the EU before they have learned how to co-exist. Helping develop functioning — and inevitably cooperative — economies in Serbia and Kosovo might prove a necessary prerequisite. It takes time. In this respect, the likelihood of a desperate Russian veto may be a blessing in disguise for the region.