Russia Cashes in on Kosovo Fears

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Andrej Isakovic / AFP / Getty

Serbian President Boris Tadic (R) welcomes Russia's now President Elect Dmitry Medvedev to Belgrade on February 25, 2008.

By splitting the West and the wider international community, the U.S.-backed declaration of independence by Kosovo has given Russia an opening. Countries concerned with separatist problems of their own, from Spain or Cyprus to China, have been unable to follow the U.S. lead in recognizing Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia. And Russia has sought to exploit the gaps that have emerged as a result.

In Serbia, itself, Russia capitalized literally, on the standoff over Kosovo. In Belgrade, just a week before he became Russia's President-elect, Dmitri Medvedev supervised Serbia's signing up to a prospective Russian Southern Stream natural gas pipe-line. Serbia also sold to Russia a 51% stake of Naftna Industrija Srbija (NIS), a much prized national oil company for $614 million and the promise of a further investment of $770 million. Russia plans build a major gas storage facility in Serbia, making the country a key base for Russian energy supplies to Europe. This consolidation of ties with Serbia achieves two Russian strategic goals: taking over national energy assets of European countries; and keeping erstwhile allies of the Soviet Union from being drawn into the Western fold. To emphasize warming ties, travel between Russia and Serbia will no longer require visas.

The Balkans is not the only theater in which Moscow is strongly reasserting its presence. This week, just as Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia formally appealed to Russia, the U.N., the E.U. and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) a loose association of post-Soviet countries to recognize their independence. Russia has pointedly abandoned the economic sanctions, clamped on Abkhazia in 1996 to punish its separatism. The Parliament of the Russian Republic of Alania-North Ossetia already voted to incorporate South Ossetia. Next week, the Russian Duma will consider Abkhazian and South Ossetian appeals to join Russia.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in the 1990s in the wake of bloody ethnic wars. Much as those wars were ignited by the then Nationalist Georgian authorities, Russia fanned the flames by giving a brazen support to the separatists. It was the Russian army that won their wars against Georgia.

Although Russia pays lip service to Georgia's territorial integrity, it has tacitly supported breakaway provinces, just as it has done in Trans-Dniestria — a province that broke away from Moldova back in the 1990s. Russia deploys its peace-keepers in all the three separatist provinces, and these serve to counter any thoughts of forcible re-integration by Georgia or Moldova. Moscow has also granted Russian citizenship to some 90% of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian populations, giving it grounds to intervene whenever Russia deems it expedient, on the basis of ensuring the security of its citizens.

"Russia is smartly playing a more subtle game then just formally recognizing breakaway provinces," comments Tedo Japaridze, former Georgian Foreign Minister. Indeed, Russia could never openly annex South Ossetia or Abkhazia. That would have been very much in conflict with Russia's harsh suppression of Chechnya's independence, or fears of separatism in non-Russian ethnic regions. Annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also "a red line" drawn by the U.S. But Russia has become the de facto power in both territories without formally annexing them. Chairman of the Chechen Parliament Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov blurted out last week that "Abkhazia has long been a part of Russia's Southern Federal District." Recently, Russia tacitly deployed units of its Chechen Vostok battalion in Abkhazia to beef up its force there as a deterrent against any Georgian move to regain the territory.

Leonid Slutsky, First Deputy Chair of the Russian Duma's Foreign Relations Committee, told Itar-Tass on Friday that "So far, Russia doesn't have plans of recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia." However, he said, "Should Georgia try using force there, the situation will cardinally change. The same concerns Georgia's plans of joining NATO."

For its part, NATO, long eager to grant Georgia membership, has backpedaled, saying that Georgia isn't yet ready to join. The Kosovo opening may indeed encourage a resurgent Russia to go beyond simply exercising de facto control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Another after-effect of Kosovo's independence is Moscow's rallying of its hitherto reluctant CIS partners against the West. Oil-rich Azerbaijan, for example, had long begun inclining towards the West, but may be pushed back into Moscow's orbit because of Nagorno-Karabakh, a province that broke away in the 1990s and has de facto integrated with Armenia. Last week, for the first time in years, Azeri and Armenian forces clashed in a full scale fighting in Karabakh.

Even a staunchly pro-Western Georgia, furious as it is with Russia, might finally be forced back into Russia's orbit because of Kosovo. "It's indeed surrealistic," quips Japaridze darkly: "How it happens that in terms of the 'Kosovo Precedent' we, Georgians, Azerbaijani, Moldovans, have to support Russia's position and go against the West?!"