PRAGUE, 2 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It's the context that is all important. After years of behind-the-scenes negotiations on the future status of Kosovo, a deal appears imminent. But not the deal that Russia wanted.
Ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians were scheduled to begin talks in Vienna on 25 January but were forced to put them on hold because of the death of Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of Kosovo's majority Albanian population.
But even before the talks were due to begin, the word was that Britain, France, the United States, and Russia -- the interested international powers -- had reached a degree of consensus. The talk is of "conditional independence," a formula that would separate Kosovo from Serbia and Montenegro but leave it subject to an international mission.
Since Moscow regards Serbia as a political ally, this is a diplomatic battle that Russia appears to have lost. But Putin hinted at his Kremlin press conference this week that Russia might try to exact a price.
"If someone believes that Kosovo should be granted full independence as a state, then why should we deny it to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians? I am not talking about how Russia will act," Putin said. "However, we know that Turkey, for instance, has recognized the Republic of Northern Cyprus. I don't want to say that Russia will immediately recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia as independent, sovereign states, but such precedents do exist in international practice."
Is that a heavy hint at the future direction of Russian foreign policy or more a reflection of wounded pride? Perhaps both, but Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow believes that Putin's search for universal principles for solving frozen conflicts will get Russia nowhere.
"It will give him an opportunity to press on Georgia and to say all the time that if it was done in Kosovo the same thing can be done in Abkhazia and maybe in South Ossetia, but at the same time I don't believe in this way Putin will be successful because the idea of universalism is rejected by the Western community," Malashenko said.
That's a view shared by Edward Lucas, the Central and Eastern European correspondent of "The Economist" magazine, who suggests too that Putin may find that drawing general conclusions about conflict resolution from Kosovo may be more difficult than he thinks.
"There's two conflicting principles here of self-determination and territorial integrity. But I think the key thing is that there is no one outside power that is backing Kosovo," Lucas said. "Kosovo is not the client of a powerful neighboring state the way that Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester are. So I think the first thing we would have to say if one were trying to find a common standard would be that no neighboring country should exercise a big unilateral blockade or support for one of these frozen conflicts and that, of course, would put Russia in a very difficult position."
Self-Determination And Territorial Integrity
Russia might also find itself treading on very thin ice. The principle of self-determination in particular cuts both ways. "And there's also Chechnya," Lucas said. "If you accept that there's the right to self-determination, or at least that it has to be taken into account, and one doesn't only deal with inviolable territorial integrity, then it does of course raise the question of Chechnya now and, perhaps at some other date in the future, some other bits of Russia that are there more by coincidence that by historical right like, for instance, Karelia or Tatarstan."
Thin ice or not, there is clearly sympathy in Russia for drawing parallels with Kosovo. Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, a Moscow think tank with close ties to the Kremlin, noted on 31 January that while Russia opposed independence for Kosovo because Serbia is Russia's ally, it would be prepared to accept it on condition that the precedent is extended to the four frozen conflicts in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
THE WORLD'S NEWEST NATION? The region of Kosovo has a population of more than 2 million, some 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians. It was one of the poorest regions in the former Yugoslavia, but has considerable mineral wealth and an enterprising population, many of whom work abroad but keep close contact with Kosovo. All ethnic Albanian political parties seek independence on the principles of self-determination and majority rule. They feel that Serbia lost its historically based claim to what was its autonomous province under the 1974 constitution by revoking that autonomy in the late 1980s and then conducting a crackdown in 1999 that forced some 850,000 people to flee their homes.
Since NATO's intervention that year to stop the expulsions, Kosovo has been under a UN administration (UNMIK). The UN has begun to gradually transfer functions to elected Kosovar institutions. The primary Serbian concerns are physical safety for the local Serbian minority, a secure return for the tens of thousands of Serbian displaced persons, and protection for historic Serbian religious buildings. The main problems affecting all Kosovars, however, are economic. Until Kosovo's final status is clarified and new legislation passed and enforced, it will not be able to attract the investment it needs to provide jobs for its population, which is one of the youngest and fastest growing in Europe. Prosperity is widely seen as the key to political stability and interethnic coexistence in Kosovo, as is the case in much of Southeastern Europe.
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