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Balkan Report: October 27, 2006

October 27, 2006, Volume 10, Number 10

IS KOSOVA A PRECEDENT FOR THE EX-SOVIET 'FROZEN CONFLICTS'? EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana acknowledged recently that Kosova's campaign for independence could set a precedent for Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

President Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin officials have been saying for months that independence for Kosova would have an impact on the frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union and calling for a definition of "universal principles" applicable in all such cases. There have also been hints from Moscow that Russia would not agree in the UN Security Council to independence for Kosova without receiving concessions on territorial disputes closer to home. Is there indeed a link?

The idea of connecting the succession issue in former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union is scarcely new. Throughout 1991, one reason many Western policymakers were unwilling to face up to the reality of the breakup of Yugoslavia and recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia was that they were afraid of the impact such developments might have on the USSR.

The fear was that the Soviet Union could implode into a host of warring mini-states that would generate chaos across a large chunk of the Eurasian land mass. It was for that reason that George H.W. Bush, who was then U.S. president, made his famous "chicken Kiev" speech in the Ukrainian capital in 1991, in which he warned lawmakers against embracing "suicidal nationalism."

Some 15 years later, both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union have become historical memories. There is some nostalgia for both in some quarters. Putin has openly lamented the demise of the USSR and sought to revive some of its symbols and elements of its political culture. But the reality of the successor states is undeniable, and secondary schools throughout those regions are filled with young people who have lived in or remember only the successor states.

Nonetheless, Kosova continues to wait for international recognition of its independence from Serbia, which has been a reality since the Serbian forces left there in mid-1999. Following the independence of Montenegro in 2006, a final international ruling establishing Kosova as a full-fledged independent state seems to many to be the last stage in the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

In Georgia, Russian-backed separatist movements thrive in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where 90 percent of the population hold Russian passports and where Russian "peacekeepers" are present. Russia maintains that it is a mediator in the conflicts between Georgia and its two would-be breakaway regions, something Georgia vehemently denies. The Transdniester region continues to claim that it is not part of Moldova and exists as a law unto itself. And there remain the long-standing issues dividing Armenia and Azerbaijan.

But Kosova appears headed for independence on the principles of self-determination and majority rule, probably by the end of 2006 or shortly thereafter, if a delay is imposed pending the holding of elections in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," June 27 and September 26, 2006). Much of Kosova's claim to independence is based on the genocidal behavior of Serbian forces there in 1998-99, which eventually led to the successful intervention of NATO forces.

Kosova's ultimate legal claim to independence is rooted, however, in the 1974 Serbian and Yugoslav constitutions, which gave it and Vojvodina rights virtually equal to those of the six federal Yugoslav republics, even though they were nominally part of Serbia. All six federal republics have now gone separate ways, starting with Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 and ending with Montenegro in 2006. Thus it seems that Kosova is simply the final chapter in an ongoing story. (There is no serious movement in Vojvodina for independence from Serbia, only for autonomy.)

The analogy between this situation with the post-Soviet "frozen conflicts" is a false one, because none of the regions involved in the latter disputes had a status under Soviet law similar to Kosova's. Kosovar representatives sat at the tables of the Yugoslav collective presidency and of the highest echelons of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia on an equal footing with those of Serbia, Croatia, and the other republics. But neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia had rights comparable to those of union republics like the Georgian SSR or Ukrainian SSR.

Putin's suggestion that he might veto Kosovar independence in the UN Security Council unless Western countries agree to South Ossetia and Abkhazia breaking away from Georgia is thus based more on considerations of power politics than of law.

Recent Russian moves against Georgia and Georgians living in Russia, the controversies around the unsolved killing of critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya, questionable Kremlin behavior over the Sakhalin-2 gas production-sharing agreement (PSA) and other PSAs, and remarks by Putin that appeared to make light of serial rape indicate, however, that he will do as he pleases and not be troubled by legal niceties. As some Russian commentators have pointed out, he makes up the rules as he goes along. But as the daily "Kommersant" wrote on October 23, the bulldozer tactics that have served Putin so well at home seem to be his undoing abroad. (Patrick Moore)

50TH ANNIVERSARY OF HUNGARIAN UPRISING. On October 23, 1956, thousands of Hungarian students marched in central Budapest in support of anti-Soviet political and economic reforms. Within hours, the crowd had swelled to 200,000 -- and the first large-scale revolt in a Soviet satellite was under way. Three weeks later, thousands of young Hungarians lay dead after Soviet troops brutally suppressed the uprising.

It started as a glimmer of hope. And while it ended in death, and defeat, the revolt helped chart a course for successful anti-Soviet resistance across Eastern Europe. It also served as a wake-up call to Western European leftists, many of whom abandoned communism after witnessing the display of Soviet brutality.

Hungarian-born Charles Gati, who now lives in the United States, was a young journalist in Budapest at the time of the failed revolt. "It showed that communism was unsustainable and didn't work," Gati says. "On the other hand, it also showed that communism could not be overthrown as long as the Soviet Union resisted it, and other methods had to be found. So the lesson for the United States was that instead of confrontation, and such empty slogans as 'liberation' and 'rollback,' the United States and the West in general should work toward gradual change."

Yet on October 23, 1956, change seemed possible. Thousands of students, inspired by recent anti-Soviet protests in Poland, marched through Budapest with a list of 16 demands. They ranged from the withdrawal of Soviet troops to free elections, a review of the economic system and foreign relations, and punishment for the alleged crimes of local communist officials.

But as the protest grew, swelling to 200,000, secret police suddenly opened fire to disperse the crowd. Several marchers were killed. The uprising had begun.

"Today's broadcast is devoted entirely to the reaction in the Western press to the Hungarian student movements," Radio Free Europe's Hungarian Service reported at the time. "We report on the unusually long articles and comments that were published in important Western newspapers in connection with the youth movement in Hungary."

From the start, foreign media such as Radio Free Europe (RFE) played a key role in transmitting to Hungarians Western hopes that the protests could help end Soviet control of Budapest. But such media, in particular RFE, later came under strong criticism for allegedly encouraging the demonstrators, despite knowing that the United States would never step in with military help lest it risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Yet U.S. government rhetoric had amply stoked hopes for freedom -- and expectations that the United States would intervene to back up such hopes -- across Soviet Eastern Europe. The administration of then U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had frequently encouraged Eastern Europeans to seek "liberation" and "roll back" the Soviet oppressors. Yet the world could not have been more surprised when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian students appeared to take Washington at its word -- and seek liberation.

"Nobody foresaw it," says Ralph Walter, who was a senior RFE executive in Munich at the time of the uprising. "Nobody was ready for it -- neither in Budapest, Moscow, Washington, or anywhere else. It just happened. But once [shots] had been fired during this mass demonstration, the bloodshed began, the revolution spread, and the demands increased."

For a few brief days, it looked like the uprising might triumph -- that Hungary might follow neighbor Austria in charting a neutral course between Moscow and the West.

On October 24, the students had a key demand met when reformer Imre Nagy was appointed prime minister. The news was seen as a victory despite the presence in Budapest of Soviet tanks, which had fired on and killed some protesters.

As the rallies spread through the countryside, Nagy began negotiating the withdrawal of Soviet troops on October 28. In an address on national radio, Nagy also told Hungarians that the dreaded secret police, the AVH, would be disbanded and there would be a return to the traditional national flag.

Two days later, progress was palpable: The Soviet Army retreated from Budapest, apparently on their way out of the country. But the move proved merely tactical.

On October 29, France, Britain, and Israel attacked Egypt following Cairo's nationalization of the Suez Canal. The world's attention turned away from Budapest -- perhaps fatally so.

The turning point came on November 1. Nagy declared that Hungary would be neutral and withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Three days later, some 1,000 Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. At 5:15 a.m., Nagy would make his last appeal to the nation on Radio Budapest. "In the early hours of the morning, Soviet troops started an attack against the Hungarian capital with the apparent purpose of overthrowing the lawful democratic government of the country," he said. "Our troops are engaged in battle with the Soviet forces. The government is in its place."

By the time the fighting subsided a week later, more than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet soldiers had died. Some 200,000 Hungarians ended up fleeing abroad. After a secret trial in June 1958, Nagy was executed.

The Soviet defeat of the Hungarian revolt sent shockwaves across Eastern Europe. Miroslav Kusy was at the time a young anticommunist dissident in Czechoslovakia. "Hungary was a frightful example that an open revolt could not change the communist state because that regime was hard, cruel, cold-blooded," Kusy says. "It just was not possible. That's why we looked for ways [to resist] that better fit the situation, because the regime simply had massive means with which to stamp out any form of resistance."

Kusy says that the failed uprising had a major impact in how he and dissidents such as future Czech President Vaclav Havel would later seek change. For instance, Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 movement sought change through apparently legal means, by holding the communist authorities to account for violating the 1975 Helsinki Accords on human rights, of which Prague was a signatory. Washington, in turn, was forced to adopt a more "gradualist" approach to the way it sought to help the captive peoples of Eastern Europe in seeking freedom and democracy.

Hungarian-born scholar Gati recently published "Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, And The 1956 Hungarian Revolt," a book that casts a critical eye on U.S. policy leading up to the Hungarian Uprising.

"Today the situation is different," Gati says. "This is a world in which there is no balance of power. This is a world with different geopolitical content and so, therefore, the search for freedom is far more possible than it was in that time, in the shadow of the Soviet Union. And the real lesson of 1956 is don't offer more than you'll deliver. We should not tell people that they can be free and independent unless we are willing to assist them." (Jeffrey Donovan)

NOTABLE QUOTATIONS: Kosova is "the final piece of the European puzzle. If we win independence, it will silence the extremists. We will close the door on the Balkans' history." -- Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku, quoted in London by "The Times" of October 13.

"Kosova will not be the 51st state of the United States, [but] rather, a future territory of the European Union. Therefore, the European Union must have a strategy of success." -- EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn. Quoted by RFE/RL on October 12.

"I am delighted to be back in Albania to meet with [Albanian Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu] and the other senior officials of the government later this afternoon. We value our relationship and partnership with Albania, and we are certainly deeply grateful to the [Albanian] troops who serve in Iraq and help to defend freedom." -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking on September 26 at a news conference with Albanian Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu in Tirana. Quoted by RFE/RL.