President Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin officials have been saying for months that independence for Kosovo would have 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 Kosovo 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, Kosovo 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 Kosovo 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 Kosovo 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. Much of Kosovo'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.
Kosovo'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 Kosovo 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 and 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 Kosovo'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 murder 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.
President Putin at a Kremlin meeting in April (epa)
PUTIN SPEAKS OUT: During a January press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there is a need for "universal principles" to settle "frozen" conflicts in the CIS. His comments came against the background of impending talks on the future status of Kosovo, which many predict will grant it a form of "conditional independence" from Serbia and Montenegro. As an ally of Serbia, Moscow has consistently opposed the idea of Kosovar independence. Putin's remarks suggest he may be shifting his position, but only if the principles applied to Kosovo are also applied to frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union. If Kosovo can be granted full independence, he asked, why should we deny the same to Abkhazia and South Ossetia? (more)