Kosovo, specifically the impact of its independence on the geopolitical situation in the Black Sea and Caspian basins, stands to be a hot topic at NATO's April 2-4 summit in Bucharest.
The Atlantic alliance currently maintains a sizable peacekeeping force in Kosovo, which declared its independence in February. The United States, along with other NATO members, quickly recognized Kosovo's independence. Meanwhile, Russia, a close ally of Serbia, not only refused to recognize Pristina's sovereignty, it threatened to recognize Georgia's separatist territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
NATO leaders undoubtedly will discuss Russia's and Serbia's efforts to undermine Kosovo's independence. On March 31, Russia announced that it would be sending "humanitarian assistance" to Kosovo's Serbian population, funneling the aid through Belgrade. In making the announcement, Moscow neither sought, nor received permission from the Kosovar government in Pristina. Serbia, likewise, is making mischief. Officials in Belgrade announced that they will organize elections in May for Kosovo Serbs in its erstwhile province.
The situation remains combustible not only in the Balkans, but also in the Caucasus. Moscow has long drawn a connection between Kosovo on the one hand, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other, arguing that if one of the territories is free, then all three should be. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russian support for the break-away governments in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali lies at the heart of its tense and acrimonious relations with Georgia: Moscow does not want to see a united Georgia integrate with NATO, while officials in Tbilisi see Moscow as the chief obstacle to reunification and Western integration.
The last two years have seen all sides commit a wide array of provocative actions, which have often threatened to touch off a major crisis. Among the many incidents have been an armed Georgian campaign against local insurgents in the Kodori Gorge, the arrests of alleged Russian agents in Tbilisi who were charged with fomenting a coup, the imposition of Russian economic sanctions against Georgia, the deportation of Georgians from Russia, and a suspicious aerial attack on Georgian targets.
Given the existing volatility in the region, any substantive Russian move to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could create a major global crisis. Fortunately, there are several factors that seem to diminish the chances of such a move. For one, Russia is well aware that recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence could potentially stir up similar aspirations among its own numerous national groups. With memories of two Chechen wars still fresh in the minds of most Russians, that's a headache that the Kremlin can do without.
In addition, Kosovo's declaration of independence actually came at a time when both Moscow and Tbilisi were seeking to patch up past differences. They still may not like each other, but Moscow has come to realize that it cannot coerce Tbilisi's subservience to the Kremlin's wishes. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration, meanwhile, has had no choice but to admit that Georgia needs access to the Russian consumer market, as Russian imports can play a pivotal role in financing Georgia's democratization agenda.
Saakashvili has admitted that his greatest regret in his first term was the failure to find a basis for good relations with Russia. The two countries took a tentative first step toward mending fences during a February summit between Saakashvili and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. That meeting supposedly produced an agreement in which Tbilisi would support Russia's effort to join the World Trade Organization in return for the lifting of Russian economic sanctions against Georgia. While Russia has acted to end some aspects of the embargo, it has not yet consented to a full resumption of trade. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The upshot is that for the immediate future the Georgian crisis will be put on ice, and not allowed to mix with the Kosovo crisis. This means the NATO summiteers in Bucharest will probably not offer a membership action plan to Georgia, since such a move would surely annoy Russia. While a de facto moratorium on provocative action will hardly resolve the problems of Georgia's secessionist republics, it is a temporary reprieve that allows time and space for diplomacy, a process from which everyone benefits. Kosovo is going to be a sufficiently difficult crisis to handle. To let it become entangled with a crisis in the Caucasus would be to risk allowing both to explode.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.