Russia Plays Up Kosovo Precedent For Potential Application in the Caucasus
United Nations-mediated talks on the future of Kosovo present Russia with a potential opportunity to radically alter the geopolitical balance in the Caucasus. If the former Yugoslav province gains independence, Russian leaders have indicated that they might try to use the development as a precedent to secure the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.
Kosovo was the central topic of discussions in Moscow on April 12 between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Albanian Foreign Minister Besnik Mustafaj. After the talks, Lavrov declared that making a hasty decision on Kosovo's status would be "useless and counterproductive," according to the Itar-Tass news agency.
Kosovo is currently part of Serbia, a country with which Russia has strong cultural bonds. Russian officials have stated they would provide strong support for Serbia if it made a determined effort to retain Kosovo, according to the Interfax news agency. However, the Kosovo debate within the UN framework is tending toward making the region an independent entity. Mustafaj indicated that Kosovo's status would likely be determined by the end of the year, Interfax reported.
Lavrov's call for caution aside, Russian policy-makers already have a plan on how to use possible Kosovo independence to Moscow's geopolitical advantage. In an early April interview published by the Slovak newspaper Pravda, Lavrov insisted that giving Kosovo independent status would "immediately be projected on other conflicts." Analysts widely interpreted his comments to refer to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and the Trans-Dniestr region of Moldova, where pro-Moscow leaders operate beyond the reach of authorities in both Tbilisi and Chisinau.
In recent weeks, South Ossetian leaders and Russia officials have publicly mulled the possibility of the region's formal secession from Georgia and its subsequent incorporation into the Russian Federation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since South Ossetia broke free from Tbilisi's authority in the early 1990s, Moscow has granted Russian citizenship to a large number of the region's residents, thus creating a possible pretext for the territory's annexation. The Kosovo precedent would provide additional ammunition for arguments in favor of annexation.
The United States and the European Union both argue that the Kosovo question revolves around unique circumstances, and thus the determination of its status would not set any international precedent. Moscow is dismissive of such an argument. "Double standards and selectiveness in conflicts is unacceptable," Lavrov said in his Pravda interview.
According to the Russian press reports, the Kosovo scenario has become a popular concept in South Ossetia. Most South Ossetians claim that their national goal is two-fold: to secede from Georgia and reunite with their Ossetian brethren across the border in the Russian Federation. South and North Ossetians, they argue, constitute essentially one people artificially divided by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. To deny them the right to reunification while such right has been granted, for example, to the Germans would constitute a double standard.
"We are closely watching what is happening in Kosovo. The situation there is very similar to South Ossetia, and they are heading toward the establishment of an independent state," the Interfax news agency recently quoted Russia's Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov as saying. Mironov and other Russian officials have supported the idea of holding a referendum on independence in South Ossetia a vote that would mirror a similar plebiscite planned for Kosovo.
The political usefulness of the Kosovo model is recognized in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia as well. "Kosovo may well become a precedent," Abkhazia's self-styled foreign minister Sergei Shamba told the Russian journal Ekspert. He continued: "This way [of resolving the conflict] will make it possible to cut the knot of many present-day problems."
A number of high profile Russian analysts suggest that from now on, the Kosovo precedent whatever the final status of the former Yugoslav province will impact the foreign policy of the so-called non-recognized states.
It comes as no surprise that the Georgian government has taken the same stance on the Kosovo settlement as have Washington and Brussels. Tbilisi forcefully argues that the Kosovo case is unique, not universal. In a recent wide-ranging interview with the Vremya Novostei daily, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russia's possible use of the Kosovo model to pressure Tbilisi would be counterproductive. "The more Moscow talks about the Kosovo scenario, the more skeptically the rest of the world will treat such a strategy," Saakashvili said.
While the Kosovo-precedent concept is currently fashionable among policy makers in Moscow, a number of Russian commentators have questioned the soundness of such a strategy. Given that Russia itself is a patchwork of ethnic territories, especially in the volatile North Caucasus, the precedent has the ability to come back and haunt Moscow. While conditions are relatively calm at the moment outside of Chechnya and Dagestan, they add, it was only just over a decade ago that many of Russia's minority groups were clamoring for sovereignty -- not just in the North Caucasus, but also in regions such as Tatarstan and Yakutia.
It's not beyond the realm of possibility that Russia could face the uncomfortable prospect of Chechnya and other Russian regions dominated by one or two ethnic groups in the North Caucasus seeking independence through referendums. "A
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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