Just ahead of Serbia’s parliamentary elections, which were held yesterday, January 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed in to encourage Serb nationalist forces on the pivotal issue of Kosovo. Putin reassured Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica in a telephone conversation that a status plan for Kosovo that is not accepted by Belgrade would not pass through the United Nations Security Council — an oblique way for Putin so say that Russia would use its veto to block such a plan. Any solution must stem from the principle of territorial integrity, Putin said with regard to Serbia and the eventual Kosovo status. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov similarly declared that any status regarding Kosovo must be “mutually acceptable” to Belgrade, as well as to Kosovo’s Albanian population (Interfax, international news agencies, January 16, 17).
With that position, Putin challenged German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union as a whole during Merkel’s January 20 visit to Sochi. Addressing Merkel in her capacity as German holder of the EU presidency, Putin asserted during the concluding news conference that Russia would only support a Kosovo status that suits both Belgrade and Prishtina (Interfax, January 20, 21; Kommersant, January 22). The clear implication — so interpreted also by German commentators — is that Moscow is setting positioning itself to thwart the EU’s common policy, which is shepherding Kosovo toward independence. By the same token the Kremlin challenges U.S. policy, which would prefer a somewhat faster decision on Kosovo’s independence, albeit with mechanisms in place to ensure democratic institution building and Serbian minority rights, as well as a U.S. and NATO military presence.
Moscow, however, seeks to confer de facto veto power to Belgrade in the Kosovo status negotiations and, in effect, delegate Belgrade’s veto to Moscow to exercise in the U.N. Security Council. In Sochi, Merkel stopped short of taking issue with Putin openly over Kosovo. Instead, she pointed to the successful stabilization of Bosnia under Western supervision and the similar prospects for Kosovo under the status plan, soon to be submitted by the UN’s special envoy, Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari.
Ahtisaari is expected to present the status plan within the next few weeks. Prepared in close consultation with the EU and the United States, the plan is said to involve a monitored or supervised independence for Kosovo, with the EU largely in charge. By contrast, Belgrade only offers “broad autonomy” for Kosovo within Serbia — a position clearly unacceptable to Kosovo’s 90% Albanian population. Moscow currently backs Belgrade in order to drag out any settlement. However, Russia’s position is far from final. After some decent interval, Moscow could any time shift its position and tacitly accept Kosovo’s independence — for example, by abstaining in the U.N. Security Council. It could do so in return for a Western quid-pro-quo in some other theater or if it decides that settling one or more post-Soviet conflicts on Russian terms would necessitate a “parallel” solution in Kosovo.
While Moscow threatens to block the expected Ahtisaari plan, the EU is redoubling expressions of confidence in its envoy. On behalf of the EU’s 27 member countries, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier reiterated on January 18 that Ahtisaari has the EU’s “full confidence and support.” The EU is already preparing to provide support in building rule-of-law structures and police, once a decision has been made on Kosovo’s status (German Presidency of the EU to the OSCE Permanent Council, January 18).
Moscow insists that any decision on Kosovo’s eventual status — whether autonomy within Serbia or internationally recognized independence — should constitute a “precedent” or “model” for the resolution of the four post-Soviet conflicts (Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh). The implication is that any international recognition of Kosovo’s independence would give Russia a free hand to “recognize” the secession of its clients on the territories of Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. By contrast, the EU and the United States underscore the numerous features that differentiate the Kosovo conflict from the four post-Soviet ones.
If Kosovo is to become a “precedent” or “general model” for post-Soviet conflict settlement, then the countries targeted by Russian conflict operations could effectively counter that argument. They can ask for Western forces — or indeed predominantly civilian peacekeeping operations — to replace Russian “peacekeeping” troops” in the post-Soviet conflict areas; international protectorates, administered through the U.N. and the European Union would replace the existing, Russian-installed authorities in those areas; the ethnic cleansing would be reversed as a first priority; the EU, OSCE, and Council of Europe, and would supervise the introduction of democratic standards and reform of the judiciary, replacing existing structures that operate within the Russian special services’ chain of command. Such measures in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Karabakh would constitute a real application of the existing Kosovo model or precedent.