To continue freezing the resolution of the four post-Soviet secessionist conflicts, Russia needs a fifth frozen conflict in Kosovo and a linkage to make resolution of one dependent on resolution of the others. At the same time, Moscow hopes that a linkage policy could lead to breakthroughs by means of tradeoffs, whereby Russia could sacrifice its clients in one conflict for a free hand in settling another on its own terms.
On a parallel agenda, Russia hopes to retain and expand a foothold of strategic influence in the Balkans by resuscitating Greater-Serbian nationalism in Belgrade over Kosovo. Moscow hopes to close off Serbia’s prospects of partnership and association with the European Union, drawing that country toward closer reliance on Russia.
The international negotiations on the status of Kosovo are now moving into the endgame phase, with the EU and NATO on the cusp of a solution that could guarantee stability and Europeanization in Kosovo and the Western Balkans. At this juncture, Russia’s top priority is simply to stall the negotiating process, without prejudging its ultimate outcome, and not ruling out any type of solution on Kosovo’s status.
On March 28, Russian President Vladimir Putin told U.S. President George W. Bush by telephone that any solution on Kosovo’s status must be accepted by Belgrade as well as Pristina and approved by the UN Security Council (UNSC) (Interfax, March 28). In practice, this means awarding Serbia a veto regarding the further course of negotiations (or indeed their continuation as such) and holding any solution hostage to Russian approval in the UNSC. To all intents and purposes, Moscow is delegating its veto power to Belgrade in the UN-mediated negotiations while threatening to exercise its own veto in the UNSC on Serbia’s behalf.
To string out the process, Moscow has joined Belgrade in rejecting UN Mediator Martti Ahtisaari’s report on Kosovo’s status. The document recommends a status very close to independence with international recognition, time-limited international supervision, and clear prospects for full-fledged independence and close relations with the EU. For its part, Russia calls for the start of new negotiations under another UN mediator.
The United States and European Union have endorsed the Ahtisaari plan, as has UN Secretary-General Ba Ki Moon. Western support enabled Ahtisaari to up the ante against Moscow on March 26, announcing, “The potential for negotiations has been exhausted,” and using for the first time the word “independence” to define Kosovo’s status under his Western-approved plan (Ahtisaari’s initial report had stopped short of using the word “independence,” but was rejected by Russia regardless) (Interfax, March 26, 27).
Moscow certainly calculates that blocking the process might trigger potentially violent protests by some Albanian groups against UN and EU authorities in Kosovo and possibly also riots targeting minority Serbs, which may require locally stationed NATO troops to intervene for maintaining order. Any such turbulence would then enable Russia to argue — and win some support from certain wavering European governments for this argument — that Kosovo does not meet the standards for recognition of its independence and that the process must again be postponed. This, too, could become a prescription for freezing the Kosovo conflict — or perhaps a prelude for Moscow to seek tradeoffs.
The EU is well advanced in its preparations to take over from the UN the exercise of international authority in Kosovo, with NATO retaining responsibility for security. The Ahtisaari report as well as EU planning envisage a 120-day transition from UN protectorate to independent state under EU supervision, then two or three years of “supervised independence” post-recognition, with the EU mentoring Kosovo’s institutions of governance. Anticipating the risks of unrest in the event that Russia and Serbia force a postponement of the solution, the EU is prepared to enlarge its responsibility for policing and the judiciary in Kosovo.
Under an internal report just circulated under the imprint of High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, the EU is about to embark on its largest-ever civilian crisis-management mission, with up to 1,500 personnel for at least two years in Kosovo. Meanwhile, NATO will continue providing the hard security in Kosovo, with troops mostly from European member countries of the alliance as well as the U.S. base in Kosovo at Camp Bondsteel. NATO takes the position that its Kosovo presence is an open-ended one.
For its part, Russia threatens to veto any kind of solution on Kosovo’s status at this time. Instead, it aims for stalemate and lumping settlement in Kosovo with settlement of the post-Soviet conflicts. Such linkage would enable Moscow to use one negotiating process to obstruct or manipulate the other negotiating processes, either prolonging all of them indefinitely or offering concessions in one theater to obtain satisfaction in other theaters.
While the United States and the European Union reject any such linkage as baseless, Russia seeks to convert several EU and NATO member countries to the linkage thesis by exploiting variously their fears or ambitions. Discomfiting its post-Soviet secessionist clients, Moscow tilts clearly toward settlements ostensibly based on the territorial integrity of states at this stage, when its top priority is to win over Serbia as strategic ally while consolidating the gains already achieved in the post-Soviet conflicts.