Russia has forced the United States and European Union to blink in the standoff over Kosovo. Unable to overcome Moscow’s stonewalling in the U.N. Security Council and apparently losing the resolve to bypass it, the United States and European allies have accepted yet another postponement of implementing UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari’s plan for Kosovo’s internationally supervised independence.
The longer the issue drags on, the greater the complications for U.S. and EU policies in the Balkans and Europe’s East on issues that far transcend Kosovo itself. Continuing uncertainty and procrastination on Kosovo reinforces the freeze on the post-Soviet conflicts and is even beginning to feed speculations about the possible application of a “Kosovo precedent” in other parts of Eastern Europe and beyond. Moreover, an emboldened Kremlin hopes to extract an onerous geopolitical price from the West as part of a possible deal over Kosovo down the road.
The Western unity that existed (or could be maintained) as recently as February-March of this year around the Ahtisaari plan, is unraveling. This process began quite predictably when the United States and European Union decided to postpone the recognition of Kosovo for several months, hoping to persuade Moscow to lift its veto threat. The delay in March was supposed to be limited to one more round of talks, for a few months at the most; or “weeks, rather than months,” as the U.S. government was putting it until very recently.
During his visit to Albania last month, U.S. President George W. Bush announced that U.S. and potentially other countries’ recognition of Kosovo was imminent. The White House again bet on Russian President Vladimir Putin to relent on this issue at the Kennebunkport meeting July 1-2. According to Putin’s top foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, during talks he just held in Paris, Kosovo was “the most difficult dossier” on the Kennebunkport meeting’s agenda (Liberation [Paris], July 10). With Putin unrelenting and French President Nicolas Sarkozy calling for up to four months of more talks, EU policy broke down after the Kennebunkport meeting. While continuing to support supervised independence for Kosovo, it now takes the position that any solution must be approved in the UN Security Council — that is, approved or at least not opposed by Russia. This is a prescription for paralysis, given that Russia fiercely opposes Kosovo’s independence and that it might next demand an onerous price for relenting as part of some geopolitical trade-off.
German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier held back-to-back meetings in Berlin with Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Jeremic and with Kosovo Albanian leader Fatmir Sejdiu during the first week of July. Steinmeier declared that any unilateral moves by Kosovo or the United States to declare or recognize Kosovo’s independence without a UNSC resolution (that is, without Russian approval) would split the EU. He implied, moreover, that without a UNSC resolution the EU could not proceed with its plan to replace the U.N. as the political authority over Kosovo as part of the latter’s supervised independence (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 5, 6, 10).
Its stonewalling thus vindicated, Russia is digging its heels in at the U.N. while at the same time encouraging Serbia’s intransigence through bilateral channels. According to Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, “A decision on Kosovo is only possible on the basis of agreement between the two parties directly involved [that is, Belgrade and Pristina]. Any other decision would not be able to get through the U.N. Security Council [that is, Russia’s veto]” (Interfax, July 9).
U.S. policy seems to accommodate itself to these developments. At a Southeast European summit in Dubrovnik on July 6, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried announced yet another postponement of the decision for “a number of months,” hoping for a resolution ahead of NATO’s April 2008 Bucharest summit (International Herald Tribune, July 7-8). This unforeseen course of events reflects in part the entanglement of the Kosovo issue with other issues, interests, and agendas of the United States and other parties. Continuing procrastination will only deepen that entanglement and may render the Kosovo issue intractable. With this in mind, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called for “preventing unnecessary delays” during the Dubrovnik summit. Without a recognized international status, Kosovo’s stability rests mainly on NATO’s military presence there.
In Belgrade, Serbian leaders seem to be growing more confident in their intransigence and are also capitalizing on Russia’s threats to turn the recognition of Kosovo’s independence into an “international precedent.” While Moscow uses this scare tactic with regard to the post-Soviet conflicts, Belgrade is looking farther afield. Serbian President Boris Tadic and Minister Jeremic — who are relative moderates — warned in Strasbourg and in Berlin, respectively, that recognition of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia could be used as a “precedent” not only in the ongoing post-Soviet conflicts, but also in the “situations” in Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan. These insinuations evidently referred to the Crimea, Hungarian-inhabited districts of Transylvania, and Kurdish armed irredentism (Trend, PanArmenian.Net, July 2, 3; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 5).
Against this backdrop, the Serbian government under the hardliner Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is calling for a new process of negotiations on a new basis, to work toward a “solution mutually acceptable” to Belgrade and Pristina. (Interfax, July 6). This would imply abandonment of the Ahtisaari plan and indefinite deadlock, inasmuch as no Serbian government would willingly “accept” the secession of Kosovo.
The Kremlin originally called for abandoning Ahtisaari’s plan shortly after its presentation to the U.N. Security Council and has blocked it since then through the threat of veto. Further postponement of action on this plan would defeat a policy jointly pursued by the United States, the EU, and NATO and even blessed by the U.N. Moreover, it could create the temptation to overcome the deadlock through informal trade-offs at the expense of third parties — or the perception that such informal trade-offs might be possible. In this regard, uncertainty over Kosovo is potentially more destabilizing and risky, compared with an early surgical solution that would expose the hollowness of Moscow’s bluff on a “Kosovo precedent.”