Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal that the status of Kosovo should, after its enactment, be used as model and precedent for settling the post-Soviet conflicts (see EDM, February 2) was predictable in its content, but unusual in its form. Putin personally aired the proposal in the style of a demand on two consecutive days — a clear signal that he wants it to be taken seriously. He termed this “an issue of immense importance to us” — a bluff calculated to inhibit Western hands-on engagement in settling the frozen conflicts on Putin’s post-Soviet turf. And for the first time he warned that Russia might recognize (albeit “not immediately”) Abkhazia and South Ossetia as states, in the event that “someone” (apparently the United States) pushes for the independence of Kosovo from Serbia.
With international negotiations on the “final” status of Kosovo starting this month, Moscow seems to anticipate that they would result in recognition of the region’s secession and statehood. Accordingly, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the post-Soviet secessionist leaderships have recently been calling for lumping these conflicts with the Kosovo conflict in a single category and applying the solution for Kosovo to the post-Soviet conflicts as well. They all speak already of a “Kosovo model” and “Kosovo precedent” although these do not exist yet.
However, the four unrecognized post-Soviet enclaves are interested in the creation of that precedent and model, whereas Moscow is playing the other side of the issue as well for the sake of Serbia. Thus, at the OSCE’s 2005 year-end conference, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov confirmed Russia’s official position supporting Serbia’s territorial integrity (Interfax, December 6). Putin and Lavrov reiterated that position in their respective statements on January 30 and 31 (Itar-Tass, RTR Russia Television), even as they were calling for using the Kosovo precedent in the other conflict areas in the event Kosovo becomes independent. Moscow does not rule out using the Kosovo issue to play spoiler, selling its UN vote on Kosovo for a high price to the West, or seeking to regain influence with its historic ally, Serbia. Thus, Moscow seeks to have its cake and eat it too, whereas its protégés in the unrecognized post-Soviet enclaves are solely and unambiguously interested in Kosovo’s definitive separation from Serbia.
The prospect of international recognition of Kosovo’s independence has caused some unnecessary nervousness in Tbilisi, Baku, Chisinau, Bucharest, and even Kyiv (on account of the Crimea), all of which took the speculations on a “Kosovo precedent” unduly seriously. Meanwhile, Russia is alone in postulating such a precedent and in demanding that it be linked to post-Soviet conflicts. No influential country or international organization is known to endorse this approach. The United States and European Union officials are on record rejecting it. They point out that any conflict has its own specific characteristics, requiring solutions tailored accordingly. They are also on record stating that any solution in Kosovo, irrespective of its form, is not to be interpreted as setting a precedent or model in international law or practice. On January 19, the GUAM group of countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) made a joint statement to that same effect (Interfax, January 19).
While independent statehood seems likely for Kosovo, the ultimate outcome of the negotiations may turn out to be a more complex solution. Even Russia supports pro forma a Serbian proposal for the division of Kosovo into two entities with asymmetrical levels of autonomy within Serbia. Such complex solutions are inherently destabilizing and thus a standing invitation to external oversight and arbitration.
Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine lack the means, singly or collectively, to tilt the outcome in Kosovo toward autonomy as against a “precedent-setting” recognition of Kosovo’s independence. These countries need not spend their scarce political capital on irrelevant tinkering with the terms of Kosovo’s final status. They can only lose by making room for some linkage between Kosovo and the other conflicts. Instead, these countries’ public statements should cement a legal firewall between Kosovo and the post-Soviet conflicts. Politically, efforts to remove Russia’s “peacekeeping troops” from parts of Georgia and Moldova could gain added traction if accompanied by proposals to introduce an international administration in those areas.