Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 34

Russia has failed to exploit Kosova’s independence from Serbia as a “precedent” for conflict-resolution through partition in Georgia, Moldova, or Azerbaijan (see EDM, February 19). Nor could Moscow stop Kosova’s move to Western-supervised independence and its international recognition. Moscow had insisted that Kosova’s internationally recognized independence would entitle Russia to recognize and officially protect post-Soviet secessionist territories outside Russia. That thesis met ultimately with universal rejection.

Even so, the success of Western policy in this regard is a limited one, just like that policy itself. It accepted all along Moscow’s restrictive framework of discussion on what would or would not constitute a “Kosova precedent” and its applicability. That discussion focused on the legal issue of international recognition. Russia claimed, and the Western side denied, that a precedent was being set in Kosova for Russia to use in post-Soviet territories.

This Western response stops short of recognizing that the outcome in Kosova has actually established a precedent and potential model for resolution of post-Soviet conflicts. Its nature differs fundamentally both from the Moscow-imagined “legal” precedent and from the model practiced by Moscow and its clients on the ground. In Kosova, engagement by the institutional West became the defining factor. This has succeeded in reversing the mass ethnic cleansing, halting Greater-Nation-type military expansionism (Greater Serbia in this particular case), and offering a European perspective to all interested sides as a corollary to resolution of the conflict.

That is the usable political precedent and model developed in Kosova. Its norms and objectives await implementation, albeit with a somewhat different mix of instruments, in settling the unresolved conflicts on the territories of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova.

Russia kept silent on these implications and took a purely formal-legalistic approach to the issue of precedent. Moscow claimed that Western recognition of Kosova’s secession, without UN approval and lacking Serbia’s consent, would constitute that “precedent.” Russia warned that it could use such a “precedent” unilaterally and recognize post-Soviet secessions, in its own interest and those of its protégés there.

The United States, European Union, and other Western actors responded by insisting that Kosova is a sui-generis case, a unique combination of factors requiring this particular solution, and unusable as a “precedent” by Russia in the post-Soviet conflicts. This remains the official position to date and possibly for some time to come. Such a response is defensive and tactical in nature, narrowly designed to refute Moscow’s legally couched doctrine of a “Kosova precedent,” but not looking any farther than that.

Yet political parallels were often drawn between the post-Yugoslav and post-Soviet conflicts by every interested party at one time or another throughout the duration of these conflicts. Russia’s thesis connecting recognition of Kosova legalistically with recognition of the post-Soviet enclaves was novel only in its self-serving narrowness, but was by no means a novel procedure as such. Precedents — whether real or perceived — figured prominently all along in the policy debates.

Thus, in 1990-91, the U.S. administration and key European governments supported Yugoslavia’s “territorial integrity” and its preservation, so as to avoid a “precedent” that could have worked against the Soviet Union. That logic failed to halt the disintegration of either the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. Ultimately it made it easier for hardliners in Belgrade and Moscow to orchestrate armed conflicts in the early 1990s. By mid-decade, however, the United States and European Union at last lived up to their responsibilities in pacifying Bosnia-Herzegovina and reversing most of the ethnic cleansing there.

Georgia regarded that Western intervention as a valuable and usable precedent. For years thereafter, Tbilisi often cited the case of Bosnia in calling for international peacekeeping in Abkhazia and return of Georgian expellees to their homes there. From 1999 to date, Western success in reversing the ethnic cleansing of Kosovars and keeping Serbia’s military out has laid the basis for a conflict-resolution model.

Ultimately, Moscow sought to invert the international recognition of Kosova into a “precedent” for recognition of Russia’s clients in the post-Soviet conflicts. Russia poses as defender of territorial integrity under international law with regard to Serbia while at the same time supporting the seizure of territories from Georgia and Azerbaijan and occupying itself territory in Moldova, all this against international law.

This glaring contradiction notwithstanding, Russia managed to narrow down the debate to the issue of recognition of secessions or precedent-setting for such processes. With this it also managed to confuse or intimidate a few governments. Among these Spain, Romania, and Moldova stand out for reacting in almost panicked tones to the recognition of Kosova by most Western countries.

Spain, which has just rotated out of the OSCE’s Chairmanship, issued an anguished declaration of its Minister of Foreign Affairs Miguel Angel Moratinos, protesting against the “violation of international law” by the countries ready to recognize Kosova (El Pais, February 18). These countries happen to include the great majority of Spain’s allies in the EU and NATO. They had already called Moscow’s bluff about Kosova setting a precedent for ethnic separatisms everywhere. But Madrid apparently fell for Moscow’s bluff with regard to Spain’s Basque country and Catalonia. On the other hand, as OSCE Chairman-in-Office during 2007 Moratinos had made no attempt to correct Russia’s breaches of international law in the post-Soviet conflicts, where he tended to display a Russia-First approach.

The Romanian president, government, and parliament each issued statements decrying the “violation of Serbia’s territorial integrity,” terming Kosova’s independence “illegal,” and even pledging to not recognize Kosova. As against independence, Romania calls for Kosova’s autonomy within Serbia (Rompres, February 18–20). Apart from remnants of traditional pro-Serbian sympathy, Bucharest’s position stems from concerns about “precedent-setting” for secession by Romania’s Hungarian ethnic minority or “collective rights” for it (concerns harbored also by a more nationalist government in Slovakia). Even on such far-fetched assumptions, settling the Kosova conflict on the basis of autonomy could theoretically become a usable “precedent” for elements in the Hungarian minority to call for autonomy or collective rights. Thus, Romanian-favored autonomy for Kosova could hypothetically produce the consequences that Bucharest seeks to avoid. However, Kosova’s independence is clearly not a usable precedent with regard to Romania’s Hungarian minority, the compact bulk of which resides in the center of the country.

Romania and Moldova agree on almost nothing at the official level, but they turned out to share their opposition to Kosova’s independence, out of unsubstantiated fear of a “precedent.” Moldova issued a statement expressing “profound concern” and calling — as does Russia — for continuing negotiations. Chisinau issued the statement on behalf of the government, although strangely without the prime minister’s, foreign affairs minister’s, or any other authority identifying with it (Moldpres, February 18, 19). Moldova had maintained a cautious silence on the Kosova issue up to this point. Breaking its studied silence in this manner seemed to signify a loss of composure and a bow to Moscow’s stance.

Yet Moscow was already backtracking on its own bluff at that point. President Vladimir Putin, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Russian bicameral parliament all blinked deeply during February 14-18 (see EDM, February 19). And on February 20 the Duma’s international affairs committee chairman Konstantin Kosachev inadvertently demonstrated the insolvency of Russia’s threats all along to “recognize” Abkhazia and South Ossetia or other post-Soviet secessionists: Such a move, Kosachev finally admitted, “would have brought far more losses than gains, triggering a very serious crisis in the CIS, and exacerbating Russia’s relations with NATO, the European Union, and the United States” (Interfax, February 20).