Why Russia is against Kosovo plan
Ahead of Bush-Putin summit, the issue threatens to stymie efforts to repair relations.
Less than a week before presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin sit down for a heart-to-heart in Maine, the status of Kosovo is emerging as a primary sticking point in US-Russia relations.Skip to next paragraph
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True, the tiny territory seized by NATO in a 1999 war lies far outside Moscow's claimed post-Soviet sphere of influence. But Russia's key concern, which it says the West is ignoring, is that granting independence to Kosovo will encourage a wave of imitators across the former USSR and beyond as well as boost the passions of Russian ultranationalists who dream of gathering pro-Russian minorities in neighboring states back under Moscow's sway.
Kremlin opposition to a US-backed plan that would put the tiny Serbian province on the road to independence has grown so vociferous that experts say the dispute could stymie efforts to repair collapsing Russia-Western relations at the Putin-Bush summit.
"Never since Hitler and the Western allies carved up Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938 has a sovereign state been dismembered with the agreement of the international community, as the West is proposing to do with Serbia," says Nadezhda Arbatova, head of European studies at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "Russia is asking the West to stop and think about the precedent they are setting. Kosovan independence might make life a little simpler for Europe, but they are opening Pandora's box for the rest of us."
Statelets set to follow suit
Last week, a group of four breakaway post-Soviet statelets – South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and Nagorno-Karabakh – signed a joint statement calling on the world community to "recognize the will" of their peoples for independence.
Though Russia backed the emergence of those rebel territories, all four of which won wars of secession against their ex-Soviet parent states in the early 1990s, Moscow has never recognized their independence. Experts say that Russia, a multiethnic federation with an active separatist rebellion of its own in Chechnya, has good reasons to support the status quo. But the looming Kosovo verdict could tip the balance in favor of insurgent minorities, they warn.
Moscow has threatened to veto the plan for independence if it's brought to the UN Security Council. But that would not necessarily prevent Kosovo from declaring independence, or the US and European countries from recognizing it.
Many Western leaders seem exasperated by what they view as Russian stalling on the issue. "At some point, sooner than later, you've got to say enough is enough," Mr. Bush said in Italy on a recent European tour. "The question is whether or not there's going to be endless dialogue on a subject that we have made up our minds about. We believe Kosovo should be independent."
Kosovo, an Albanian-majority province of about 2 million that Serbs consider the cradle of Serbian civilization, was the scene of a separatist war and brutal Serbian crackdown in the late 1990s. After reports of Serb-backed ethnic cleansing that may have killed up to 10,000 Albanians, NATO intervened, pummeled Serbia in a 78-day bombing campaign, and occupied Kosovo. The territory has since been administered by the UN, backed by some 16,000 NATO troops.