Kosovo independence: Russia warns of separatist storm
Frustration is deep over Western support for independence that Russia sees as destabilizing and against international law.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin charges that Western support for the newly declared state, torn from Serbia this week, is "immoral and illegal" behavior that will provoke a global storm of separatism and explode the international order.
Seldom has East-West misunderstanding been so stark. Western leaders have tended to dismiss what they see as Moscow's meddling in a distant European territory. But Russian experts from across the political spectrum complain that the West has refused to listen to Moscow's concerns while pursuing their own interests – and that Russia will reap the whirlwind as ethnic secessionist movements throughout the former Soviet Union grow stronger.
At the same time, jubilant Russian nationalists claim that "Western betrayal" has freed the Kremlin from any obligation to follow international laws in its own neighborhood.
"Russia faces a terrible dilemma now," says Nadezhda Arbatova, a leading scholar at the official Center for European Studies in Moscow. "I'm sure there will now be intense political pressure on the Kremlin to recognize breakaway entities in other former Soviet states, and extend this process to other areas, such as Ukraine," where there are restive ethnic Russian minorities.
"I'm very fearful [Kosovo's independence] could have a disastrous impact on our internal situation," she says.
Russian ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a candidate in presidential elections slated for March 2, welcomed Kosovo's independence with the bombastic claim that "a new division of the world has begun" with the West's demonstration of how to "create new states" from the bodies of older, sovereign ones.
Kosovo was seized by NATO in a 1999 war after Serbia was accused of the ethnic cleansing of the tiny territory's mainly Albanian population. Russia opposed the war, but was persuaded to help negotiate a truce following 78 days of NATO air bombardment of Serbia. Russian experts claim that Moscow's envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, convinced Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to surrender by conveying Western pledges that a NATO occupation of Kosovo would never lead to its separation from Serbia. Now, many Russians feel that Moscow's influence was abused.
"That's why there is a real feeling of frustration in Moscow, the sense that agreements [with the West] don't mean anything. They go ahead and change the terms however they wish," says Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the Diplomatic Academy, the training institute of the Russian Foreign Ministry. "It's not just that it hurts our pride and undermines our status as a respected power; we feel that it's very dangerous," for the world's stability, he says.
Russian media have publicized a list of far-flung separatist conflicts that could be affected by the Kosovo events, including Taiwan, the Turkish enclave in northern Cyprus, Spain's Basque region, Quebec, the Kurdish zone in Iraq, Republika Srpska in Bosnia, and Tibet. But, most Russian experts admit, their neighborhood concerns them most.