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.
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.
West say Kosovo a unique case
Western experts argue that Kosovo is a special case because of the genocide it experienced under Serb rule and the overwhelming desire of its population for independence.
"There is no situation anywhere in the world that bears a resemblance to Kosovo," explained Daniel Fried, the US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, at a roundtable talk in March. "There is no place where the UN has been administering for seven – now close to eight – years. There is no case where NATO was forced to intervene to stop a massive process of ethnic cleansing."
Russia strongly opposed NATO's 1999 assault on an Orthodox, Slavic country with whom it has strong traditional ties. "The Russian support for Serbia is mostly about symbolism," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Russians can go for years without thinking of Serbia, but when the US attacks a country that's so similar to Russia, this is quickly seen by Russians as something that could happen to them."
But beyond sympathy for Serbia, the Kremlin may be genuinely worried about rising nationalist pressures unilaterally to recognize breakaway statelets on post-Soviet turf. "Kosovo's independence will trigger a wave of appeals for similar treatment for Abkhazia and the others by Moscow, which will agitate the whole post-Soviet space," says Konstantin Zatullin, director of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States. "Putin doesn't want this to happen, so he's pressing for a different solution to the Kosovo issue."
Though they are not well known in the West, the tiny entities clamoring for independence from Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan each have their own narrative involving oppression by ethnic majorities, which is familiar to Russian audiences.
"We have more moral and legal grounds for independence than Kosovo has," insists Alan Pliyev, foreign minister of South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia after a bitter civil war 15 years ago. "We survived genocide and think we have every right to be free."
Russian experts argue that a better solution for Kosovo might be to make it remain within Serbia and work for reconciliation between Albanians and Serbs, much as the warring ethnic groups of another former Yugoslav republic, Bosnia, have been treated under UN supervision.
"I don't believe the Kremlin wants to face the situation that a Kosovo independence precedent would create in the former USSR. It could lead to a disastrous chain reaction," says Ms. Lipman. "On the other hand, there is a rising mood of defiance in Russia and a feeling the West never listens to our concerns. In that case, the political pressure on Putin to react might be overwhelming. There are no good options here."