Sunday, February 10, 2008

Independence for Kosovo?

The debate over independence for Kosovo is likely to contribute to the return of the Cold War in Europe. Separating Kosovo from Serbia is certain to renew disputes between Russia and the West over issues including missile defense and NATO membership for the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine.

Kosovo is sacred to Serbs, who call it the cradle of their statehood and religion. The province is also special to the Kremlin, for reasons beyond the roots Russia shares with Slavic, Orthodox Christian Serbia.

To many, Kosovo is a symbol of Russia's weakness in the post-Soviet era. Despite its fury over the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, Moscow recognized a peace deal that put the mostly ethnic Albanian province under the control of the U.N. and the Western alliance.

Putin has built part of his popularity by restoring Russian pride, working to regain global influence and demonstrating increasing assertiveness toward the West.

An independence declaration could come as early as this week, and Moscow says it has developed a secret plan for responding to it.
Meanwhile, Russians are warning that Western recognition will set a dangerous precedent, legitimizing independence claims from separatists across Europe: Scots, Basques, Turkish Cypriots, and others . A report on a government-supported English-language Russian satellite TV channel even threw Vermont secessionists into the mix!

More seriously, Moscow has implied that it could hit back by recognizing the independence claims of Abkhazia and South Ossetia: two provinces with Russian support in Georgia, whose pro-Western government plays a key role in the struggle for influence pitting Russia against the U.S. and European Union.

Such a move coulkd mean a war with Georgia, further deterioration of relations with the West, and a boost for various separatists inside Russia. In the short run, its response will probably be limited to steps such as blocking U.N. recognition of Kosovo, while portraying itself as a protector of international law and the United States as a reckless global bully.

Putin seems less interested in Serbia as a potential military ally than as an outpost of Russia's growing European energy empire. Kremlin support on Kosovo has already helped it land deals for a gas pipeline and control of Serbia's state oil company, furthering its efforts to increase Europe's dependence on Russia for energy supplies and distribution.

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