Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Going out on a Limb on Kosovo

I told the BBC World Service in an interview on Tuesday afternoon that we should be prepared for the possibility of a surprise Russian move on Kosovo similar to Putin's "Gambala Gambit" on missile defense earlier this year. (Whether this part of the interview will be aired or not I don't know).

I argued earlier this week that by opening the door for partition to be returned to the table as an option for Kosovo, the EU may be looking for a way to square its two competing imperatives: independence for a Kosovo while finding a formula that could get Moscow's support (and ultimately Belgrade's as well). But EU troika representative Ischinger's statement on Sunday made it clear that partition could only happen if both Serbia and the Kosovo Albanian side agreed to it, which based on immediate reactions is highly unlikely.

The United States would also find it extremely difficult to support partition after its promise of support for complete independence for the province.

Over the past months, Vladimir Putin has shown a high degree of diplomatic skill: opposing a U.S. initiative outright at the beginning, creating what appears to be a zero-sum game, and then proposing an set of out-of-the-box ideas that put Washington in a difficult position of either appearing unwilling to compromise or requiring the U.S. to back away from some of its promises and assertions.

Of course, the Russians in Belgrade are denying that Russia supports partition or would have any interest in imposing it, but in the end Putin will do what he thinks is best for Russian national interests.

So perhaps he and French President Sarkozy might lay out the following plan:

--partition of the current province into two entities; with each entity having the right to remain in Serbia or separate based on a popular vote;

--extra-territorial designation for a number of the religious, cultural and patrimonial sites (with the planned EU mission, perhaps under the lead of the Italians who have shown the most interest in preserving them intact as part of the current KFOR, playing a special role in safeguarding them and ensuring free access, perhaps with Greek assistance as well);

Why it works for the Russians? The Europeans get their "independent Kosovo/a" and this is defused as a point of tension between France and Germany on the one hand and Russia on the other. Moscow again proves that it can be creative as well as obstructionist. The Russians prove that they can in fact have a major impact in how a key European security issue is resolved. The U.S. is forced to backtrack to some extent. Putin tells his nationalist and Orthodox constituencies in Russia that he got the best deal for protecting the religious sites.

Most importantly, a useful precedent might be obtained. If a distinction is drawn between a Kosovo defined as the Yugoslav province and an independent Kosova with different borders, then why not argue for other border changes with other frozen conflicts?

In June, I called attention to an interesting statement reportedly made by the Russian co-chair of the Minsk Group charged with finding a settlement between Azerbaijan and the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where he seemed to draw a distinction between "Soviet" Azerbaijan where Nagorno-Karabakh was an integral part as an autonomous republic, and "independent" Azerbaijan where the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh was unresolved. But it seemed an attempt to square Mosocw's recognition of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity with the desire to permit some sort of Nagorno-Karabakh secession to occur.

I could be wrong. I was wrong in my prediction that Putin was going to bring fresh Kosovo proposals to his mini-summit in Kennebunkport. But I think that we should be prepared for Moscow to surprise us and for the U.S. government not to be caught unawares.

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