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Russia heads for another face-off with West

world Updated: Jun 25, 2007 02:43 IST
Fred Weir
Fred Weir
Hindustan Times
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A showdown between Moscow and the West appears imminent over plans to give independence to the tiny Balkan territory of Kosovo, after Russia rejected a European compromise that would limited negotiations on the issue to four more months.

"In the consultation of the Security Council today, this was the first thing I said, that we should have no illusions that the current draft text is ... bringing us closer to an acceptable outcome of this process," Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin told journalists on Friday.

The Western-sponsored scheme to hand independence to Kosovo, an Albanian-populated province of Serbia that was seized by NATO in a 1999 war, has become the single worst dispute between Russia and the US since the end of the Cold War, experts say.

Kosovo, which has been administered by the UN since NATO forces occupied it in 1999, would be detached from Serbia and recognised by the UN. Security Council as an independent state under the draft resolution, authored by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.

Serbia and Russia adamantly oppose the plan. In efforts to get Russia on board, some European countries have offered more time to negotiate an alternative solution if Moscow will promise not to veto the final resolution in the Security Council.

The final opportunity for compromise may come when President George W. Bush hosts Russian leader Vladimir Putin in his family retreat of Kennebunkport next weekend.

Russian experts their objections to the Ahtisaari plan go far beyond their traditional sympathy for Serbia, an Orthodox, Slavic country that is Russia's best friend in Europe.

"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," she says.

At least four territories in the former Soviet Union are "analogous" to Kosovo, say experts.

They include two breakaway Georgian republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, plus Moldova's rebel region of TransDniestria and the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

"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."

The biggest worry, experts say, is that the West will go ahead and recognise Kosovan independence without an enabling UN resolution supported by Russia.

In that case, experts say, an increasingly anti-Western Russian public will demand the Kremlin reciprocate by granting recognition to pro-Moscow breakaway statelets such as Abkhazia and TransDniestria.

"It could be a disaster that will reverberate around the world, encouraging every little secessionist territory to press for its own independence," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Centre in Moscow.

"A Kosovo precedent could seriously undermine the world order as we know it."

Russia has argued that a better solution for Kosovo would be to keep it within Serbia, and use to international community's resources to promote reconciliation between Albanians and Serbs, much as the warring ethnic groups of another former Yugoslav republic, Bosnia, have been treated under UN supervision.

But during a visit to Albania earlier this month, Bush indicated that the US has made up its mind on the issue.

"At some point sooner than later, you've got to say enough is enough," Bush said.