Feb 03, 2006

Abkhazia: Putins Remark Sparks Debate on Self-determination Question

As an ally of Serbia, Moscow has consistently opposed the idea of Kosovar independence. Putin may be shifting his position, but only if the principles applied to Kosovo are also applied to frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union
It's the context that is all important. After years of behind-the-scenes negotiations on the future status of Kosovo, a deal appears imminent. But not the deal that Russia wanted.

Ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians were scheduled to begin talks in Vienna on 25 January but were forced to put them on hold because of the death of Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of Kosovo's majority Albanian population.

But even before the talks were due to begin, the word was that Britain, France, the United States, and Russia -- the interested international powers -- had reached a degree of consensus. The talk is of "conditional independence," a formula that would separate Kosovo from Serbia and Montenegro but leave it subject to an international mission.

Since Moscow regards Serbia as a political ally, this is a diplomatic battle that Russia appears to have lost. But Putin hinted at his Kremlin press conference this week that Russia might try to exact a price.

"If someone believes that Kosovo should be granted full independence as a state, then why should we deny it to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians? I am not talking about how Russia will act," Putin said. "However, we know that Turkey, for instance, has recognized the Republic of Northern Cyprus. I don't want to say that Russia will immediately recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia as independent, sovereign states, but such precedents do exist in international practice."

Universal Principles

Is that a heavy hint at the future direction of Russian foreign policy or more a reflection of wounded pride? Perhaps both, but Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow believes that Putin's search for universal principles for solving frozen conflicts will get Russia nowhere.

"It will give him an opportunity to press on Georgia and to say all the time that if it was done in Kosovo the same thing can be done in Abkhazia and maybe in South Ossetia, but at the same time I don't believe in this way Putin will be successful because the idea of universalism is rejected by the Western community," Malashenko said.

That's a view shared by Edward Lucas, the Central and Eastern European correspondent of "The Economist" magazine, who suggests too that Putin may find that drawing general conclusions about conflict resolution from Kosovo may be more difficult than he thinks.

"There's two conflicting principles here of self-determination and territorial integrity. But I think the key thing is that there is no one outside power that is backing Kosovo," Lucas said. "Kosovo is not the client of a powerful neighboring state the way that Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester are. So I think the first thing we would have to say if one were trying to find a common standard would be that no neighboring country should exercise a big unilateral blockade or support for one of these frozen conflicts and that, of course, would put Russia in a very difficult position."

Self-Determination And Territorial Integrity.

Russia might also find itself treading on very thin ice. The principle of self-determination in particular cuts both ways. "And there's also Chechnya," Lucas said. "If you accept that there's the right to self-determination, or at least that it has to be taken into account, and one doesn't only deal with inviolable territorial integrity, then it does of course raise the question of Chechnya now and, perhaps at some other date in the future, some other bits of Russia that are there more by coincidence that by historical right like, for instance, Karelia or Tatarstan."

Thin ice or not, there is clearly sympathy in Russia for drawing parallels with Kosovo. Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, a Moscow think tank with close ties to the Kremlin, noted on 31 January that while Russia opposed independence for Kosovo because Serbia is Russia's ally, it would be prepared to accept it on condition that the precedent is extended to the four frozen conflicts in the Commonwealth of Independent States.">


Source: Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty