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The U.S. and Russia at Odds Over Kosovo


The United States and Russia remain far apart on the issue of Kosovo, days after it declared its independence from Serbia.

The United States was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia populated mostly by ethnic Albanians. Since 1999, Kosovo was administered by the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. That followed a more than two-month long NATO-led bombing campaign that ended a Serb crackdown on ethnic-Albanian separatists.

Kosovo Albanians have been demanding independence from Serbia for years. Four months of internationally mediated talks last year ended in failure with no sign of compromise between Serbian authorities and leaders of the Kosovo Albanians. Experts said it was only a question of time when Kosovo would declare independence -- and it did so on February 17.

A Question of Recognition

Britain, France, Germany and Italy also quickly recognized Kosovo's independence. But several other members of the European Union -- including Spain, Romania and Slovakia -- have expressed opposition to such a move. And Russia continues to be vehemently against recognition, saying Kosovo's independence breaches international law. Russian President Vladimir Putin has even threatened to use Moscow's veto if the issue came before the United Nations Security Council.

Charles Kupchan, a Balkans expert with the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington, says Kosovo's independence was inevitable. "There was a lot of preparation for this move. The United States and the main European powers realized last summer, if not before, that the Russians were not prepared to budge on the issue and therefore there would be no Security Council resolution. Therefore, there was a 'Plan B' that was put into place which was that the Albanian government in Kosovo would coordinate its declaration with western diplomacy and that the main powers -- the U.S., Germany, the French, the British -- would move relatively expeditiously to recognize the new country, which they have done," says Kupchan. "I think it was done with a certain amount of reluctance, in that the U.S. and the E.U. would have far preferred to pass a resolution through the Security Council. But it became clear after month after month after month of negotiation, that there was no common ground between Belgrade and Pristina, and that [Vladimir] Putin was going to back Belgrade in its rejection of Kosovo's independence."

Moscow Objects

Experts, such as Robert Legvold from Columbia University, say Russia continues to be opposed to Kosovo's independence because it is concerned about repercussions in and around Russia. "It [i.e., Russia] has also, from the beginning, been opposed to declarations of independence of this kind that would lead to the international community recognizing the sovereignty, because it worries about separatism within its own territory -- including Chechnya. That, then, becomes complicated, though, because you've got the mixed Russian reaction to parallel cases within its own neighborhood: Abkhazia in Georgia, Transdniestria in Moldova, maybe Southern Ossetia [in Georgia]," says Legvold.

Jason Lyall, a Russia expert at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, says Moscow's concerns are well founded. "Interestingly enough, the first announcement that came out of Russia about Kosovo was by the Chechen government in exile in London, saying this is a fantastic precedent because we declare ourselves independent again and we should be recognized by international law. This is exactly what the Russians don't want," says Lyall.

A Unique Case

Many experts say Kosovo's new status could have ramifications that go far beyond Russia's borders. One of those experts is Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as U.S. Secretary of State during the early 1990s and spoke to VOA before Kosovo declared its independence. "There is, in fact, a very serious question of this as a step that could easily be used by others in other parts of the world and probably with a lot less legitimacy than in the case of Kosovo, where, in fact, the Serbs have done some really pretty outrageous things in the past," says Eagleburger. "But I think the tradition is a very dangerous one. How about the Kurds in Iraq? And the Kurds in Iran? And the Kurds in Turkey? I can name you any number of places where it could become an example to be used by others."

But the Bush administration has made clear it considers Kosovo a unique case. Charles Kupchan from the Council on Foreign Relations agrees. "It is very important that [U.S.] Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice and other key players have been stressing that this is a unique case. And I think that it is in the sense of how this particular secessionist movement came about, that is to say as a result of the ethnic cleansing in the 1990s," says Kupchan. "I think that the fact that you had a U.N. supervision of the region and a U.N. resolution, [number] 1244 on the books that provided for final status negotiations, provides at least some legal cover. Yes, we would have all preferred a new U.N. resolution, but I think the history of the 1990s, the history of the last 10 years, does put Kosovo in a class of its own."

Kupchan and other analysts say Kosovo's separation from Serbia will not entice other secessionist movements to declare independence. But if that happens, many experts do not expect Washington or the European Union to recognize them.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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