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Playing Chicken

Quentin Peel of the FT worries that Russia could “blunder into confrontation” with its hard-line pursuit on Kosovo’s separatist precedent:

Russia shows its displeasure at Kosovo By Quentin Peel Fall-out from the independence of Kosovo, including its recognition by the US and most of the European Union, continues to reverberate through the Balkans and all the way to the fringes of the former Soviet Union. It now seems likely to complicate the forthcoming Nato summit in Bucharest, and aggravate already tense relations between the alliance and Russia.

Two governments fell apart last week in neighbouring states: first in Serbia, the country from which the Kosovar Albanians broke away, and then in Macedonia, where the Albanian minority party walked out of the coalition government.Meanwhile, Russia seems to be playing a dangerous game of diplomatic chicken to demonstrate its displeasure over the precedent Kosovo might set for other declarations of independence closer to home. It has lifted its arms embargo on Abkhazia, the secessionist region seeking independence from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, in a move that seems designed to inflame Tbilisi, infuriate Washington and undermine Georgia’s push to join Nato.The Serbian elections will give a new opportunity for hardline nationalists to enter the government in Belgrade, and scupper negotiations for eventual membership of the EU. The Radicals look likely to emerge strengthened as the largest parliamentary group, although their acting leader, Tomislav Nicolic, came second in the recent presidential election.The Macedonian debacle will complicate that country’s efforts to join Nato at next month’s summit, along with Croatia and Albania. The Democratic Party of Albanians quit the government over demands that included the immediate recognition of Kosovo, and recognition of Albanian as a second national language.Most curious is the Russian behaviour over Abkhazia, the Black Sea coastal region that fought to secede from Georgia in 1992-93, leaving behind a frozen conflict, policed by Russian peacekeepers, and tens of thousands of refugees in Georgia.Vladimir Putin is adamant self-determination in the style of Kosovo is a dreadful precedent: it is what Chechnya attempted in the 1990s, resulting in two wars. Moscow’s nightmare is that there might be further attempts at secession by other groups in the north Caucasus.Yet Russian politicians seem to be positively flirting with the idea of recognising Abkhazia’s break with Georgia, as well as that of South Ossetia, another tiny rebellious part of the former Soviet republic that is practically on the Chechen border.In the Russian Duma last week, a parliamentary committee recommended that the Kremlin open diplomatic missions in both territories after they appealed for recognition. “We must review our foreign policy in response to new challenges such as the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo,” Alexei Ostrovsky, head of the committee for post-Soviet affairs, said.More alarming for the Georgian government was Moscow’s move on March 6 to repeal a ban on arms supplies and military support for Abkhazia. The Russian foreign ministry suggested this was merely a move to restore normal trade links. Dmitry Kozak, Mr Putin’s chief envoy to the region, said it would allow contractors working to prepare for the 2012 Winter Olympics in neighbouring Sochi “to procure materials and hire workers” in Abkhazia.What lies behind the move is not just a reaction to Kosovo, however. It is also linked to Russia’s campaign to stop Nato opening its doors to Georgia at the Bucharest summit by offering it a Membership Action Programme.Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, told Reuters news agency in Brussels that “as soon as Georgia gets some kind of prospect from Washington of Nato membership, the next day the process of real secession of these territories from Georgia will begin”.For both Russia and the Nato allies, that should be a nightmare prospect. Nato members do not want to invite Georgia into the alliance with an unresolved conflict involving Russia. Russia would not want a war just down the road from its Winter Olympics venue. Reason suggests they should do a deal. The danger is they will blunder into a confrontation.