The Precedent of Separatist Sovereignty

What to make of Sergei Ivanov’s speech at the Munich security conference? Some think that he was playing “good cop” to Putin’s “bad cop” – striking a conciliatory and reasonable tone on Kosovo discussions in contrast to Putin’s pre-election bombast declaring a new arms race. For example: Lavrov: “Right away I would like to make a point: we do not intend to meet this challenge by establishing military blocs or engaging in open confrontation with our partners. Russia’s way is different: we are consistently developing multivector cooperation with various nations both on a bilateral level and in the framework of key international and regional organizations. (…) We don’t export ideology anymore, you will agree with that. We export only goods and capital.” Putin: “We have seen how the lofty slogans of freedom and an open society are sometimes used to destroy the sovereignty of a country or an entire region. We have seen how, behind a veneer of clamorous rhetoric about free trade and investment, the most developed countries step up their protectionist policies.” Even Quentin Peel of the FT remarked that “for once, Mr Ivanov did not appear to be too smug.” But the most important and interesting part of the Ivanov speech addressed the issue of the precedent that would be set by recognizing Kosovo sovereignty – which Ivanov argued would open a Pandora’s box.

The fundamental contradiction at stake behind Russia’s opposition to the separatist precedent is their support of breakaway republics in Georgia and Moldova, which they would happily recognize as sovereign states to bring more territory back into Moscow’s orbit. Ivanov addressed this issue head on – showing that Russia’s understanding over the enormous difficulty of maintaining national unity far exceeds its desire to usurp more influence over territories of the former Soviet Union. Both Europe and Russia could come apart at the seams, Ivanov recognizes, by fervent nationalism and regionalism ignited by the Kosovo precedent.Quentin Peel has an interesting write-up on this theory of the domino effect:

For once, Mr Ivanov did not appear to be too smug. “We disagree on Kosovo, not because Russia is stubborn to support the Serbs and nothing else,” he said. “We won’t be more Serbian than the Serbs themselves”.Indeed, he rejected the “misconception that is spread among Nato and EU countries”, that Kosovo’s independence would be swiftly followed by Russian support for the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway provinces of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. “I assure you Russia is not going to recognise Abkhazian or South Ossetian independence the next day,” he said.But he went on to talk about a “domino effect” throughout the region. What could he mean?For a start, Republika Srpska might well call a referendum on its secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina, a move that would start to unscramble the 1995 Dayton peace settlement that ended the Bosnian civil war. And the Albanian minority in Macedonia may also start to demonstrate again for independence.Mr Tadic may well not want to encourage the Bosnian Serbs. He has promised he will do nothing to encourage a violent response to Kosovo’s independence. But there are still large quantities of arms stockpiled in Bosnia, and not enough international forces to defend them.Washington is adamant that the faster Kosovo presses ahead with independence, the better for Balkan stability. But it is the European Union that is supposed to guarantee that stability. Because the EU is divided between supporters and opponents of independence, planning has been less than it should be.Serbia will undoubtedly lobby for all its worth to undermine the legality of Kosovo’s independence. It may well impose a trade embargo at its borders, although cutting off electricity would cut the lines to Macedonia and Greece as well.The chances are that Kosovo will remain in a legal limbo, and an economic vacuum, for the foreseeable future. Its security will be guaranteed by 17,000 Nato troops, and 1,800 EU police, judges and bureaucrats. Their job will be to build new institutions. Yet without an economy – unemployment is somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent, and exports cover just 6 per cent of imports – institutions alone will not survive.“At the very worst, we could even be faced with a failed state,” says Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister.It is not a prospect many are ready to contemplate.