Serbia and Russia react differently to Kosovo independence plan.

Serbia has firmly rejected an EU and US-backed UN plan to give "supervised independence" to Kosovo in late May, with the Serb prime minister calling for a "historic" Russian veto. But Russia appears to be mellowing its previously tough stance on accepting an imposed solution on the UN-run Serb province.

"Today Serbia once again declares that Kosovo-Metohija will never be independent, and that Serbia rejects in advance any attempt at seizing Kosovo-Metohija as an act of legal aggression," the country's acting prime minister Vojislav Kostunica told state media on Tuesday (27 March), shortly after the EU, US and the other 25 NATO states backed UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's independence blueprint.

"We are convinced that Mr Ahtisaari's proposal will not be upheld by the [UN] security council and that will open the doors to a new process of negotiations with a new mediator," the Serb politician added. He called on Russia to use its veto at UN security council level to stymie the process in a move that would have "the deepest sense of historical importance for Serbia and the Serbian nation."

Mr Kostunica's administration minister, Zoran Loncar, was even more hostile, saying the Ahtisaari plan "meets the interests of separatists which are to let the ethnic Albanian minority create another Albanian state on Serbia's territory," Balkans agency DTT-NET.COM reports.

The more moderate Serb president Boris Tadic told US diplomat Nicholas Burns by phone on Monday that "any form of independence for Kosovo-Metohija is unacceptable for Serbia, and we will strive to express the need to reach a compromise solution through continued negotiations in our contacts with the UN security council member states."

He added that there is "room for further dialogue" and that "peace and stability in Kosovo" is his main concern, however.

The Russian reaction to Monday's developments has also been largely negative. An official statement on the Russian foreign ministry website said "The establishment of an independent state in Kosovo is fraught with serious complications for stability in Europe."

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov added that if the UN imposes a solution on Kosovo that is unacceptable to Belgrade, he would launch a probe into whether the existing UN resolution 1244 guaranteeing Serbian territorial integrity and allowing the deployment of some 1,000 Serb soldiers in Kosovo has been properly implemented or not.

"We will be checking how existing UN Security Council resolutions on Kosovo, particularly resolution 1244, are being implemented," he said, Russian state news agency Ria Novosti reports.

Is Russia mellowing?

But the Russian reaction - which appears to entertain the possibility of an imposed solution - is less harsh than might be expected given Moscow's previous statements on the issue and does not pick up on Mr Kostunica's fiery rhetoric.

In February, Russian EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov explicitly told EUobserver: "If it is a negotiated solution, Russia will not oppose it. But if it is an imposed solution, Russia will oppose it."

Mr Chizhov opted not to take the floor during a seminar in Brussels on Monday, when the US' Mr Burns gave his strongly-worded support of the Ahtisaari plan as the way to bring a "century of stability" to the Balkans, with some western analysts now speculating that Russia may abstain from the UN vote rather than use its veto.

"Up till now they have been holding out hoping for some kind of advantage from a blocking position. What kind of advantage is hard to understand - the general idea is to be indispensable and as difficult as possible is a tactical advantage in international negotiations," CEPS expert and former EU ambassador to Moscow, Michael Emerson, said. "They understand the Serb position is untenable, and therefore they will have to find a way of accepting the inevitable."

Moscow has also started changing its message on the implications of an imposed Kosovo solution for rebel entities in Moldova and Georgia in recent weeks, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on 21 March telling the Russian parliament that Kosovo would form a de facto precedent for separatists, but that Russia rejects the validity of such a comparison.

"We admit that any decision made about Kosovo's status will set a precedent," he said. "But projection of this situation in respect to Abkhazia, South Ossetia [in Georgia] and Transdnistria [in Moldova] would not be a correct step. I repeat there is no connection," he added, in contrast to several statements made by Russian president Vladimir Putin over the past year.

"We need universal principles to find a fair solution to these problems," Mr Putin said for the first time on state TV on 24 February 2006. "If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?" he asked, with his diplomats also needling EU states Spain and Cyprus by reminding them they have separatists of their own in recent months.

The US' Mr Burns as well as the EU's envoy to South Caucasus Peter Semneby have ruled out any kind of "trade off" between the pro-Russia rebel entities and the Kosovo veto, while analysts have in the past pointed out that Russia has plenty of separatist problems of its own in the North Caucasus, to mention Chechnya alone.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

But Europe's breakaway movements have been listening to Moscow on the Kosovo precedent and may try to take advantage of the situation despite Russia's recent flip-flopping. Spain and Cyprus - both facing separatist problems of their own - are among the least keen EU states to give Pristina what it wants.

In the Balkans, the Serb enclave in Bosnia - Republika Srpska - has made noises about independence in recent months. This week, the Muslim or "Bosniak" town of Srebrenica - located inside Republika Srpska - said it should get a "special" legal status after the war crimes court in The Hague blamed Serbia for an infamous 1995 massacre.

In the South Caucasus, Mr Semneby says that Kosovo regularly comes up in his conversations with the de facto leaders. In Trasndniestria, the Tiraspol Times on Tuesday ran a story quoting self-imposed ruler Igor Smirnov as saying "Pridnestrovie [Transdniestria] has a much stronger legal and historical basis for recognized sovereignty than Kosovo."

[Source: Euobserver, Brussels, Bel, 27mar07]

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The Question of Kosovo
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