The Kosovo effect begins

The Kosovo effect begins

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As many predicted, a number of separatist regions throughout the post-Soviet world are planning to use Kosovo’s widely recognized declaration of independence as a precedent for their own movements. The presidents of the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were in Moscow over the weekend lobbying for Russia to recognize their “nations.” For, Abkhazia’s Sergei Bagapsh, the issue is black-and-white: “If Kosovo gains recognition, the time has come to look at a lifting of the embargo against Abkhazia.”

Both leaders plan to formally ask Russia’s Duma, the United Nations, and members of the Commonwealth of Independent states to recognize their republics. Moldova’s Transnistria region plans to step up its efforts as well.

But although Moscow threatened to recognize the territories last week in retaliation for Kosovo, the Russians don’t seem in any particular hurry to do so. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov’s statement after meeting the two presidents was as clear as mud:

The recognition of Kosovo as an independent state will create prerequisites for building up a new format of relations between Russia and the self-proclaimed states in the area of Russia’s interests, primarily on the post-Soviet space,” Gryzlov said.

Why the change? Russian leaders are likely worried about legitimizing their own separatist movements in the north Caucasus. The U.S. government has stressed that its recognition of Kosovo does not in any way imply support for other separatist regions, but others see a precedent. Basque regional authorities were quick to react positively to the news, for instance. (Not to mention the nascent Second Vermont Republic.)

It seems reasonable to argue (as Condoleezza Rice did on Monday) that Kosovo’s recent history of ethnic cleansing and U.N. administration makes it a special case. But many will still ask: Why does one marginalized ethnic region deserve to be a state while others do not? As the international arbiters of this sort of thing, the U.S., EU, and U.N. need to do a better job of laying out clear standards. The current ambiguity seems dangerous and likely to encourage countries like Russia to use these territorial disputes as political weapons. That’s the precedent to worry about.