Who’s afraid of the “Kosovo effect”?

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images On Monday, the U.S.-EU-Russia “troika” is expected to report to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that they have failed to negotiate a settlement on the status of the (for now) Serbian province of Kosovo. With negotiations having officially failed, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders plan to declare independence within the next several weeks. ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
597714_071207_kosovo_05.jpg
597714_071207_kosovo_05.jpg

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, the U.S.-EU-Russia "troika" is expected to report to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that they have failed to negotiate a settlement on the status of the (for now) Serbian province of Kosovo. With negotiations having officially failed, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders plan to declare independence within the next several weeks. Much has been made of a senior Serbian official's intimations that Serbia was considering going to war to keep Kosovo, but with 16,450 NATO troops active in the region, this seems unlikely. Indeed, the Serbian president ruled out the possibility of bloodshed today.

But as former FP managing editor Richard Holbrooke has pointed out, Serbia's nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is unlikely to let Kosovo go without a fight, due to its cultural and historical significance and the presence of a large Serbian minority in the territory. (Kosovo tensions are also making the handover of Serbian war criminals increasingly unlikely.) The possibility that Serbia will institute a trade embargo against Kosovo or cut off its electricity have been discussed. The conflict will almost certainly drag on for months, if not years.

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, the U.S.-EU-Russia “troika” is expected to report to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that they have failed to negotiate a settlement on the status of the (for now) Serbian province of Kosovo. With negotiations having officially failed, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders plan to declare independence within the next several weeks. Much has been made of a senior Serbian official’s intimations that Serbia was considering going to war to keep Kosovo, but with 16,450 NATO troops active in the region, this seems unlikely. Indeed, the Serbian president ruled out the possibility of bloodshed today.

But as former FP managing editor Richard Holbrooke has pointed out, Serbia’s nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is unlikely to let Kosovo go without a fight, due to its cultural and historical significance and the presence of a large Serbian minority in the territory. (Kosovo tensions are also making the handover of Serbian war criminals increasingly unlikely.) The possibility that Serbia will institute a trade embargo against Kosovo or cut off its electricity have been discussed. The conflict will almost certainly drag on for months, if not years.

How the situation plays out — and how the troika respond to it — will be monitored closely by breakaway regions from Kurdistan to Basque Country, who hope that if the West recognizes Kosovo, it will provide a precedent for their own independence struggles. Watching with particular interest are those involved in the “frozen conflicts” of the post-Soviet region. Vladimir Putin has mused mischievously, “If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?” Both are breakaway regions of Georgia supported by Russia. South Ossetian and Abkhazian leaders have already signaled their intention to use the “Kosovo precedent,” and senior Georgian officials have voiced fears about “the misuse of Kosovo.” The breakaway regions of Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh are eying developments in Kosovo as well.

Given Russia’s support for these independence movements, why is Putin so hostile to the idea of an independent Kosovo? A domino effect of states in the region declaring independence would likely inflame tensions in Russia’s own dormant territorial conflicts in the North Caucasus. Perversely, the possible consequences of Kosovo may have finally provided Russia and Georgia with a geopolitical issue they can agree on. Some analysts have suggested that the best outcome for Russia might actually be a long-frozen conflict in Serbia that would stymie further NATO expansion into the Balkans.

All of this suggests that, in the coming month, a fairly huge can of worms is about to be opened over a very tiny territory. This is one to watch closely.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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