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Kupchan: Russian Opposition to Kosovo Independence ‘Perplexing’

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow for Europe Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 18, 2007

Charles A. Kupchan, CFR’s top Europe expert, says that with Kosovo on the cusp of announcing its independence, he finds the continued Russian opposition “perplexing, in that Russia does not have direct interests at stake with Kosovo.” He says that “it appears that Russia’s backing of Serbia is part of a more muscular Russian policy, and a desire to stand up to the United States and the EU across the board.” But Kupchan finds U.S.-European relations on a better footing than during Bush’s first term, and says “both sides have done an impressive job of mending fences.”

There have been some important developments in Europe recently. Last week the twenty-seven members of the European Union signed on to a new treaty, which replaces the stillborn European Constitution that had never gotten off the ground. And this week the UN Security Council is supposed to start deliberations on what to do about Kosovo. Let’s start with the Kosovo issue, because it’s really a live subject right now. Is a major crisis in Europe developing?

It’s not a major crisis now, in that there seems to be a fairly firm consensus within the EU in favor of recognizing an independent Kosovo. That consensus spans the transatlantic community, with Washington also supporting that position. It could prove to be a crisis, though, should Kosovo’s declaration of independence trigger a new round of violence between Serbs and Albanians. And if that happens, it will be up to the EU, the United States, and NATO to use sufficient countervailing force to stem any violence, and provide the conditions under which Kosovo could peacefully secede from Serbia.

Why are the Russians so adamant against Kosovo independence?

I think the Russian position is quite perplexing, in that Russia does not have direct interests at stake with Kosovo. It’s easier to understand why President Vladimir Putin has dug in his heels on NATO missile defense, or why he opposes the entry of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.

It’s also easier to understand his desire to procure revisions to the CFE Treaty—the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. But on the question of Kosovo, direct Russian interests are difficult to discern, and therefore it appears that Russia’s backing of Serbia is part of a more muscular Russian policy, and a desire to stand up to the United States and the EU across the board. The problem with Russia’s position is that it has the potential to lead to bloodshed.

The Russian support for Serbia’s unwillingness to sign off on Kosovo’s independence makes it more likely that Serbs still in Kosovo will not accept a declaration of independence. It makes it likely that the northern part of Kosovo might secede from an independent Kosovo. It makes it more likely that paramilitaries in Serbia might resort to violence if this process moves forward. In that sense, the Russian position is quite problematic. And it remains to be seen whether the Russians follow through on their hints that they might recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia in retaliation for Kosovo’s independence. Some even suggest that they might send troops into the southern military districts of the Russian Federation, possibly precipitating violence in Georgia.

I didn’t know they had actually threatened that.

Yes, they have been suggesting that South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are already breakaway regions from Georgia, would either be recognized by Russia or perhaps integrated into Russia. And such a move is very likely to precipitate Georgian intervention in those regions.

So a lot hinges on Kosovo, beyond just Kosovo independence. Is there much pressure on the Kosovar leaders to hold off on any declaration? I think Richard Holbrooke, when I talked to him, thought that they would announce independence by the end of January, but nobody seems to know.

I surmise that a declaration of independence is not likely to come until the presidential elections in Serbia have been completed.

When is that?

I believe the first round is in January, and the second is in early February.

Why?

The fear is that a declaration of independence prior to those elections would ensure a shift to the right, and the potential election of a radical nationalist.

The current president, Boris Tadic, has been in favor of integration with the EU, I take it.

Yes. President Tadic is more pro-EU and pro-integration into the West than the Prime Minister, [Vojislav] Kostunica, who is more of a traditional nationalist. And the hope is that by maintaining Tadic in the presidency, the backlash of a Kosovar declaration of independence would be less severe. But, however you look at it, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia will strengthen the radical party, and it may well put on ice Serbia’s integration into the EU and NATO.

Well, maybe that’s also one of the Russian goals, to make that less likely.

It’s hard to figure out what Russia’s gain is here, and I don’t see Serbia permanently falling off that path toward integration into the West. My guess is that we will see a delay, but not a permanent diversion.

Now within the EU, I gather that as many as four or five countries are not enthusiastic about support for independence. Under this new treaty that the EU signed, the European Union has to be unanimous in its actions, but each individual country can do what it wants, right?

Well, the reform treaty that was signed last week does represent a significant step forward for the EU in that it represents the closing of the crisis that broke out with the French and Dutch rejections of the constitution. The reform treaty represents an amendment to existing treaties, rather than a replacement of those treaties. And therefore, in most cases, requires only parliamentary approval and not a national referendum. It gives the European Union a more streamlined decision-making procedure, and a greater sense of unity on matters of foreign policy by appointing [an EU] president that can serve for five years, and by increasing the powers of the high representative on foreign and security policy.

Technically speaking, foreign and security policy remains an issue where the EU should make decisions unanimously. In practice, there are mechanisms to allow the EU to act even when a unanimous decision is not in the offing. On this particular issue, that flexibility is very important, because it is unlikely that there will be unanimity on the unity of Kosovo. The five countries that appear to be dragging their feet are Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain. What is likely to happen should those countries continue to resist the recognition of an independent Kosovo, is that the EU would move forward, assuming from the United Nations primary political responsibility for Kosovo without the full approval of each of its members.

Now, the Security Council is obviously not going to be able to pass a resolution on Kosovo independence, because of the Russian veto, yes?

Correct.

So what is international law saying, now? Can any country declare its independence without going through the UN?

This is an issue that gets extraordinarily murky very quickly. Ideally, the independence of Kosovo, or any other territory for that matter, should occur with the consent of the Security Council, because such a vote would provide legal and international legitimacy for recognition. In the absence of Security Council action, individual countries have the right to recognize Kosovo on an individual basis, but it makes the integration of Kosovo into international institutions more problematic, because some countries will recognize it and some will not.

What will happen now is that, with a stalemate in the Security Council, recognition will take place outside the parameters of the United Nations. Particularly for the Europeans, it complicates matters, because many European countries prefer that any action of this type occur only under the auspices of the United Nations. It’s conceivable that certain countries that are unwilling to recognize Kosovo will leave the international mission in Kosovo. So, for example, some EU countries or some NATO countries may choose to withdraw their personnel from Kosovo, because they object to recognition in the absence of the UN resolution.

Last weekend in Bali, nations agreed on a document (PDF) stating new goals on efforts to control emissions, without setting any specific target numbers. This occurred after a rather heated discussion between the United States and other countries, including members of the European Union, and in the end a compromise was reached. What does this tell us about overall European-U.S. relations these days?

I think it’s emblematic of the degree to which they opened fists, and that the acrimony that prevailed during Bush’s first term has subsided. The Bush administration in the second term has reached out to the Europeans and sought compromise, and the Europeans have, for the most part, reciprocated. And there is a spirit of partnership that was nowhere to be found during the rift over the Iraq war.

At the same time, the meeting in Bali demonstrated that the United States and its European counterparts are still far apart on a lot of different issues, including climate change, and they attempted to sidestep those differences by putting in the main body of the document everything that they could agree on, and leaving out, or relegating to footnotes, the issues over which they disagreed.

So my reading of the ultimate compromise is that the Europeans and others realized that the Bush administration was not prepared to commit to specific targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and as a result they went for a compromise assuming that the administration that takes office in January of 2009 will be more willing to commit to the types of quantifiable caps that the Europeans and the other countries prefer. And at the same time, the document did move the ball forward on identifying mechanisms for reducing emissions in developing countries, and for applying financial incentives to prevent the continued erosion of forests.

This is indicative of the overall relationship between Europe and the United States these days?

The U.S.-European relationship is certainly on a better footing than it was during Bush’s first term, and I think that both sides have done an impressive job of mending fences, it remains to be seen whether the next administration is able to sort of turn the clock back, and build a partnership of the sort that existed before 9/11 and before the Bush era.

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