Home The Washington Diplomat March 2008

Nations Worry Kosovo Split May Inspire Other Breakaways

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Georgian Ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze says Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia—and its immediate acceptance by most of the West—is a unique situation that won’t add fuel to the fires of separatism that already smolder in his country.

Moldova’s top diplomat in Washington, Nicolae Chirtoaca, argues that Kosovo’s new statehood offers no precedent for other nations’ breakaway territories, including his own.

Bisera Turkovic, ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina, insists that independence-minded Serbs in her country have nothing to gain by following Kosovo’s lead and declaring independence, so they probably—and hopefully—won’t.

Kosovo’s long-anticipated decision to abandon Serbia and fly its own flag has some leaders of other nations eyeballing their own separatist movements, hoping Kosovo won’t encourage an “if they did it, so can we” mentality. Even a few members of the European Union—namely Cyprus, Romania and Spain—worry that Kosovo sets a precedent that might inspire their own restive minorities to seek separation.

Kosovo’s divorce from Serbia officially marks the last chapter in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The autonomous province had been under Serbia’s jurisdiction but administered by the United Nations—and governed by a patrol of some 17,000 NATO troops—since forces expelled the Serb army in 1999.

The mostly Albanian Muslim nation of 2 million—more than 100,000 of whom are Serbs—formally announced its statehood on Feb. 17, triggering fierce but widely expected protests from Russia and, of course, Serbia, which considers the area its cultural and spiritual cradle.

In response, Serbia promptly recalled its ambassador in Washington in protest of the U.S. acceptance of Kosovo’s declaration, threatening to pull out more envoys from other countries that recognize Kosovo’s secession. The people of Serbia went one step further: On Feb. 21, Serb rioters broke into the U.S. Embassy after a large protest against Kosovo’s independence drew an estimated 150,000 people—prompting worries that further violence looms ahead.

In a speech at the U.N. Security Council immediately after Kosovo’s announcement, Serbian President Boris Tadic warned that there were “dozens of various Kosovos in the world and all of them lie in wait for Kosovo’s act of secession to … be established as an acceptable norm.”

He added: “If you cast a blind eye to this illegal act, who guarantees to you that parts of your countries will not declare independence in the same illegal way?”

Ivan Vujacic, Serbia’s ambassador in Washington, spoke to The Washington Diplomat at his country’s National Day reception shortly before he was recalled. He said his country will vigorously oppose Kosovo’s split, stopping short of military action, but demanding that the United Nations nullify the secession as illegal. “We feel international law is on our side,” he said.

But what if the United Nations ignores Serbia’s plea and the European Union presses forward with plans to send 1,800 police and legal experts into Kosovo to help it find its independent footing, as most international experts expect?

“What other actions the government will take I do not know and I cannot say because they haven’t decided yet,” Vujacic said. But he added that military action isn’t on the table for a nation still weary from the brutal wars it waged in the 1990s following the splintering of Yugoslavia. “It was explicitly stated that there would not be any military action to this,” Vujacic stressed. “We want a diplomatic solution. We want negotiations.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month urged Serbia to accept Kosovo’s independence, however painful it might be, and move on. The United States formally recognized Kosovo’s independence one day after Kosovo declared it.

“I do know that this is going to be an extraordinarily difficult period of time for the Serbian people,” Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 13. “What the United States will be doing is offering a hand of friendship, saying that the status of Kosovo, and its resolution, will allow Serbia to look forward and to move on then with what it needs to do.”

The U.S. response was disheartening to Serbian leaders. “We had hoped the United States would have taken a more neutral stand during negotiations, where we could have gotten to the substance instead of having a preset outcome with a deadline, which is not helpful to any serious negotiation,” Vujacic complained.

Serbia’s main international backer has been Russia, whose own separatist region, Chechnya, has been a thorn in its side since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, speaking at the Munich Conference on Security Policy last month, ominously predicted that Kosovo’s action will unravel stability in neighboring countries. “It will create a hell of a problem,” Ivanov said, according to a Reuters report.

Ambassadors in Washington certainly hope not. Moldova’s number-one national priority is resolving its longstanding dispute with Transnistria, a region along the Ukrainian border that declared independence in 1990. Moldova refuses to recognize Transnistria’s de facto independence, as does the rest of the region. Separatist, Russian-minority forces control Transnistria. Moldova has tried to meet the separatists’ demands with allowances for broad cultural and political autonomy, but the government refuses to simply give up the territory.

The dispute has strained Moldova’s relations with Russia, but a July 1992 ceasefire agreement established a tripartite peacekeeping force comprised of Moldovan, Russian and Transnistrian units—a structure that still stands today.

Moldovan Ambassador Chirtoaca said Kosovo’s bid for independence is unique and “cannot produce a precedent for other protracted conflicts, especially in the ex-Soviet space.”

“All these conflicts have their own origins and distinctive nature and should be addressed creatively to avoid any kind of templates and stereotypes, especially those which are manufactured in order to keep ambiguity and uncertainty in entire regions of the old continent,” Chirtoaca wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Diplomat.

He said Kosovo’s new status is the natural end result of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Albanians in Kosovo and NATO’s decision in 1999 to expel Serb forces with air attacks.

“One of the basic norms of the international law is that an ethnic or national minority has right to self-determination in the case when it faces the major threats for its existence coming from the hosting state,” Chirtoaca wrote. “From that perspective, the intention of the Kosovo leadership to declare unilateral independence does not create any contradiction between the right to self-determination of an ethnic minority and the right of the state to preserve its territorial integrity.”

Bosnian Ambassador Turkovic recently told The Diplomat that her country was naturally on edge on the eve of Kosovo’s declaration. “Of course everybody is concerned,” she said. “However, there is a certain optimism that people are now wise considering all what’s happened in the past and they know how to behave themselves.”

Bosnia in particular is in a precarious situation. Half the country is run by a Serb federation, and the other half by a Muslim-Croat federation—each distrustful of the other—and opinions polls have shown that a large majority of Bosnian Serbs would want to secede if Kosovo is allowed its independence.

But in late January, Bosnia’s top peace envoy, Miroslav Lajcak, dismissed that scenario, saying: “Bosnia-Herzegovina is an internationally recognized state, its territorial integrity is guaranteed by the Dayton peace agreement, and its existence cannot be questioned.”

Turkovic conceded that there are some in Bosnia and Herzegovina who are agitating to separate, but she doesn’t believe the movement has traction. “There are still people going around with different ideas,” she said. “There are still war criminals around and we don’t know where they are. Without support, they would not be free, so obviously we do have these people among our ranks, but I don’t think those people are going to prevail—I hope.

“I think we are at a stage of political games, currently,” she added. “What part of Bosnia would gain by proclaiming independence? What’s the benefit? Memories are still very close and I don’t think anybody is genuinely thinking about this.”

And if separatist violence does erupt? “It’s very difficult to say how the government would respond in that case,” she said. “It’s a question of what the government will look like. I hope that this is not going to happen. I don’t see how the people can have a benefit from this.”

Zoran Jolevski, Macedonia’s top diplomat in Washington, said the lack of resolution to Kosovo’s diplomatic limbo has hurt the entire Balkan region. “The sooner we have a solution in Kosovo the better,” Jolevski said. “Macedonia will follow whatever the international community decides on Kosovo.”

He argues that international support of Kosovo’s declaration would send a signal that the region isn’t as shaky as some investors fear. “We need to stabilize them and give them economic prosperity,” he said. “Not having a solution in Kosovo is hurting the whole region. To foreign investors it sends the message that major issues are not resolved. Investors are scared to come to Macedonia. The status quo is hurting all of us.”

He added: “We need stabilization and association agreements with the EU for Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, and then the Balkans will not be synonymous with conflict but with prosperity and stability of the multiethnic societies. That will be success for Balkans, U.S.A. and EU.”

Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter, was the special envoy charged with guiding the delicate political negotiations over Kosovo. The principles of the Ahtisaari plan are expected to be followed under Kosovo’s new government, which Jolevski described as considerate to Macedonian concerns.

“One of the important things in the Ahtisaari report is that Kosovo should respect the border agreement with Macedonia,” Jolevski said. “They are our neighbors and we have to cooperate with them.”

Vasil Sikharulidze of the Georgian Embassy in Washington said the Kosovo case has no bearing on separatist movements in his country, where the political statuses of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain unresolved. The Abkhaz separatist dispute, in particular, requires much of the Georgian government’s attention.

A ceasefire is in effect, but more than a quarter-million internally displaced persons who were driven from their homes during the initial conflict with Georgia constitute a vocal lobby. Georgia has indicated a willingness to give the region considerable autonomy to spur a settlement, but the Abkhaz insist on full independence.

Some international observers have speculated that Russia could recognize the two breakaway Georgian territories’ bid for independence as retaliation for the international community’s willingness to back Kosovo’s split from Serbia. But Ivanov, speaking to reporters at the Munich conference, said that would not happen.

“Kosovo is an absolutely unique case,” Sikharulidze told The Washington Diplomat in an interview. “It has no implications whatsoever on any other conflicts around the globe.”

International tensions over Kosovo “can be resolved,” the ambassador predicted. “Of course, it will require some diplomatic efforts from EU and the United States.”

As for the situation on the ground in Kosovo, post-independence, Serbian Ambassador Vujacic is hoping everyone keeps a cool head.

“I think everybody hopes violence can be avoided,” Vujacic said. “Certainly in terms of Serbia, it’s our responsibility. In Kosovo, it will be the responsibility of the international community because we don’t have any influence down there—any troops, any police, any methods of coercion. Basically, it’s up to the international community to keep things quiet down there.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999