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Kosovo talks are about much more than Kosovo 17 mai 2006

Posted by Acturca in Caucasus / Caucase, Russia / Russie, South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est, Turkey / Turquie.
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FT.com (UK), 10 May 2006 Wednesday

Thomas de Waal

For most people, being a state citizen is as much a reality as having parents, but the international order also has its orphans. If you are a resident of Kosovo or Turkish Cyprus or a string of post-Soviet territories, you are currently a second-class human being: it is hard to travel abroad or get an international bank transfer, and your team cannot even make it to the qualifying rounds of the World Cup.

For years this has been just the way the international order works, but events in the Balkans are shaking things up. On May 21, Montenegro holds a referendum on independence. Last week Kosovo, which has spent years in legal limbo, held the latest round of United Nations-sponsored talks, which most people expect to end with it attaining statehood. Justifiably so the Kosovo Albanians are currently being punished for having been citizens of a state that never properly enfranchised them. Yet independence also brings big responsibilities.

Kosovo is being asked to prove that it will respect its Balkan neighbours and Serb minority, who have either fled the province since the 1999 war or live in fearful enclaves.

What kind of precedent does Kosovo set for the world’s unrecognised states? Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has made the link to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two Caucasian territories backed by Moscow that broke away de facto from Georgia in the early 1990s. In January he said that « universal principles » must apply: « If someone believes that Kosovo should be granted full independence as a state, then why should we deny it to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians  »

What universal principles, western officials ask, when these conflicts are so different? Yet, whatever his motives are, Mr Putin’s words deserve serious attention. The international community has now agreed that a separatist territoryhas the right to aspire to independence, even if it does not achieve it in the end. We must be clear-sighted about the precedent this sets: the Kosovo process should not be about rewarding the Albanians for loyalty to the west, but about forging a new democratic order in the Balkans.

In February I visited the small breakaway territory of Abkhazia on the Black Sea. The scars of war are still visible on every street. Conflict began in 1992 with the Abkhaz fearing extinction in their ethnic homeland. It ended a year later with them, helped by the Russians, defeating the Georgians and with the flight or expulsion of almost all Abkhazia’s large Georgian population. Since then, Abkhazia has lived alone and semi-destitute, linked only to Russia, and is home to about 100,000 Abkhaz and the same number of Russians and Armenians.

Many outsiders make the mistake of seeing Abkhazia as a mere Russian puppet state. Russia certainly exploits its twilight status, but Sergei Bagapsh, the de facto president, was elected in defiance of Moscow’s wishes and many Abkhaz are unhappy about creeping annexation by Moscow.

Mr Bagapsh argues that Abkhazia had a better claim to independence than Kosovo: it had been forcibly incorporated into Soviet Georgia, he told me, and held democratic elections. One can question the validity of his arguments, but there is no doubting that his view is passionately shared: I have not met a single person in Abkhazia who sees their future in a return to being part of Georgia.

Abkhazia is one of three unresolved conflicts, stuck between the war and peace, that is crippling the South Caucasus (the others are Nagorny Karabakh and South Ossetia). In each case the separatists argue that the world is imprisoning them inside Stalin’s borders. They say, « We will never surrender the freedom we fought for », and the sovereign states, backed by the international community, respond, « We will never give up our territorial integrity ». The result is deadlock.

The Kosovo precedent suggests a way out by beginning a tough conversation about security, minorities, democracy and potential independence. The democratic bar is being set high with regard to Kosovo and its Serbian minority. The Caucasian separatists would most likely fail a similar test; offered prospective sovereignty, small Abkhazia would immediately have to confront the issue of the missing 200,000 Georgian members of its population. But how much longer will we deny them the right to make their case? It is a very tricky process. But the alternative keeping the conflicts frozen and whole territories as world orphans is also unacceptable.

The writer is Caucasus editor with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting

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