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Monday, February 27, 2006

Kosovo issue inflaming separatism in EU neighbours

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The idea of Kosovan independence as a precedent for other separatist states is catching on in South Caucasus, with damaging implications for EU energy interests.

The breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Armenian-occupied Azerbaijan region, Nagorno-Karabakh, are using the Kosovan model to legitimise their own "de facto states", UK-based analyst Oksana Antonenko said.

"The EU must develop a position on this. To say we don't recognise a linkage is not good enough," the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) expert added.

"The politicians and the elite continue to make a case to their people. The issue of Kosovo's status is changing their expectations, making them less willing to engage in the peace process."

Separatists will "scream about double standards" if the EU endorses independence in Kosovo but pushes reunification in South Caucasus, Brussels-based CEPS analyst Michael Emerson indicated.

Pristina and Belgrade are currently in talks to decide the status of Kosovo, a UN-administered province in Serbia since ethnic clashes subsided in 1999.

But senior UK diplomat John Sawers told Belgrade two weeks ago that the west has "decided" Kosovo should be independent.

Russian gambit

Russian president Vladimir Putin gave weight to the Kosovo precedent idea on Russian TV on 30 January, with Moscow diplomats discussing the notion at UN level since.

"We need universal principles to find a fair solution to these problems," Mr Putin said.

"If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?" he asked. "We know that Turkey, for instance, has recognised the republic of Northern Cyprus."

Russian troops in Georgia and Armenia give Moscow leverage against the pro-EU drift of South Caucasus.

But Mr Putin's words confused some experts, with Russia historically opposed to Kosovan independence and facing a legacy of separatism at home in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan.

"It's hard to know if they are serious or just trying to create pressure against Kosovan independence," former Estonian foreign minister and socialist MEP Toomas Ilves indicated.

"If Kosovo becomes a precedent and Transniestria recognises Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus recognises Nagorno-Karabakh, we could have a real mess on our hands."

Bosnian region Republika Srpska "will" also call for independence if Kosovo has its way, Serbian contacts told British conservative MEP Charles Tannock on a recent trip to Belgrade.

EU peace efforts

Brussels does not recognise Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Nagorno-Karabakh, but the EU is stepping up conflict resolution and EU integration efforts in South Caucasus under its neighbourhood policy.

The EU buys oil from Azerbaijan through the so-called BCT pipeline, with plans afoot to build a new Caspian Sea gas link via Azerbaijan and Georgia under the Nabucco project, reducing energy dependency on Russia.

"If there was a new conflict [in Nagorno-Karabakh], the first target would be the pipeline and the oil terminals," senior OSCE diplomat Bernard Fassier indicated.

"It's essential the EU uses all the tools at its disposal...to get the message across that you have to respect compromise," he added.

EU special envoy to the region, Heikki Talvitie, said Europe has promised peacekeepers and a "blessing ceremony" for Nagorno-Karabakh if Armenia and Azerbaijan can clinch a deal.

He recently went to Moscow to endorse a Georgian-Russian plan for demilitarising South Ossetia.

EU neighbours on dangerous path

International diplomacy's new interest in South Caucasus comes at a time when popular hardliners are gaining support for military solutions to the conflicts.

The region is arming for battle with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan all doubling their military spending in the past two years.

"There is a radicalisation of public opinion and a push for more hardline solutions in the future," the IISS' Antonenko said. "What we have seen in the past few years is a serious arms race in South Caucasus."

The OSCE's Bernard Fassier recalled that young soldiers die "on a monthly basis" in border skirmishes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict claimed 10,000 lives in 1994.

"Time is not on our side," he stated. "Chekhov has taught us, if you have a pistol on the table in the first act, it will be fired by someone before the curtain drops."
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