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Last Updated: Friday, 1 June 2007, 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK
Russia rebuffs West over Kosovo
By Gabriel Partos
BBC South-East Europe analyst

Kosovo Albanian street vendor in Orahovac
Kosovo's economy is struggling to emerge from the doldrums
As the crunch time for resolving Kosovo's long-term status approaches, the war of words between Russia and the Western powers on the future of Serbia's independence-seeking province shows no sign of abating.

Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, on Thursday dismissed a revised UN resolution on Kosovo's future, presented by Britain and backed by the EU and US.

The amendments had "not changed anything as far as we are concerned," he said.

He again hinted that Russia could veto the resolution, telling a reporter: "I don't like this word (veto) until I receive final instructions, but you are guessing well what is in my mind".

The new draft resolution supports a plan drawn up by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari for internationally-supervised independence for Kosovo. Currently the UN-administered province remains legally part of Serbia.

Attempts to bridge the gap on the draft resolution failed to make headway during talks that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held in Moscow in mid-May.

Russia's publicly stated position is that a solution needs the approval of both parties - the Kosovo Albanians and the Serbs.

Diplomatic manoeuvres

Since Serbia has rejected the Ahtisaari recommendations out of hand, that would imply that Russia might use its veto, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, to scupper the proposed supervised independence for Kosovo.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Russia's foreign minister wants more negotiations on Kosovo

The United States and - more reluctantly - the EU have backed the Ahtisaari plan as the best one possible, in the absence of an agreement between Belgrade and Kosovo's overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian community. No such deal emerged from a year-long series of talks Mr Ahtisaari chaired in Vienna until March.

Russia's most senior officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have tended to avoid using the term "veto", while hinting at its possible use.

That has been viewed as an attempt on the Kremlin's part to keep its options open.

However, in recent months - particularly since the emergence of the Ahtisaari proposals - Russia has adopted a firmer position in arguing for a settlement reached by consensus.

It has made fewer attempts to establish an analogy between Kosovo and the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Last year President Vladimir Putin sought to highlight such a link, implying that if Kosovo gained independence, then so should these territories.

Russian withdrawal

Russia's opposition to the West over Kosovo does not appear to be motivated by a history of friendship with Serbia on grounds of a shared Slavic cultural background and Orthodox Christian heritage.

Kosovo map
After all, Russia pulled its peacekeepers out of Kosovo in 2003, despite the fact that the Serb minority there were complaining, as they still are, of being the victims of harassment and discrimination at the hands of the ethnic Albanian majority.

Russia's early departure from Kosovo, justified on grounds of cost-cutting, was viewed by many Kosovar Serbs as leaving them in the lurch.

The withdrawal from Kosovo four years ago was also in stark contrast with the unannounced arrival of Russian peacekeepers there back in 1999.

The Russian dash to Pristina airport nearly produced a confrontation with the main body of the peacekeeping contingent under Nato's command which the Russian troops eventually joined, as originally agreed.

Russia's conduct both in 1999 and today appears to be motivated by a determination to show the West, and the US in particular, that it should be taken seriously - as one of the key players on the international stage.

The circumstances now are very different, though.

Kremlin confidence

Thanks to its oil wealth in an era of high energy prices, Russia believes it has regained its former status as a great power, which it lost during the economic collapse in the immediate post-communist era.

United Nations envoy for Kosovo Martti Ahtisaari
Mr Ahtisaari failed to get a deal between Serbs and ethnic Albanians
When it comes to the dipomatic battle of wills over Kosovo, that factor probably accounts for much more than Russia's sympathy for the Serbs - although support for fellow-Orthodox Serbs has a populist appeal to some sections of Russian society.

The Kremlin might still decide to abstain in a vote - an option made easier by the fact that the text of the UN resolution, like the main section of Mr Ahtisaari's blueprint, does not include an explicit reference to "independence".

Western diplomats also note that, until very recently, Russia played what they describe as a generally "constructive" role as a member - along with the US, Britain, France, Germany and Italy - of the six-nation Contact Group that has been spearheading the UN's drive to settle Kosovo's status.

However, before the Kremlin reconsiders its stance it may be looking for some concessions, both on Kosovo and other issues.

In the case of Kosovo, these could include a moratorium on the territory's membership of the UN and other international bodies once it becomes independent.

Elsewhere, Moscow may be angling for an undertaking from Nato not to continue its enlargement into former Soviet republics by inviting Georgia, and possibly Ukraine, to join the alliance.

Meanwhile, Washington has also signalled its readiness to bypass Russia, if necessary, by stating that it will recognise Kosovo's independence, even if there is no UN Security Council resolution in place to endorse it.

Russia may want to avoid a confrontation of that kind, and it has repeatedly tried to put off the moment of decision by calling for more talks.

But the US and key Western countries believe the time for further delays has passed.

They are concerned about a build-up of frustration among Kosovo's Albanian majority - and unlike Russia, they have peacekeepers on the ground who may become the targets of possible violence.

The last chance for a deal may now be just a few days away - at the G8 summit of leading industrial nations in Germany on 6-8 June.

If Russia stands by Serbia, Kosovo's assembly will almost certainly vote for a unilateral declaration of independence.

That would be a scenario for diplomatic upheaval and chaotic developments on the ground, which would present further challenges not only to the West but Russia as well.



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