Last update: 2022-04-22 09:44:54

The recent decision by the United States and many states of the European Union to recognise the independence of Kosovo was received with mixed feelings. For many at the heart of the matter lay the fear that it might become a political and legal precedent for other groups who want to opt out of territorial frameworks in which, for better or worse, they feel trapped. It is no accident that those states which are against recognising Kosovo independence fear they too might face similar demands within their own borders, whether in Europe (Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Cyprus, etc.) or China and Russia. Russia's position is particularly interesting for it is shaped by two distinct factors. On the one hand, there is the traditional and, to a great extent, instrumental closeness between Russia and Serbia, one that is both cultural and political in nature. On the other, the Russian Federation itself is patchwork of ethno-territorial entities, some of which like Chechnya have openly vied for secession. At the same time, Moscow is playing a complex geopolitical game in the Caucasus that sees it back separatist forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetiaalbeit without going so far as granting them official recognitionthat are legally part of Georgia, but which have been de facto independent since the bloody wars of 1992-1993. A similar situation is that of Nagorno (Upper) Karabakh. Incorporated into Turkic-Muslim Azerbaijan in Soviet times, the region has remained predominantly Armenian and for all intents and purposes has been independent since the early 1990s. One of the arguments used by Moscow against recognising Kosovo' independence is that the unrecognised states of the South Caucasus might advance the same claim for recognition by the international community. Russia itself has let it be known that because of Kosovo's independence, it might also recognise that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although it appears unlikely that Moscow will go down this road because of its possible repercussions on Russia itself, Kosovo's independence can nevertheless strengthen claims by secessionist forces in the South Caucasus. This is especially true in Nagorno-Karabakh, whose situation is quite similar to that of Kosovo, but whose request for secession from Azerbaijan has hitherto been turned down by the international community in favour of the principle of territorial integrity. In this sense claims by US and European diplomats that Kosovo independence is a "special case" and "cannot constitute a precedent" are disingenuous at best. Such a position is too weak, and based on even weaker arguments that are far from reality. If Kosovo has any special claim compared to Abkhazia or South Ossetia, it is neither historical nor legal, but strictly political. Here the political will of the United States and of Europe (especially France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy) was strong enough to impose a solution acceptable to only one party to the conflict. In the Caucasus, a region split by Russian and US influence and where Europe's role is marginal, such a unilateral solution would be impossible. Here conflicts are contained, not solved. Still there is no denying that Kosovo's independence could be a good starting point to come up with flexible political and legal approaches that might help find solutions to similar ethno-territorial conflicts on the basis of the their specific historical, cultural, political and strategic features.