The case for clarity
Why does the EU support independence for Kosovo?
WHY is the West giving Kosovo independence when it refuses to recognise Transdniestria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia? These three places are nominally independent—at least in their own eyes—and have been so for many years.
At first sight it seems a clear case of Western double standards. Kosovar Albanians don’t want to be under Serbian rule any more than the Abkhaz feel Georgian or the Transdniestrians like Moldova. They have established their status by force of arms, and entrenched it over ten years of quasi-independence. Is not the real story just an American power-play in Europe, punishing Serbia and rewarding the only pro-American Muslims in the world?
Nobody would deny that such political calculations have influenced decision-making. But the real difference is another one. Kosovo wants to join the European Union. That much is at least clear, however badly run Kosovo may be at the moment, and however much gangsterism and ethno-nationalism have flourished there under the haphazard stewardship of the so-called international community. Kosovo does not want to join, say, Turkey in a new “Ottoman Caliphate”. Nor is it even interested in forming a “Greater Albania”.
That makes a big difference. Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not subscribe to the Euroatlantic vision of multilateral security and law-governed political freedom. The main priority of the ruling elites there is self-enrichment, followed by at least a rhetorical commitment to closer integration with Russia (a goal that the Kremlin endorses in theory but seems remarkably cautious about in practice).
The West is reluctant to say so bluntly, but that makes a difference. The EU is sending thousands of lawyers, prosecutors and police officers to Kosovo, in what might be termed the continent’s most ambitious colonial adventure for decades. That “soft imperialism” creates at least a chance of success for Kosovo’s independence.
All this may yet be derailed. Bosnia is falling apart again; Macedonia still looks fragile; and Russia could not ask for more fertile soil for mischief, with Europe divided and indecisive. But it is worth a try.
Contrast that with Transdniestria or Abkhazia. Imagine that Russia and a bunch of other countries—Belarus, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Venezuela, say—decided to go ahead and recognise these breakaway statelets. It is almost laughable to imagine what such outside supporters could offer to promote the rule of law and good government. Would Hugo Chávez of Venezuela offer policemen? Would Russia provide prosecutors, or Uzbekistan start teaching Abkhaz civil servants about e-government?
This is the weakness at the heart of all the Kremlin’s foreign-policy efforts in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It offers a great deal for elites. Some enjoy lavish hospitality and lucrative directorships. Others get intelligence co-operation and sales of advanced weaponry.
But Russia has much less to offer from the public’s point of view. True, it offers passports, and a Russian passport is not worthless.
But the survival of the Soviet-era propiska system means that this does not confer the prized right to live and work in Moscow. Even the Kremlin’s most loyal allies can’t offer that to their citizens as a quid pro quo. (Admittedly, Schengen and American visas can still be shamefully hard to come by, even for citizens of ex-captive nations that are loyally Euroatlantic in outlook).
What the EU will not say, but thinks privately, is this: We are supporting Kosovo’s independence because of the chance that it will become more like us, and hence a better neighbour. We oppose independence for Transdniestria et al because it would make them more like Russia, and therefore worse for Europe.