Monday 11 February 2008

Kosovo and Ukraine

There are two issues which will likely hit the headlines this week, and it's worth a moment of reflection on both, since they both involve important political principles.

It's likely that Kosovo will declare independence this week, possibly around 17-18 February. Kosovar Prime Minister Hasim Thaci stated that this was a "done deal" last week at a press conference in Pristina.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the government of Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenka submitted a hotly-contested application to join NATO's Membership Action Plan (MAP) in late January.

In the Kosovo case, the principle of self determination is enshrined in the UN Charter, which states that "all peoples have the right [to] freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." Together with the actions taken by the Milosevic government in the late 1990s, this has formed the basis for the UN's trusteeship of Kosovo.

The obverse side of the argument, of course, is that a declaration of independence violates the territorial integrity of Serbia, of which Kosovo remains formally a province. Under the UN Charter, "any action that would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and thus possessed of a Government representing the whole people belonging to the territory" is illegal.

Lawyers will be able to argue at length on whether the Milosevic government did extend equal rights and self-determination of people during its regime, and presumably Serbia's position against independence will be supported by Russia with a veto in the Security Council. How this situation will play out is unknown: in the first round of independence in the former Yugoslavia, we remember that Germany recognised Croatia immediately, and that the Yugoslav wars soon followed. While noone predicts an equivalent outcome today (Serbia has stated publically it is against the resolution of this conflict by force), the fact is that this will set a precedent, however much Condoleeza Rice may claim otherwise.

Rice Addresses Afghanistan, Kosovo, Middle East in Norway
26 April 2007

Regarding a possible U.N. Security Council resolution issue, she said the United States wants “to work with Russia and, indeed, with the Serbs to make certain … that everybody understands that Kosovo is sui generis, that this is not a precedent for any other circumstances in which there might be a claim of independence,” but instead arises from “a very particular set of conditions” created by the Balkan war.

This is a bizarre interpretation of international law, but unfortunately on par with the Bush Administration's understanding of this topic. Obviously, Kosovo's independence will certainly serve as a precedent in future conflicts, just as America's invasion of Iraq is already serving as a precedent for Turkey's bombing of Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. Legal precedents are often interpreted by those with power to decide matters in their own favour.

Which brings us to the issue of Ukraine's application to NATO's MAP. I have no opinion on this matter one way or the other, just as I have no opinion on the issue of Kosovo's independence. However, it seems to me that an application to join NATO serves political interests rather than national interests.

Ukraine is still very closely tied to Russia, economically and certainly ethnically. An application to join NATO is being interpreted by Russia as a hostile action, and predictably given Russia's history. In response, I would expect that Russia's most effective tools will be:

1. A revaluation of gas prices exported to Ukraine;
2. Raising the issue of bilateral debts between Ukraine and Russia, including debts for natural gas exports;
3. Re-visiting the issue of tariffs on Ukrainian exports to Russia, which will have an immediate adverse economic effect;
4. Ad-hoc political tensions, perhaps in the Kerch straights or the "trans-Dniestrian" border.
5. A renewal of the arrest warrant for Julia Timoshenka.

Given the close ties between Russia and Ukraine, it is difficult to see what the national interest of Ukraine is in this matter. Does the Ukrainian government believe that Ukraine is under military threat from Russia? Does it believe that even in the case of a Russian invasion, NATO would come to it's aid? NATO has done previous little to support its members in past incidents of political tension, and currently cannot even scrape enough troops together to take on the Taliban.

I see the dual issues of Kosovo and Ukraine linked in terms of their impact on Russia. The Kosovo case will constitute a further precedent (quite apart from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq invasion) for Russia to support its "national interest", however it chooses to define this. Ukraine's NATO application is another indication that Russia is being encircled by a hostile alliance. This follows the 1999 NATO expansion to include Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland and the 2002 expansion to include Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Anyone who believes that Russia will be "onside" in future issues over Iran's nuclear programme, the Georgian-Abkhazian issue, the provision of natural gas, or any other major world issue should think again.

And yet, in both the case of Kosovo's independence and Ukraine's application to join NATO, the issue can be distilled down to one of self-determination. An objective, international court of law would probably support Kosovo's declaration of independence. Ukraine is certainly within its national sovereign rights to apply to join NATO. The relative benefits for the rest of the international community are, unfortunately, unclear.

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