Everyday tales and stories from the border regions of Europe and beyond, with the aim of explaining why we border-crossers are as obsessed as we are about this subject, why it is important to all of us, and why the co-operation community needs a little bit more visibility than it normally gets.

Monday, 3 March 2008

The hidden borders of Europe

Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence has sparked off further tensions elsewhere is Europe. Kosovo's supporters claim that Kosovo is a unique case, that the attempted genocide by Serbia in the late 1990s meant Serbia had lost all moral authority, and that Kosovan independence has no impact on frozen conflicts elsewhere in Europe. Russia and Serbia argue the opposite, and even have support from within the European Union, with countries like Spain, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia all concerned about the precedent being established in Pristina.

In truth, both sides are being disingenuous. A unilateral declaration by a region or province of a country, without that country's consent, could obviously trigger parallel declarations (in fact, other declarations have been made years ago, without the level of recognition that Kosovo has already achieved). Equally, however, the only way something similar could happen in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, for example, is with full Russian backing – so the only way it becomes a precedent in these cases is if Russia wants it to become a precedent.

There are 6 principal areas of concern across Europe where the Kosovo situation is being watched very closely: the already mentioned Abhkazia and South Ossetia; Transnistria; Nagorno Karabakh; Republika Srpska; and northern Cyprus. (For a perspective from further away, see the Sri Lanka news story on the right-hand side.)

The first three cases are linked directly to Moscow – no-one is going to recognise these countries as independent unless Moscow does. Moscow is perfectly happy to keep all three territories hanging since it keeps them dependent, and gives Moscow leverage against Georgia and Moldova.

Nagorno Karabakh is occupied by Armenia; Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh are in positions of power in Yerevan – yet, even Armenia has not recognised Nagorno-Karabakh's declaration of independence. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been spending very large sums on defence equipment (or, rather, attack equipment) and this is one area where the conflict could unfreeze rapidly.

Northern Cyprus has also declared its independence many years ago, but is recognised only by Turkey. The recent Cypriot presidential elections seem to have opened a possibility of resuming talks on the future of the island, and there are some hopes here. The Cypriot government's strong reaction on Kosovo's declaration is evidently directly linked to concerns that it strengthens the UDI of northern Cyprus. Again, this seems overblown, as no-one else is planning to recognise the UDI.

Republika Srpska is, of course, particularly problematic given the Serbian ethnic links. Demonstrations have already taken place in Banja Luka against Kosovan independence. If Srpska wants to declare independence on the basis of a referendum, how and why would this be different from Kosovo? Territorial integrity must apply to Bosnia, but must not apply to Serbia? This is a fundamental weak link in the argument of those who recognise Kosovan independence.

Of course, one further area where the Kosovan situation has an immediate impact is – northern Kosovo. If the majority population around Mitrovica says that it wants to be part of Serbia, why should Kosovan territorial integrity count for any more than the Serbian equivalent has done? Here, I think, we will actually see something happening in the short term, for the simple reason that Pristina’s writ will be unenforceable north of the Ibar, and Mitrovica et al will continue, de facto, to be linked to Belgrade.

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