Peter Goodspeed, National Post - Once again the world's great powers are manoeuvring over the political fate of the Balkans.
A week after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, and days before Russians go to the polls to select a new president, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister and expected successor to President Vladimir Putin,
has vowed to support Serbia's claim to Kosovo.
In Belgrade yesterday for talks with President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Mr. Medvedev said Kosovo's declaration of independence is "absolutely at variance with international law."
"We proceed from the assumption that Serbia is a united country, whose jurisdiction covers the whole of its territory, and we shall stick to this principled stand," he said after meeting Mr. Kostunica.
His statement signalled Russia's foreign policy will not change once Mr. Putin steps down and underlined Russia's growing confrontation with the West.
Kosovo's declaration of independence and its immediate recognition by the United States, Britain, France and Germany had "destroyed the international system and international law that mankind has been building for more than 100 years."
Then, with a note of menacing anger, he added, "The declaration of independence has complicated the situation in the region and in southern Europe. This decision will project on to other regions, where problems of status of separate territories are acute."
Russia has long argued that taking Kosovo from an unwilling Serbia will create a dangerous and destabilizing precedent for secession that could lead to redrawing borders worldwide.
Spain still has to deal with its Basque separatists, Romania and Slovakia contain large numbers of Hungarians, Cyprus is dangerously divided into Greek and Turkish sectors, China worries about separatist movements in Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, and Russia itself faces a threat in Chechnya.
The list of territories where minorities long for independence touches nearly every trouble spot in the world -- and could include Sri Lanka, Kashmir and even Quebec.
Russia could even use the precedent of Kosovo's secession as a pretext to interfere to protect sizeable Russian minorities in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It could also move to recognize claims to independence by the rebellious regions of South Ossetia or Abkazia in Georgia.
Not since the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War have Europe's great powers lined up in such a deliberate series of confrontations to back aspiring new states.
"The principle that outside powers can't redefine boundaries, and that secessionist movements can't create new nations unilaterally, has been a pillar of European stability," said George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor Strategic Forecasting based in Austin, Tex.
"The Russians view the major European powers and the Americans as arrogating rights that international law does not grant them, and they see the West as setting itself up as judge and jury without the right of appeal."
More galling for Russia is the fact it has never disguised its long and strident opposition to independence for Kosovo.
Back in 1999, when NATO decided to intervene and launched a 78-day air war against Serbia, Russia, led by Mr. Putin, objected vigorously, but was swept aside as a former superpower without real clout.
But the Russia of 2008 bears little resemblance to that of 1999.
While Mr. Medvedev vowed his unswerving support for Serbia yesterday, he also underlined Moscow's growing influence and interest in the Balkans by signing a $1US.5-billion gas deal with Belgrade that will bring Russian gas to Western Europe through a new pipeline from the Black Sea via Serbia.
Now, with support from Russia, radical Serbs are suggesting if Kosovo breaks away from Serbia, the Serb majority in north Kosovo should be free to break away from Pristina.
That should set off alarm bells in the Balkans. It could lead to another round of ethnic cleansing in portions of Kosovo or set a dangerous precedent for Bosnia's Serbs to join Serbia, reigniting the virulent strain of Serbian nationalism that erupted after the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Only now, an assertive and revitalized Russia has aligned itself with Serbia and defined Kosovo's independence as a fundamental national interest.
For now, the Russians are talking tough while leaving their options open.
On Friday, Mr. Putin described Kosovo's independence as a "terrible precedent" that will come back to hit the West "in the face" with "unforeseeable consequences."
Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's new representative to NATO, also warned Moscow has the right to "use force" if NATO or the European Union breaches UN resolutions over Kosovo.
"If Russia simply walks away from this, its growing reputation as a great power will be badly hurt," said Mr. Friedman.
"The more [Mr. Putin] talks and the less he does, the weaker he appears to be. He personally can't afford that, and neither can Russia."
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