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Separatist groups keep eye on Kosovo

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2007

BRUSSELS

From the jungles of Indonesia to Spain's Basque country, separatist movements around the world are drawing hope from a proposal before the U.N. Security Council that would give Kosovo functional independence from Serbia.

"The Kosovo precedent will be important for us," said Igor Smirnov, leader of the Trans-Dniester region that seeks to break away from Moldova, a small country wedged between Romania and Ukraine. He maintains that his tiny enclave has an even better case for independence than Kosovo.

Another hopeful Kosovo-watcher is the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq.

"It's important that Kosovo achieves independence through a U.N. Security Council resolution, because that will establish a legal principle which will also some day apply to Kurdistan," said Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament.

The United States and European Union, which are backing a proposal by Finnish envoy Martti Ahtisaari to grant "supervised independence" to the predominantly ethnic-Albanian province of Serbia, dismiss suggestions that it would encourage separatist movements elsewhere.

But the Ahtisaari plan is strongly opposed by both Serbia and Russia, its traditional ally, which argue that the province is sovereign Serbian territory and cannot be taken away without Belgrade's consent. Russia has sharply criticized the plan, but has not revealed whether it is willing to use its Security Council veto to kill it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in February that independence for Kosovo would be taken as a precedent by others, including pro-Russian breakaway enclaves in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.

The Kosovo issue has become a major irritant in the already strained relations between the West and a resurgent Russia.

The latest attempt to defuse tensions foundered last week after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mr. Putin failed to find common ground. Kosovo's fate also figures in Russia's wider dispute with the European Union, jeopardizing plans to create a "strategic partnership" between Moscow and Brussels.

Mr. Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland, said he did not think a precedent would be set by granting the province independence.

"No two problem areas are the same," he said.

But in some of the four dozen territories around the world aspiring to break free, Kosovo's future looks set to have far-reaching effects -- especially if separation is engineered through a Security Council resolution.

"Kosovo's independence would certainly have broad and destabilizing consequences for many other secessionist conflicts," warned Bruno Coppieters, head of the political science department at Brussels Free University.

In Indonesia, it could have a powerful effect on the two separatist-minded provinces of Aceh and West Papua, said Damien Kingsbury, a key adviser to the separatist Free Aceh Movement.

Indonesia, which has already lost East Timor, "is always sensitive about issues affecting territorial integrity, so it will be very worried," Mr. Kingsbury said.

The United States and the European Union insist that Kosovo is a special case because it has been a ward of the international community since a U.N. administration was set up in 1999. That followed a brief aerial war during which NATO ejected Serbian forces accused of mounting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the province's 2 million Albanian inhabitants.

"A new Security Council resolution would clearly specify that this was a unique case not applicable to other regions," Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried said in a recent interview.

Mr. Fried said the Bush administration intends to sponsor the new resolution, based on Mr. Ahtisaari's plan.

"Kosovo will be independent, one way or the other," he said.

Although the European Union also insists that Kosovo is no precedent, some of its member states have their own restive regions to contend with -- Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain, Flanders in Belgium, Hungarian nationalists in Slovakia and Cyprus' breakaway Turkish Republic. Analysts note that even Mr. Putin's Russia has separatist movements within its borders that could take Kosovo as an inspiration.

A parliamentary spokesman for the Basque Nationalist Party, the main party in the regional government of northern Spain's Basque region, sees the Kosovo plan as "a very positive development."

"We think this could be a very good precedent, and someday we could aspire to something similar," said Josu Erkoreka.

Mr. Othman, the Iraqi Kurd, said it is inaccurate to argue Kosovo is somehow special.

"Just like Kosovo, Iraqi Kurdistan has also been under international protection [since the 1991 Gulf War]. There is no difference," he said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.

Any move by Iraq's Kurdish provinces to break free would create a major political headache for Washington and invite armed intervention from neighboring Turkey, which has its own restless Kurdish minority.

Tim Judah, a London-based Balkans analyst and author, said the Security Council ideally should grant Kosovo independence but simultaneously repudiate unilateral secessions elsewhere.

But he expects that "whatever the Security Council does may nonetheless encourage some secessionist groups somewhere."