Friday, February 29, 2008

Be Nice to Russia in the Balkans

There’s cause for human rights activists to be antsy about what’s going on in the Balkans. Not just because the Serbs are beating their ethic-cleansing breasts over the Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence. Those people are small-time thugs and NATO peacekeeping troops should know how to deal with them

The worry is Russia. The fear is that Administration officials and Washington think-tankers are going to misread the dynamic of regional politics, once again. There’s more at stake here than stability in a volatile region. Gains in human rights protections in this neighborhood have helped lower the threshold of tolerance for human rights violations globally, with ramifications in such places as Sudan and North Korea

Like it or not, Russia still views Serbia as part of its sphere of influence. It won’t let go as easily as it did in Bosnia during the 1990s, when domestic politics were in turmoil. There’s a risk of America stepping foolishly into an old fashioned proxy war with Russia over Kosovo. Just like we marched blindly into the trap of asymmetrical warfare in conquering Baghdad. Shots may not be fired in this contest, but it would mean a big setback for human rights.

An anemic Soviet Union disintegrated while watching its allies and puppet republics peel away. But it did so when it was on the brink of economic ruin. Russia has oil wealth now. Its thriving economy is integrated with the international community through trade and investment. It has a stable government even if is not the beacon of democracy hoped for by he West.

Ominously, Vladimir Putin’s brand of one-party authoritarianism has caused serious backsliding on human rights, particularly for the freedom of the press. But he enjoys widespread support among the Russian people. With stability and prosperity, Russian patriotism is on the rise. By challenging Russia head-on in Kosovo without thinking about the consequences, however, we’ll risk provoking a far more virulent kind of nationalism, that would place the agents of democracy – independent journalists, human rights advocates and political opposition leaders like former chess champion Garry Kasparov – in grave peril.

Putin has denounced Kosovo’s secession as “immoral and illegal,” and his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, visited Belgrade Monday(2/25) to reiterate the Kremlin’s steadfast support for the Serbian regime. Postwar Russians were raised on the belief that the former Yugoslavia was among the vassal states in Moscow’s orbit, a little brother to protect in the national interest, an ally to help defend the Motherland. That national ethos hasn’t eroded completely.

Kosovo’s right to self-determination should be non-negotiable. But blundering in the dialog with Moscow can ratchet up the odds of resurrecting a history of hostility and nuclear gamesmanship. Putin’s pique over the US missile defense installation in Poland can’t be laughed off. Defusing the Serbian powder keg must involve cooperation and mutual respect between Washington and Moscow. We can only hope that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice knows this. She was a specialist in the Soviet Evil Empire at Stanford before entering politics and hoisting the neocon flag. One can only hope that her replacement will have the wisdom to play nicely with the New Russia.

The U.S. diplomatic mission Kosovo should concentrate on protecting the human rights of the majority ethnic Albanian population. If we can help Kosovo realize a sustainable independence in the real world and not just on parchment – one that also protects the rights of the Serb minority – we’ll have achieved a great victory for democracy. But we’re not going to get there by slapping Russia in the face.

Karl Schoenberger is a journalist and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center