Courtesy Reuters

Charles Kupchan ("Independence for Kosovo," November/December 2005) is correct when he asserts that countries such as Russia have no real interest in Kosovo as a territory; Kosovo as a precedent, however, is another matter. Governments from Baku to Beijing and separatist regimes from Trans-Dniestria to the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus are taking a keen interest in how questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity are handled in the determination of Kosovo's final status. And there are very real concerns that the Kosovo question, if mishandled, will prove to be destabilizing not only for the region, but for the international system as a whole.

The United States insists that the Kosovo case is unique, but others are by no means obliged to see things Washington's way. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Kosovo precedent can be limited. The case for independence rests on two foundations: first, that the revocation of the province's ethnoterritorial autonomy in 1989 created a legitimate case for armed rebellion and ultimate separation, and second, that Kosovo's de facto independence for the past six years should be recognized de jure to end the province's nebulous status.

Could not Nagorno-Karabakh make the same case vis-a-vis Azerbaijan? Or Abkhazia in relation to Georgia? Will Kurdistan or southern Sudan cite a Kosovo precedent to support their bids for independence in a decade's time? And how long before members of the U.S. Congress begin to argue that Taiwan, another "breakaway" province that, like Kosovo, has enjoyed de facto independence, should be recognized as a sovereign state? China is well prepared to veto any resolution in the UN Security Council that would impose independence for Kosovo without the consent of Serbia for precisely these reasons. Meanwhile, Russia will wonder whether Washington's willingness to impose Kosovo's independence on a democratic government in Belgrade in the name of the principles Kupchan lays out will carry over to similar pressure being placed on two U.S. allies in the Caucasus -- one a fledgling democracy,

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