Kosovo's Western Front

All eyes in Kosovo and elsewhere are on the United Nations as the Security Council rules on the future of the Western Sahara.

The first test of the U.S. claim that "Kosovo sets no precedent" is underway in the United Nations Security Council, where the fate of the Western Sahara is under consideration. Today's UN Security Council vote called for negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front to begin "without preconditions and in good faith."

Along with Paris, Washington is a strong proponent of a Moroccan offer to grant the territory the status of an autonomous region-but not for the region, a former Spanish colony (until 1975) annexed by Morocco, to become independent. Nor does the United States want any plan to be subject to a referendum, for fear that the Saharawis will reject autonomy in favor of independence.

There are, of course, strong strategic considerations supporting such a move. Morocco is a key ally of the United States in the Arab and Muslim world, a staunch partner in the war against Al-Qaeda and one of the moderate states making progress on reform. Moreover, any change of boundaries in Africa opens up a can of worms, since few state boundaries can be said to enjoy any real legitimacy other than what was granted by European colonizers in the 19th century.

The U.S. position on the Western Sahara, however, is in stark contrast to its stance on Kosovo, where the prevailing consensus is that independence for that province is the only solution and can and should be imposed, if necessary, on a recalcitrant Serbia. The U.S. embrace of talks to begin "unconditionally" to decide the fate of the Western Sahara stands in sharp contrast to what many viewed as the attitude toward the Vienna talks about the final status of Kosovo-about finding the optimal way for the province to become independent, rather than any serious discussion about other options such as an Aland Islands-style autonomy, confederal state or partition.

The dissonance in the American position had not gone unnoticed by some of the other non-permanent members of the Security Council, notably South Africa, whose support for the plan unveiled by Marti Ahtisaari (for phased independence for Kosovo) was based upon the principle of self-determination-a principle they feel should also apply in the case of the Western Sahara.

The United States dodged a bullet because today's vote extended the mandate of the UN observer mission until October 31, meaning that any final decision taken on Western Sahara's status will now be postponed until after the Council takes up the fate of Kosovo.

Of particular interest is the role played by Spain and Russia in the Western Sahara resolution. Both of these states have expressed concerns about any unilateral attempts to separate Kosovo from Serbia-Spain, because of concerns about precedents that could be used by the Basques (a long history of oppression from a variety of governments in Madrid plus the notion that autonomy is a half-way house that sets the basis for arguing for full independence), while Russia continues to maintain that Kosovo cannot be settled apart from all of the frozen conflicts of the greater Black Sea basin. By helping to broker a resolution calling for delay and negotiations in the Western Sahara case, are both countries now going to make a similar call for delay on Kosovo and perhaps even a return to "unconditional negotiations" between Belgrade and Pristina? Russia, at present, can make a claim of consistency in its position-that it supports the territorial integrity of states as its guiding principle in these issues.

It may also prove to be difficult for the United States to hold together a bloc of states prepared to endorse the Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo, on one hand, and vote against a settlement for Western Sahara that does not provide for any sort of popular sovereignty, on the other. South Africa's UN Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo's comments today about the reluctance of his government (and other unnamed members of the Security Council) in voting for a resolution that they clearly see as inadequate make this point clear. This is not to suggest that, in both the case of Kosovo and Western Sahara, that Washington will not get the result it wants-neither Moscow (in the case of Kosovo) nor Pretoria (in the case of Western Sahara) are prepared to be the lone voice on the Security Council. But it may lessen the impact of any UN imprimatur as speaking for principles in favor of specific interests. No matter what decision ultimately is reached for either Kosovo or Sahara, others seeking their independence or attempting to preserve the territorial integrity of their state will continue to press their case.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.