By YURI ZARAKHOVICH/MOSCOW
By splitting the West and the wider international community, the U.S.-backed declaration of independence by Kosovo has given Russia an opening. Countries concerned with separatist problems of their own, from Spain or Cyprus to China, have been unable to follow the U.S. lead in recognizing Kosovo’s breakaway from Serbia. And Russia has sought to exploit the gaps that have emerged as a result.
In Serbia, itself, Russia capitalized literally, on the standoff over Kosovo. In Belgrade, just a week before he became Russia’s President-elect, Dmitri Medvedev supervised Serbia’s signing up to a prospective Russian Southern Stream natural gas pipe-line. Serbia also sold to Russia a 51% stake of Naftna Industrija Srbija (NIS), a much prized national oil company for $614 million and the promise of a further investment of $770 million. Russia plans build a major gas storage facility in Serbia, making the country a key base for Russian energy supplies to Europe. This consolidation of ties with Serbia achieves two Russian strategic goals: taking over national energy assets of European countries; and keeping erstwhile allies of the Soviet Union from being drawn into the Western fold. To emphasize warming ties, travel between Russia and Serbia will no longer require visas.