February 19, 2008 / 7:09 PM / 12 years ago

Kosovo independence poses headache for Canada

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Kosovo’s declaration of independence is a headache for Canada, which needs to find a way of recognizing the new state without boosting the fortunes of separatists in its French-speaking province of Quebec.

While major allies such as the United States, Britain and France quickly recognized the ethnic Albanian state despite objections from Serbia, Ottawa barely reacted.

“We note that the Parliament of Kosovo has adopted a declaration of independence. We are assessing the situation,” said a foreign ministry spokesman.

Polls indicate that around half of Quebecers support the idea of independence for the province of 7.5 million.

Quebec governments run by the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) held referendums on breaking away from Canada in 1980 and 1995 but both failed, the last one very narrowly.

The Parti Quebecois, now in opposition in the Quebec provincial legislature, said that if Canada recognizes a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo it would have to treat a similar move by Quebec the same way.

“A people decides to become a country and other countries recognize that fact. And in this case what is special is that Serbia is against (the) independence of one of its component parts and the United States, France, other countries ignore this objection,” said PQ legislator Daniel Turp.

“So if one day Quebec decides to become a country and Canada objects ... we’ll remind other countries that an objection of a state should not have precedence over the will of the people,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

The reticence of Canada’s Conservative government to talk about Kosovo has been so marked that the leader of the opposition Liberals stepped in to suggest what Ottawa’s position should be.

Stephane Dion, a renowned opponent of Quebec separatism, said there were few similarities with Kosovo, where NATO troops have been maintaining the peace for almost nine years.

“There does not seem to (be) any possibility of reconciliation ... so the decision seems to be the best solution,” he told reporters on Monday.

He noted that Russia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo meant it would not be able to become a member of the United Nations and said this underlined how hard it was for new states to gain full international acceptance.

When the former Yugoslav state of Montenegro declared independence in 2006, Canada buried its recognition of the new state in an announcement on the foreign ministry’s Web site.

Turp predicted Canada would eventually recognize Kosovo but that Ottawa would say that this set no precedent for Quebec.

This could lay the government open to accusations of double standards, since Ottawa would never accept a similar declaration by the parliament of Quebec.

In the wake of the 1995 referendum, Dion was a leading member of the Liberal federal government that pushed through the so-called Clarity Act to make Quebec secession harder.

The law, which the PQ has promised to ignore, says Ottawa would reject moves by Quebec to secede unless a large majority of the population voted in favor of a clearly-worded motion seeking to break away.

If Quebec did declare independence, much would depend on the reaction of the United States. Canada is the largest exporter of energy products to its superpower neighbor.

“It’s not certain that our American friends would be eager to divide up a country as nice as Canada, which has oil reserves bigger than those of Saudi Arabia,” wrote Marco Fortier in the Journal de Montreal on Tuesday.

Other prominent commentators echoed Dion’s line that there were major differences between Kosovo and Quebec.

Professor Paul Heinbecker of Wilfrid Laurier University, formerly Canada’s permanent representative to the United Nations, said the largely peaceful debate in Quebec contrasts with ethnic cleansing in Kosovo less than a decade ago.

“There hasn’t been a shot fired in Canada since practically the 19th century between the French and the English. We come from a country where for the last 60 years, Quebecers have supplied the prime minister for nearly 50 of those years,” he told CBC.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway

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