by Austin Bay
August 10, 2010
This past Sunday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made
a brief visit to Abkhazia, the "breakaway statelet" within the
Caucasus region's nation of Georgia.
Medvedev chatted with an Abkhazian rebel leader, and then
reflected on Russia's decision in August 2008 to "liberate" Abkhazia
and neighboring South Ossetia from what the Russians insistently described as
Georgian ethnic domination. "It was not a simple decision," Medvedev
said, according to Agence France-Presse. "But time has shown that it was
the right decision. The existence of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia
was under threat."
Medvedev did not use the term, but the man from the
Kremlin was invoking the Kosovo
Precedent. When Russian forces moved on Georgia in 2008, the Kremlin pointed to
the 1999 U.S.-led NATO invasion of Kosovo, at the time part of Serbia, to
justify its attack. If you (NATO) can do it, the Russians said, so can we.
A Georgian deputy prime minister replied to Medvedev,
asserting that the Russians "are still playing a game that they have
lost." Abkhazia and South Ossetia "are now recognized as occupied
territories ... "
Serbia lost the Kosovo War in 1999. Last month, Serbia
lost again when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Kosovo's
February 2008 unilateral declaration of independence was legal.
Serbia, supported by Russia, argued that the Kosovo
Precedent opened an international Pandora's Box. After Kosovo's unilateral
declaration of independence, separatism resulting from international action to
protect an ethnic minority has an imprimatur. If protecting Kosovar Albanians
elicits a NATO invasion what's to stop -- to take the non-theoretical example
-- Russian peacekeepers from liberating Abkhazian and South Ossetian minorities
Russian diplomats estimated that in some political shape,
diplomatic form or military fashion, the example of Kosovo (NATO invasion,
subsequent status as a functional U.N. protectorate, then its unilateral
separation from Serbia) affected over 200 separatist conflicts around the
world. If self-determination supersedes national territorial integrity, the
world can expect a series of secessionist crises.
In late July, the judges said nay and issued a very
narrow ruling: Kosovo is a singular case of liberation of a people (Kosovar
Albanians) threatened by murder at the hands of an oppressive regime (dictator
Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia).
History however, may not be so blithe.
Despite the ICJ's attempt to focus on Kosovo's situation
in 1998 and 1999, nation states threatened by separatist movements and the
secessionist organizations interpret Kosovo in universal terms. No court is
capable of containing a conflict by mere decree.
Radio Free Europe correspondent Ahto Lobjakas wrote after
the ICJ decision that its greatest weakness:
" ... is that it allows treating Kosovo as a
precedent set by a coalition of the willing. The particular coalition of the
willing behind Kosovo may have right and morality on its side, but it's in the
nature of all balances of power to be mutable, transitory." Arguing Kosovo
is unique "is not a legal argument, but a political one. Like Kosovo's,
Abkhazia's independence remains a function of outside backing -- though unlike
Kosovo, Abkhazia could be said to have the 'wrong' friends."
Wrong equals Moscow. Right equals Washington.
Uniqueness was the U.N., British, French and U.S.
diplomatic pitch: Kosovo was to be a "one off" event. The invasion of
Kosovo by the Clinton administration was an invasion of conscience, intended to
protect the vulnerable Albanian Kosovar minority.
In 1999, several nations facing separatist movements,
including NATO member Spain, did not buy the "one off"; Basque and
Catalan separatists confronted Madrid and claimed their own unique status.
In 2010, despite the ICJ ruling, how the Kosovo Precedent
will affect the troubled world order remains unsettled.
Unfortunately, bitter political struggles in scores of
nations around the world and -- very likely -- dirty little wars of
independence (or secession) in the afflicted states will render the historical
judgment, in blood.