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Knot of Independence, by Sergey Markedonov

Russia Profile

The Partial Recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia Means Academic Analysis of the “Kosovo Precedent” Is No Longer Abstracted

The UN International Court last week effectively recognized the legality of the Kosovo authorities’ 2008 decision to declare independence from Serbia. But the significance of this problem goes far beyond the limits of formal jurisprudence. The “Casus Kosovo” has a bearing on the formation of the basic principles of world order. And if ethnic nationalism is allowed in the Balkans, why shouldn’t it be allowed in the mountains of the Caucasus or in the deserts and tropics of Africa?

After the Kosovo Parliament approved the declaration of independence of the former autonomous province of Serbia (which was examined at the UN International Court), both Russian and Western experts began to talk about the opening of a new chapter in history – of “the world after Kosovo.” At the same time, to speak of the event as some kind of sensation would be misleading. It had been long expected.

For two decades the Kosovo question has been one of the most difficult and entangled ethno-political problems on the Balkan peninsular. In 1991 Kosovar Albanian leaders declared their independence, but the problem did not go beyond the scope of the Balkans. And that is why Albania was the only country supporting Kosovo 19 years ago, although later the idea of uniting the two Albanian states was withdrawn from the agenda.

The new generation of Kosovar-Albanians, involved in the political conflict against Belgrade, began to view independence not as an intermediate stage, but as the ultimate goal. If anything, as an end in itself. After NATO’s operation “Allied Force,” (the 78-day bombing campaign from March 24 to June 10, 1999) ended in the de-facto secession of the former Serbian autonomous province, much became absolutely clear. Belgrade did not (and does not) have either the power or the practical, political-ideological, or moral-psychological resources to “Serbianize” the province.

However, to limit its impact to only the Balkans would be false. The Kosovo Casus is a subject of intense study in the countries of the “parallel Commonwealth of Independent States” (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdnestr). In August 2008 two of the four republics of “CIS-2” compared their status with Kosovo’s. They had become semi-recognized. The difference was only in the number of states which recognized that independence. The former Serb province was recognized by 69 countries, while Abkhazia and South Ossetia received only 4 nuanced recognitions. But the UN has recognized neither Kosovo, nor the two former Georgian autonomies. And the chances of Kosovo receiving such recognition in that famous building in New York is precisely nil, taking into account not so much the widely publicized position of Russia, but also the role played by China. Moscow can theoretically recognize the independence of the former Serb autonomous province if it betrays Belgrade. Beijing can afford itself the luxury of ignoring the Serb position since its celestial interests (Taiwan, Tibet) are in fact much more important than the political-psychological problems of distant Serbia.

In this way, the 2008 political decision and the 2010 legal decision have led to (and will to lead to) a situation where the principle of ethnic self-determination comes to the foreground. This is how it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Then, the right of a nation to “self-determination” between the two variants (Woodrow Wilson’s liberalism and Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevism) became the cornerstone of the global system. There was one problem. All of the various national elites had their own images of what constituted “their land” and “their country,” and these did not correspond with those of the other elites. That’s why the Czechs looked fearfully at the Germans and Poles, the Poles at the Germans and the Czechs, and the Romanians at the Hungarians. The years 1938 to 1939 led to territorial integrity becoming the new political principal (which would later be formalized in the Helsinki agreement in 1975). The land surveying of postcolonial Africa was carried out according to this model.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, ethnic nationalism acquired new youth and vigor. In February 2008 the United States and its allies took responsibility for legitimizing a new state, and half a year later it was Russia that did so. In the first instance the politicians who made the decision believed that a multinational Kosovo within Serbia was impossible, and those in the second case believed the same thing about “reintegration of Georgia.” Since in the cases of Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdnestr the positions of the Russian Federation and the West do not differ dramatically, no one is shouldering the onus of responsibility for determining these “shards of empires.” In Nagorno-Karabakh there are “strong” parties interested in maintaining the status-quo, and in the other case Moscow does not have a common border with the unrecognized republic, which is why it is not unnecessarily charging the situation.

The problem is not about who is right and who is wrong. The Serbs and the Albanians, the Abkhaz and the Georgians, the Armenians and the Azeris could all draw up a long list of claims against each other (including on their historical right to territory). The ethnic groups are not to blame (even more so as they don’t have legal personalities), but rather the principles and the approaches. Ethnic nationalism in its extreme forms leads to the appearance of the “Kosovo casus,” in which in there appears in Europe a fairly lame state, the government of which is run by an old fighter called Hashim Tachi and nicknamed “the Snake.”  To what extent the Snake is able to solve the social and daily problems of his compatriots is debatable. Before, everything could be blamed on the evil will of Belgrade. Today it necessary to take responsibility, regulate the judicial system, bring into line corrupt officials, and the old comrades-in-arms of the Kosovo liberation army. There remains the question of the Kosovo precedent. And whoever wants to, of course, will see a precedent without any formal jurisprudence.

Now, the question surrounding the recognition of Kosovo has become a matter of interpretation. To the benefit of such interpretations there has appeared a starting point in the form of the partly recognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And that is why all the discussions and arguments about the precedent of Kosovo are not abstracted academic analyses, as was the case before 2008.

The event can be considered an evil, or a “triumph for democracy,” but the independence of Kosovo did not unite the great powers. The event didn’t even unite Europe (as had been planned in many strategies concocted in Brussels). Five EU countries (Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia) do not recognize the result of the self-determination of the former Serb autonomy. But then the whole of Europe united in a stance toward the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Here Greece, Romania, France and Britain spoke with one voice. But, be that as it may, Kosovo will never be a part of Serbia, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia will hardly return to the care of “mother Georgia.”

In addition we shouldn’t exclude the conflicts (or at the very least serious confrontations) between partly recognized republics and their military-political patrons. Just as yesterday’s Kosovar field commanders are not ready to embrace the standards of Western democracy, the leaders of Abkhazia are not pleased about the arrival there of “colossal Russian business” (which is prepared to buy up their energy at source, take total control of tourist facilities, and take over the administrative business of the local authorities). However, these conflicts will not entail a growth in sympathy toward Belgrade or to Tbilisi. The political agenda will simply change slowly. Besides, this is all ahead. And in any case, it will be a different history for these post-Serbian and post-Georgian countries.


Sergey Markedonov is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program Washington, DC

Source: Russia Profile

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