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The Kosovo precedent, by Shaun Walker

Prospect Magazine, Issue 145 , April 2008

The west's recognition of Kosovo's independence has given fresh impetus to other separatist movements. Consider Abkhazia

There are four “breakaway states” in the former Soviet space: entities that were autonomous within their parent Soviet republics, and that when the Union collapsed in the early 1990s demanded their independence.

Some of them—like tiny South Ossetia, which demands independence from Georgia—are inconceivable as “real countries.” But Abkhazia, a strip of beautiful subtropical coastline on the Black sea, which was also part of Georgia during Soviet times, would probably be viable as an independent state.

Abkhazia's population is around 170,000. About 90,000 of these are ethnic Abkhaz, who speak a throaty language with 64 letters. There is also a sizable Armenian population, and during the 1980s, almost half of the population were ethnic Georgians. But when the Abkhaz demanded independence as the Soviet Union disintegrated, Tbilisi sent the tanks in and war broke out. After the Abkhaz came out on top, most of the Georgians fled.

Since then, Abkhazia has been all but ignored by the international community save a small UN peacekeeping mission. It has functioned as a Russian protectorate while remaining within Georgia's internationally recognised borders. It uses the rouble, all its trade is with Russia, and the Russians have even handed out passports to the residents. But Abkhazia has its own flag, a president, a parliament and a media that is free by post-Soviet standards, and the population is determined never again to be ruled by Georgia.

When I visited Abkhazia last month, I heard all the same arguments for independence as on previous visits. But this time there was an added grievance—Kosovo. Abkhazians have always felt that the west has treated them unfairly, and now, since the recognition of Kosovo's independence by several western countries, they feel doubly wronged. Why did Kosovars deserve their freedom more than the Abkhaz?

There are some similarities between the Kosovo and Abkhazia cases—competing historical claims going back centuries, communist systems that drew up arbitrary boundaries, war, atrocities, outside interventions, fleeing populations and refugee crises, and, until Kosovo was recognised, awkward status quos that left no one happy.

Western politicians, however, worried about the potential knock-on effects of Kosovo in the post-Soviet space and elsewhere, have all along stated that there is no “Kosovo precedent.” Kosovo is a “unique case,” we are told again and again.

It is true that there are differences between Kosovo and Abkhazia. The constitutional status of Kosovo within Yugoslavia was slightly different than Abkhazia’s within the Soviet Union. More seriously, there’s the issue of numbers: not only is the population of Kosovo several times higher, but the Albanians in Kosovo were an overwhelming majority; the Abkhaz in Abkhazia were a minority until the Georgian population were forced out in the early 1990s.

Nevertheless, “unique” is not a particularly helpful term. Of course Kosovo is unique, just like every separatist conflict. Kosovo is different to Abkhazia, Abkhazia to Kashmir, Kashmir to the Basque country, the Basque country to Tibet. Just because the Kosovars “deserved” independence doesn’t mean that the Abkhaz do too. But what Kosovo does do is set a precedent that suggests that in certain cases, there is a moral imperative that allows the often arbitrary lines of states to be redrawn. And this will be felt not only in Abkhazia but in unrecognised territories and separatist movements across the world.

In the case of Georgia, the line from the west is unchanging: its “territorial integrity” is sacrosanct. But nowhere have borderlines been more in flux than in the former Soviet Union. The fact that Stalin decided in 1931 to append the republic of Abkhazia to the Georgian republic hardly seems a watertight argument for keeping it there today. “The west say they hate Stalinism and communism,” an Abkhaz minister told me last year. “Yet they are supporting the legacy of Stalinism by insisting that the borders Stalin created cannot be changed.”

The history of Abkhazia, as with so many conflict zones, is complex and disputed. Spend an hour over a bottle of wine with an Abkhaz, and he’ll convince you that the Abkhaz are a small, brave people with a tragic history who deserve their own state, and will come up with 500 convincing historical facts to explain why Abkhazia was never part of Georgia. Spend an hour with a Georgian, and you'll hear 500 equally convincing facts about how Abkhazia has always been Georgian territory.

But it often seems as though Europe and the US only want to listen to one side of this complex story. The Georgians have played a very clever game. A Russian political analyst told me about a Georgian minister who has been a friend of his since schooldays. “When we get together and have a drink, he tells me how he thinks the Abkhaz are scum and he wishes he could hang them all,” he said. “But when he talks to the west, suddenly it’s human rights, democracy, rule of law…”

Presumably worried by the spectre of Kosovo, the Georgians have now shifted from their previous militaristic rhetoric and produced a peace plan. “There are no issues that we and the Abkhazians cannot solve through negotiations,” said President Saakashvili in late March. “Unlimited autonomy, wide federalism, and very serious representation in the central governmental bodies of Georgia—all will be guaranteed.”

The only thing that could never be on the table, said Saakashvili, was the possibility of Abkhaz independence. Which, of course, is the one cast-iron demand that the Abkhaz will bring to the table. It’s the same basic crunch you find in many negotiations, including those between the Serbs and the Kosovars—it’s all very well to talk about confidence-building, step-by-step approaches and so on, but when the Venn diagram of the two sides’ core demands do not touch, there is an obvious problem.

So perhaps it’s time to reassess the Abkhazia situation. If the international community were to say that no options were off the table, and started to treat Abkhazia as a mature negotiating party rather than a pesky pariah, we might start to see some progress. If, when they met with European or American representatives, the Abkhaz weren’t simply faced with the brick wall of the “territorial integrity” mantra, but with an assurance that all options are on the table, Russia’s role as the sole benefactor of the Abkhaz would be undercut.

There are no easy answers in the Abkhazia situation—or for that matter, most of the other territorial disputes around the world. But in recognising Kosovo, the west has admitted that there are sometimes circumstances when a country’s territorial integrity can be violated without its consent. Quite how one determines whether or not a separatist region "deserves" international recognition is difficult to say. But the Abkhaz—as well as many other separatist territories—will feel that, after Kosovo, people should at least listen to their arguments.

Source: Prospect Magazine

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