Did Kosovo Set Precedent for South Ossetia?

Posted by Sinisa Boljanovic to Global Voices Online

See Global Voices special coverage page on the South Ossetia crisis.

When Kosovo unilaterally declared independence on February 17, 2008 governments around the world were divided about the legitimacy of such an act. As of today, 45 out of 192 sovereign United Nations member states have formally recognised the Republic of Kosovo. Notably, a majority of European Union member states have formally recognised it (20 out of 27). However, a few others such as Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece or Cyprus did not recognize Kosovo’s independence fearing the reactions of the separatists from their countries. They thought that Kosovo would set a precedent. Then Russia’s president Vladimir Putin apparently did not think so.

According to the Chinese daily Xinhua on February 23, 2008:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday the recognition of Kosovo’s unilateral independence by several major world powers set “a terrible precedent”.

On February 18, the Reuters website published an article on the occasion of Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence. The article, titled “Russia’s Chechen rebels hail Kosovo independence”, said:

Russia has strongly opposed Kosovo independence, arguing that to recognise a separatist region as a new state without the consent of the country affected sets a dangerous precedent for scores of other territorial conflicts around the world.

Bloggers also reacted and analyzed possible consequences of the recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Below is a representative selection of posts from that time.

Stanley Crossick wrote on his blog on February 22, 2008:

Recognition of Kosovo’s independence is an unfortunate solution, but there is currently no better a solution.

[…] Kosovo has separated from Serbia without its consent; and the UN has failed to endorse its independence because of strong protests by Serbia and Russia, backed by China. However, the question should have been brought before the UN Security Council, as the legitimacy, if not the legality, of the independence would have increased with a resolution supported by a large majority, despite the veto(s). The EU foreign ministers have clearly stated that Kosovo is a special case that should not become a precedent but that may fall on deaf ears in Spain, Cyprus.

Irina Filatova, a professor of the Economics in Moscow and a senior research fellow of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, commented on The Guardian’s blog Comment is Free on February 23, 2008:

Many think that Russia would use this situation to recognise the break-away [Georgian republics] of [Abkhazia] and [South Ossetia], and perhaps even [Transdnistria], a break-away part of [Moldova].

[…]The Americans say that Kosovo is not a precedent, that it is a once-off exception. It is difficult to believe this. If a nation wants to secede and to create it own statehood, there is little what any government can do, except keep it by force. […] The independence of Kosovo is useful to the US in order to show the world that America is not anti-Muslim, merely anti-rogue states, some of which happen to be Muslim […] But they would not support the [Basques] or the [Walloons], or the [Kurds], let alone the Transdnestrians.

Nor would they support the Abkhasians and the South Ossetians, of course. On the other hand, if Russia decided to recognise these break-away republics, and if Georgia decided to oppose this (which it would) then the Americans would, of course, support [Georgia], and Russia might, indeed, face a conflict with the west.

Kosovo’s independence is not going to explode Europe, but it has already exploded many of the assumptions on which our modern system of international relations is based.[…]

Shaun Walker wrote in the British Prospect Magazine in April 2008:

[…] 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?[…]

Now it seems that assumptions by many bloggers have become a reality. To everyone’s astonishment, on the same day the Beijing Olympics started, Russian military troups and South Ossetian separatists took control of the South Ossetia region from Georgia’s authority.

Jelena Milić, like many other bloggers, was shocked to hear the news. She wrote [Serbian] about it on her blog in the Serbian news portal B92:

Šta je ovo? Zar nisu nekad ratovi prestajali kad su igre počinjale?

What is this? Weren’t wars supposed to stop when the Olympic Games began?

Ivan Marović, also blogging at B92, wrote a post [Serbian] titled “the War in Georgia” in which he says:

Postavlja se pitanje zašto baš sad, nakon petnaestak godina primirja?

S jedne strane, separatisti i Abhaziji i Južnoj Osetiji su osetili da nakon priznanja jednostrano proglaÄ‘ene nezavisnosti Kosova od strane vodećih država Zapada, oni mogu učiniti nešto slično i očekivati podršku Rusije. […] Rukovodstvo Južne Osetije je, poučeno dogaÄ‘ajima na Balkanu, skapiralo da sve može, ako imaš moćnu državu iza sebe, a u njihovom slučaju to je Rusija.

S druge strane, gruzijski predsednik Miša Šakašvili kapira da je situacija sad ili nikad. On takoÄ‘e misli da ima moćnu državu iza sebe, Ameriku, ali da će, što vreme duže bude odmicalo, sve teže biti izvesti vojnu akciju protiv separatista. Već sad se oseća smanjenje uticaja Amerike i povećanje uticaja Rusije na Kavkazu. […]

MeÄ‘utim, već posle nekoliko sati postalo je očigledno da je Rusija reagovala brzo i odlučno, dok se Amerika još uvek drži retoričkih reakcija. Izgleda da će SAD da pomogne Gruziji onoliko koliko je Rusija pomogla Srbiji 1999, odnosno da je gruzijska vojna akcija u Južnoj Osetiji propala, nema ništa od brzog zauzimanja Južne Osetije. Sad je samo pitanje šta će se desiti, da li će rezultat biti prekid vatre uz pojačano pristustvo ruskih trupa ili otvoreni rat koji može poprilično da potraje.

The question is: why now, 15 years after the armistice?
On one hand, Abkhazian and South Ossetian separatists felt that since Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence was recognized by the leading Western countries, they could do something like that and expect the support of Russia […] With Kosovo on mind, South Ossetian leaders have figured out that if they get the support of a powerful country, in this case Russia, they will attain their goal.
On the other hand, Georgia’s president Mikhael Saakashvili considers that this moment is decisive for his country. He also thinks that he has the support of a powerful country such as the United States, but as time goes by it will be more and more difficult for him to justify the military actions against separatists. […]
However, already after a few hours it became obvious that Russia had reacted promptly and seriously, while the United States is still trying the diplomatic way. It seems that the U.S. will support Georgia in the same way Russia supported Serbia in 1999. It means that Georgia’s military operation has failed in South Ossetia. The fast takeover South Ossetia has failed. Now the only question is whether a ceasefire will be worked out so that Russian troops will remain in South Ossetia or the war will be go on.

Reuters blogger Giles Elgood wrote a post titled “Was South Ossetia’s fate sealed in Kosovo?” in which he wondered:

Is Kosovo to blame for the fighting in South Ossetia?
When the Serbian province seceded from Belgrade in February, South Ossetia was quick to reassert its own claim to international recognition.
As a spokeswoman for separatist leader Eduard Kokoity told Reuters at the time: “The Kosovo precedent has driven us to more actively seek our rights.”
Those remarks will not have gone unheard in Tblisi and could well have added some urgency to Georgia’s desire to impose its rule over breakaway South Ossetia.
With widespread Western backing, Kosovo was able to achieve a fairly clean break with its former ruler, despite Russian objections.
Now Moscow is backing the separatists and it’s far from clear how things will play out this time.

Austin Bey doesn’t agree, claiming that it is not possible to compare both issues – Kosovo and South Ossetia:

[…]After Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, separatism resulting from international action to protect an ethnic minority has an imprimatur.
That is one interpretation of Russia’s argument that Kosovo should never have been allowed to unilaterally separate from Serbia, which it did earlier this year.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia’s separatist South Ossetia region is certainly renewed warfare in the near abroad. It is also a violent reminder of how unsettled Eastern Europe remains in the post-Cold War era.
For Moscow’s foreign policy purposes, the troubles in Georgia fit “the Kosovo frame” – a minority group beset by an “ethnic nationalist authority” attempting to regain control.[…]

[…]I’m pointing this out not because I believe Georgia is Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia. It most certainly is not. Georgia a democratic state “working its way West” politically and economically. These are major qualitative differences between contemporary Georgia and Serbia in 1999.
However, Russian diplomats warned for the last eight years claimed “the Kosovo precedent” would affect around 200 regions or territories in nations around the world. That’s a nice round figure and it may in fact be low.
Moscow’s insisted that Kosovo would establish a “separatist precedent” for spinning statelets from sovereign nations. Interestingly enough, both Romania and Greece oppose a “unilateral” Kosovo independence. Spain, with its Basque separatists, wasn’t enthusiastic.[…]