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South Ossetia: Did Kosovo set a precedent?

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 proglađene nezavisnosti Kosova od strane vodećih država Zapada, oni mogu učiniti nešto slično i očekivati podršku Rusije. […] Rukovodstvo Južne Osetije je, poučeno događajima 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 takođe 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. […]

Međutim, 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.[…]

25 comments

  • GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PARTY ASKS NOBEL INSTITUTE NOT TO AWARD NOBEL PEACE PRIZE TO SAAKASHVILI

    Armenpress
    Oct 4, 2005

    TBILISI, OCTOBER 4, ARMENPRESS: A Georgian opposition party has sent a
    letter to the Nobel Institute in Norway asking it ‘not to award the 2005
    Peace Prize to Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili.”

    Shalva Natelashvili, the chairman of the Labor Party, said the party
    asked the Novel Institute that is to convene on October 7 to decide the
    winner, ‘to examine Georgian president’s performance, who is trying to build
    an authoritarian regime violating basic human rights and freedoms.”

    http://www.armeniandiaspora.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-38664.html

  • blacksilver

    Iraq did kill >1 million civilians and tried to assassinate the U.S. president’s father. That last fact alone makes the Russo-Georgia conflict different. The U.S. may have gone in over a U.N. border, but only after months of telling everyone what they were going to do and have a chance to change the course. Russia instead betrayed everyone who was trying to use other mechanisms to fix the problem, by completely ignoring any chance for them to succeed.

    I’m not saying what the U.S. did was right. I’m saying that if its OK to do it because the U.S. did it then you have now lost any moral argument you had in this. It is now just about who is allied with whom. The U.S. can now use the same argument to invade any country it wants! That is of course if you really believe what you are saying…

  • RBG

    Russia-vs-Georgia.com – voting and more then 2000 comments about war in South Osetia

    http://www.russia-vs-georgia.com/

  • Saratov

    The Russian Bear comes out of Hibernation, with thermonuclear teeth, new devices to bite hard and can’t be IGNORED.
    The RS-24 is a MIRV warheads version of the operational Topol-M (SS-25), carrying up to 10 independently targetable warheads.
    Hours after it was launched, Russian President Vladimir Putin fired his own warning that the US missile shield could “transform Europe into a powder keg”.
    The R-500 is a new cruise missile adapted for the Iskander launcher previously used only with tactical ballistic missiles. With a range of up to 280 km (170 miles), a radar-evading trajectory and a hit error of no more than three meters, it can be effectively used against small targets, including separate missile launchers.
    http://www.military-today.com/navy/borei_class.htm
    Borei class submarine, armed with 16, Submarine-launched ballistic missiles called the SS-NX-30 Bulava.
    The current version of the Bulava is able to carry up to six MIRV warheads; future variants are expected to carry a maximum of ten.
    http://www.warfare.ru/?linkid=1687&catid=263
    Russian Nuclear supersonic ramjet powered cruise missile SS-N-22 Sunburn / Kh-41 (ASM-MSS) Moskit. And MORE.

  • blacksilver

    Yea, yea. As you can see it was already expected. Mutually assured destruction has been status quo for… long before I was born. For 10 years now the U.S. has been waiting for this, watching it in the works behind the rhetoric. I, myself, first heard about it in 1999, and I have nothing to do with the U.S. government (or any other for that matter). You don’t think the U.S. already has some kind of balancing response? You think the U.S. is tied up in Iraq when all the U.S. political parties agree more or less to have their troops out by next year or the year after? Haven’t you noticed? That war is already over. They’re ready to go where they need to next. So, where do you think they’re going to move those troops next? You really think a nuclear Iran worries the U.S. more than Czar Putin gone crazy?

  • blacksilver

    Look, I’m trying to stay on point. I agree that there could have been a precedent in Kosovo, but the way Russia acted totally nullified their right to it. If big brother Russia had waited for EVIDENCE to come forth and proven by independent observers before throwing a big tantrum, then Saakashvili could be rightfully hanging from a rope in a court somewhere with no word from the U.S. Instead Czar Putin decided he’d go for a swing on the rope himself. They’re having a hard time finding 100 bodies from the initial attack let alone 1600; Kokoity directly admitted his war crimes to the journalists standing before him when he said he took civilian’s hostage!
    That’s really what my point is.
    This event sets precedence more than Kosovo did.
    Now anybody can act like Russia, put out a media blitz about genocide in some other country, and immediately (or going back in time if you believe the cyber-attack stories) invade with the forces they already had massing on the borders… right? If the law of the world is that if one country does it then all countries can do it as you say, then what you say is right. I don’t agree.
    But then… just because I don’t agree doesn’t mean we won’t nuke you.

  • Brett

    I’m sorry to put it so bluntly, but it seems absurd to deny the obvious impact of Kosovo or Iraq on the Russian invasion of Georgia. In fact, the line is clearly drawn back to the NATO war on Serbia (one I supported at the time, and still do, though with much more appreciation for the deleterious effect of “humanitarian intervention” — which I broadly support, R2P, for example — on sovereignty and international order.) That’s why it’s called a dilemma. The NATO action in Kosovo does seem to have been, as the international commission found, “unlawful but justified.” Again, a dilemma. But that war set a precedent — legal, political and rhetorical — which helped pave the way for the US invasion of Iraq. Iraq — once the putative casus belli was found to be, well, lacking in empirical substance, the Bush administration shamefully abused the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention to justify — ex post facto — an invasion the New American Century Foundation (later the Bush cabinet) planned in 1995. That violation of international law — the willful, indeed criminal invasion of a sovereign state for the purpose of regime change — was but the most brazen violation of international law committed by the United States in modern history. That they framed it in terms of jus ad bellum doesn’t change the facts. Sometimes, as in Kosovo, perhaps, international law should be violated for the sake of humanitarian rescue. But Bush’s abuse of those ethical principles was a political precedent for the Russian abuse of them in Georgia. That’s hardly a leap. The dots couldn’t be clearer. Recognizing those relationships doesn’t justify them, and certainly doesn’t lend moral or ethical support to Iraq or South Ossetia. But what the Kosovo-Iraq-South Ossetia chain makes clear is that one who violates the law as willfully as the US has in the first two links (and again, sometimes the law ought to broken) cannot make a strong case against someone else breaking the law in as brazen a fashion as the Russian case. Hearing Bush and Rice speak of the importance of international law (the paramount importance of the respect for sovereignty for God’s sake!) is perhaps the only thing more shameless than their use of humanitarianism to justify their war on Iraq.

  • RBG

    Russia-vs-Georgia.com – visitor can vote there for one of the conflict sides. Now Russia leading – only 20% of visitors support Georgia.

    And there is more then 2000 comments about war in South Osetia – interesting to read opposite opinions –

    http://www.russia-vs-georgia.com/

  • […] Many suspect that Russian military action was planned with this in mind, especially after the precedent set with Kosovo. A vote by parliamentarians on the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would not be binding on the […]

  • The U.S. is very responsible for Russia’s return to (old school politics) with its satellite countries. Mind you, I am not proud of this at all.

    If you recall, the US was trying to work with the UN to get Saddam Hussein to allow the nuclear inspections resume. Saddam ended up giving the US, “the finger.”

    However, the US should’ve really had an international coalition before going into Iraq. We should’ve also made sure that our facts were accurate in regards to the intelligence we had.

    The fact that we, “John Wayne’d” the invasion into Iraq, does give some credence to Russia’s desire to mettle with the affairs of Georgia.

    If you add to that, the d.o.i of Kosovo & how we lobbied countries around the world to honor that, basically set the stage for what we are currently seeing.

    Putin had made a speech about 2 months ago, where he said that America wants Russia weak. I believe his assessment is correct. Instead of treating Russia like an ally that wants to do the right thing, we (Bush admin) treated Russia like it should be a US puppet.

    It’s no wonder that with Russia’s gas & oil reserves, it is telling the world to, “stuff it!”

    Besides Russia’s aggression they have done a very good job in reversing democracy in their country. Way to go, “Bush!” :-P

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