Is South Ossetia Another Kosovo?

Originally @ Stanford Progressive

Two principal tenets of democratic government in the modern era are the justification and the consistency of official policy. In the realm of international relations, these ideals are paramount in maintaining the appearance of legitimacy when policy regarding foreign states is formulated. The juxtaposition of the South Ossetian War with the Kosovo War, however, exposes the willingness of governments to forego these democratic principles. It showcases the hypocrisy of Russian and American foreign policy towards new nation-states proclaiming independence. Both governments have firmly established self-contradictory positions between the two situations that hint at underlying self-interested political motives.

In August 2008, tensions boiled over between Georgia and South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two northern regions of Georgia bordering Russia. The two provinces, which both declared their independence in 1991 and then recognized each other as independent nations in 2006, have history of heavy opposition to Georgian rule since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The principal complaint of nationalists in the regions has been that Georgian authority in the regions effectively negates their autonomy. An equally alarming claim by both provinces is that the Georgian government has been suppressing rights and using military force to systematically undermine nationalist groups in the areas. This claim seemed to be justified when Georgian troops repeatedly attacked and occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1991 and 2008.

The history of Kosovo is similar. Under Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the government of what was then Yugoslavia passed a referendum expelling many Albanians from state jobs in Kosovo, as well as installing a Serbian-centric curriculum in Kosovar schools. Unlike Serbia, though, Kosovo is heavily composed of Albanians, who are different ethnically and culturally from Serbs. Milosevic’s policies seemed geared towards revoking Kosovo’s autonomy and centralizing power in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. This provoked a nationalistic war that lasted over a decade between Serbian military forces and Kosovar guerillas.

In both cases, when it appeared that cooler heads could not prevail over the tides of nationalist sentiment in both regions, which caused international forces to intervene. In South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian peacekeepers had been stationed in the region. When they were killed in the Georgian attack of August, 2008, Russia moved in its military to out Georgian troops. In Kosovo, NATO created a branch called the Kosovo Force, or KFOR, to maintain order in the region in 1999. KFOR was soon joined by UN peacekeepers and Milosevic was arrested and tried at the International Criminal Courts in Hague for war crimes.

It seemed that both provinces would finally achieve independence. Regardless of which path both regions chose to pursue, it was expected that foreign powers such as Russia and the US would maintain policies that were consistent between both situations.

Defying expectations, however, the US and Russia have chosen to oppose each other over both conflicts and in doing so have implemented contradictory foreign policies. Whereas Russia opposes the ‘secession’ of Kosovo, the US fully supports its ‘independence,’ and although the US refuses to acknowledge South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s withdrawal from Georgia, Russia recognizes their new autonomy. Here is a situation in which two blatantly analogous conflicts merit completely contradictory responses from two major powers.

In February, 2008, Kosovo officially declared its independence, which was orchestrated by the US and EU. Russia and Serbia both maintained that the declaration, made without UN approval, was illegal. On the other side of the equation, by the end of August, 2008, Russian parliament unanimously voted that President Medvedev should recognize South Ossetian and Abkhazian autonomy, while then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice quipped, “It’s not going to happen.”

What accounts for this obvious, unabashed inconsistency in foreign policy? Rice claimed that the US had “been very clear that Kosovo is sui generis [and that that is because of the special circumstances out of which the breakup of Yugoslavia came.” (Sui generis means ‘a unique case.’)

This discrepancy between foreign policies highlights an unfortunately sobering aspect of international relations hidden in the agendas of the two nations: the pursuit of self-interested gain hidden behind the overt goals of fairly mediating regional conflict. Russia has been accused of supporting South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence in order to establish more influence in the region; a main component of independence as it was discussed by South Ossetian government would be the continued presence of Russian military peacekeeping forces. This understandably alarms the US, which doesn’t look favorably upon expanding Russian dominance of Balkans and Caucasus. Conversely, Russia, a longtime ally of Serbia, believes the further dissolution of the former Yugoslavia may only spur more separatism and undermine Serbian authority. The US, which committed itself in the NATO and KFOR operations, sees Kosovar independence as the culmination of its campaign against Milosevic’s government (regardless of the fact that Milosevic and all remnants of his government have been gone since 2000).

While it is obviously mandatory that international policy be established on a case-by-case basis, similar cases should merit similar policies if countries wish their foreign standpoints to appear justified and consistent. As the cases of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Kosovo aptly demonstrate, however, even the ‘playmakers’ in the international arena do not uphold these standards of democratic government. Instead, American and Russian foreign policy hint at the pursuit of self-interested goals deceitfully disguised as attempts to achieve what is best for regions struggling for independence.


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