On Point: Pandoran Wars: Living with the Kosovo Precedent

by Austin Bay
August 10, 2010

This past Sunday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev madea brief visit to Abkhazia, the "breakaway statelet" within theCaucasus region's nation of Georgia.

Medvedev chatted with an Abkhazian rebel leader, and thenreflected on Russia's decision in August 2008 to "liberate" Abkhaziaand neighboring South Ossetia from what the Russians insistently described asGeorgian ethnic domination. "It was not a simple decision," Medvedevsaid, according to Agence France-Presse. "But time has shown that it wasthe right decision. The existence of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhaziawas under threat."

Medvedev did not use the term, but the man from theKremlin was invoking  the KosovoPrecedent. When Russian forces moved on Georgia in 2008, the Kremlin pointed tothe 1999 U.S.-led NATO invasion of Kosovo, at the time part of Serbia, tojustify its attack. If you (NATO) can do it, the Russians said, so can we.

A Georgian deputy prime minister replied to Medvedev,asserting that the Russians "are still playing a game that they havelost." Abkhazia and South Ossetia "are now recognized as occupiedterritories ... "

Serbia lost the Kosovo War in 1999. Last month, Serbialost again when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Kosovo'sFebruary 2008 unilateral declaration of independence was legal.

Serbia, supported by Russia, argued that the KosovoPrecedent opened an international Pandora's Box. After Kosovo's unilateraldeclaration of independence, separatism resulting from international action toprotect an ethnic minority has an imprimatur. If protecting Kosovar Albanianselicits a NATO invasion what's to stop -- to take the non-theoretical example-- Russian peacekeepers from liberating Abkhazian and South Ossetian minoritiesfrom Georgia?

Russian diplomats estimated that in some political shape,diplomatic form or military fashion, the example of Kosovo (NATO invasion,subsequent status as a functional U.N. protectorate, then its unilateralseparation from Serbia) affected over 200 separatist conflicts around theworld. If self-determination supersedes national territorial integrity, theworld can expect a series of secessionist crises.

In late July, the judges said nay and issued a verynarrow ruling: Kosovo is a singular case of liberation of a people (KosovarAlbanians) threatened by murder at the hands of an oppressive regime (dictatorSlobodan Milosevic's Serbia).

History however, may not be so blithe.

Despite the ICJ's attempt to focus on Kosovo's situationin 1998 and 1999, nation states threatened by separatist movements and thesecessionist organizations interpret Kosovo in universal terms. No court iscapable of containing a conflict by mere decree.

Radio Free Europe correspondent Ahto Lobjakas wrote afterthe ICJ decision that its greatest weakness:

" ... is that it allows treating Kosovo as aprecedent set by a coalition of the willing. The particular coalition of thewilling behind Kosovo may have right and morality on its side, but it's in thenature of all balances of power to be mutable, transitory." Arguing Kosovois unique "is not a legal argument, but a political one. Like Kosovo's,Abkhazia's independence remains a function of outside backing -- though unlikeKosovo, Abkhazia could be said to have the 'wrong' friends."

Wrong equals Moscow. Right equals Washington.

Uniqueness was the U.N., British, French and U.S.diplomatic pitch: Kosovo was to be a "one off" event. The invasion ofKosovo by the Clinton administration was an invasion of conscience, intended toprotect the vulnerable Albanian Kosovar minority.

In 1999, several nations facing separatist movements,including NATO member Spain, did not buy the "one off"; Basque andCatalan separatists confronted Madrid and claimed their own unique status.

In 2010, despite the ICJ ruling, how the Kosovo Precedentwill affect the troubled world order remains unsettled.

Unfortunately, bitter political struggles in scores ofnations around the world and -- very likely -- dirty little wars ofindependence (or secession) in the afflicted states will render the historicaljudgment, in blood.

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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