Almost a month ago on August 7, 2008, Russia began its march on the former Soviet republic of Georgia in immediate response to a Georgian military strike on the country’s own secessionist province of South Ossetia. The Georgians, in turn, claim the initial strike was in response to violence committed by South Ossetian separatists against Georgian peacekeepers and ethnic Georgian civilians residing inside the territory.
What began as a relatively minor confrontation between local parties has quickly escalated into a small-scale interstate war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia and the western Georgian break-away province of Abkhazia. Both territories, most of whose residents are now nominally ethnic Russian, have claimed independence from Georgia since 1992 and enjoyed open Russian diplomatic and military support.
The conflict has been characterized in the Western media as largely one of Russian aggression against an increasingly democratic Georgia as punishment for its government’s open defiance of Moscow and budding alliance with the West. Specific motives ascribed to the Russian government have included the desire to keep a stranglehold on lucrative oil and natural gas pipelines running through the region, the intention to reassert the old empire’s military and political dominance in its traditional sphere of influence, and the aim of annexing key swaths of Georgian territory whose status remained unresolved following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Georgians, for their part, have been seen as testing the depth and commitment of their new security cooperation with the West and attempting to reassert their sovereignty over effectively lost territory in a moment of misperceived Russian weakness.
Throughout the course of the conflict, Russia has been depicted again and again as the “bad guy” and this may be true. Russia has certainly demonstrated its resentment with Georgian President Saakashvili’s bombastic attacks on Russian conduct in the region and his country’s petitions to join NATO. Even if Russia didn’t formally start this particular phase of the conflict, they’ve been exacerbating this mess to fit their domestic and international agenda for years. The Russian government has also made no real secret of its interest in deposing the current Georgian administration, either directly or indirectly, during this war. Russia has violated ceasefire agreements, it has bombarded Georgian towns and cities outside the two contentious provinces, and it has redeployed “peacekeeping” troops in buffer zones around the provinces preventing control or access by the Georgian state (For more specifics on the ground, see Michael Totten’s excellent dispatch straight from Tsblisi). Apologists for Russia’s actions are quick to point out that Georgia instigated the conflict and that indiscriminate violence against military and civilian targets alike has been the hallmark (and likely intention) of both sides’ campaigns. While the validity of this proportionality claim will likely be hotly debated for some time to come, one thing is certain: the sovereign territorial integrity of Georgia, the very foundation of the international system, has been violated.
In the latest news, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has signed two decrees passed by the Duma recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s formal independence over the vocal objections of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and much of the international community. In the words of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, “This is contrary to the principles of the independence, the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Georgia.” In the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “This is in violation of the principle of territorial integrity, which is one of the basic principles of international law and this is therefore absolutely unacceptable.” The United States has similarly condemned the move with President George W. Bush calling on Russia to reconsider its “irresponsible decision.” President Saakashvili has himself assailed the move as an “attempt to wipe Georgia from the map,” likening Russian actions to those of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany before it to redraw the borders of Europe by force, and has threatened to sever all diplomatic ties with Russia.
Although recognition by Russia is certainly irresponsible and definitely threatening to Georgia and the region at large, it is not without precedent. While we in the West castigate Russia for its rupture of the principles of international order, we seem to have a rather selective memory as to our own actions in this regard. I speak not, as Democratic President hopeful Barack Obama indelicately alluded, to the American invasion of Iraq. Whatever one’s opinion of the war, the stated intention has always been to preserve the country’s territorial integrity. Rather we should turn our attention to a case which is both much more recent and much more readily comparable: Kosovo.
When Kosovo claimed independence from Serbia earlier this year on February 17, it was warmly if somewhat cautiously received by the very same leaders who today deny that South Ossetia or Abkhazi should be entitled to the same status. President Bush argued that Kosovar independence presented “an opportunity to move beyond the conflicts of the past and toward a future of freedom and stability and peace” in the Balkans while Sarkozy encouraged school children to get used to the new look of Europe’s map. Merkel was more reserved in her enthusiasm claiming, “We believe that Kosovo’s case is sui generis and for this reason we have decided to recognize Kosovo.” Unfortunately for Ms. Merkel and for Georgia, simply saying it does not make it true.
Indeed, once notions of Russia’s “true” intentions are set aside and the cases are examined side-by-side, the parallels are striking. Just as Kosovar Albanians sought either independence from Serbia or annexation to Albania, so too do South Ossetians seek independence from Georgia and likely incorporation into Russia. Just as Georgia attacked South Ossetia in response to provocations by Ossetian rebels, so too was the Serbian campaign in 1999 initially in response to attacks by KLA militia on Serbian targets. Despite the West’s many condemnations of Russia’s bombing of Georgian targets outside of the secessionist regions, so too did NATO engage in widespread bombing of Serbia proper. Moreover, as Russian peacekeepers are clearly poised to enforce the political separation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, so too did KFOR occupy Kosovo and deny Serbia effective sovereignty over the region.
The intention here is not to draw parallels between Milosevic and Saarkashvili or to definitively equate American and European intervention in Kosovo with Russia’s methods in Georgia. What the comparison does highlight is the obvious inconsistency of American and Western rhetoric and action as a whole. If demands for regional self-determination and violent military suppression by the state were sufficient conditions for the independence of a small, barely economically viable, and historically unprecedented independent Kosovo, why should the same conditions not hold for South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Conversely, if independence for these regions is such an egregious violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, why should Kosovar independence be seen as any less upsetting?
One may respond: the world of realpolitik, states take what actions they must to craft the world most conducive to their effective exercise of power. In a world of ideals, we must support those who share our values. If we wish to have a world governed by Western laws and values, why should we not grant independence to those who claim to be a part of our cause? Almost nowhere outside of the United States can you find a population more enthusiastically, “flag-wavingly” pro-American than the Albanians of Kosovo. In the Caucasus, however, it is the State of Georgia that is pro-western while it is the breakaway regions who sympathize with our old Russian adversary. In both instances, we side with our allies despite the obvious hypocrisy.
It is because of cases such as these that Stephen Krasner argues that logics of consequences always take precedence over logics of appropriateness. What such a realist perspective ignores, however, is with repeated violations of the logics of appropriateness (norms) that constitute the international system, the foundations of that system begin to crumble. Nowhere is this more clear than in the current crisis in Georgia. While it is certainly true that Russian violations of Georgian sovereignty were the norm prior to Kosovo’s formal secession from Serbia, we should not assume the timing of this actual declaration of support for South Ossetian and Abkhazi independence to be merely circumstantial or a unique product of Russian politics.
Indeed, if we in the West wish to understand the larger forces behind secessionism in the Caucasus, we need look no further than our own backyard. While it is quite cliche to claim that you reap what you sew, clearly Georgia affords the world a critical juncture to reassess in which direction our international system will develop. If we value a system premised on the stability and territorial integrity of sovereign states, we must condemn and take action against those parties that seek to aggressively divide them while taking appropriate but cautious steps to relieve tensions within them. If, however, we believe that the world is best served by dividing territory where conflict appears to be intractable, we had best be prepared to accept that we will not be the only ones doing the dividing.