Saturday, August 9, 2008

South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) via Kosova

You'd expect a blog named Balkans via Bohemia to look at the sudden explosion of violence between Russia and Georgia from a southeasterly (European) direction. But as I dithered over what precisely to write about it, Steve Clemons at The Washington Note wrote a great post about the relationship between this current crisis and the headlong plunge to recognize Kosovo:

When Kosovo declared independence and the US and other European states recognized it -- thus sidestepping Russia's veto in the United Nations Security Council -- many of us believed that the price for Russian cooperation in other major global problems just went much higher and that the chance of a clash over Georgia's breakaway border provinces increased dramatically.

By pushing Kosovo the way the US did and aggravating nationalist sensitivities, Russia could in reaction be rationally expected to further integrate and cultivate South Ossetia and Abkhazia under de facto Russian control and pull these provinces that border Russia away from the state of Georgia.

At the time, there was word from senior level sources that Russia had asked the US to stretch an independence process for Kosovo over a longer stretch of time -- and tie to it some process of independence for the two autonomous Georgia provinces. In exchange, Russia would not veto the creation of a new state of Kosovo at the Security Council. The U.S. rejected Russia's secret entreaties and instead rushed recognition of Kosovo and said damn the consequences.

That seems to me precisely right. And so is Steve's short sharp smack to the Washington Post's editorial on the conflict on Saturday, which seems remarkably ignorant of a number of key issues raised in Steve's post.

As I've argued on this blog and elsewhere, the Kosovo dilemma is one that could have been resolved over time -- preferably by the joint entry of Serbia and Kosovo into the European Union.

There is a strong case to be made for Kosovo's independence via negotiation. Demographics argue against Serbian sovereignty over the province, and Serbia lost much of its moral authority to "rule" Kosovo in 1989 when it stripped Kosovo of its autonomy. And Serbia doubled down on its forfeit of the right to govern through Solobodan Milosevic's ham-fisted and vicious attempts to gin up conflict in the province again in 1998 and 1999 -- partly in response to the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army. That mistake by Milosevic led directly to the NATO intervention and bombing in 1999.

Strong voices in and out of government here in Washington, DC (indeed, a bipartisan chorus) argued that the US should encourage a declaration of independence by Kosovar Albanians and lead a group of nations in recognizing the new state. Despite that declaration, only 45 countries have recognized the new state thus far -- and not even the entire European Union has done so.

So the situation is a classic stalemate. The US and Europe are lucky, in fact, that the accelerated push for Kosovar independence did not cost reformers in Serbia one or both of the recent elections in the country -- both of which reformers won by the skin of their teeth. Compare the fierce riots in Belgrade that occurred after the independence declaration with the impotent and pathetic turnout to protest the arrest of war crimes indictee Radovan Karadžić. Public feeling in Serbia over Kosovo can still be a deal breaker for democratic reforms and stability in Belgrade in a way that shipping off war criminals to The Hague is not.

So what's to be done? Clearly, Kosovo's Albanians aren't revoking their declaration of independence. But the push to deprive the fragile Serbian government of peaceful ways to protest that move until it can be negotiated in a calmer and more dispassionate manner-- namely bringing the Kosovo issue to the International Court of Justice -- is a huge mistake.

Indeed, the notion of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Ambassador to Belgrade Steven Wordsworth talking of that move as a "mistake" that could impede Serbia's progress to the EU smacks of desperation to keep an international court from looking closely at the issues of sovereignty and self-determination in Kosovo and (hopefully) elsewhere.

After all, aren't those issues -- territorial integrity, self-determination -- precisely the issues in play in Georgia and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia? A thorough examination of these concepts by an international court, followed by a clear and articulate opinion by such a tribunal, could help clear up a number of sticky situations involving those issues across multiple continents.

Such a ruling may not be convenient, but it would be clarifying in a way that the current messes in Kosovo and Georgia are decidedly not.

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