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Comparing South Ossetia to Kosovo

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As the conflict between Russia and Georgia escalated this weekend, many international observers have been comparing South Ossetia to Kosovo and the Russian intervention with that of NATO in 1999.
This comparison has been also applauded and inspired by Russian diplomats and officials because it tends to justify their military actions in a neighbor and sovereign country and because it helps portray this recent crisis as a consequence of the Western support for Kosovo's independence. The problem with this comparison is that if it is fairly analyzed it will lead to conclusions, which are opposed to the view offered by the Russians and their supporters.

Russia today like NATO in 1999?

It is true that in 1999, NATO too intervened inside a sovereign state (the dissolving rump Yugoslavian Federation). However, this intervention came more than one year after the conflict had erupted.

From February 1998 to March 23, 1999, the West gave enough time to the Security Council, the Contact Group, OSCE, individual initiatives from neighbor and other countries, a Roman Catholic organization and other international players to try and resolve the situation peacefully.

NATO and Western leaders pleaded with the Serbs to stop their irresponsible behavior in Kosovo promising them that their sovereignty over the province was uncontested and the violence would only radicalize the behavior and the political demands of the Kosovars.

What a difference from the Russian behavior during the recent days. Why wait a year, when they could enter within hours using heavy forces against a country many times smaller than theirs. Of course, no proposals for the Georgians, no warnings, no chance for the diplomacy to solve the situation. To compare this intervention with what NATO did, one has to be either an ignorant of the facts or a sadly biased political analyst. Unfortunately, this is what has taken place in countless of media outlets during this weekend. Few were decent enough to point that such an immediate response from the Russians shows that this had been planned long time before. An analyst even suggested that the Georgians were suckered in.

Of course, the intervention of NATO in 1999 was not approved by a vote in the Security Council, but this important organ of the UN was given several times the chance to be more assertive and efficient on Kosovo, but miserably failed to do so. Russia did no such a thing before aggressively moving inside Georgia 's sovereign territory.

Unlike, Russia today, NATO was not an interested party in Kosovo's conflict. Serbia's neighbors saw the alliance as the guarantor of their security and the domestic Serbian conflict had all the elements necessary to spill wider in the region. Russia has of course roclaimed itself as the guardian of the security in the Caucasian region, but this position is not shared by the others in the region who still remember the face of the old empire in both its monarchic and communist form.

Russia claims that Georgia was the first to use its military in South Ossetia and presents its intervention as a necessary retaliation. However, Moscow does not mention that Georgia's intervention in South Ossetia was prompted by repeated and continuous attacks by South ssetia within Georgian territory (analogous to Hamas rocket attacks in Israel). There is one more difference between the Caucasian province and Kosovo: KLA never initiated any aggression toward Serbia proper.

The situation between Kosovo and South Ossetia in 1999 would have been similar only if Albania had intervened militarily with the pretext of helping the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. This did not happen also because the West just like today with Moscow took the position that Tirana could not be an impartial peacekeeping force in the region. Of
course, you cannot compare Albania 's military strength with Russia 's, but in principle that is the only possible comparison, which makes sense.

A consequence of Kosovo's independence?

The other connection, which sees the events developing in Georgia as a consequence of the Western accommodation of Kosovo's independence, is wrong too.

Ironically enough, Russia justified its opposition to the secession of Kosovo from Serbia with the danger that this act could become a precedent for similar situations around the globe. The concern was not without merit and the West appropriately declared that it considered Kosovo a unique case and that efforts to copy the solution elsewhere would be discouraged. Within six months, Russia became the first country to try to use Kosovo as a precedent by openly supporting South Ossetia secession from Georgia. Suddenly, the sovereignty of a nation was not so sacred for Russia.

One would expect that in the light of this military intervention, Russia would change at least its position on Kosovo, by admitting that the international community was right to impose a solution in 1999.

However, this is not going to happen, emphasizing the hypocrisy of this giant Petrolstate who, less than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Empire has reverted to aggression and intimidation of its neighbors.

South Ossetia with its modest size and a population of only 70,000 is, among other things, too small to be compared with Kosovo. You could however compare it with cases like Alto Adige situated between Italy and Germany and even with the northern tip of Kosovo if you wish. An independent South Ossetia is not a viable project and it would be eventually integrated in Russia, which makes Moscow's military intervention even more unacceptable.

True reasons that weigh much more than the Kosovo effect

Two underlying factors have made Russia intervene in South Ossetia. First, it has to do with the strategic pipelines that go through this part of Georgia and which are vital to the EU energy independence from Russia. It also explains why the 25-country block found some spine to finally rebuke Russia openly for its irresponsible behavior.

Second, this is Russia's payback for Georgia's ambition to join NATO. The small Caucasian country applied for membership but its request was denied in April with EU countries led by Germany fearing that the move would upset Russia. As it usually happens, Putin's Russia took the favor as a sign of weakness and planned the aggression before Georgia could renew its application in December.

The intervention is an open warning to other countries inside the former Soviet zone of influence, which plan to dare Russia by joining NATO. This could have been more for the Ukrainians than for the Georgians to see. Other former Soviet states, such as the three Baltic countries with their significant Russian minorities are right to be concerned. Can the West really stand up to the Russians? Is it willing to?

In this situation, the mere fact of comparing South Ossetia to Kosovo strongly plays in Russian propaganda hands. It has brought misconceptions that should be clarified or it will confuse even more the public opinion that is still divided on a situation, which should
have had no moral ambiguities.

"It all ended for us", said a Georgian war refugee leaving behind his destroyed home in South Ossetia. For the rest of the world though it is all just beginning, once again.
Ruben Avxhiu is an editor of the weekly newspaper Illyria.

Comments (4)


I am sorry to say this is a severely lacking analysis. Georgian-Russian conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not erupt, suddenly, in 2008: it is a result of a situation dating back, at least, to 1992: that is the first strong similarity with Kosovo; i.e. a long-standing conflict and an unresolved status over nationality and sovereignty issues, and the story of empasse and failure of talks and agreements. Secondly, as Kosovars regard themselves (and rightly so) as victims of Serbian violence and aggression, the same goes for Abkhazians and South Ossetians, who regard themselves as victims of Georgian manoeuvres of assimilitation and ethnic cleansing. More, the Russian intervention, which I absolutely condemn, is regarded by the Russians in exactly the same way the NATO intervention in Kosovo is regarded by the West: supporting a minority people threatened of slaughter by a menacing majority. Once more, no difference whatsoever with Kosovo. Again, in the Author's analysis, Russia is regarded as "directly involved" in the South Ossetian conflict, as opposed to the West in Kosovo: well, I fail to understand where the difference lies, as the Western interests and influences in Kosovo, in terms of military presence, exactly match the Russians' in Georgia's breakaway republics. True, though, the US do not share a border with Kosovo or with Serbia: this does not make them less interested in it. All in all, there's no substantial difference between Kosovo and Abkhazia or South Ossetia, if not the unjustifiable bias of whom (the West) decide who has the right to disrespect international law and who hasn't. Once more, I'm absolutely not against Kosovo being independent, but I've become really exhausted by the hypocrite stance of it being "a special case": if Kosovo can be independent, let us all welcome independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

P.S.: As an Italian, I am particularly involved by the Alto Adige (or better, Suedtirol) comparison. Surely, the South Tyroleans are ethnically Austrians (do not even try to call an Austrian "a German"!! They're really sensitive about that! I am afraid the only time Italy shared a border with Germany was after German annexation, or Anschluss, of Austria). That said, surely South Tyrol should ethnically belong to Austria. Such border was nevertheless decided after WWI and incredibly reiterated after WWII, for the bad of South Tyroleans and the good of Italy's chances of Olympic medals in winter sports. Nevertheless, the South Tyroleans enjoy such a high degree of self determination and autonomy (it is set as an example by the UN) that you, as an Italian, even need to prove you can speak fluent German in order to go and work in SuedTirol. And then, Italy and Austria are both in the EU and the border, now, is virtually non existent.
September 09, 2008
Votes: +5

Claurila said:

Italy has no border with Germany.
Alto Adige --or rather South Tirol-- was taken from Austria, and more importantly, against the wishes of its inhabitants who had guarded the passes and remained neutral for centuries.
August 27, 2008
Votes: +0
..., Low-rated comment [Show]

Sebaneau said:

In some ways, the West is now paying for the fault it committed when, instead of recognizing Kosova's independence along with that of Slovenia and Croatia on account of its actual Constitutional status after the March 1989 coup, it recognized the so-called "Federal Republic of Yugoslavia" in its stolen borders after the Dayton accords.
August 15, 2008
Votes: -4

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