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Russia’s Kosovo Precedent

Russia’s Vladimir Putin darkly hinted that his country would invade and dismember Georgia months before last month’s war in the South Caucasus region began. “We have Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Pridnestrovie [Transnistria],” he said back in February of this year after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, “and they say Kosovo is a special case?” Putin has a point, but only a very small one. The overwhelming majority of Kosovars want nothing more to do with Serbia just as the majorities in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia want to secede. But there the similarities end.

Kosovo is a viable nation state of more than two million people, greater in size than its neighbors Montenegro and Macedonia which also broke free of Yugoslavia recently. (Montenegro’s secession from the Yugoslavian rump state of Serbia-Montenegro in 2006 somehow didn’t produce any hand-wringing about a “Montenegro precedent” in Russia or anywhere else.)

South Ossetia, meanwhile, has a population of around 60,000 people, the size of a small American suburb. Abkhazia’s population is less than 200,000, around the size of a large American suburb. These are not viable nation states.

Nevertheless, last week Russia recognized them as independent. Unlike Kosovo – which is formally recognized by 46 counties, including all of the G7 – no country in the world other than Russia recognizes the “independence” of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. That’s partly because what really just happened is de facto Russian annexation. Before the invasion and dismemberment of Georgia, Russia made the majority in South Ossetia and Abkhazia citizens of Russia and gave passports to anybody who asked. I just returned from a trip to Georgia, and the Russian military wouldn’t let me enter South Ossetia or even the central Georgian city of Gori because I did not have a Russian visa.

Nobody annexed Kosovo. In theory Kosovo may have been suited for annexation by Albania since around 90 percent of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians. But few Kosovars want to be part of Albania. Albania remains a dysfunctional post-communist mess of a place, though one that at least is less corrupt, authoritarian, and dysfunctional than Russia.

The biggest difference, though, is how South Ossetia and, especially, Abkhazia managed to forge themselves as autonomous regions of Georgia in the first place.

In 1989, only 17 percent of what is now Abkhazia was ethnically Abkhaz. Almost half its population were ethnic Georgians. The remaining population was made up mostly of Russians, Armenians, and Greeks. After a brutal war of ethnic-cleansing in 1992 and 1993, most of the Georgians were killed or driven out. More than 200,000 remain internally displaced persons inside their own country. Most of the Russians, most of the Greeks, and almost half the Armenians have also since left. An Abkhazian majority that wants to secede from Georgia wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for that war and the mass reduction of ethnic Georgians who lived there.

South Ossetia is more ambiguous. Unlike Abkhazia, that district did begin in the post-Soviet era with an ethnic Ossetian majority, but ethnic Georgians made up nearly a third of its population until most were driven out by Russia’s invasion last month.

Kosovo was not created by ethnic cleansing. Ethnic Albanians did not need to drive out Serbs in order to create a space where they were a majority with the plausible ability to secede. They made up the overwhelming majority before a single shot was fired in the 1999 war, just as they make up the overwhelming majority now.

Kosovo’s Albanians, however, were the victims of a massive ethnic-cleansing campaign by Serbian Nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic, whose forces displaced 90 percent of the population and drove almost 50 percent out of the country entirely. That is what Kosovo has in common with Abkhazia. Kosovo would still be empty of Albanians if NATO hadn’t escorted them back to their homes in 1999.

Kosovo wasn’t created by ethnic cleansing. Abkhazia was. If anyone in the Caucasus has something meaningful in common with the Albanians of Kosovo, it’s the Georgians who lived in Abkhazia.

The real parallel with Abkhazia is Bosnia’s Republica Srpska, the ethnic-Serb dominated region carved out of Bosnia by the recently captured war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Republica Srpska wouldn’t exist with an ethnic Serb majority if it weren’t first violently purged of Croats and Bosniaks in the mid 1990s.

Kosovo, to be sure, has something in common with Abkhazia. But the surface-level similarity exists far more for the convenience of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Ministry of Disinformation than it does on closer inspection in the real world. The Kosovo precedent, framed more appropriately, is a warning to tyrants and mass murderers that they may permanently lose territory they attempt to ethnically cleanse. Russia’s Abkhazia precedent, on the other hand, encourages ethnic-cleansing by rewarding its victors with international recognition of territory they violently carve out for themselves.

South Ossetia has a bit more in common with Kosovo. Though ethnic-cleansing has taken place there on a smaller scale, at least that district had an Ossetian majority to start out with. But its microscopic population of 60,000 makes the analogy a little ridiculous. If every disgruntled minority group of that size in the world justifies a massive foreign invasion and de-facto annexation, watch out. Few borders on Earth are so perfectly drawn along ethnic lines. Russia’s own are certainly not.

There are sensible reasons to be concerned about the Kosovo precedent, but the Abkhazia and South Ossetia precedents are far more dangerous to peace and stability in the world.