Moscow is redoubling its rhetorical support for Serbia over Kosovo, ostensibly on the basis of the territorial-integrity principle, while backing its Abkhaz and South Ossetian protégés on the basis of the self-determination principle (as Moscow construes it). Russian President Vladimir Putin leads the charge on the first track, while his presidential administration’s department under Modest Kolerov is operationally in charge of the second track of this policy, working with the secessionist leaderships.
The policy is to obstruct, though not necessarily or ultimately defeat, the Western-approved plan for Kosovo’s supervised independence. Those two tracks are designed to create two alternative options for Moscow: Either abandon Serbia and write off Kosovo for a high price in a bargain with the West; or, conversely, cement an alliance with Serbia and try to freeze the Kosovo conflict as long as possible. The former scenario would cheer Moscow’s clients in the post-Soviet conflicts while the latter scenario would discomfit that same set of clients.
In his June 4 meeting with print media from the G-8 countries, Putin weighed in heavily for the territorial-integrity principle and for Serbia regarding Kosovo. His arguments ranged from the defunct Yugoslavia’s constitution to Serbian national pride to UN resolutions that define Kosovo as part of Serbia (again unilaterally interpreted, as UNSC resolution 1244 was adopted well before Yugoslavia’s final official dissolution). Putin also used this media opportunity to frighten certain European countries into abandoning the common Western position on Kosovo by raising the specter of “separatism” in those countries; he apparently feels completely secure about Russia in this regard. He insisted that the Kosovo conflict in no way differs from the four post-Soviet conflicts: simply “ethnic conflicts,” all requiring the same type of solution, with Kosovo first as a “model.”
Putin chooses to sound agnostic about the substance of a political solution for Kosovo: “Some kind of compromise being reached. … If I knew it I would have long since proposed it. We need to keep looking. This is difficult and complex work. I don’t know [the solution] at the moment.” On the diplomatic process, his motto remains, “No hurry.” Thus, on both substance and process, Russia seeks to perpetuate the deadlock and turn Kosovo into the fifth “frozen” conflict, linking its ultimate resolution with that of the four post-Soviet conflicts (Kremlin.ru, Interfax, June 4).
By calculated contrast, the presidential administration’s directorate under Kolerov (“for cultural and inter-regional ties”) is hosting post-Soviet secessionist leaders periodically in Moscow — most recently on June 4, the same day when Putin was defending the territorial-integrity principle in front of the world press. The Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders, Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoiti, issued from Moscow that day an appeal to the United Nations, OSCE, Council of Europe, and the CIS Council of Heads of State (Interfax, Apsnypress, Regnum, June 4, 5; Vremya Novostey, June 5). The appeal asserts Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s claims to international recognition as states in accordance with the self-determination principle.
While stopping short of requesting immediate recognition, Bagapsh and Kokoiti serve notice through this document that they would press for recognition “with even greater resolve” in the event that Kosovo is recognized as independent from Serbia — “the Kosovo precedent.” In the knowledge, however, that Russia is set to drag out the Kosovo negotiations, the two leaders and their Moscow handlers avoid linking their case too closely with that of Kosovo. Thus the appeal cites “referendums for independence” held in Abkhazia and South Ossetia over the years. It does not mention however the ethnic cleansing and disenfranchisement of half of Abkhazia’s population (mostly Georgian) or the fact that both sets of leaders openly regard “independence” from Georgia as an intermediate stage toward joining the Russian Federation. By the same token, the appeal fails to mention the mass handover of Russian citizenship in the two enclaves. This is an argument for Russia to play protector but is clearly undermining the case for the enclaves’ international recognition
Such omissions are meant to obscure the stark differences between the Kosovo conflict and those on Georgia’s territory. In Kosovo, the Western allies reversed the ethnic cleansing of the native majority; the independence referendum possessed democratic legitimacy; the option of Kosovo joining any state is precluded legally as well as de facto; Western forces provide security, and the European Union is taking charge of economic arrangements.
None of this applies in Abkhazia and South Ossetia because Russia has blocked such processes there, deepening the contrast with the Kosovo conflict. Nevertheless, Russia is now pretending that those situations are identical with the Kosovo conflict. In fact, the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have long turned from “ethnic conflicts” (as Putin mislabels them) into territorial conflicts due to Russia’s de facto seizure of these territories from Georgia. Thus, the territorial-integrity principle provides the relevant legal basis for resolution while the claim to ethnically based “self-determination” is invalid in an Abkhazia ethnically cleansed of its Georgian plurality or an ethnically mixed South Ossetia.
Releasing their appeal at a news conference in Moscow (Interfax, Regnum, June 4, 5), Bagapsh and Kokoiti insisted at the same time that their “self-determination” claim is stronger than Kosovo’s and does not rest on a possible “Kosovo precedent,” although a “precedent” could enhance their claim as they see it. This is also the position of Transnistria’s and Karabakh’s authorities, which founded together with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2006 a “Community for Democracy and the Rights of Peoples.” The group propagandizes for international recognition of these “unrecognized republics” and develops largely symbolic links between them under the aegis of Kolerov’s directorate. Karabakh has partly distanced itself from this four-sided group in recent months.
Moscow retains tactical flexibility on Kosovo, prepared to bargain away either Belgrade’s interests or those of post-Soviet secessionists at some juncture. Consequently, the authorities in Sukhumi, Tskhinvali, Tiraspol, and Stepanakert claim that a solution in Kosovo in Serbia’s favor would not prejudice their own claim to “independence,” because their claim is “much stronger” anyway. This naïve attempt to both preserve and eat the cake was also a feature of the Moscow news conference.
Bagapsh and Kokoiti warned that any Georgian attack on either territory would result in the opening of a “second front” against Georgia from the other territory — “and not only.” They also reaffirmed their sides’ refusal to participate in political negotiations unless Tbilisi removes the parallel authorities from parts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They realize that the existence and increasingly successful operation of those parallel authorities lay to rest any claim to international recognition of the Russian-installed leaderships in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.