Controversy over Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence
Russia's initial recognition of the independence of the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia occurred in the aftermath of the conflict in South Ossetia and 6 months after the western recognition of the unilateral declaration of independence by Serbia's breakaway Republic of Kosovo in February 2008. This, and resultant non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the West, has led to claims of hypocrisy and double standards on the part of both sides of the recognition divide.
Kosovo as a precedent
The Assembly of the Serbian Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija, under administration of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo since 1999, unilaterally declared independence as the Republic of Kosovo on 17 February 2008. The Republic of Kosovo was soon recognised by the United States and the EU-3.
In an emergency session of the UN Security Council Serbian President Boris Tadić asked the Council, "Are we all aware of the precedent that is being set and are we aware of the catastrophic consequences that it may lead to?" The Permanent Representatives of the United States, United Kingdom and France presented their opinion that the Kosovo case is sui generis in nature and could not be perceived as a precedent.
The setting of a precedent was mentioned by many countries. Among them were Argentina, and Cuba. India stated that Kosovo "can set a very dangerous precedent for similar cases around the world." The then Russian President Vladimir Putin described the recognition by Western powers of Kosovo independence as "terrible precedent, which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries." He then went on to say, "They have not thought through the results of what they are doing. At the end of the day it is a two-ended stick and the second end will come back and hit them in the face."
Some analysts at the time called ignoring Russian objections and the move by the United States and the EU-3 a mistake, with Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute stating that their view of Kosovo being sui generis and setting no precedent as "extraordinarily naïve". It was also suggested that Russia could use the case of Kosovo as pretext for recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia or annexing Crimea in the future. The Heritage Foundation suggested that Kosovo is no precedent due to its administration by the United Nations as a protectorate for seven years and was blocked from being admitted to the United Nations due to Russia being able to use their veto in the United Nations Security Council.
In hearings before the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, California Republican Congressman and member of the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, Dana Rohrabacher, compared the situation in Georgia to Kosovo.
In July 2008, in a speech to Russian ambassadors on Russian foreign policy, Dmitry Medvedev opined that "for the European Union, Kosovo is almost what Iraq has proved to be for the United States" and that they acted unilaterally in pursuit of their own self-interests and undermined international law in the process.
In October 2009, Dmitry Medvedev said that parallels between Kosovo and South Ossetia are "inappropriate". "We are categorically against drawing parallels between the Balkan events and the events in the Caucasus," he said. "As concerns South Ossetia – it’s our unambiguous, absolutely clear position – it about repelling direct military aggression. And what was done by Russia after that, was done in full accordance with the UN Charter." He said that Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence and the events that followed "have confirmed the inadequacy of attempts to adjust the solution of complex international problems to considerations of notorious political expediency." "We consider it unacceptable to do what was done in the Kosovo precedent – to use the lack of progress at negotiations as the reason for unilateral actions, including recognition of new international legal entities," the Russian president said.
As a precedent in other disputes
Оn 18 September 2008, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov summarised and explained Russia's position in relation to the other two frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union, the Nagorno Karabakh Republic and the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, both de facto independent republics seeking international recognition.
"Russia will provide active support to the peaceful resolution of all conflicts in the CIS area on the basis of international law, respect to all principles of UN charter, previously attained agreements in striving for an agreement between the involved parties. We will execute our mediatory mission in the negotiation process with great responsibility, which refers to Transdniestria and Nagorno Karabakh. Each conflict has its own features, format and mechanisms of mediation. But the South Ossetian crisis does not set a precedent for them."
He went on to give the following explanation for this position:
"None of those concerned with Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistrian settlement plan to violate international law, tear up existing accords, destroy the agreed settlement formats and bomb civilian residents and peacekeepers. There is no one there who would like to ensure territorial integrity by mass killing of people whom you consider your citizens, residents of your own country. There can be no parallels here. Thank God Saakashvili is the sole phenomenon of its kind."
Nagorno Karabakh Republic
The French ambassador to Armenia Serge Smessoff commented that "the events in Georgia have changed the regional situation, and therefore we hope that there will arise the possibility of rapid solution to the Karabakh conflict."
In Armenia the five political parties: the Union "Constitutional Right", the Democratic Party of Armenia, the United Communist Party of Armenia, the Christian-Democratic Union of Armenia and the Union "National Self-Determination" welcomed the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the Russian Federation. The Union "Constitutional Justice" stated in a declaration that "today an unprecedently favourable situation for the international recognition of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic has come to a head, and Armenian diplomacy does not have the right to delay" and "What Armenian and Karabakh diplomacy could not do in 17 years, Russia has done in 20 days." Тhe declaration went on to say that "in case of the conflicts which have arisen on post-Soviet space, the thesis of territorial integrity cannot be a method for solving the conflicts. On the contrary, the continued reiteration of this thesis can lead the conflict to military confrontation, and all of the consequences that entails."
The Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, however, stated that Armenia will not formally recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states any time soon, but reiterated his support for their residents’ right to self-determination. He said that Armenia will not recognise them "for the same reason that it did not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Having the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia can not recognize another entity in the same situation as long as it has not recognized the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic."
Secretary of the opposition party Heritage Stepan Safaryan expressed the opinion that the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Armenia would be dangerous as it could damage Armenia's sole stable way to communicate with the outside world - through Georgia.
President of the unrecognised Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, also known as Transnistria, Igor Smirnov said that "the Russian leadership, in recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has underlined the priority of the expression of the will of the people for solution of such problems."
On 25 August, the day before Russia's recognition, Dmitry Medvedev met with President of Moldova Vladimir Voronin, where the Russian leader made it clear that Moscow is ready to solve the Transnistrian problem within the framework of the sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova with the maximum effort. Relations between Moldova and Pridnestrovia worsened after Moldova refused to support the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
According to a declaration addressed to the Council of Europe by Russian human rights activists, "the situation in the North Caucasus republics has became greatly more agitated since the war between Russia and Georgia in the South Caucasus." In Ingushetia, Ingush opposition activist, Magomet Khasbiyev in an interview with radio station Ekho Moskvy called for Ingushetia to separate from Russia, saying that "We must ask Europe or the US to separate us from Russia." He also said "If we aren't acceptable to this country, we don't know what else we should do."
President Dmitry Medvedev did not express concerns about possibility of renewed separatist sentiments in the North Caucasus and believed such scenarios could only arise from foreign countries. In an interview with Euronews he said that he did not "see any such dangers so long as the people from abroad do not meddle in these affairs, thinking up various scenarios for dismembering Russia."
Georgian justice minister Nika Gvaramia claimed that “this will have very serious political consequences for Russia." "We will overcome this crisis, I am sure; but what is Russia going to do with its own state – in respect of separatism, which is still a problem in Russia; I'm not worried much about it, but I am sure that it will lead to a total collapse of Russia if not today, tomorrow, for sure," he told journalists.
Following the Russian recognition of South Ossetia, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt stated, "South Ossetian independence is a joke. We are talking about a smugglers' paradise of 60,000 people financed by the Russian security services. No one can seriously consider that as an independent state."
Latvian newspaper Diena on 28 August 2008 argued that Medvedev’s decree was "a blow below the belt" for Russia’s ally Serbia. "If the changes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia occurred, as Russia claims, in accordance with the example set in Kosovo, then that means that Russia has indirectly admitted that Kosovo’s departure from Serbia was lawful."
When asked about U.N. resolutions that supported Georgia's territorial integrity, Permanent Representative of Russia to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin claimed that "Their use of force against South Ossetia clearly dashed all those previous resolutions and created a completely new reality." However, France's deputy UN ambassador Jean-Pierre Lacroix argued that "there is no way you can “dash” or “cancel” or whatever “terminate” a resolution of the Security Council by force."
Andrey Illarionov, former advisor to Vladimir Putin, argued that recognition of Abkhazia will legitimize the ethnic cleansing and apartheid. He also cited several differences between Kosovo and Abkhazia as the reasons why Abkhazia should not be granted recognition. In Kosovo the ethnic cleansing was carried out by Serbs - the opponents of secession; In Abkhazia it was committed by the secessionists. While the right of return of refugees to Kosovo was a precondition for self-determination, in Abkhazia the self-determination is linked with the refusal to allow the return of internally displaced people. Abkhaz separatists rejected several peace plans proposed by Georgia, the United Nations, and Germany; while in Kosovo it was Serbia that rejected peace efforts. After the war, Kosovo was ruled by U.N. administration; while Abkhazia denies international organizations entry.
In April 2014, it was suggested that Russia was more embarrassed by Tuvalu's withdrawal of recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, than by international sanctions for Crimea, since this "decision could spell the end of a years-long diplomatic strategy that has cost Russia millions."
Stephen F. Jones argued that while South Ossetia was seeking for union with Russia, the political realities of the South Caucasus made this an unlikely prospect. In the 2012 presidential elections, Alla Dzhioyeva, an opposition representative had victory snatched from her by the South Ossetian Supreme Court. This illustrated the region’s limited political autonomy, which was underlined by the unchallengeable presence of the Russian military. That court decision supported the contention that South Ossetia is a not a real state, but a Russian vassal. South Ossetia's borders are controlled by Russia. There is no South Ossetian foreign policy. South Ossetia does not have the functions of a state to provide for its citizens. There is little popular support for independence.
- Russo-Georgian War
- International reaction to the Russo-Georgian War
- Kosovo independence precedent
- List of states with limited recognition
- South Ossetian independence referendum, 2006
- International recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
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