Just ran across this article at Radio Free Europe. Short version: Russia has decided that independence for Kosovo is probably inevitable, and has decided to milk it for maximum benefit to Russia. Putin’s saying, fine, independence for Kosovo — but then apply “universal principles”, and give independence to the Russian-supported breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and TransDnistria.
Once you get past the initial reaction (“Wow, what a jerk”), this bears a little thinking about.
Putin has half of a point. Part of the argument for Kosovar independence is based on Wilsonian self-determination. This is the idea that a geographically defined, mostly homogeneous group of people, who share a common language and culture, and really want to be a nation, should be allowed to do so… even if they’re part of a larger nation already. This was the argument used to break up Austria-Hungary, back in the day, and it was also the argument behind recognizing Croatian and Slovenian independence fro Yugoslavia in 1991.
On these grounds, there is a strong analogy between Kosovo and at least two of Putin’s babies. Abkhazia is ethnically distinct from Georgia. Of course, it became ethnically distinct because most of the Georgians were ethnically cleansed in 1992-3. Before that, Abkhazians were a minority — just 17%, in the last Soviet census — while Georgians were the largest group. Still, Abkhazia was a weird, distinct little corner of Georgia even before that. So it’s not completely insane.
Then there’s South Ossetia. Again, ethnically distinct: mostly Ossetians. Again, ethnic cleansing — but unlike Abkhazia, it was always majority-Ossetian. Of course, most Ossetians live in Russia, where they seem happy enough to be part of a larger entity. Which sort of weakens the self-determination argument: it’s not that South Ossetians want to be a nation, they just don’t want to be part of Georgia. And South Ossetia is so tiny (3,900 sq. km.) and so devoid of natural resources that it’s hard to see how it’s going to survive.
(Both these conflicts, BTW, go back to the early 1990s and the tragicomic, ultimately disastrous government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Gamsakhurdia, the first democratically elected president of Georgia, was a former dissident and human rights activist. He was also arrogant, intolerant of dissent, militantly nationalist, and fanatically Russophobic. This combination led to bad things, the consequences of which are still being felt today.)
Then there’s Transnistria. Transnistria… well, it’s a gangster state, clawed off from Moldova in 1991-2, ethnically divided between Russians, Ukrainians, and Romanians. It makes no sense ethnically, economically, geographically, or in any other way. It got started because some local Party bosses in Tiraspol objected to taking orders from newly independent Chisinau, snowballed into a sort-of ethnic conflict (though there are plenty of Russians in Moldova, and a plurality of the inhabitants of Transnistria are Romanian), and now has become a prestige issue for Putin’s Russia: Transnistria is almost worthless to Russia, but it’s seen as a Russian protectorate.
So, if we were just talking about Wilsonian self-determination, then Abkhazia and South Ossetia would at least be in the discussion. You can argue whether the analogy to Kosovo is valid, but it’s not a completely insane analogy. (You could also ask whether Russia would support every similar ethnic separatist movement around the world. But let that bide.)
I don’t think the argument should end there, though. A right to self-determination doesn’t arise spontaneously just because you have a group that’s ethnically distinct. There’s more to it than that. The group has to have a valid reason for wanting to be independent. Simply put, there should be a legitimate grievance.
This is an argument that doesn’t get raised very often, because it works across the familiar language of “rights”. Surely a group’s right to self-determination shouldn’t depend on whether it’s oppressed or not.
But turn it around. If an ethnic group is part of a reasonably free country; if it has full rights to express its culture; if everyone gets to speak their native language, and educate their children in that language; if there’s not serious discrimination; and if the group is offered a reasonable degree of autonomy within the greater nation… then what right to they have to break up a country that’s working perfectly well?
Back to Kosovo. Part of the justification of Kosovar independence is Wilsonian. Albanians are a large majority in the province, and have been for a long time; are ethnically and linguistically distinct; and are absolutely united in their desire to be independent of Belgrade.
But another part of the justification is, the Serbs blew it. They had control over Kosovo for a full decade, 1989-99. They used the opportunity to impose a brutal and explicitly racist police state. Over 100,000 Albanians — including most of the province’s doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals — were fired from their jobs. Higher education in Albanian was suppressed. The province was handed over to egregiously corrupt cronies of Milosevic and brutal thugs like Arkan and his Tigers. Even so, armed resistance didn’t become significant until after seven years of this.
(You could argue that this was Milosevic, rather than “the Serbs”. A Kosovar Albanian would respond that Milosevic ‘s Kosovo policy enjoyed broad popular support; and further, that a third of the seats in Serbia’s Parliament are still held by the ultra-nationalist Radical party, and it’s hardly far-fetched to imagine them forming a government one day.)
If you accept this argument, how does it apply to Putin’s breakaway demistates? Well, Transnistria had no good reason to leave Moldova, and a majority of Transnistrians wouldn’t mind being part of Moldova again. While Moldova is a desperately poor country led by an authoritarian and obnoxious ex-Communist, Transnistria is even poorer and its ex-Communist leader is even more authoritarian and more obnoxious. Moldova at least has free-ish elections and the prospect of one day, some day, joining the EU. And Moldova treats its Russian minority tolerably well.
So, no independence for Transnistria. (Not that anyone is seriously thinking about it. Putin’s just scoring rhetorical points with that one.) Abkhazia and Ossetia? Well, that’s tougher. The Abkhaz and Ossetians weren’t being grossly oppressed. There were problems, but they didn’t remotely compare to the Kosovar’s decade of misery under Milosevic.
True, they were coming under a rather hysterically nationalist regime led by a complete idiot. That probably wasn’t enough justification for a war of independence, but they went ahead and made war anyway (with encouragement and assistance from Russia, to be sure.) Now — more to the point — they are independent, and they have reasonable concerns about how they’d be treated within Georgia.
Reasonable concerns; but I don’t think they rise to the level of “these groups must be given independence, for there’s no other way they can survive”. Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians got along tolerably well for generations. The Georgian government has expressed its willingness to try a variety of solutions… autonomy, federalism, cantonization, you name it. It’s not hard to imagine a Georgia including these regions but giving them (by regional standards) a reasonably high degree of freedom and justice. On the other hand, it’s quite hard to imagine either Abkhazia or Ossetia giving much freedom or justice to their own people as independent states.
(Is this the right metric to be using? Gandhi once said that “good government is no substitute for self government”. Upon much consideration, I don’t think that’s true… but it’s a trickier question than it first appears.)
Anyway. Kosovo will be gaining some sort of “conditional independence” soon, possibly this year… not because of either Kosovo or Serbia (both of whom are indulging in a politics of gesture) but because the international community is tired of keeping Kosovo as a sort of expensive pet. Whether this will have any effect on the frozen conflicts to the east… I doubt it. Transnistria and the Georgian provinces will have to be solved on their own terms, some day, one day.