South Ossetia Kosovo Counterfactual Poll!

We haven’t used the poll function for a while.

So okay: the Russians say that they’re only recognizing South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence because the wicked, lawless West set a precedent with Kosovo. And at first glance, this seems plausible! After all, the Georgia crisis came just six months after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. South Ossetia and Abkhazia had previously made declarations of independence, but nobody — not even the Russians — had recognized them.

Kosovo, said Moscow, made the difference. And not just Moscow. Many commentators, including some who were sympathetic to the Kosovars, quickly agreed.

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Georgia: next?

So the Russians are saying they’ll withdraw from Georgia Real Soon Now. Meanwhile Moscow has signed treaties of mutual defense with the, you know, totally independent and sovereign nations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If Georgia makes a move — or something that Moscow thinks is a move, or wants to think is a move — Russia will intervene again, with as much force as it thinks appropriate.

Meanwhile Georgia, of course, has renewed its national commitment to recovering the lost territories. This includes building up its military, continued pursuit of NATO membership, and sucking up massive amounts of foreign aid from anyone who will give it, most notably the US.

Apropos of which, here’s a recent article in EurasiaNet that lays out some options: continued occupation a la Turkish Cyprus (most likely), formal partition, and internationalization (currently very unlikely, but who knows). Continue reading

Kosovo 46, South Ossetia 2?

I wanted to write a post comparing Kosovo and South Ossetia, but Dan Drezner has already written it. It’s a week old now, but still good:

It’s been more than a week since Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. The number of other countries that have followed Russia’s lead is…. well, maybe one (Nicaragua), as near as I can tell. Belarus keeps promising that they’ll get around to it, and Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has defended Russia’s recognition decision; since that initial promise, however, Belarus appears to have decided to sit on their hands. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has expressed similar support of Russia’s recognition decision – but I haven’t seen any actual recognition from Caracas either… Vedomosti reports that, “It appears that the Russian government has reconciled itself to the fact that no other country has recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said yesterday the reluctance of other states to recognize the independence of the breakaway Georgian territories was not critical.”

As they say, read the whole thing — there are lots of interesting links and some thoughtful discussion of whether recognition was really such a good idea for Russia.

You want to bring along a grain of salt, because Drezner — like a lot of American conservatives — is a mild Russophobe. I note that he thinks the war was a serious economic setback for Russia, a position that Harvard B-School professor Noel Maurer sharply disagrees with. (Key quote: “Markets do not punish successful aggressors.”) Read ’em both and decide for yourself.
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Chess my ass

Various sources are reporting that the Russians have rolled out of South Ossetia and into Georgia proper, and are mounting a major attack on the town of Gori. Gori is about 15-20 km south of the South Ossetian border, and about 70-80 km from Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Russian forces are also massing along Georgia’s border with Abkhazia, preparing to open a second front there.

The Russians are also sending signals about regime change; Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Russia “no longer sees [Saakashvili] as a partner”. They’re also ostentatiously ignoring Georgia’s request for a cease-fire.
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Georgia: played?

Well, the South Ossetia conflict is going pretty badly for Georgia. The Russians appear to have cleared Tsikhinvali, and they’ve moved over six! hundred! armored vehicles into theater. Russian bombers have struck at a number of military targets inside Georgia, and the Russian Navy is maneuvering off the Georgian coast.

It’s increasingly clear that the Russians were very ready for this conflict. In fact it’s looking like the Georgians did exactly what Moscow wanted.

Was Georgia played? We’ll probably never know, but a couple of thoughts come to mind. Continue reading

Frozen Conflicts 3: Welcome to South Ossetia

I’m working through the frozen conflicts in ascending order of awfulness. Two posts about Transnistria can be found here and here.

So, South Ossetia. Little mountainous region up in the back of the Caucasus. Used to be part of Georgia. Declared independence in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was falling apart. There was a shooting war for about a year, which left around a thousand people dead, some tens of thousands ethnically cleansed. When it ended, most of South Ossetia had de facto independence, which they’ve maintained since then with strong support from Russia.

Couple of things you need to grasp if you’re going to understand South Ossetia. One is, it’s not very horizontal. It’s all mountains, with just enough flat ground for one modest-sized town. Almost all of it is over 1000 meters up, about a third of it over 2,000 meters.

Two, it’s not that big. There are only around 75,000 people in South Ossetia. In both area and population, it’s the smallest of the frozen conflicts.

Three, it’s poor. Really poor. I mean, Transnistria is one of the poorest corners of Europe, but Transnistria is Switzerland compared to South Ossetia. It’s basically 75,000 people living on rocks. Okay, okay, not rocks, but this is a region whose traditional economy consisted of driving sheep uphill in spring and back down again in autumn. There’s no industry to speak of. About one-third of the state’s income comes from charging tolls on the single highway. South Ossetia doesn’t export much but timber, sheep and people. Well, and there was a big counterfeiting operation making US $100 bills a couple of years back. But anyway, point is, not much there.

The Ossetians themselves are one of those weird Caucasus groups. Their language is distantly related to Persian; the Ossetians are supposedly descended from the Alans, a medieval nomadic people who were vaguely connected to the ancient Scythians. The Alans had a small empire going in the northern Caucasus back in the 12th century, but then they got badly steamrollered by the Mongols. The survivors fled up into the rugged slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, which is where their Ossetian descendants still live today.

That’s why there’s a North and South Ossetia, by the way: two regions are separated by the spine of the Greater Caucasus range. These are some serious mountains — jagged savage peaks that go up three, four, five kilometers. There’s only one road connection between the two Ossetias. It goes through the Roki Tunnel, which was blasted out by Soviet engineers back in the glorious Soviet heyday of blasting big holes in things. The tunnel is at 3,000 meters altitude and 3.8 km long, and it gets closed by snow every winter. When that happens, there is no way over those mountains by land whatsoever, unless you’re a trained Alpinist with a few days to kill. Ossetians like to talk about the essential unity of the Ossetian people, but geography isn’t really working with them.

Okay, so much for the basics. Now an obvious question: why should you, dear reader, care about South Ossetia? Continue reading

The new great game

Our next anniversary guest post is written by the the great Jonathan Edelstein.

It’s starting to look like the season of referenda in the near abroad.

On September 17, less than a week from today, voters in the unrecognized republic of Transnistria, located between Moldova and Ukraine, will be asked to vote on whether to “renounce [their] independent status and subsequently become part of the Republic of Moldova” or “support a policy of independence… and subsequent free association with the Russian Federation.” The option of “free association” with Russia, which is widely considered a prelude to outright annexation, is reportedly backed by a large number of Russian-financed business and political organizations, some with long-standing presence in Transnistrian politics and others apparently formed for the occasion. In the meantime, South Ossetia, which had earlier explored the possibility of petitioning Russia’s constitutional court for annexation, has just announced its own referendum for November 12, and although Abkhazia currently denies similar plans, there are rumors that a plebiscite may be in the works there as well.

The referenda, which are rather transparently supported by Moscow, represent something of a change in policy for the Russian Federation. It’s certainly nothing new for post-Soviet Russia to attempt to maintain its influence over the countries comprising the former Soviet Union, and it has at times used Russian citizenship to cement the “soft” annexation of neighboring territories; for instance, at least 90 percent of Abkhazians and South Ossetians now hold Russian passports. Nevertheless, up to now, it has soft-pedaled the issue of de jure territorial expansion. The forthcoming vote on whether Transnistria should become a second Kaliningrad suggests that policymakers in Moscow are at least starting to think seriously about taking formal responsibility for the territories that have broken away from other former Soviet republics.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why Russia would push such a policy at the present time. All three of the breakaway republics have substantial minorities who oppose union with Russia; Transnistria is almost evenly divided between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians, and despite post-Soviet ethnic cleansing, South Ossetia and Abkhazia retain Georgian minority enclaves. The recent wave of terrorist bombings in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol may well be linked to the referendum, and Russian annexation of the Georgian breakaway republics would only intensify border conflicts such as the Kodori Gorge. Nor would successful plebiscites lend a veneer of legitimacy to a Russian annexation; indeed, given the current international attitude toward non-consensual secessions from recognized states, this would only make Russia’s legal position worse by transforming it into an occupying power.

In other words, the referenda seem like a recipe for stirring up ethnic conflict within the breakaway republics, making Moldova and Georgia even more alarmed over Russian political ambitions than they already are, and creating new diplomatic and legal problems for Moscow. Which leads naturally to three questions: why now, what does Russia stand to gain in compensation for these risks, and how much should the rest of the world (and particularly Europe) care?
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Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo…

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.
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