The independence precedent
Nov 29th 2007 | SUKHUMI AND TSKHINVALI
From The Economist print edition
Why Georgia's enclaves would love to follow, but will probably fail
KOSOVO Albanians and Serbs met in Austria this week for last-chance talks before a United Nations deadline of December 10th, after which Kosovo is likely to declare independence unilaterally. Serbia's old ally, Russia, blocks any UN resolution. But plenty are watching south of Russia in the enclaves of Georgia. As Maxim Gunjia, the cheery young deputy foreign minister of Abkhazia, says, “because Russia does not want Kosovo to be recognised, it does not mean that we do not want it.”
When the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia fell apart, sovereignty passed to their constituent republics. But Kosovo was a province of Serbia. Its independence, argues those worried by precedents, will be seized on by separatists from Catalonia to Chechnya (to say nothing, nearer home, of the Bosnian Serb republic). As Russia's Vladimir Putin once asked, “If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?”
Why indeed, ask people in these two enclaves, which are among the four “frozen conflicts” left from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. The enclaves broke away from Georgia in nasty wars in the early 1990s, but no country recognises their independence. Two other frozen conflicts are in Transdniestria, which split from Moldova, and Nagorno-Karabakh (see article). Recently the presidents of three of these Russian-backed places met in Sukhumi, Abkhazia's capital.
Abkhazia is a backwater, much of it in ruins. In contrast to the Balkans, it has received no international largesse. This would change, argues Mr Gunjia, if the world would only recognise Abkhazia. That is unlikely. Western countries are wedded to the territorial integrity of Georgia; so, despite its support for the secessionists, is Russia. Leyla Taniya, an analyst, sighs that Russia cares for Abkhazia only “as a card that can be played” directly against Georgia or in the great game with the West over the region's future.
“Those rules which work for Kosovo will work for South Ossetia,” insists Alan Pliev, South Ossetia's deputy foreign minister, in Tskhinvali, the capital. But the situation in each place is different. Kosovo has 2m people, 90% of them ethnic Albanians, who have long been in the majority. Only 200,000 people live in Abkhazia. Before the war in the early 1990s only 18% of them were Abkhaz; even today they make up no more than 45% of the people, the rest being Armenians, Russians and Georgians. More than 200,000 Georgians from Abkhazia are refugees in Georgia who are unlikely to be allowed to return.Georgians accuse the Abkhaz of ethnic cleansing. The Abkhaz say they have reclaimed what was lost by deportations to Turkey in the 19th century and to Siberia in the 20th century, as well as through later Georgian settlement (Stalin was Georgian). Today Russia supports the Abkhaz and South Ossetians with money, troops and passports. Both places use the rouble; Russian money is flowing in, especially to Abkhazia. The Russian passports let locals travel, but may also allow Russia to claim its citizens have been attacked if Georgia tries to retake the enclaves.Yet even if Kosovo declares independence, Russian recognition is unlikely. It might, says Inal Pliev, a journalist in Tskhinvali, be Russia's “holy duty”, but reality intrudes. South Ossetia is a tiny patchwork with perhaps as few as 50,000 inhabitants in the Ossetian-controlled part. Much of the land is controlled by Georgians. It is linked to Russia by a tunnel through the mountains; on the other side is the autonomous Russian republic of North Ossetia.“Our aim is unification with North Ossetia,” says Alan Pliev. “We don't know if that would be as part of Russia or as a separate united Ossetian state.” The deputy speaker of parliament, Juri Dzittsojty, is cautious. “I would prefer there to be an independent and united Ossetia, but today it is not possible. It is safer to be with Russia. The main aim of the struggle is to be independent of Georgia.And tomorrow? If Russia recognised the enclaves, that might encourage bits of Russia that wanted independence. This is why Russia is unlikely to act even if Kosovo is widely recognised. Yet the Georgians are nervous. David Bakradze, the state minister for conflict resolution, says he is not worried about Kosovo, but about “the misuse of Kosovo”.