Recognition Practice and Geopolitical Risk in Eastern Europe: Georgia, Kosovo and Beyond

In recognizing the two Georgian enclaves – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – Russia left no doubt that its decision was partly in retaliation for Western recognition of Kosovo, Serbia’s breakaway province. Moscow deeply opposed Kosovo’s independence and repeatedly warned recognition could set a precedent for other separatist regions. In return, western policy makers argued that Kosovo was a unique case, with no implications for other conflicts. Similarly, following the Russian recognition of the Georgian enclaves, western officials flatly rejected any parallels and maintained that the Kosovo case was only a convenient excuse for an increasingly assertive Moscow.That may be true, but the blame games and theoretical and legal debates only divert attention from the more serious point. Unilateral recognitions, whether justified or not, could influence other separatist movements which in turn could emphasize the exceptional nature of their own demands for statehood. The cases of the Kosovo and Georgian enclaves do, in effect, erode the international law of states’ sovereignty and the sanctity of borders and could thaw the two remaining ‘frozen conflicts’ in the CIS region (Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and Transnistria in Moldavia), fuel tensions in Ukraine’s Russians populated Crimea and again destabilize the region where the recent trend of violent state fragmentations actually began – the Balkans. It is worth remembering that the secessionist governments of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia repeatedly called for international recognition following Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence and argued that if Kosovo could break away, so could they. So who is next?

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Source: Financial Times

South Ossetia and Abkhazia make only one half of the separatist provinces in the CIS region. Russia was a principal player in the outbreak and freezing of the two other ‘frozen conflicts’ – Transnistria in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. These breakaway regions, along with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union following brief conflicts in the early 1990s. Moscow provided military, political and economic support to all four separatist governments and deployed peacekeeping forces on what have become de facto borders inside these states. Clearly, the road to peace settlement or conflict resumption in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh leads through Moscow. This geopolitical fact can hardly lower the political risk in a region where Russia has been using ‘frozen conflicts’ to exert military or political pressures and maintain leverage over its former satellites. Only a few days after the Georgia incursion, Russian president Medvedev called Moldova to resume peace talks with Transnistria in a move some analysts interpreted as pressure on the Moldovan government to cut ties with NATO and accept a peace plan that would allow Russian forces to stay indefinitely in Moldova. Moscow’s similar initiative for settling the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is also seen as an attempt to woo Baku away from the West, secure gas purchase deals for Gazprom and undermine the pipeline projects that circumvent Russia. In theory, Moscow could also use the presence of the large Russian minority in the Crimea region as a pretext for conflict with NATO-aspirant Ukraine. It would be in accordance with recently outlined Russia’s foreign policy concept that envisages protection of Russian citizens ‘wherever they are’.

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Source: Economist

Nonetheless, it seems that the highest risk of violent conflict resumption has been looming over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s breakaway region. In recent years, military spending has been on a sharp rise in all Central Asian states, but the two leading countries are Georgia and Azerbaijan. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Georgia increased its 2007 defense spending by $200m, to almost $600m, which is a 20-fold increase since 2000. Supported by its oil-booming economy, Azerbaijan has also been investing heavily in the defense sector ($667m in 2007 compared to $141m in 2000), raising concerns the government may try to recover the breakaway region by force. The growing trend of clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh in the first half of 2008 and the aggressive rhetoric employed by the Azerbaijan central government is another disturbing sign that very much resembles the pre-war dynamic in Georgia. In June, the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, stated that the government will continue to explore political solutions for conflict resolution, but will not dismiss military options if necessary. The Georgia crisis only adds to the pre-existing security dilemma and could spark an outbreak of the violent conflict. It would inflict high costs for the economy of Azerbaijan which is named the top pro-business reformer according to the recent World Bank report.

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Data – SIPRI, adjusted by Author

Finally, recent developments in Georgia could reverberate in the Balkans again. Kosovo, whose Western-backed unilateral declaration of independence infuriated Moscow and offered a convenient excuse for its actions in Georgia, is facing the threat of ‘secession within secession’. The Serbian populated northern part of Kosovo is the new potential breakaway region that does not recognize Kosovo’s statehood, has been under de facto authority of Belgrade and could eventually seek to rejoin its kinship state. Russia has been a traditional ally of Serbia and it is not hard to imagine Moscow throwing the northern part of Kosovo in its own basket of sui generis cases that do not fall under the international law of respecting borders. Meanwhile, border disputes and the fact that not all EU member states have recognized Kosovo, could further complicate EU integration process pursued both by Serbia and Kosovo.

Related RGE Spotlight Issues:

Russia Recognizes Georgian Rebel Regions: Economic, Financial and Regional Implications

Georgia Crisis Spillovers: Is Ukraine Next In Line?

Implications of the War On Georgia’s Fragile Economy

Russia and the West: New Crisis Sparked by War in Georgia

Kosovo Economic Outlook: Independence Does Not Erase Challenges

6 Responses to "Recognition Practice and Geopolitical Risk in Eastern Europe: Georgia, Kosovo and Beyond"

  1. Guesdave (UK)   September 17, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    I think the west was deluded if it thought that Kosovo would be the only state to go for independence. Any country that has had civil war could be a special case. The arguement by the west is flawed on a special case. It all boils down if you are pro western or not.

  2. Anonymous   September 17, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    well if these people DO have a reason to get separated, maybe they should!People don’t just want to be independent for fun, and everyone knows there are always bad consequences.Knowing this, there must really be a good reason for some people to ask for independence.

    • Baudouin Petit   September 18, 2008 at 10:02 am

      The good reason is that the peoples of Abkhazia and south Ossetia have been deprived by Georgian nationalists of the autonomy they enjoyed under soviet rule. The sad result has been first a revolt, a de facto secession, helped by Russia, quickly followed by an ugly ethnic cleansing against Georgians living in these subregions. And eventually the bombing of a civilian city by the Georgian army, leading to the Russian intervention. Who is to blame ? More or less everyone, but nevertheless the first shots were fired by an irresponsible Georgian government.

  3. Guest   September 29, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    The author uses several concepts that are worthy of commenting and observing. “Unilateral recognitions” and “sovereignty and sanctity of borders”. It would be very interesting for reading audience to have additional explanations of these two concepts, however within the Russian geopolitical sphere of interest and historical experience. As a common wisdom and scholarship would teach us; these concepts do not really mean anything to an average member (oligarch/general) of the Russian elite. The imperial mind really defies any positive understanding of these two terms. These terms are inversely related to the military and economic strength of the ethnic/national group that would like to use self-determination as a guiding principle in a building of the nation-state. This principle within the context of the Russian hegemony is simply unfeasible. To make things simple; Russian elites can entertain themselves with these ideas while speculating on Georgia, or Transdnestria. The same agenda is simple impossible to use in case of Poland, Ukraine, or even Baltic states. However, one should keep in mind that decisions that the Russian political leadership brought about recently have been mostly generated by personal motives. The hunt on Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky on the Russian turf, or any other leader in the neighborhood who dares to think differently (Sakashvili) will face consequences.Therefore, the same principles in the Serbian/Kosovar conflict does not really make sense. Serbian political leadership harvested a low hanging fruit of continuous Serbian policies to which Albanians in Kosovo were subjected since the Balkan wars of early 20th cent. The further steps of atomization of a political territory of a sovereign state can only be prevented by a virtue of common sense. Serbs should make an argument towards a lack of sustainability of the state of Kosova. Not using the Russian mindset and norms, but rather an argument that is geared towards what Kosovo might become; a home to the most prominent and influential criminal group in Europe. However, it is late for that argument now, the Bondsteel speaks to the contrary

  4. TROGLAVSKI   June 13, 2009 at 12:50 am

    What is the next?? I guess Mexico!