The West has generally patted itself on the back for its breakup of Yugoslavia and sponsorship of ethnic nationalism in the Balkans, at least until last week. Russia, using the same philosophy as a pretext, treated Georgia much the same way NATO treated Serbia over a 13-year period. In the Los Angeles Times, Thomas Meaney and Harris Mylonas point out the parallels and warn that these actions will serve to destabilize even more countries unless we start respecting sovereignty:
In February, Bush and most European leaders backed the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, which Putin vociferously opposed. Don’t worry, assured U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, saying, “Kosovo cannot be seen as precedent for any other situation in the world today.” But precedent is exactly what it set. Just as the West wanted to shield Kosovo from Serbian domination, so Putin hopes to free South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgian interference and keep them in the Russian orbit of influence. Thus far, he has succeeded by rolling out tanks while the West has paid only lip service to the territorial integrity of Georgia.
If the United States wishes to avoid carnage like this in the future, we need to be more consistent about how we treat fledgling independence movements. Beyond Kosovo and South Ossetia, why do we encourage the independence of the southern Sudanese but condemn the uprisings of the Kurds in eastern Turkey? Why do we speak up for the Tibetans in China but tune out the Basques in Spain?
Like every great power, the U.S. favors self-determination movements that destabilize its competitors — Russia, China, Iran — and opposes (or ignores) ones that might upset our allies. That’s the code of realism in foreign policy. But it’s also a Pandora’s box. If America opts not to respect the principle of national sovereignty, it discourages other world powers from doing so and undermines state sovereignty the world over.
I warned in March about the folly of recognizing Kosovo, especially over the strenuous objections of Moscow and the Serbs. In fact, I specifically noted that Georgia would be next, although I thought Russia would target Abkhazia first for its strategic Black Sea position. Georgia made that same assumption in May.
It isn’t just a matter of precedent, either. This is at least in part payback for the West thumbing its nose at Russia while it dismembered the Balkans over the last 13 years. Russia and Serbia have traditionally been close allies, and the suppression of Serbian sovereignty produced a completely predictable result. The Russians want to protect what’s left of their turf, and in this instance, supported attacks by separatists in order to provoke Georgia into attacking them. Now Russia feels justified in doing to Georgia what NATO did to Yugoslavia, and later to Serbia itself.
This will echo in places other than the Balkans and the Caucasus, however. The lesson separatists took from Kosovo is that any ethnic group has a right to secede from a sovereign nation simply by being different from their countrymen. As Meany and Mylonas note, that could apply to almost every nation in the world, including the US, Canada, Great Britain, Spain, France, Germany, and so on. That precedent undermines the concept of sovereignty as understood since at least the Peace of Westphalia, and leads the world into dangerous territory, especially in an age of terrorism.
Russia has no excuse for its brutality in Georgia, nor for its rather transparent provocations in an attempt to re-establish empire in the Caucasus. However, we need to stop rewarding violent separatist movements with land and recognition whether they suit us or offend us, and place more emphasis on sovereignty. Otherwise, we risk setting the world ablaze in scores of nationalist conflicts we have encouraged directly or indirectly for short-term score settling.
Update: People rightly point out that the Serbians were committing “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans and needed to be stopped. No question; that’s accurate and it needed to be stopped. What didn’t need to happen was the forced dismemberment in favor of ethnic enclaves of Yugoslavia, and the same exact thing again with historically Serbian territory. We should have gone after Milosevic, gotten rid of his regime, and then left to allow the Yugoslavians and later Serbians to address the issues of ethnicity on their own.
Instead, we encouraged the nationalism of the ethnic enclaves, putting them in position to demand independence, and for what? What did the US or Europe gain in the dismemberment of Serbia that produced an independent Kosovo? What great national interest did that serve?