Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Politics of Precedent - 2

Vladimir Socor takes a more skeptical view of Russia's reaction to Kosovar independence, and considers that Russia's bluff has been called on the issue:
Moscow’s threat to use Kosova’s secession as a “precedent” or “model” for resolving post-Soviet conflicts was never a credible threat, unless the Kremlin was bent on incurring severe damage and no gain to its policies on a wide range of interests: Relations with the West, with members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (far beyond those immediately affected by secessions) and with international organizations, as well as Russia’s own security situation in the North Caucasus would have been jeopardized.

Those concerned about Russian exploitation of a Kosova “precedent” overlooked the fact that Moscow remains more than content to exploit the existing, “frozen” situation in the unresolved conflicts. This it can continue doing effectively and at low cost to itself, as long as the West does not prioritize the resolution of the post-Soviet conflicts.

Indications are now multiplying that Moscow has blinked on its most specific threat: that to “recognize the independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia had singled out these two Georgian territories as prime candidates for “recognition.” This line of attack contradicted Moscow’s own claim that resolution of all secessionist conflicts in Europe and the world must follow a common “model” or “single standard.” Such selectivity about Abkhazia and South Ossetia reflected Moscow’s special enmity toward Georgia, the immediate territorial proximity (whereas Karabakh and Transnistria are not contiguous to Russia), and the Russian policy of allowing Armenia de facto a free hand in Karabakh, while Moscow claims de facto a free hand in the two Georgian territories.

Largely for those reasons, Moscow handed out Russian citizenship en masse in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so as to claim a right of intrusive protection there, including military presence. At the same time it left the issues of citizenship and security protection in Karabakh up to Armenia. And it has been negotiating with Moldova since 2006 regarding a settlement that would leave Transnistria within Moldova, in return for a certain measure of Russian political and military oversight over a Moldovan state “reunified” in that way.

These highly differentiated, expediency-based approaches nullified from the outset Russia’s argument about a “Kosovo precedent” with general applicability. Had it applied such a “precedent” unilaterally in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Kremlin would have been exposed as singularizing Georgia and targeting it for a wanton act of aggression. With Russian troops and Russian-appointed local leaders already deployed in those two enclaves, any Russian “recognition” would have been seen worldwide as open military occupation and annexation. Moscow did not need to risk such a scenario, since the existing situation suits Russian purposes well.

As Kosova’s declaration of independence and Western recognition drew near, Moscow must have concluded that its threats against Georgia were unusable threats. Consequently, Moscow seems to be seeking a face-saving exit from a political impasse into which it has driven itself. Suddenly the Kremlin is downplaying its all-too-recent, dire warnings.
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