Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Politics of Precedent - 3

In the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum reminds her readers that the wars of Yugoslavia actually began in Kosovo - in the late 1980s, when Milosevic deprived the province of its autonomy, installed a new police force, and by 1990 had more or less destroyed Kosovo's civic, cultural and political life. Then, by backing Serbian minorities across the former Yugoslavia, Milosevic inspired the creation of similiar campaigns of terror, intimidation and murder by local Serb militias:
...the result of this activity -- discrimination, ethnic cleansing, warfare -- was a complete disaster for Serbia. The Serbian economy went down the tubes; the Serb dominance of ex-Yugoslavia evaporated; Belgrade, the Serb capital, was bombed. Now Serbia looks set to be dismembered as well: Some European countries and the United States have recognized Kosovo's independence, something that wouldn't have happened two decades ago. Milosevic the super-nationalist -- the would-be leader of a revived, powerful, successful Serbia -- damaged no country nearly so much as he damaged Serbia itself.

Keep that lesson in mind over the next few months as others in Europe -- and possibly elsewhere -- attempt to use the Kosovo example as a precedent. After all, if the Albanians can be independent from Serbia, the Abkhazians and South Ossetians would like to be independent from Georgia, the Basques and the Catalonians don't see why they shouldn't be independent from Spain, and who knows what could happen in Cyprus.

In some of these cases, there are other, larger neighbors that might be interested in facilitating the split, just as Serbia was keen to encourage ethnic Serbs in Bosnia or Croatia. Most notably, and most notoriously, the Russians have made ominous noises and dropped dark hints about those Georgian separatist groups, and one can certainly see their logic. What a perfect way to take revenge on those difficult, NATO-loving Georgians: Encourage Georgia's ethnic minorities to launch civil war. Besides, the timing could hardly be better. In the waning days of the Bush administration, is Abkhazia anybody's central concern? During the most interesting U.S. presidential campaign in decades, is anyone going to spare a thought for South Ossetia?

Except that if Abkhazia and South Ossetia were to secede, and civil war in Georgia were to follow, the Russians would then have a failed state on their borders. And, as we know from Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Africa, ethnic and religious civil wars have a nasty way of spreading to their neighbors. Chaos in Georgia might be in the short-term interest of a small group of Putinites, desperate to raise the specter of warfare, annoy the West, and cling to power (much like Milosevic, once upon a time), but it is most definitely not in the long-term interest of Russia.

Russia's policy toward these would-be separatists over the next few weeks will therefore reveal a great deal about the mentality of Russia's ruling clan. If the denizens of the Kremlin have a shred of concern about their compatriots' future well-being, they'll shut up and try to calm everyone down. If not -- well, I hope they remember that the risks of the law of unintended consequences apply to them, too.
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