Kosovo as a Positive Precedent

13 may 2007

Salome Zourabichvili

Resume: Why do we accept organization of European territories in the 21st century along ethnic lines as an uncontested value and goal? It is one thing to restore the independence of nation-states that once existed and were suppressed, but it is quite another thing to create ex nihilo ethnic states, following the “Russian stacking doll” model.

Fifteen years after the implosion of the Soviet Union and its republics gaining independence, Russia and its former dominions have been unable to find a modus vivendi. The best example of this inability is witnessed by the ongoing crisis between Georgia and Russia, which continued through 2006 and has spilt over to 2007; despite some easing of tensions, there have been no prospects for normalization so far.

Georgia is not the only example: similar tensions have erupted between Russia and Ukraine (despite Victor Yanukovich’s return to power) and between Russia and Belarus (despite Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to maintain a relationship with Moscow). Judging by Vladimir Putin’s comment that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was one of the biggest tragedies in modern history, and the fact that he won’t change anything to meet the challenges of the new realities in this part of the world, the Russian president seems to be still entertaining some nostalgia for the old system. Yet what has passed should remain in the past. Either the new neighboring states will find a way to deal with each other or they will all lose; instability and unpredictability cannot serve anyone’s long-term interests. The current facts underscore the depth of the losses.


Moscow’s reiterated attempts to revert to the elements and instruments of its ‘from the position of strength’ policy have only resulted in its further alienation from the newly independent republics. Today, Russia does not have a single ally that it could fully trust: Belarus is no longer its best friend, while Armenia feels it was not given friendly treatment when Russia decided to close the Georgian-Russian Lars checkpoint in 2006. This move actually disrupted Armenian trade, especially since the Azeri boycott and the closed Turkish border had made Armenia totally dependent on the north-south transit route through Georgia. Furthermore, Moscow’s desire to hurt Georgia was so great that it prevailed over commonsense reasoning to spare Armenia as it announced the closure of this checkpoint – “for reconstruction work” – until the end of 2008.

As a result of such policy, the Kremlin is not only losing power, it is losing the most crucial factor in the contemporary world – influence. The Russian language is no longer lingua franca among the former Soviet republics, while going to Russia is no longer a dream for periphery residents or eligible students. In the energy sector, Moscow only encourages its neighbors to seek alternative gas transportation routes and new partners by cutting gas supplies haphazardly while pushing prices higher everywhere. It should be no surprise that one fundamental feature in the post-Soviet space today is the warming up of relations between Ukraine and Georgia on the one hand, and Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey on the other. Meanwhile, in the western part of the post-Soviet space, the Baltic States are displaying steady support for their “small ex-Soviet brothers” by promoting their interests in the EU.

In the east, the Central Asian republics are showing more and more of a propensity for self-assertive policies. They are realizing that there is no point in getting stuck in long-term contracts with Russia and selling cheap gas only to have Gazprom draw big benefits by reselling it to its European consumers. The first signs of self-assertiveness became apparent when Turkmenistan attempted to renegotiate its contract with Russia, and there are reasons to believe that this trend will persist in the coming decade. Thus, horizontal solidarity – that the Soviet Union failed to create – seems to be flourishing on the new grounds.


Meanwhile, none of the newly independent post-Soviet states – including Russia – have fully benefited from the new status quo, or been able to use all of their potentials. And there is only one major reason for this state of affairs: conflicts – once hot and active and now frozen – continue to impede the internal and external development of these countries, particularly Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova.

First and foremost, these conflicts block the economic development of each affected country. One can only imagine what the Caucasian region – possessing huge energy, transit and water resources – would be like if it were ridden of these conflicts and free to develop a regionally integrated transit policy that would fully exploit the opportunities of all transit routes – east-west and north-south.
Secondly, these simmering conflicts are hindering democracy, which is a peculiar type of government that cannot be divided or torn apart: its success depends on sharing. If democracy is not fully enjoyed by the entire population across the region, with some territories continuing to escape law and order, these lawless regions will work like leeches, eventually destroying democracy in the entire region the way cancer cells damage an otherwise healthy body.

This is particularly true of Georgia with its two conflict zones, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unfortunately, time is running against Tbilisi. Displaced people from these regions, who for 15 years have been living without decent shelter, compensation or any real hope, now feel that they have been victimized twice. They can neither go back to their homes without risking their lives, nor can they share the relative prosperity of their fellow Georgians.

The conflict also affects Abkhazia’s development. What future awaits Abkhazians when the rules of demography are running against them? Today, as a result of past policies, Armenians and Russians are growing in number in Abkhazia, and are presumably overshadowing native Abkhazians and Georgians in their own land.  (For an objective analysis of this sensitive and commonly politicized issue, see: International Crisis Group Report No. 176, Abkhazia Today, September 15, 2006, Brussels.)

So, the question remains: Who has gained from these policies? Certainly, not Abkhazians; they cannot feel much confidence about their future if this future means a “closer relationship with Russia,” especially given the latter’s record in dealing with Caucasian minorities.

Nor have the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in any way served Russia’s interest. Russia’s holding to these regions, as if they were valuable instruments for keeping a grip on Georgia, can only give it a false sense of security. 

Has Moscow ever asked itself what Russia has lost by playing this irrational game? Because of these lingering conflicts it must finance and maintain an army, which is utterly corrupt and mostly occupied with arms sales and drug trafficking, in the southern part of its territory. Military action on Georgian territory has not only made a solution in Chechnya impossible: it has negatively affected the stability in Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia. The French philosopher’s saying that “truth on this side of the Pyrenees cannot be a lie on the other side,” definitely applies to the Caucasus. Stability will have to be found by all or there will be stability for nobody.

Finally, Russia’s toying with conflicts has deeply affected its international credibility. Its capacity to lead and be listened to beyond its borders has plummeted.


The ‘Kosovo precedent’ remains a blackmailing issue for Moscow: “If you move down the road of independence in Kosovo, we will have to recognize the independence of the separatist regimes in the Caucasus.” This position, although right in essence, is wrong in form, because it sounds like the childish plea: “Hold me back or I will be forced to take action!”

It is noteworthy that in this context the Kremlin does not evoke Karabakh’s independence, nor Chechnya’s. These regions would naturally follow in the footsteps if the Kosovo precedent, to quote Russian leaders, “is to become a precedent for the whole of the Caucasus and for all frozen conflicts.”

Russia knows it cannot afford to play with fire in this region. Recognizing the independence of South Ossetia or Abkhazia would instantly spread instability to Chechnya and prove very dangerous for friendly Armenia, not to mention Georgia’s military reaction. It would mean taking the risk of igniting new wars in the Caucasus in a new situation; such a strategy would be plain madness.

Russia cannot ignore that the balance of forces has drastically changed in the region. After more than a decade of intensive U.S. training and financing, the Georgian army is no longer the disoriented, underpaid and poorly trained army of the 1993 conflict. Azerbaijan has been actively using its oil money to rebuild and enhance its military power. Armenia can no longer receive Russian support via Georgia as the ongoing dismantlement of Russian military bases in Georgia has limited their operational capacity. Today, Russia delivers its support to Armenia directly by air. Moreover, Russia cannot be sure what the American reaction would be in the future, especially if it continues to regard Georgia as an ever more strategic region.

At the same time, Russia’s reaction toward the Kosovo issue is understandable. While Europe and America talk much about promoting Russia as a normal European power, no one listens to Russia when taking decisions that are crucial for Europe. Russia may in fact hold a reasonable position, if only it were expressed in a positive manner and not as a threat. Opting for threats instead of offering constructive proposals is the tragedy of contemporary Russia.

But let us consider the underlying argument of Russia’s position on Kosovo. Why do we accept organization of European territories in the 21st century along ethnic lines as an uncontested value and goal? Have we considered what will happen next when the Serbian minority in Kosovo demands the same rules to be applied? Are we ready to defend and support the idea of an autonomous or independent Mitrovica region? And if not, why? It is one thing to restore the independence of nation-states that once existed and were suppressed, but it is quite another thing to create ex nihilo ethnic states, following the “Russian stacking doll” model.

The Ahtisaari plan talks a lot about multi-ethnicity and stresses that the new authorities should not only respect this principle but also enshrine it in a new Constitution. However, it is apparent to everyone that these are just words. The reality is that Kosovo’s Albanian and Serbian population will see Kosovo’s independence as the triumph of ethnicity over statehood. Such a new model, if applied, will raise the statehood threshold both vertically (with the possibility of endless deconstruction of any state) and horizontally (What country in Europe, Africa or Asia would not feel unchallenged by the new rule of the game?).

The ethnical approach, previously known as the ‘minorities policy,’ has already been applied in the past but with no happy results: the democratic ‘Woodrow Wilson model’ caused wars and tragedy in Western and Central Europe, while the totalitarian Stalinist ‘minorities policy’ paved the way to frozen conflicts that erupted immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Unless my memory fails me, the ethnical approach has never yielded benefits for any of us. So we have to admit that Russia has a point: Kosovo is a precedent.

But Russia is wrong in the conclusion it draws, namely, that Kosovo is a bad precedent. We must recognize that there is a real issue there, and we must try to think how we could make it a good precedent – one that offers a viable solution, an answer to the basic claims of all protagonists.


First, Kosovo should become a precedent for involving all interested parties in drafting a solution to this crisis. Personally, I believe that Moscow should be one such party. Involving Russia in working out an acceptable solution would serve as recognition of its European status and place. Moscow would have an opportunity to have its say as regards the future of Kosovo, instead of just using its veto power in the Security Council, or threatening from the outside that everyone will lose.

Kosovo should become a precedent for creating a set of generally agreed principles to solve similar conflicts elsewhere. In other words, if a peace settlement is to be eventually monitored by an international peacekeeping force, this force should have a truly international composition (and not just be composed of soldiers from one country, as is the case in Georgia where Russian soldiers are disguised as CIS blue berets).

If we agree that the “widest autonomy possible” includes limited diplomatic capacities, those should be granted to all, including Chechnya. If we agree on the necessity to repatriate displaced persons to their homes, we should devise universal rules for property restitution or compensation.

Whatever decisions we make about the use of minority languages, cultural rights and religious freedoms, they should be applicable to all. If the same rights and constraints were applied to Abkhazians, Ossetians, Karabakhians, Transdnestrians and Kosovars, none  would feel discriminated. It would have been easier for them to accept that they would be denied full independence, at least in the immediate future; the sense of sharing an equal fate could lessen any sense of injustice.

At the same time, an increasingly heavy burden of commitments and obligations – that would ensure the autonomies’ secure functioning – will fall on the shoulders of the authorities of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Moldova and Russia. None of them could then feel victimized or singled out. Feelings of justice and injustice, which underlie all unsolvable conflicts, would be minimized.
This approach will provide a chance to involve outside powers as well, and thereby put an end – pragmatically and once and for all – to the thrust of big powers gaining exclusive positions in particular regions. Thus, the EU and the U.S. would no longer enjoy exclusive rights in solving the Kosovo issue, while Russia would have to equally accept that the era of its exclusivity in the post-Soviet space is over.

A peace conference – and that is what we should eventually get to as a result of the aforementioned process – should involve the European Union, which cannot endlessly contemplate its navel and reflect about its “enlargement fatigue” while doing nothing to solve nearby conflicts. The EU must start taking responsibility for peace and stability in the neighboring newly independent states, regardless of whether they will one day become part of an enlarged Union or not.

It is obvious that this process should involve Russia, thus recognizing once and for all that it is a European power, as well as a global power, with the rights and duties that are bestowed upon every European state. But it also means that will Russia be henceforth accountable for its new responsibilities to the European and international community. What price Russia will have to pay for being recognized as a full-fledged European power? It will have to accept the essential rule about Europe: nobody can claim exclusivity on any “backyard.” That is the key to an increased international presence and global role that has been escaping Russia since it ceased to be the Soviet Union.

It is no less evident that this process should involve America. Whether Russia – or any other state – likes it or not, the U.S. has become a power in its own right in the Caucasus, and it will remain as such.

Such a process should, most importantly, involve all states that have separatist conflicts on their soil: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Serbia, and Russia. These states should be involved not as mere objects of negotiations, but as direct participants.

It should also involve interested neighboring countries, such as Turkey, Romania, Ukraine and possibly Iran, that is, if the latter decides that a regional role is more important than playing breakmanship. Furthermore, it must show that it is willing to resume its positive role in a region that still remembers how civilized, tolerant and influential the ancient Persian Empire was.

Finally, in a move that might be the key to success, the process should involve the separatist leaders in order to hear their arguments and take their views on board. That is an absolute necessity if any proposal is to be acceptable by all sides.

Thus, instead of pre-eminence, exclusivity and new “ethnic ghettos” – like the one that is now being created in Kosovo – we propose universality and conformity to truly European values of tolerance, coexistence and power sharing. It is time we look beyond bureaucratic schemes and think wider, see farther and dare invent new approaches to addressing problems because the old approaches have brought us nowhere. And this time we should listen to Russia, not to her empty threats, but to the right intuition that stands behind them.

Remarkably, as I was preparing this piece, I came across an article by Vladislav Inozemtsev entitled, A Uniform Approach Is Possible (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 6, 2007– Russ. Ed.), which echoes some of the ideas presented, albeit with slightly different emphasis. “Both Brussels and Moscow are doubtful about the Kosovo precedent,” the author writes. “Russia is in no hurry to use the Kosovo precedent and announce the independence of post-Soviet autonomies… It would be more reasonable to find a common principle [italics added – S.Z.] for solving the problem of all territories with unclear status that fall under the EU’s and Russia’s ‘zone of responsibility’… and to postpone the final solution for 20-30 years… This would create a precedent of solving an essentially European problem within the boundaries of Greater Europe… Europe could then lay a claim to a role in the global political game, without which its political identity will remain unclear...” What the author fails to mention is that the proposal would also allow Russia to benefit in the same way by asserting its global role.


If all of us, that is, in Russia and among Russia’s new neighbors, recognize that nobody will benefit from the present stalemate, we should also agree that we have no alternative but to actively search for new approaches.

Now that the European Union has become a Black Sea power (after Bulgaria and Romania entered the Union), and has to share an insecure maritime border with Abkhazia and its “black holes,” it should also share new approaches toward the territories lying beyond its eastern borders. What we all need today is imagination, flexibility and adherence to one fundamental principle: nobody should lose from a new deal. Looking for a “win-win solution” is indeed the only answer to the dead end in which we have all found ourselves.

Both the EU and Russia will benefit by proving that they can introduce peace and stability without resorting to their favorite strategies – that of enlargement (the EU) or the use of force, domination and pressure (Russia). Brussels and Moscow will then discover that they do have a real and legitimate subject for substantial dialog.

The United States will get recognition for its legitimate and stabilizing presence in the Caucasian region. However, Washington will be forced into collective negotiation and not allowed to jeopardize reached agreements by making additional requirements, or putting strains on the relationship with new projects such as antimissile shields. Instead of acting on its own, it would be obliged to seek solutions through negotiations with all actors involved.

This does not mean that NATO will be outcast from the region. Russia’s renouncing its exclusivity in the region will also mean that it will have to renounce using threats to counter other countries’ aspirations to join NATO – the only security organization in Europe. Both the EU and NATO could and should be involved in peacekeeping operations, together with regional forces (Russian and Ukrainian, for example). 

Finally, old partnership formats that have never been really enacted (NATO-Russia Cooperation, NATO-Russia Council and ESDP-Russia) could be put into practice and given a new impetus. Such partnerships, based on the joint and equal involvement of the parties in the decision-making process, could represent a markedly new model of cooperation. This will help dispel superfluous fears about NATO’s presence in the Caucasus.

This approach could also revive such ideas as a NATO-Russia-Georgia joint antiterrorist trilateral axis, or a NATO-Russia joint force in the Black Sea, or EU-Russia joint operations. The EU will then get a real chance to prove that its defense policy can be put to use to consolidate stability in territories lying in the immediate proximity to Europe.

The countries concerned with the conflicts will benefit by achieving national reconciliation before reunification, as it will open the path to full-fledged democratic and economic development.

The population of separatist ethnic regions will at last get what they have been long striving for: peace, development, guaranteed rights to survival, and preservation of their national, linguistic and cultural identities. They will have the opportunity to enjoy their share of prosperity which they have been denied due to the exorbitant ambitions of their leaders. The separatist leaders will receive insurance of a peaceful transition of power and of their own physical – and may be even political – survival.

This might sound like a very distant goal since there are many obstacles and long negotiations on the way. Yet, we have no alternatives; this is the only way to build normal relations between newly independent states. Russia has to understand and accept that the independence of its neighbors is irreversible and cannot be a matter of bargaining.

Unless we put an end to frozen conflicts and find a solution that would be acceptable to all interested parties, there will never be normal relations between Russia and its neighbors. Georgians will always regard every Russian move as one aimed at reinforcing disruptive processes and weakening our independence and territorial integrity. Even if there is no such intention, Georgia might be tempted to invent one, in order to use fear of the enemy as an instrument of internal or external consolidation.

Finding a win-win solution to frozen conflicts is critical for normalizing Russian-Georgian bilateral relations. But it is also critical for Russia to be able to become a “normal,” modern power that feels ambitious about its enhanced development and status in the world, but seeks to achieve these goals through constructive influence without the help of threats, disruptive actions and destabilization. As long as Russia’s neighbors view it as a disruptive force causing mistrust, it will fail to gain real influence, attraction and respect among the Caucasian nations. Furthermore, within Russia there will be a growing feeling of isolation – a feeling of being surrounded by hostile forces – that has always afflicted the Russian mind and never put it at rest.

Modern challenges (terrorism, China’s unprecedented economic growth and influence, climate change) require that we put an end to anachronistic conflicts, devote our energy to major issues and substitute disruption with cooperation.

Last updated 13 may 2007, 15:45

} Page 1 of 5