Recently, at the very beginning of April 2016, the armed conflict between Armenian and Azerbaijani militaries was shortly renewed over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh – an autonomous province within Azerbaijan but in fact under direct military control by Armenia. This event once again opened the question of the legitimacy of similar self-proclaimed independence cases around the world and international (non)recognition of such de facto quasi- and client-states (Transnistria, North Cyprus, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, West Sahara, South Sudan, East Timor…). However, from the European perspective, three cases from the Caucasus (Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia) have to be firstly analysed in comparison with the Balkan case of Kosovo.
A Domino effect
After February 2008 when Kosovo Albanian-dominated parliament proclaimed Kosovo independence (without organizing a referendum) with obvious U.S. diplomatic support (unilateral recognition) with explanation that Kosovo case is unique in the World (i.e., it will be not repeated again) one can ask the question: is the problem of southern Serbian province of Kosovo really unique and surely unrepeatable in some other parts of the world as U.S. administration was trying to convince the rest of the international community?
Consequences of recognition of Kosovo independence by one (smaller) part of the international community are already (and going to be in the future) visible primarily in the Caucasus because of the very similar problems and situation in these two regions. At the Caucasus (where around 50 different ethnolinguistic groups are living together) self-proclaimed independence already was done by Abkhazia and South Ossetia during their wars of 1991−1993 against the central authorities of Georgia but up to the mid-2008 both of these two separatist regions from Georgia were not internationally recognized by any state in the world.
The region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which proclaimed its own independence in 1991 from Azerbaijan with a full military and political support by Armenia, was also not recognized before Kosovo independence. We have to remember that separatist movements in the Caucasus in the 1990s occurred at the time when Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina proclaimed their own independence from Yugoslavia and have been soon recognized as the independent states and even became accepted members of the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
However, only several months after self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo on February 17th, 2008 a wave of recognition of three Caucasus separatist states started as a classic example of a domino effect policy in the international relations. It has to be noticed that the experts from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed even in 2007 their real fear that in the case of U.S. and E.U. unilateral recognition of Kosovo independence the same unilateral diplomatic act could be implied by Russia (and other countries) by recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a matter of diplomatic compensation and as result of domino effect in the international relations.
It is also known and from official O.S.C.E. sources that the Russian delegates in this pan-European security organization have been constantly warning before 2008 the West that such scenario is quite possible, but with one peculiarity: from 2007 they stopped to mention a possibility of Russian recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-proclaimed independence in 1991. It was most probably for the reason that Moscow did not want to spoil good relations with Azerbaijan – a country with huge reserves of natural gas and oil.
On the first glance it can be said that the Orthodox South Ossetians are equally separatist as the Muslim Kosovo Albanians. However, the South Ossetians are having sympathies towards the Serbs but not towards, as we could expect, separatist Kosovo Albanians. The real reason of such sympathies are similar legal state rights applied by both the Serbs in Kosovo and the South Ossetians – the only European nation in the Caucasus.
Historically, South Ossetia (like Abkhazia) was never integral part of sovereign Georgian state, differently with Kosovo in its historical relations with Serbia, as Kosovo was not only integral, but culturally and politically the most important and even administratively central region of the medieval Serbian state till 1455 when Kosovo became occupied by the Ottomans and a such away separated from the rest of Serbia. Shortly, Kosovo before the Ottoman occupation was historical, political, administrative, cultural and church centre of Serbia, populated before 1700 exclusively by the Serbs (the Albanians came to Kosovo from Albania after 1700).
However, in comparison with Kosovo-Serbia relation case, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were never of any kind of centres of any kind of Georgian state as all the time they have been provincial (occupied) regions of Georgia even populated by different ethnolinguistic groups. Also, differently with Georgia, Serbia by herself and Russian military and diplomatic support regained her state de facto independence during the Serbian Revolution of 1804−1815 against the Ottoman Empire while Georgia was waiting to regain its own state independence for the time of self-destruction of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. It has to be noticed that the present day territory of Georgia entered Russia in parts – segment by segment. Ossetia as united territory (not divided into Northern and Southern as today situation is) became voluntarily part of the Russian Empire in 1774. The Russian Empress Catherin the Great (1762−1796), in order to be surely convinced that the Ossetians are really independent, before incorporation of this province into the Russian Empire sent a special commission which informed St. Petersburg that “the Ossetians are free people subordinated to no one” (what means not under any kind of the Georgian rule or subordination!).
Georgia itself became part of Russian Empire in 1804 (27 years later then Ossetia) being before that from 1783 a protectorate of the Russian Empire. This fact is the most important argument used by the South Ossetians in their dispute with the Georgian authorities. Differently to the Ossetians, Kosovo Albanians such argument do not have in relation to the Serbs. In is known that the Albanians started to settle themselves at the region of Kosovo from the present-day Northern Albania only after the First Serbian Great Migration from the region in 1689. It should be said as well that, according to several Byzantine and Arab sources, the Balkan Albanians are originating from the Caucasus Albania. In the other words, the Caucasus Albanians left in the 9th century their homeland (Dagestan and Azerbaijan) and have been settled by the Arabs in the West Sicily and the South Italy which they left in 1043 and came to the Balkans (to the present-day Central Albania). It means that the Albanians are not authentic Balkan people differently to the Serbs who are most probably one of the oldest Balkan nations (the aboriginal Balkan Illyrians).
Georgia declared its independence during the Russian Civil War in 1918, but became occupied by the Bolshevik Red Army in 1921. Georgia joined the U.S.S.R. next year as a part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Republic together with Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, Georgia became a separate Soviet Republic in 1936 like Armenia and Azerbaijan. The southern part of Ossetia (together with Abkhazia) was given to be administered by Georgia by decision of three Georgian Communists – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (Jughashvili), Sergei Ordzonikidze and Avelj Enukindze. Nevertheless, between two parts of Ossetia (North and South) never was a state border before 1994.
The people of South Ossetia on the referendum upon destiny of the U.S.S.R. on March 17th, 1991 voted for existence of Soviet Union (like the Serbs upon Yugoslavia), but Kosovo Albanians on illegal referendum voted to become independent from Serbia like Georgians from the U.S.S.R. That was a month before Georgia became independent from the USSR. The referendum on March 17th, 1991 was organized two months after the Georgian army started the war against South Ossetia in which, till September of the same year, 86 Ossetian villages have been burned. It is calculated that more than 1.000 Ossetians lost their lives and around 12.000 Ossetians emigrated from the South to the North Ossetia. This is the point of similarity with around 250.000 Serbs expelled from Kosovo by the Albanian “Kosovo Liberation Army” after the NATO peace-keeping troops entered this province in June 1999 and legalized Muslim Albanian terror over the Christian Serbs and other non-Albanians.
An Independence of the Republic of South Ossetia was proclaimed on May 29th, 1992. However, this legal act has not been understood as a “separatist” because at that time Georgia was not recognized by no one state in the world as an independent one and Georgia was not a member of the United Nations. Oppositely to the South Ossetian case, Kosovo Albanian unilateral independence proclamation on February 18th, 2008 cannot be treated by the international community as a legal one (at least without a direct permission by Belgrade) as Kosovo by the international law and agreements is still an integral part of Serbia. Moreover, Serbia (differently from Georgia in May 1992) is internationally recognized independent state and a member of the United Nations. This is and common point of similarity between the Ossetians and the Serbs: both of them are fighting against separation of one part of national body and land from the motherland (Ossetia and Serbia).
Abkhazia is a Caucasian province that was a part of the ex-USSR in the form of an Autonomous Soviet Republic within the Soviet Republic of Georgia. However, in comparison with Kosovo status as an Autonomous Province within Serbia from 1974 to 1989, Abkhazia did not reach even half of the rights and power as Kosovo had: President, Assembly, police forces, Academy of Science and Arts, Constitution (in direct opposition to the Constitution of Serbia) and even Territorial Defence forces (in fact the provincial army).
Nevertheless, in April 1991 Abkhazia became a part of the self-proclaimed independent state of the Republic of Georgia, against the will of both the Abkhazian population of the Islamic denomination (at that time 18% out of all Abkhazian inhabitants) and Abkhazian Russian-speakers (14%). Subsequently, at least one third of Abkhazian population opposed its integration into the independent Georgia in 1991.
The conflict with Georgian central authorities started when the troops of the Muslim volunteers from neighbouring territories, but mainly from Chechnya, helped the local Abkhazian Muslims in their struggle against Tbilisi security forces. Georgia at that time was already involved into the civil war against the Ossetian separatists and for that reason seriously weakened. As a result of the conflict with the Abkhazian separatists, Tbilisi, which lost all control over Abkhazia, was finally forced to accept to be militarily defeated and therefore compelled to start political negotiations on extensive autonomy status of Abkhazia within sovereign Georgia. Ultimately, the negotiations between the Abkhazian government and Georgia became futile, and a very fragile peace was achieved under the civil supervision of the UN observers and the Russian military troops as a guarantor of the peace-treaty implementation.
Georgia was obviously week to recover political control over the separatist republic of Abkhazia in the 1990s. The President Eduard Shevardnadze was ultimately only able to restore some order within Georgia which was at that time under de facto Russian protection and therefore with implicit political-military assistance by Russia. As a consequence, Shevardnadze signed an agreement with Russia on allowance of 20.000 Russian military troops to be present in two Georgian separatist republics alongside with the Russian right to use Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti.
The economic background of such pro-Russian policy by Shevardnadze is understood from the fact that at that time Georgia was in desperate need of direct Russian economic assistance that is quite visible from the very fact that in 1994 Georgia’s GDP declined to only 25% of its pre-independence level. As a direct Russian economic and financial help, Georgia’s economy became soon stabilized with controlled inflation and state spending reigned in.
Nevertheless, it was clear that Georgia can maintain at least a formal authority over both South Ossetia and Abkhazia only being within the Russian sphere of influence in the region of Transcaucasia. Any change of the side would bring and de facto separation of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Tbilisi what in fact happened in reality in 2008 due to (irrational) pro-American policy by Mikhail Saakashvili – a leader of 2003 Georgian coloured revolution (the Rose Revolution) which finally removed Shevardnadze from power but six years later and Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.
International system of governing and separatist movements
The main argument for the western politicians upon Kosovo independence in 2008, as an “unique case” of Kosovo situation, is the fact that according to “Kumanovo Agreement” between Serbia and the N.A.T.O. signed on June 10th, 1999, and the U.N. Resolution 1244 (following this agreement), Kosovo was put under the U.N. protectorate with imposed international system of governing and security.
However, such “argument” does not work in the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as the Ossetians and Abkhazians are governing their lands by themselves and much more successfully in comparison with “internationally” (i.e. the N.A.T.O.) protected Kosovo. It was quite visible in March 2004 when international organizations and military troops could not (i.e. did not want to) protect ethnic Serbs in Kosovo from violent attacks organized by the local Albanians when during three days (March 17−19th) 4,000 Serbs exiled, more than 800 Serbian houses are set on fire followed by 35 destroyed or severely damaged Serbian Orthodox churches and cultural monuments.
The “2004 March Pogrom” revealed the real situation in the region of Kosovo – a region which had to be under the effective protection by the international community. The position of the South Ossetians in the independent Georgia from 1991 to August 2008 could be compared with position of the Serbs in Kosovo after June 1999. Differently with Kosovo case after June 1999, or even after February 2008, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria showed much more political-legal bases to be recognized as the independent states as they showed real ability to govern themselves by only themselves but not by the international organizations as it is in the case of Kosovo. They also proved much more democracy and respect for human and minority rights in comparison with the Albanian-ruled “Kosovo Republic” which is in fact transformed into the Islamic State of Kosovo.
The region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the most contested conflict-area in Trancaucasia during the last three decades. It became a part of Azerbaijan with an autonomous status in 1936 within the Soviet Union, but not a part of Armenian Socialist Republic established as such also in 1936 as one of 15 socialist republics of the U.S.S.R. During the whole time of the existence of the Soviet Union there were tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over enclave (province) of Nagorno-Karabakh which was at the Soviet time populated by Islamic Azeri majority and the Christian Orthodox Armenian minority.
However, the enclave was historically with majority of the Armenian population but due to the Islamic terror the Christian Armenians became a minority on their own land. What happen is the same with the Christian Orthodox Serbs in Kosovo in relations to the Muslim Albanians. For the Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh enclave was unjustifiably separated from Armenia by the Soviet authorities and included into Azerbaijan in order to keep good political relations with neighbouring Turkey. The Serbs, similarly to the Armenians in regard to Nagorno-Karabakh, were complaining about the same practice with regard to Kosovo status from 1974 to 1989 when the “cradle of Serbia” was practically teared off from the rest of the motherland and granted actual independence from Serbia having much stronger relations with the neighbouring Albania than with Serbia.
The frictions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh ultimately led to the open bloody war mostly within the enclave which started in 1989 when the central Soviet authorities already have been in the process of collapsing. The war led in 1993 to the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and some strategic territory of Azerbaijan. Consequently, Armenia became cut off from Azerbaijani oil supplies and as naturally being devoid of mineral resources or fertile soil, Armenian economy collapsed in the mid-1990s. For instance, Armenian GDP had fallen to 33% of its 1990 level followed by the inflation of 4000%. Naturally, as politically supported by Moscow, the Armenian economy became mostly oriented toward Russia: for instance, 60% of Armenia’s export went to the Russian market. Up today, Armenia was not directly attacked by Turkey exactly for the reason that it is politically but also and militarily protected by Russia whose armed forces are located on the territory of Armenia nearby Turkey’s border.
There are several similarities but also and great dissimilarities between conflicts upon Nagorno-Karabakh in Transcaucasia and Kosovo at the Balkans.
In both cases the international community is dealing with autonomy of compact national minority who is making a majority on the land in question and already having its own national independent state which is bordering this contested territory. Both Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and Kosovo Albanians do not want to accept any other solution except separation and internationally recognized independence. Both conflicts are in fact continuations of old historic struggles between two different civilizations: the Muslim Turkish and the Christian Byzantine. In both conflicts the international organizations are included as the mediators. Some of them are the same – France, U.S.A. and Russia as members of both Contact Groups for ex-Yugoslavia and Minsk Group under the O.S.C.E. umbrella for Azerbaijan. Both Serbia and Azerbaijan have been against that their problem-cases (Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh) would be proclaimed by some kind of the “international community” (the U.N., the E.U., the O.S.C.E., etc.) as the “unique” cases as it would be (as the Kosovo Albanians already proved on February 18th, 2008) a green light to the Albanian and the Armenian separatists to secede their territories from Serbia and Azerbaijan without permission given by Belgrade and Baku.
However, there are and significant differences between Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh cases. Kosovo is internal conflict within Serbia (which is after June 1999 internationalized) but in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh we have to speak about external military aggression (by Armenia). In difference to Armenia in relation to Nagorno-Karabakh, Albania formally never accepted any legal act in which Kosovo was called as integral part of state territory of Albania (with historical exception during the Second World War when Kosovo, the East Montenegro and the West Macedonia have been included into Mussolini’s sponsored and protected “Greater Albania”). Delegation from Albania did not take any participation in the talks and negotiations upon the “final” status of Kosovo between Pristina and Belgrade in 2007, while Armenia has official status of “interested side” in the conflict concerning Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh such status still did not obtain. Official regular army of Albania never was involved in Kosovo conflict (differently from great number of volunteers from Albania), while Armenia’s army (i.e. from the state of Armenia) was directly involved in the military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh from the very beginning of the conflict, but officially part of the independent state of Azerbaijan. As a result, Armenia occupied 1/5 of Azerbaijani territory and the victims of ethnic cleansing are primarily the Azeri as more than one million of them are being displaced as a result of the hostilities.
Differently to the case of Nagorno-Karabakh’s conflict, in which the main victims became a former majority population (the Muslim Azeri), in Kosovo case the principal victims of the war are the Christian Serbs as a minority population of the province. Nevertheless, differently from Kosovo case, weaker Azerbaijani side did not apply to the N.A.T.O. for the military help, but a weaker Albanian side did it during the Kosovo conflict in 1998−1999 and only due to the N.A.T.O.’s military intervention on the Albanian side and direct military occupation of Kosovo after the war it was possible for the Albanians to commit almost a full scale of the ethnic cleansing of the province during the first five years after the war (up to the end of March 2004).
It can be concluded that the Albanian unilaterally proclaimed Kosovo independence in February 2008 is not at all “unique” case in the world without direct consequences to similar separatist cases following the “domino effect” (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, South Sudan…). That is the real reason why, for instance, the government of Cyprus is not supporting “Kosovo Albanian rights to self-determination” as the next “unique” case can be easily northern (Turkish) part of Cyprus which is by the way already recognized by the Republic of Turkey and under de facto Ankara’s protection. Or even the better example: the Spanish government does not want to recognize Kosovo independence for the very “Catalan” reason as a domino effect of separatism can be easily spilled over to the Iberian Peninsula.
In sum, there are around 200 territorial-national separatist movements around the world for whom the case of Kosovo “precedent” is going to serve as the best moral and legal foundation for their own independence.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of InSerbia.