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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Kosovo vs South Ossetia

The international community is vague about why Kosovo and South Ossetia cannot be compared, and the answers lie in geopolitics rather than principles of self-determination and international law.

Commentary by Jen Alic for ISN Security Watch (15/11/06)

In Western media offerings on South Ossetia's recent referendum for independence from Georgia there is an unwavering tone that suggests the breakaway republic either does not deserve, or should for unexamined reasons, not be granted , independence.

The opposite is true for Western media reports concerning the status of Serbia's UN-administered province of Kosovo. These reports adopt a tone that cheers for and approves of independence.

The international community has long strived for an independent Kosovo and is set to make a decision on the province's status early next year. That decision is most likely going to be independence, though conditional and gradual. At the same time, the international community opposes independence for South Ossetia, citing the unfairness of the Sunday referendum that did not include ethnic Georgians in the breakaway republic.

It has been impossible to find any arguments as to why South Ossetia should not be allowed to pursue self-determination. When questioned on this, Western officials have generally responded by saying that Kosovo and South Ossetia cannot be compared. End of story, no further explanation needed.

But perhaps they can be compared.

Neither South Ossetia nor Kosovo has ever been an independent nation, as far back in history as is rationally warranted to look. Both have at times enjoyed various levels of autonomy. Both have minorities whose rights may not be ensured and whose safety is anything but guaranteed. South Ossetia is home to 14,000 ethnic Georgians, while Kosovo is home to an estimated 120,000 Serbs, who live in fear in UN-guarded enclaves. There is no indication that either minority will be offered adequate protection or adequate rights. And conflict could result from a decision either way.

On Sunday, some 99 percent of South Ossetian voters backed independence from Georgia. The 14,000 ethnic Georgians living in a handful of villages in the breakaway republic were not allowed to vote, as registration required a Russian passport, which all Ossetians have been granted. This was unfair, as the international community has pointed out, but the ethnic Georgian vote would not have changed the outcome.

Furthering the comparison, neither Kosovo nor South Ossetia are necessarily prepared for independence, though Kosovo can expect help from its kin in neighboring Albania and the international community, while South Ossetia can expect some, though likely limited, aid from neighboring Russia. In economic terms, it is unclear how either could support their populations, however small. Industry is for all intents and purposes absent in both locales, while the majority of income is rumored to be made on the black market, largely through arms and drug smuggling.

What has been lacking throughout is an honest debate on these issues, which can easily be compared, despite vague statements to the contrary.

And the honest debate necessarily involves geopolitics.

South Ossetia is a buffer for Russia against the Western-leaning Georgia, while Georgia is a buffer for the US against Russia.

While Russia has played coy with the South Ossetia issue, refraining from recognizing its last declaration of independence in the 1990s and officially supporting Georgia's territorial integrity, it has clearly supported the separatists there. The US must do more than pay lip service to Georgia's territorial integrity, as the country moves toward NATO membership and continues to build its Western alliances.

And of course, there is energy to consider. The Caspian Basin is a place of intense competition, with the US, Russia and China all vying for a stronger foothold. In July, the US$4 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline was inaugurated. The BTC pumps Caspian Sea oil to the Turkish Mediterranean, bypassing Russia and Iran. It should supply 1 million barrels of oil per day by 2009. It passes through the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and also runs rather close to South Ossetia.

BP, formerly British Petroleum, has a 30.1 percent stake in the pipeline. The pipeline was commissioned by a BP-led consortium that includes energy companies from the US, Norway, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Japan, France and Italy. The BTC is a key to Western energy security. Upsetting Georgia - a major player in this energy security - by allowing South Ossetia to declare independence and be internationally recognized would be risky.

As far as Kosovo is concerned, granting independence is much easier. Serbia is of no strategic value to the West, and the international community has no bones about playing with fire there, despite some low-level concerns that granting Kosovo independence could be so unpopular in Belgrade that it would see a return to power of radical forces.

Russia, for its part, would be more than happy to see Kosovo granted independence - this, despite its support for its Serb allies and Serbia's territorial integrity - if only because it would set a precedent for similar moves in South Ossetia, Abkhazia (Georgia's other breakaway republic), and Moldova's breakaway republic of Transdneistr.

So, the question here is not really whether Kosovo or South Ossetia has a right to self-determination - which is indeed a romantic notion that is easy to digest in terms of principles - but why there has been a lack of honest debate at an official level.

Jen Alic is the editor in chief of ISN Security Watch.
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