On the night of 11 March 2000, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie attended a performance in Moscow of the Prokofiev opera ‘War and Peace’, in the company of acting Russian president Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila. This was part of a high-profile intervention in support of Putin’s presidential election bid that month. ‘He was highly intelligent and with a focused view of what he wants to achieve in Russia’, Blair gushed at the time. Meanwhile, Russia’s campaign of killing and destruction in Chechnya was in full swing. The contrast with Blair’s resolute opposition to the similar assault on the Albanian population of Kosovo by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia the previous year was glaring.
Those who have demonised Blair as a ‘warmonger’ over NATO’s Kosovo intervention, and particularly over his support for the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been mostly silent over his Russian blunder. This is strange, for whereas the Kosovo war ended forever Milosevic’s military adventures, the West’s Russian strategy since the 1990s has been much more damaging to the cause of world peace. Putin claims his actions over Ukraine have been a response to longstanding Western mistreatment of Russia, but the truth is the opposite: the threat of war hanging today over Ukraine is the ugly offspring of the West’s longstanding enabling of Russian imperialism, of which Blair’s Moscow misadventure was merely an episode.
Continue reading at Left Foot Forward
This interview appeared in Bosnian translation in Dnevni Avaz on 2 April 2014
What parallels with Bosnia – if any – can you draw from the situation in Ukraine ?
Ukraine and Bosnia are both multinational states that until the early 1990s were members of larger multinational federations – the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia respectively. When these federations broke up, Serbia under Milosevic initially wholly rejected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the former Yugoslav republics as successor states, and waged a genocidal assault on Croatia and Bosnia in order to redraw the territorial borders in its favour. Whereas Russia under Yeltsin adopted an initially more moderate policy and largely accepted the sovereignty and borders of the former Soviet republics, though with some attempts to undermine them – above all in Georgia and Moldova. However, Putin’s policy is closer to Milosevic’s, insofar as he is openly tearing up the territorial integrity of other former Soviet republics – first Georgia, now Ukraine. Putin, like Milosevic, is head of a ‘soft dictatorship’ – meaning a regime that preserves the outward appearance of a democracy but is in reality a dictatorship. And like Milosevic, he wants to expand the borders of his state through violent, unilateral means. We do not yet know now far Putin will go; whether or not he will move from annexing the Crimea to a larger war of conquest against Ukraine that could involve bloodshed on the scale of Bosnia in the 1990s, or whether he will extend his aggression to another former Soviet republic such as Moldova. Either scenario is entirely possible.
Of which international agreements over Ukraine is Russia now in breach ?
Russia is in breach of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which it signed along with the US and the UK, whereby the three parties agreed to refrain from the use or the threat of force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity, in return for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.
How do you view the appearance of Chetniks in Crimea ?
The presence of Chetniks in Crimea indicates the fact that extreme Serb nationalists view Russia’s confrontation with the West and with the new pro-Western regime in Ukraine as a continuation of their own national struggle against the West and against Serbia’s neighbours. It is comic, but it could also be tragic, if the Russians decide to engage in ethnic cleansing against ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea and the Chetniks participate.
Many Serbs from both sides of the Drina river support Putin’s action over Crimea? Why ?
Again, hardline nationalist Serbs view Putin’s confrontation with the West and with the new pro-Ukrainian regime as a continuation of their own national struggle. Putin is constructing a ‘Greater Russia’ through the annexation of the Crimea and other foreign territories, just as Milosevic sought to construct a ‘Great Serbia’ through the annexation of territory in Bosnia and Croatia. Putin’s actions open the door to possible territorial revisions in favour of Serbia as well. More generally, Putin is admired because he represents resistance to Western liberal values that hardline Serb-nationalists hate: tolerance, pluralism, respect for human rights and for ethnic minorities and gay people.
What should Sarajevo and the West do in order to prevent a Crimean scenario in Bosnia ?
If, as appears to be the case, Putin succeeds in annexing the Crimea without meeting serious Western opposition, it is entirely possible that he will eventually support the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia-Hercegovina. The argument used by opponents of Western military action in defence of Ukraine – that Ukraine is not a NATO member, therefore NATO should not defend it – applies equally to Bosnia. If Serbia joins the EU, it will be very difficult to restrain further aggressive actions on its part against Bosnia. Just as it has proven impossible to prevent Greece’s persecution of Macedonia, because Greece is in the EU as well as in NATO. If Republika Srpska declares independence and is recognised by Russia and by an EU-member Serbia, with the collaboration of EU-member and NATO-member Croatia (seeking to support Bosnian Croat separatism) it is difficult to imagine the West taking meaningful action to defend Bosnia’s territorial integrity.
There are many things the West should do to prevent this from happening. It should send troops to defend eastern Ukraine from possible Russian aggression. It should impose severe sanctions on Russia until Russia withdraws from the Crimea and recognises Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It should revise the Dayton settlement to restore a functioning Bosnian state, with a strong central authority and the powers of the entities and cantons at least greatly reduced.
However, I do not believe that the West will do these things, because it lacks the will. Therefore it is vital that patriotic Bosnians (primarily Bosniaks, but also other Bosnian citizens whose primary loyalty is to Bosnia-Hercegovina rather than to Serbdom or Croatdom) begin to develop a resistance strategy to prepare themselves for a possible conflict arising from the secession of the RS supported by Serbia and Russia. If and when the RS secedes, Bosnians must be in a position to respond militarily, even if the West fails to act. And they must have clear strategic goals.
‘Fortified by the Austrian alliance, Catherine [the Great] proceeded toward the realisation of the Grand Plan. She began in the Crimea where, in complete violation of her pledges at Kuchuk Kainarji, she applied the same tactics that had proved successful in Poland. She encouraged a revolt against the reigning khan and installed in his place a pretender who faithfully executed her orders. When the Tatar population rose in protest she proclaimed the annexation of the country with professions of acting only to deliver its people from misgovernment. This highhanded robbery excited the greatest indignation in Constantinople. But the Turks received no support from any quarter. Even France advised acceptance of the fait accompli. The inevitable outcome was the Treaty of Constantinople (1783) ceding to Russia the Crimean Peninsula with the neighbouring Kuban area and the Taman Peninsula.’
L.S. Stavrianos, The Balkans since 1453, Hurst and Company, London, 1958, 2000, pp. 193-194
Image courtesy of Infowars.com
“I’d prefer Assad to win.” Not his actual words, but that is the only conclusion to be derived from the suggestion of Boris Johnson, the London mayor, that arming the Syrian opposition would lead to British weapons in the hands of “al-Qaida-affiliated thugs”. With 93,000 of Syria’s citizens dead, a kill rate in the country higher than in post-invasion Iraq, and one of the world’s most murderous and tyrannical regimes poised to win a historic victory thanks to western inaction, Johnson can only fret about hypothetical dangers.
In fact, it is the west’s failure militarily to support the Syrian National Coalition and its principal military counterpart, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), that is strengthening the hand of al-Qaida in Syria.
Continue reading at The Guardian, where this article was published on 18 June.
Image: Noman Celebicihan, founder and first president of the Crimean People’s Republic
This is a guest post by Riley Hogan
This month marks the anniversary of the founding of the Crimean People’s Republic (CPR), one of the many ephemeral democracies that arose in the vacuum created by the Russian civil war, only to be destroyed by Bolshevik forces – another fine example of ‘anti-imperialism’ in action. The CPR’s history disproves two western prejudices: the idea of Islam as a force hostile to modernity and of Ukraine as a backward land. It is important to understand the seeds of the Crimean People’s republic, its significance and parallels to past history.
The republic was a remarkably progressive entity complete with female suffrage and secularism. Reactionaries would probably try to dismiss the CPR as a product of nominal or ‘cultural’ Muslims who weren’t really Muslim at all; a view shared by Wahabbis who, like the so-called ‘counter-jihadists’, believe only they can determine who is ‘really Muslim’. The Crimea was not simply a Muslim land; its Khanate was a major centre of the Islamic world with a culture equal to the most celebrated states in Islamic history.
The CPR was not an accident of history; it was a natural product of the Khanate’s traditional pluralism, tolerance and unique institutions. Historian Alan W. Fisher, author of ‘The Crimean Tatars’ (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 1978) describes how there ‘is no evidence’ that ‘non-Muslim’ Jews especially ‘were subject to any of the discrimination or persecution that infidel subjects experienced in the Christian states in the north.’ Non-Muslims eventually took ‘on the way of life of the Crimean Muslims with the exceptions of religion.’ Crimean Jews ‘spoke a Turkic language, lived according to Turkic traditions and even sang purely Turkic songs.’ Crimean Muslims sheltered Jews from the Khmelnytsk pogroms and Fisher details how Christians from the Khanate were found to speak a ‘Turkic language.’
According to Fisher, the Khanate was ‘not a feudal monarchy, an absolute monarchy, a patimonial state or an oriental despotism’; it was ‘something quite different…perhaps without European parallel.’ Clan authority was ‘manifested’ through the Kurultay assembly: a proto-democratic institution that ‘had no Ottoman parallel.’ Ukraine historian Paul Robert Magocsi describes how Clan leaders ‘formerly elected’ new Khans from the Giray dynasty. Apart from the Kurultay elders, clan leaders, clerics ‘determined Crimean governmental policy’ through the Khan’s state assembly (divan).
Common Tatars also enjoyed more liberty than their Christan neighbours, with a significant proportion of them retaining nomadic traditions, and they had a large urban population. Fisher describes how Tatar peasants were ‘always legally free’ and how ‘there had never been serfdom in any form in the Khanate.’ He also details how Crimean education ‘was as complex and thriving as that of the Ottomans and more advanced than Muscovy’. Female education also existed within the Khanate’s borders.
Image: The Crimean Tatar Girls School in 1840
Therefore Crimea did not settle into grueling feudal agriculture which retarded development in South America, Russia and Romania. The distinct traditions, institutions and pluralism were clearly a fertile ground for democracy similar to how the Polish-Lithunian Commonwealth’s traditions allowed the Polish people to develop a thriving democratic tradition (though the Rzeczpospolita had less liberty than the Khanate). It is no accident that Poland and Crimea are among the most democratic lands in what is referred to as ‘Eastern Europe’, while Russia, with its centuries of religious intolerance, autocracy and racism, continues to slide into the depths of authoritarianism.
The fact that the Crimean People’s Republic was founded by Noman Celebicihan, a devout Muslim mufti, presents a strong blow to the delusions of the counter-jihadists. Yet Celebicihan was more than a cleric; he was an accomplished lawyer and author who was an example of the best the 20th century had to offer. The republic’s founder was not an isolated historical figure, he was a direct product of a 19th-century Tatar Islamic movement which emphasized modernity and adapting to the West as the only way to save Islam. Men like Ismail bey Gaspirali, Shihabeddin Merjani and others supported reforms, gender equality and importing Western ideas.
An examination of the Crimean People’s Republic reveals that it was a successful experiment in one of the purest forms of democracy. The constitution clearly specified the only valid laws were those that came from the will of the people and had considerable safeguards against abuse of power like a specification that the Kuraltay parliament should be reelected every three years. The republic was more democratic than many modern western states and if Crimea had remained unmolested it would have become a thriving democracy decades ahead of many Western European countries.
Image: Flag of the Crimean People’s Republic
Crimean Tatar traditions continue to produce people who personify the best of the West. Contrary to popular belief, the record for the world’s longest hunger-strike does not belong to Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or any other human rights celebrity, but to Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev. H devoted his life to fighting for the Crimean right to return after Stalin’s genocidal deportation of his people (paralleled by Operation Lentil), and unlike Mandela, he never resorted to violence. Mr Dzhemilev celebrated his 69th birthday last month after completing a goal long thought impossible and surviving the Soviet union.
We should mark the Crimean People’s Republic by honouring Crimean Tatar civilization, remembering the men who perished in defense of their homeland and celebrating Crimea’s living heroes. After much thought, I have decided to close with the republic’s anthem written by Noman Celebicihan.
I pledged to heal the wounds of Tatars,
Why should my unfortunate brothers rot away;
If I don’t sing, don’t grieve for them, if I live,
Let the dark streams of blood of my heart go dry !
I pledge to bring light to that darkened country,
How may two brothers not see one another ?
When I see this, if I don’t get distressed, hurt, seared,
Let the tears that flow from my eyes become a river, a sea of blood !
I pledge, give my word to die for (my nation)
Knowing, seeing, to wipe away the teardrops of my nation
If I live a thousand unknowing, unseeing years, If I become
a gathering’s chief (Khan of a Kurultay),
Still one day the gravediggers will come to bury me !
I cannot remember any year of my life being so exciting, in terms of global political developments, as 2011. In a positive way, too: although many of the great events of last year have been far from unambiguous triumphs for human progress and emancipation, they have nevertheless demonstrated that many of the chains that bind humanity are not as immovable as they previously seemed. Though many of the battles remain to be fought and some will be lost, that they are being fought at all is reason for optimism. I haven’t remotely been able to provide adequate comment at this blog, but here is my personal list of the most inspiring events of 2011 – not necessarily in order of importance.
1. The Arab (and Russian !) Spring.
Cynics regret the fall of the Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes, and the likely fall of the Saleh regime, in the belief that these acted as Hobbesian leviathans keeping lids on political Islam. They fail to appreciate that these dictatorships, through preventing the emergence of healthy political pluralism and through opportunistic collaboration with Islamism, acted as the incubators of the very Islamist movements they claimed to keep in check. It is pluralism – more so than democracy – that is ultimately the cure for the evil represented by Islamism. The Arab Spring may end badly in some or all of the countries in question, but hats off to the brave Syrians, Yemenis, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and others who have redeemed the honour of the Arab world through their heroic struggle against tyranny, showing that change is possible. The Arab fighters against tyranny may not win, or they may succumb to a new tyranny, but they are fighting a struggle that needs to be fought. And hats off too to the brave Russians who are raising the banner of freedom in the heart of Europe’s worst police state.
2. International intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and Laurent Gbagbo.
For all that I supported the US-led intervention to overthrow the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, events have proven it was an intervention too far: carried out without any form of mandate from world opinion or support in the country in question and attempting a too-radical overthrow of the existing order, it brought democratic change and emancipated the Shia majority and Kurdish minority, but only at great human cost and immense damage to the West’s reputation and to the political standing of the Western governments that participated. By contrast, the intervention in Libya was everything the intervention in Iraq was not: carried out in support of a genuine popular uprising and at the request of Libyans themselves, with a genuine international mandate, it brought down a dictatorship without any foreign troops setting foot in the country or losing their lives. There has been some whining among wishy-washy moderates that regime-change was carried out under cover of a UN mandate to prevent massacre, and that consequently Western leaders have made it more difficult to obtain international support for humanitarian intervention in future. Nonsense: even the propaganda catastrophe of Iraq did not prevent the intervention in Libya, so the successful intervention in Libya will be far from discouraging future interventions. In fact, like the Kosova intervention before it, Libya shows how humanitarian intervention can work, as did the international intervention that helped bring about the fall of Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, followed by his arrest and deportation to the International Criminal Court where, we hope, more of his fellow tyrants will end up.
3. The rise in the West of protests at the abuses of capitalism.
For much of the past fifteen years or so of my life, I felt I was gradually becoming more right-wing (from an admittedly extreme-left-wing starting-point), to the point where, at the last British general election, I adopted a bi-partisan standpoint vis-a-vis Labour and the Conservatives. I have seen, and continue to see myself, as a centrist rather than a leftist. Well, the events in the UK, the rest of Europe and the US have certainly served as a wake-up call to me, as the mainstream political right and the super-rich – not to put too fine a point on it – are simply taking the piss. Here in the UK, public services are being massacred while those in the corporate and financial sectors pay themselves vast and unearned bonuses, and the authorities turn a blind eye to their blatant tax-evasion. We’re supposed to believe that cutting the incomes of ordinary working- and middle-class people is necessary in the name of deficit-reduction, while cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations is necessary in the name of economic stimulus ! Well, you can’t have it both ways. In the US, the Republicans have gone so far to the right in their support of selfish and irresponsible tax-cuts for the rich that they’ve gone completely off the rails, seriously jeopardising their government’s ability to navigate the economic crisis. With mainstream centre-left leaders like Barack Obama and Ed Miliband failing to show any backbone over this, it is left to grass-roots activist movements to do so. So three cheers for Los Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and all such movements, for doing what our elected representatives are failing to do. I never thought I’d say that, but there it is.
4. The fall of Silvio Berlusconi and popular protests in Greece.
The fall of the corrupt sleazeball is a bittersweet triumph, given that it occurred in the context of the EU’s imposition of brutal austerity programmes across the Eurozone, accompanied by creeping integration that violates both the national sovereignty and democratic will of member states. The cause of deeper EU integration has revealed itself to be a deeply undemocratic, anti-people cause. I have been very critical of the Greek political classes for their criminal regional policies, vis-a-vis Milosevic, Macedonia, etc.; the Greek people, by contrast, in the ferocious fight they are putting up against the EU-imposed austerity measures, have set an example to us all. Let the costs of the economic crisis be born by the bankers and politicians who caused it, not by ordinary people and future generations.
5. The phone-hacking scandal in the UK.
All my life in the UK, I have lived in the belief that the tabloid newspapers and particularly the Murdoch media empire are a great incubus on British politics and society, encouraging everything that is worst in our country: xenophobia, small-mindedness, vulgarity, philistinism, voyeurism and sleaze. So how refreshing and liberating it is, to see them being taken down a peg or two. There is no reason why people’s private lives and feelings should be constantly violated, and intimate personal details splashed all over newspapers, by hack reporters pandering to the worst public instincts; it is time that the UK passed some serious privacy laws, to put an end to the permanent national scandal and embarrassment of our tabloid press. However uninspiring Ed Miliband may be as Labour Party leader, he deserves credit for bravely taking on the Murdoch empire. Let’s hope the Daily Mail goes the way of the News of the World - that would go a long way toward solving our supposed ‘immigration crisis’ !
6. Independence for South Sudan.
What a sad day it is for democracy, when a genocidal dictatorship accomplishes what various flawed democracies seem unable to do, and negotiates the independence from it of an oppressed region. In July, South Sudan formally became an independent state and joined the UN. Congratulations to its people, who have shown that even the most brutal struggle for freedom can have a happy ending ! Meanwhile, Turkey is escalating its terror and repression of its Kurdish population; Serbia continues to block and disrupt Kosova’s independence, with Serb extremists creating chaos in northern Kosova and undermining Serbia’s EU aspirations; and Israel continues to obstruct peace with the Palestinians through its settlement-building programme and Apartheid-style occupation regime in the West Bank – to which its apologists turn a blind eye, while they try to blame the Palestinians for wanting to join the UN and UNESCO ! Shame on the democratic world.
7. Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the International Court of Justice and Palestinian membership of UNESCO.
Were the democratic world to apply liberal and democratic principles fairly and consistently, it would be extremely easy to bring about solutions to the Macedonian-Greek and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, that would respect and safeguard the rights of all four nations in question. Unfortunately, the EU over Greece and Macedonia and the US over Israel and Palestine, far from acting as honest brokers in negotiations to end these conflicts, are simply supporting the hardline nationalist agendas of the stronger sides. They hypocritically talk of ‘negotiated settlements’ while ensuring that pressure is only put on the weaker sides, never on the stronger. When they say they want both sides to negotiate, what they really mean is that they want one side to surrender. The Macedonians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice over what’s in their national interest from EU apparatchiks, just as the Palestinians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice from craven US officials. Do they really want their countries to end up like Bosnia, whose leaders in the 1990s were unwise enough to follow ‘advice’ of this kind ?? So what an inspiring example these nations are setting when they refuse to follow the advice of hypocrites, and pursue justice in a dignified, civilised manner through international institutions. Palestine’s admission to UNESCO in October followed by Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the ICJ in December are two blows struck for democracy and human rights that Western leaders seem unable to uphold.
8. The fall of Dominique Strauss-Khan and the acquittal of Amanda Knox.
At one level, the collapse of the sexual assault case in New York against Dominique Strauss-Khan suggests that even in the US, it may be legal for a rich sexually to assault a hotel maid, provided the maid in question has a personal history that’s marginally less unblemished by sin than that of the Virgin Mary, and has done something satanically evil like telling a lie during her asylum application. As has long been said, in rape cases it’s often the victim rather than the rapist who is on trial. For all that, Nafissatou Diallo’s accusation against Strauss-Khan did succeed in ending the political career of a violent misogynist with a history of attacking women, forcing his resignation as IMF chief and wrecking his French presidential bid. And in encouraging other female victims of sexual assault, at the hands of him and of others, to come forward. Another spectacular victory over misogyny was won in October, when Amanda Knox was acquitted by an Italian court on appeal of murdering her flatmate, having been originally convicted in something resembling a medieval witch-trial. Again, she was convicted not on the basis of the evidence against her, since there wasn’t any, but because she was good looking and sexually active, pursued what was in conservative Italian eyes an unorthodox lifestyle, and did not behave like a tearful female stereotype after her flatmate’s murder. Soon after, an apparently respectable boy-next-door, Vincent Tabak, was convicted of murdering his neighbour, Joanna Yeates. Initially overlooked by police until he incriminated himself, he turned out to have a secret fixation with strangling women. So there you have it.
9. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the arrest of Ratko Mladic.
Justice finally caught up in 2011 with two mass-murderers whose long evasion of justice made them symbols of ‘resistance’ for the worst kind of extremists. Mladic turned out not to be as brave as he had been when he was directing the genocidal massacre of defenceless Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica, and surrendered quietly to the Serbian police. Bin Laden was, by contrast, whacked in Pakistan by US special forces, as was his follower Anwar al-Awlaki by a US drone attack in Yemen later in the year, in both cases prompting much hand-wringing by wishy-washy liberal types of the Yasmin Alibhai-Brown variety, who seem to be under the impression that it’s possible for the US peacefully to arrest terrorists based in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict with those terrorists, as if the latter were pickpockets in New York. They would do well to remember the Allied assassination of Holocaust-architect Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, and of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbour, the following year – we certainly didn’t try to arrest them ! And of course, based on what happened to former Republika Srpska vice-president Biljana Plavsic, an international court might have just sentenced bin Laden to a few years in prison, then let him out early.
10. The referendum defeat for the ‘Alternative Vote’ in the UK.
Not as significant as the above events, but it made me happy anyway.
Happy New Year !
Following Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 and its subsequent recognition by the US and most EU and NATO members, various Cassandras told us that this would provoke an avalanche of copycat independence-declarations by secessionist territories all over the world. This did not occur, so following the International Court of Justice’s ruling last month that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not contrary to international law, the Cassandras then told us it was actually this ruling that would trigger the avalanche of secessions. We are still waiting, and I would advise readers not to hold their breath. But there has been one copycat response to our recognition of Kosovo’s independence: in August 2008, Russia retaliated by formaly recognising the independence of Georgia’s two breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However insincere this recognition of the ‘independence’ of what are effectively two Russian colonies may be, Moscow has at least formally broken with its traditional policy, pursued since Tsarist times, of suppressing the independence of the Caucasian peoples, as well as with its insistence that the borders of the former members of the Soviet Union should be respected. This may ultimately prove to be rather more of a trigger for further secessions than the case of Kosovo, which was the only such entity of its kind in the Balkan peninsula. Unlike Kosovo, the former autonomous republic of Abkhazia and autonomous oblast of South Ossetia are entities of a kind with the autonomous republics across the mountains in Russia’s North Caucasus region. One of these republics, Chechnya, already made a bid for independence in the 1990s that Moscow drowned in blood, and the armed insurgency that began there has spread to neighbouring North Caucasian territories. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s bloody-minded attempt to punish the West for Kosovo by formally sanctioning the dismemberment of the US’s Georgian ally may yet prove to be a spectacular own goal.
The main problem with the model of ‘independence’ for Abkhazia and South Ossetia as championed by Moscow is not that these entities should not enjoy the right to independence in principle. A reasonable case could be made that all autonomous entities of the former Soviet Union should be able to exercise the right to self-determination, irrespective of whether they are located in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan or elsewhere. The problem is that Moscow only recognises the right for such entities that have seceded from its enemy, Georgia, but not those that have attempted to secede from Russia, or that may wish to do so in future. Such double-standards cannot be justified on any democratic grounds.
The democratic case for Abkhazia’s independence is highly problematc, given that the ethnic Abkhaz constituted only 17.8% of the territory’s population before the war of the 1990s, whereas ethnic Georgians comprised a plurality of Abkhazia’s population of 45.7%, with Russians, Armenians and other smaller groups comprising the balance. On 17 March 1991, Abkhazia’s electorate actually voted against independence; 52.3% participated in a plebiscite on the preservation of the Soviet Union, of which 98.6% voted in favour. This undoubtedly represented a vote against inclusion in an independent Georgia on the part of the ethnic Abkhaz and of some of the minorities, and a conservative vote in favour of the Soviet status quo on the part of some ethnic Georgians, ethnic Russians and others, but it scarcely represented an unambiguous mandate for independence. Since the war of the early 1990s, the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia, and the emigration of many of the rest of the territory’s inhabitants, have reduced the population to 215,972 according to the last (2003) census, down from 525,061 in 1989. The number of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia who remain dispossessed is not much less than the total population remaining in the territory. In such circumstances, whether self-determiantion can have any meaning is a moot point. Certainly, there can be no possible grounds for granting self-determination to Abkhazia while denying it to Chechnya – a country with the same former constitutional status (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic – ASSR) and two and a half times the population, which in 1991 declared independence on the basis of a solid demographic majority in favour.
Moscow’s double-standard over South Ossetia represents a still more interesting case. Its population of just under a hundred thousand in 1989 was split mostly between ethnic Ossetians and ethnic Georgians roughly 2:1 in favour of the former, giving it a respectable demographic majority in favour of independence, though in terms of viability, a rather weaker case than Abkhazia, Chechnya or Kosovo (the South Ossetians are a community approximately one thirtieth the size of the Kosovo Albanians, and smaller than the Bosniaks/Muslims in Serbia or the Albanians in Macedonia). However, Moscow is paradoxically recognising the right to independence of the autonomous oblast of South Ossetia, but not of the Autonomous Republic of North Ossetia – Alania within its own borders – despite the fact that North Ossetia has a higher constitutional status (autonomous republic as opposed to autonomous oblast) and a population of ethnic Ossetians that was five times as high as South Ossetia’s in 1989 and possibly as much as ten times higher today. It is as if the US and its allies would recognise the independence of the Albanians in Macedonia, but not of Albania itself.
This represents a degree of hypocrisy simply inconceivable for democratic Europe. The international community did not exactly cover itself in glory in its reaction to the break-up of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, under the leadership of the EEC/EU, it applied the principle of self-determination consistently. Thus, in the early 1990s, the right to independence was recognised for all the republics of the former Yugoslavia (and for the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia) equally. The recognition of Kosovo in 2008 meant that the right was extended to all the former members of the Yugoslav federation; in most respects, Kosovo possessed all the rights of the f0rmer-Yugoslav republics, therefore recognition of its independence was ultimately a matter of consistency. And in contrast to Kosovo, which was a member of the former Yugoslav federation, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were not members of the former Soviet federation, therefore Western leaders are not being hypocritical in rejecting any parallel between the two cases.
For all Moscow’s opportunistic attempts at equating its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the West’s support for Kosovo, there really is no parallel. In contrast to the Western alliance’s reluctance acceptance of the break-up of Yugoslavia and reluctant intervention in the conflict, Russia’s constant intervention in the Caucasus since the 1990s has represented the efforts of a colonial power at retaining at least some grip on its former colonies, and at punishing one of them – Georgia – for its rejection of Russian colonial rule. Moscow’s support for Abkhazian and South Ossetian nominal ‘independence’ is a figleaf for its policy of limiting as much as possible the real independence of the entire region. Meanwhile, its colonisation of the two countries is proceeding rapidly. Those looking for a parallel in the West’s own neo-colonial past should not look to the former Yugoslavia, but rather to the policies that France has sometimes pursued in parts of Africa, or that the US sometimes pursued until recently in Latin America. US collusion in the Guatemalan genocide in the 1970s and 80s, or French collusion in the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, represent episodes of a shameful legacy that we should continue to repudiate. And we have every right and reason to expect Russia similarly to abandon its own colonial legacy in the Caucasus.
Rather than allowing Moscow to paint us as the hypocrites vis-a-vis Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is time for Western leaders to call Putin’s bluff; to show that, unlike the Putin-Medvedev regime, we stand for the consistent application of universal principles. Let us state, loudly and clearly, that the principle of self-determination for the peoples of the Caucasus, and for the former Soviet autonomous entities, cannot be selectively applied. Let us invite Moscow to discuss with us whether a set of principles can be agreed upon to determine whether and on what basis these entities should be able to exercise the right to self-determination. But this would require that all such entities be treated on an equal basis, irrespective of whether they are located within the borders of Russia, Georgia or any other former member of the Soviet Union. In principle, there is no reason why we should fear such a discussion, provided it is held without prejudice to the final outcome, and the voices of all interested parties are heard – including both the existing post-Soviet independent states, their autonomous entities - whether they are currently attempting to secede or not – and representatives of any refugees.
Such a discussion could consider recognising the right of all such entities to full independence, or other options that fall short of this, such as granting them the right to complete autonomy – virtual independence – within the borders of their parent states. The latter option, indeed, would not amount to a very great departure from the status quo, in which Tbilisi has lost control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Moscow has effectively ceded control over Chechnya to its president and despot, Ramzan Kadyrov. Were Moscow to agree to such a discussion, it would open the door to a solution of the remaining national conflicts in the European and Caucasian parts of the former Soviet Union – including the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. But if, as seems inevitable, Moscow rejects such a discussion out of hand, its hypocrisy over Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be exposed for all to see.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
William Hague, the new British foreign secretary
‘Compared with a decade ago, this country is more open at home and more compassionate abroad and that is something we should all be grateful for…’. So said Britain’s new prime minister David Cameron, paying tribute to the outgoing Labour government. Britain is embarking on a new political era, and it is sad to see so many self-proclaimed ‘progressives’ still stuck in the same ideological trenches they inhabited in the 1980s, unable to view ‘progressive politics’ in anything other than anti-Tory terms, and damning the Liberal Democrats for their supposed ‘betrayal’. Cameron presented Britain with a historic opportunity to reconstitute our mainstream party of the right as a party of the centre. Had he failed to form a government, the Conservative Party could quite possibly have moved back towards the right. I have been critical of the Liberal Democrats in the past, but Nick Clegg’s decision to form a coalition with Cameron was a supremely responsible act, rescuing Cameron’s ‘progressive Conservative’ project and moderating any right-wing tendencies that a straight Conservative government would have had. The new British government enjoys greater legitimacy than any other combination arising from the election would have done; as much as is possible, it broadly represents what the nation wants, which is a change of government but not a move to the right. The Labour Party will benefit from a rest after thirteen years in office. Those who see British politics purely through anti-Conservative or anti-Labour lenses are still living in the twentieth century; the formation of a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition shows that old distinctions between ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ parties no longer apply.
Crucially, the foreign and defence portfolios in the new government are in the hands of Conservatives. Of course, Britain’s last Conservative government under John Major had a disgraceful record in world affairs – either failing to halt or actively aiding and abetting genocide in Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda, while undermining our alliance with the US. But not all Conservative politicians are the same – Winston Churchill was not Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher was not Edward Heath. There is cause for concern at the continued influence in the party of elements complicit with Major’s disastrous policies, such as Malcolm Rifkind and Pauline Neville-Jones. But the signals coming from Cameron and from the new foreign secretary, William Hague, are promising.
There is absolutely no reason why the Conservative commitment to greater British sovereignty within the EU is ‘anti-European’; on the contrary, it is the Franco-German-dominated Euro-federalist bloc that is anti-European, as it seeks to divide Europe between the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’, and to exclude countries like Turkey and Ukraine from the European family. In his recently leaked memo, Hague has made it clear that his government will be ‘firm supporters of enlargement’ and ‘favour an outward looking Europe’.
Hague has also said that his government will ‘want to see a more muscular EU approach in Bosnia’. He has consistently spoken up for Bosnia; last year, he criticised the ‘weak and confused’ EU response to the ‘pressure to fragment the country’ and said: ‘It is moving slowly in the wrong direction and – despite all the efforts and all the bloodshed and all the sacrifices there – it’s moving in the wrong direction without alarm bells sounding in most European capitals.’ He warned that the crisis in Bosnia threatened to derail efforts to expand the EU to include Serbia, Croatia and Turkey, and promised: ‘People think the Balkans are what we debated in the 1990s and now we can forget about it. In fact, it’s a crucial area in foreign policy in the next five to 10 years and will get a lot of emphasis in the next Conservative administration.’ Earlier this year, Hague wrote to his predecessor, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, to express his concern at Britain’s arrest of Bosnia’s former vice-president Ejup Ganic.
Cameron, too, has spoken out for the rights of the vulnerable nations of South East Europe. As early as 2003, before he became Conservative leader, Cameron wrote a stirring defence of Macedonia; ‘the country – and I am determined to call it Macedonia – has a perfect right to exist. The population is overwhelmingly Macedonian, with a distinctive language, culture and history.’ Criticising ‘Greek pettiness’ toward Macedonia, Cameron called for an active policy to support it and the former Yugoslavia generally: ‘Let Macedonia into Nato and guarantee its borders. Ensure there is a speedy framework for getting the former Yugoslav republics into the EU so they can benefit from free trade and structural funds. Recognise the fact that Macedonia paid a substantial price for looking after Albanian refugees from Kosovo during the war – and pay aid in respect of it. Above all, stay involved to give the region the stability that it needs so badly.’
When Russia attacked Georgia in August 2008, Cameron was quicker to react than Gordon Brown and more forthright; he flew to Tbilisi to stand shoulder to shoulder with Georgia’s leaders, and to state that ‘I think it’s important that the world’s oldest democracy must stand with one of the newest when it’s been illegally invaded by another country… We wanted to come to express the strongest possible support of the British people, British government and British opposition for Georgia, its independence and integrity.’ He later drew the parallel between Russia and 1930s Germany: ‘Russia’s pretext — that it has a right to step in militarily to protect its citizens — has chilling echoes from Czech history, and dangerous implications if it is now the basis of Russian policy. Such a doctrine cannot be allowed to stand.’ Far from being ‘anti-European’, Cameron defended Georgia from a pro-European perspective: ‘We should not accept that while the Czech Republic, Poland and the Baltic States are in Nato and the EU, with their full measure of independence and liberty, other countries on Russia’s periphery that have not yet become members are somehow condemned to exist in a political no-man’s-land.’
Cameron’s audacious move to form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, outflanking the right wing of the Conservative Party and reshaping British politics, indicates that he may be a bold world leader in the years ahead. Let us hope so. The US and EU have dithered over the worsening crisis in Bosnia – as did the UK under Brown. A British government committed to a broader, more outward-looking Europe, committed to supporting and defending the states of East and South East Europe, is exactly what Europe needs.
The Balkans are only a step away from normalisation, but it may be a step too far for Western policy-makers.
Normalisation for the Balkans would mean the region’s definite establishment as a set of functioning, democratic nation-states on the model of Western Europe; undivided by serious conflicts or live territorial disputes. The region’s national questions would be resolved, to the point that they would be as unlikely to spill over into large-scale bloodshed as the national questions of Belgium, Scotland or Catalonia. The Balkan states would all be integrated into the EU, and ideally NATO as well.
This is not an ambitious ideal, yet it is far from being realised. Regional progress is still being derailed by a series of conflicts of varying severity between the Balkan states. The Slovenian-Croatian border dispute for a while threatened to derail the entire region’s EU integration, though this appears to have been averted. Greek-Turkish rivalry over Cyprus, the Aegean Sea and other areas remains latent, something for which the anti-Turkish rhetoric on the part of candidates in the recent Greek parliamentary elections has served as a reminder. Both Turkey and Greece are problematic: the first is, under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the process of developing a new regional role for itself, one that appears to be taking it closer to authoritarian and radical states like Russia, Iran and Syria; the second is pursuing a damaging regional policy, involving hostility to the fragile states of Macedonia and Kosovo. With its campaign against Macedonia, in particular, Greece is threatening the stability of a neighbouring state where relations between the majority Macedonians and minority Albanians are already dangerously unstable.
Meanwhile, the policies of Serbia and Serb nationalism remain the single greatest source of Balkan instability. Serbia is still failing to arrest war criminals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, thereby obstructing its own EU integration. But more dangerously, it is pursuing a dog-in-the-manger policy vis-a-vis Kosovo, preventing the newly independent state from consolidating itself and integrating itself properly into the international community. The Serbia-Kosovo dispute poisons regional relations; Belgrade recently rebuked Skopje for the latter’s agreement with Pristina to resolve the Macedonia-Kosovo border dispute.
The most intractable regional problem of all, however, remains Bosnia-Hercegovina. The state is saddled with the unworkable constitutional order imposed upon it by the Dayton Accords of 1995, ensuring that the state cannot function and must remain in a state of permanent political crisis. Bosnia’s recent exclusion, along with Albania, from the EU’s grant of visa liberalisation to the western Balkans, that was applied to Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, has further entrenched divisions in the country and the wider region. Milorad Dodik, prime minister of Bosnia’s Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, is openly pursuing Bosnia’s full dismemberment; the aggressive and provocative nature of his policy was recently highlighted by the warm welcome he extended to the convicted war-criminal Biljana Plavsic, following her early release from prison in Sweden.
These home-grown Balkan problems are being exacerbated by the policies of outside powers. The revanchist, neo-Soviet regime in Russia is aggressively backing Serbia over Kosovo, preventing the dispute from being resolved. By doing so, Moscow is not merely undermining Kosovo, but is undermining also Serbia’s own complete transition into a post-nationalist liberal democratic state. Moscow aims to keep the Balkans divided to prevent their full integration into the Euro-Atlantic framework. Hence, Dodik was looking to Moscow when he unilaterally withdrew Bosnian Serb soldiers from participation in NATO exercises in Georgia.
The second major external source of Balkan instability is the weak and vacillating policy of the EU, dominated as the latter is by the Franco-German axis. Germany is pursuing a pro-Russian policy that is making the new East Central European members of NATO and the EU very uncomfortable, while France continues to seek a dissident role in the Western alliance vis-a-vis the Anglo-Saxon powers. Hence, the EU’s muted reaction to the Georgian war; the crushing of Washington’s Georgian ally was not allowed to get in the way of growing EU-Russian collaboration. The Georgian war was facilitated by the Franco-German blocking of the grant of NATO Membership Action Plans to Georgia, along with Ukraine, in the spring of 2008. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, pursuing his Gaullist policy of Mediterranean union, sees fit also to support Greece against Macedonia.
Such an attitude on the part of the EU also involves toleration of Serbian trouble-making vis-a-vis Kosovo and Bosnia. The Netherlands is essentially isolated in its continued insistence that Serbia’s progress on EU accession be linked to its arrest of war criminals. The EU, for its part, would like to see the Office of the High Representative (OHR) for Bosnia closed. Yet the OHR has been the principal integrating force in Bosnia since 1995. Take away the OHR, and Bosnia moves another step toward full partition.
The EU’s resolve over the Balkans is further weakened by the activities of dissident members. No unified EU policy exists over Kosovo on account of the refusal of five EU members to recognise the new state – all for nationalistic reasons. Romania and Slovakia perceive a ‘separatist’ parallel between the Kosovo Albanians and their own maltreated Hungarian minorities. Likewise, Spain is obsessed with ‘separatist’ parallels of its own vis-a-vis Catalonia and the Basque Country. Greece and Cyprus are traditional allies of Serbia; Cyprus also equates Kosovo with Turkish-occupied Cyprus. None of these states’ reasons for opposing Kosovo’s independence are very noble, yet the EU has no means of compelling them to keep ranks with the majority; the EU therefore pursues the policy of the lowest common denominator.
Although the EU has been as an instrument for bringing nations together, its recent policies in the Balkans are having the opposite effect. The veto that EU members enjoy in relation to membership bids by aspiring members places a weapon in the hands of trouble-makers lucky enough to already be in the club. The Slovenian-Croatian border dispute was exacerbated by Ljubljana’s use of its veto against Croatia. Although Ljubljana threatened to use its veto to keep Croatia out of NATO as well, Washington quickly put a stop to this mischief. Unfortunately, the EU states are much less ready than the US to put pressure on their partners to cease misbehaviour, and though Ljubljana did eventually lift its veto, this was not before it had won concessions over the border dispute at Zagreb’s expense.
Still more destructive has been the EU’s exacerbation of the Greek-Macedonian dispute. Despite the thoroughly pre-democratic and chauvinistic nature of Greece’s campaign against Macedonia, EU members have been wholly unwilling to put pressure on Athens to change it. So, rather than the whole club forcing a badly behaved member to behave better, the policy of the trouble-maker is imposed on the whole. The bad apple poisons the whole basket; the tail wags the dog.
The structural factors underlying the EU’s damaging policies vis-a-vis the Balkans are likely to become worse in the years to come. The accession of new members will give more states vetoes to use against aspiring members. After joining the EU, Croatia may use its veto against Serbia. If Macedonia does back down to Athens, Albania might be encouraged to use its veto to keep Macedonia out of NATO, to extract concessions regarding the Albanian minority in Macedonia. For while both Croatia and Albania have pursued responsible regional policies over the past ten years, the EU is sending out to them the wrong signals: that bad behaviour brings dividends.
Meanwhile, the EU’s growing energy dependency on Russia is likely further to dampen the EU’s resolve to resist the mischief of Moscow and Belgrade in the Balkans. Russian plans to build the ‘North Stream’ gas pipeline direct to Germany, bypassing the former-Communist states of East Central Europe, will allow it to exert leverage over its neighbours without simultaneously punishing its German ally.
As the EU moves increasingly to accommodate a dangerous and hostile power, so it is alienating an important power that has long assisted Balkan stability. Paris and Berlin have made it very clear they do not wish to allow Turkey to join the EU. This has had the predictable result that Turkey is losing is faith in the possibility of a European future, and is turning increasingly toward Russia, Iran, Syria and other radical and anti-Western states. Turkey has made huge strides this decade in improving its human rights record, as required by its bid for EU membership. For the same reason, it has facilitated a resolution of the Cyprus dispute through its support for the 2004 Annan Plan. As the prize of EU membership moves further from its grasp, Ankara may backslide over both human rights and Cyprus as well. There are worrying signs that the pace of democratisation in Turkey is indeed slowing -such as the record fine recently imposed on Dogan Yayin Holding AS – Turkey’s largest media group and critical of the AKP government.
A hardening of Turkey’s stance on Cyprus could lead to the collapse of the Greek-Turkish rapprochement, further damaging the prospects for the Balkans’ normalisation. For all its human rights abuses, Turkey has been playing a constructive role in the region, as the ally of the weak and vulnerable states of Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. We do not know what the full consequences would be if Turkey fully abandons its European moorings and goes off in a new direction. But at the very least, an authoritarian Turkey headed by an Islamic-populist regime on the border of the Balkans will not have a positive effect on the region.
Unfortunately, alongside Russia and the EU, there is a third external factor whose contribution to Balkan stability currently raises concerns: the Obama Administration in the US. The latter’s abandonment of the Bush Administration’s plans to base a missile-defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, in order to appease Moscow in the hope of obtaining Russian support vis-a-vis Iran, is a worrying indication of US passivity vis-a-vis Europe and Russia. The capitulation amounts to a betrayal of the security of allies in order to appease a hostile power, with echoes of Cold-War-style sphere-of-influence politics. While it is too soon to press the panic button over Obama’s policy toward Eastern and South Eastern Europe, we should be very concerned if Obama goes any further down this path.
For all these internal and external problems facing the Balkans, the success stories and models for future success are close at hand. Romania and Bulgaria are far from model democracies, and have serious problems with corruption and organised crime. Yet neither has engaged in military aggression or seriously attempted territorial expansionism since joining the free world in 1989; both are members of the EU and NATO. Turkey and Greece, following their heavy military defeats in World War I and the Greco-Turkish War respectively, pursued an enlightened policy of rapprochement vis-a-vis one another, eschewing territorial expansionism. This rapprochement was only derailed by the outbreak of the Cyprus conflict from the 1950s, and later resumed: Greece today is a vocal champion of Turkey’s EU membership. Croatia, too, following its unsuccessful expansionist adventure in Bosnia in the first half of the 1990s has, since the death of Franjo Tudjman in 1999, abandoned expansionism to pursue a responsible regional policy and EU membership.
The key to turning aggressive, expansionist Balkan states into responsible members of the European family, therefore, is for the international community to shut off all avenues for their expansionism and keep them firmly confined within their own borders. With all due qualifications, this is the way it has been for Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and Croatia. Where these states have been less than responsible – as, for example, in the case of Turkey vis-a-vis Cyprus or Greece vis-a-vis Macedonia – this has occurred when there have been insufficient limits placed on their ability to coerce neighbours.
The biggest source of instability in the Balkans remains the fact that, thanks to the weakness and vacillation of Western and above all EU policy, Serbia has not been firmly confined within its borders, despite its defeat in the wars of the 1990s. Instead, Belgrade continues to destabilise the neighbouring states of Kosovo and Bosnia. Its ability to do so means that Serbia – unlike Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Greece and to an extent Turkey – is unable to develop a post-expansionist state identity; one that does not revolve around territorial aspirations towards neighbouring states. This is bad above all for Serbia itself – the reason why it is still a long way from EU membership, despite being before the 1990s more prosperous, developed and liberal than either Romania or Bulgaria.
The problem is not, however, ultimately with Serbia itself. In parliamentary elections following Kosovo’s independence last year, the Serbian electorate handed victory to the pro-European rather than the hardline nationalist parties, revealing what little stomach it has for renewed confrontation over Kosovo. Belgrade has also played its trump card with its case against Kosovo’s independence before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and there is every reason to believe that the Court will not rule in its favour, even leaving aside the strength of Kosovo’s case. The ICJ’s judges come from different countries and their verdict will likely represent some form of compromise rather than award outright victory to one side or the other. Anything less than a full victory for Belgrade will effectively be a defeat, ambiguity leaving the door open for more states to recognise Kosovo’s independence while plausibly claiming to do so legally. In other words, both in terms of its range of available strategies and in terms of the popular support it enjoys, Serbian expansionism vis-a-vis Kosovo is a broken reed. With the Kosovo Albanians enjoying a comfortable majority in their country, their ultimate ability to consolidate their state is assured.
The principal problem for the region is the Bosnian question, and the policy of the Western alliance toward it. Unlike for all the other Balkan regional problems, for Bosnia, stability will not come through persuading or coercing the states involved to accept reality or to reach a compromise. For Bosnia, it is the very legal status quo and ‘compromise’, born at Dayton in 1995, that is generating instability for the state and the region. The Dayton order provides a framework that is gradually enabling the Bosnian Serb separatists, currently headed by Dodik, to establish the Bosnian Serb entity as a de facto independent state while preparing the ground for formal secession. The Bosniaks will, however, go to war to prevent this happening. It is a moot point what the outcome of such a military confrontation would be, but it is not something to which we should look forward.
Bosnia remains, therefore, the weak foundation-stone of Balkan stability. Only the transformation of Bosnia into a functioning state, through the transfer of most state powers from the entities to the central government, will guarantee against the outbreak of a new Bosnian war, and provide a final and definite check to Serbia’s expansionism, forcing that state wholly onto the post-expansionist path and removing the principal obstacle to the region’s progress.
Unfortunately, with Western and particular EU policy being what it is at present, such a decisive step seems unlikely. The problems facing the Balkans are neither huge nor insurmountable, yet Western passivity and vacillation seem set to allow these small problems to turn into larger ones. The Balkans look set for a rocky road ahead.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society. A longer version was given as a presentation to the Sussex European Institute on 3 November, entitled ‘How far are the Balkans from normalisation ?’
The EU fact-finding mission, headed by Switzerland’s Heidi Tagliavini, into the causes of last summer’s war in Georgia has released its Report. The Daily Telegraph has misrepresented the latter’s conclusions as amounting to an attribution of primary blame to the Georgian side in the conflict, with the satisfying result of inducing some premature gloating on the part of various pro-Putin elements who didn’t bother to read the text themselves. Whereas the Daily Telegraph‘s headline proclaimed ‘EU blames Georgia for starting war with Russia’, this is untrue: the Report is damning primarily for the Russian side. It is characteristic of the EU’s customary inability to take clear moral standpoints that its fact-finding mission has drawn up an extremely balanced, informed and objective summary of the facts but then shied away from drawing the appropriate conclusion.
The report rules absolutely against Georgia on one count only: that its inital assault on South Ossetia was not in accordance with international law. It states: ‘There is the question of whether the use of force by Georgia in South Ossetia, beginning with the shelling of Tskhinvali during the night of 7/8 August 2008, was justifiable under international law. It was not.’ The report goes on to state that the Georgian assault was not proportionate to the requirements of a defensive operation, while South Ossetia’s actions to repel this attack were in accordance with international law. After that, the report rules against Russia on almost every count. To sum up:
1) The report acknowledges the massive and sustained provocations to which Georgia had been subjected by Russia in the period preceding the conflict. Among these, ‘The mass conferral of Russian citizenship to Georgian nationals and the provision of passports on a massive scale on Georgian territory, including its breakaway provinces, without the consent of the Georgian Government runs against the principles of good neighbourliness and constitutes an open challenge to Georgian sovereignty and an interference in the internal affairs of Georgia’ (p. 18). Furthermore, ‘The decision by the Russian Federation to withdraw the 1996 CIS restrictions on Abkhazia (March 2008) and to authorise direct relations with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sides in a number of fields (April 2008), added another dimension to an already complex situation in the area’ (p. 31).
2) The report acknowledges that the Georgian offensive did not come out of the blue, but in the context of escalating military preparations and activities by both sides over the preceding months, involving exchanges of fire and explosions on both sides of the front lines, so that the ‘ever-mounting tensions in the conflict zone were approaching the level of open military confrontation’ and ‘the stage seemed all set for a military conflict’ (pp. 18-19).
3) The report states that although ‘[t]he Mission is not in a position to consider as sufficiently substantiated the Georgian claim concerning a large-scale Russian military incursion into South Ossetia before 8 August 2008′, nevertheless it does not reject the claim; on the contrary, it lists several pieces of evidence that lend weight to Georgia’s accusations of a preparatory Russian military build-up prior to the war, including ‘the provision by the Russian side of training and military equipment to South Ossetian and Abkhaz forces prior to the August 2008 conflict’; ‘an influx of volunteers or mercenaries from the territory of the Russian Federation to South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel and over the Caucasus range in early August, as well as the presence of some Russian forces in South Ossetia, other than the Russian JPKF battalion, prior to 14.30 hours on 8 August 2008′; and the fact that ‘it seems that the Russian air force started its operations against Georgian targets, including those outside South Ossetian military boundaries, already in the morning of 8 August, i.e. prior to the time given in the Russian official information’ (p. 20).
4) The Report rejects Moscow’s claim that it was waging a defensive or legal war in Georgia. It notes that ‘much of the Russian action went far beyond the reasonable limits of defence’; that Russia’s actions ‘cannot be regarded as even remotely commensurate with the threat to Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia’; that Russia’s ‘continued destruction that came after the ceasefire agreement was not justifiable by any means’; and that ‘the Russian military action outside South Ossetia was essentially conducted in violation of international law’. It therefore concludes that ‘insofar as such extended Russian military action reaching out into Georgia was conducted in violation of international law, Georgian military forces were acting in legitimate self-defence under article 51 of the UN Charter.’ Consequently, ‘In a matter of a very few days, the pattern of legitimate and illegitimate miliary action had thus turned around between the two main actors Georgia and Russia’. The report notes in addition that the second front against Georgia opened by the Russians and Abkhazians in Abkhazia was ‘not justified under international law’ (pp. 23-25).
5) The Report rejects any possible justification of the Russian intervention in Georgia on humanitarian grounds, both because ‘Russia in particular has consistently and persistently objected to any justification of the NATO Kosovo intervention on humanitarian grounds’ and ‘can therefore not rely on this putative title to justify its own intervention on Georgian territory’, and because ‘as a directly neighbouring state, Russia has important political and other interests of its own in South Ossetia and the region. In such a constellation, a humanitarian intervention is not recognised at all’ (p. 24).
6) The report categorically rejects Russian claims that Georgia committed genocide against South Ossetian civilians: ‘After having carefully reviewed the facts in the light of the relevant law, the Mission concludes that to the best of its knowledge allegations of genocide committed by the Georgian side in the context of the August 2008 conflict and its aftermath are neither founded in law nor substantiated by factual evidence’ (pp. 26-27). It notes that the total number of South Ossetian civilian casualties in the whole of the August 2008 conflict was only 162, not the two thousand initially claimed by Moscow (p. 21).
7) Conversely, the Report attributed the worst and most systematic atrocities to the South Ossetian side: ‘With regard to allegations of ethnic cleansing committed by South Ossetian forces or irregular armed groups, however, the Mission found patterns of forced displacements of ethnic Georgians who had remained in their homes after the onset of hostilities. In addition, there was evidence of systematic looting and destruction of ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia. Consequently, several elements suggest the conclusion that ethnic cleansing was indeed practiced against ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia both during and after the August 2008 conflict’ (p. 27).
8 ) Finally, the Report condemns Russia’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as contrary to international law: ‘South Ossetia did not have a right to secede from Georgia, and the same holds true for Abkhazia for much of the same reasons. Recognition of breakaway entities such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia by a third country is consequently contrary to international law in terms of an unlawful interference in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the affected country, which is Georgia’ (p. 17).
Far from blaming the Georgian side for the conflict, the Report ends with a conclusion that most reasonable friends of Georgia could readily endorse: ‘This report shows that any explanation of the origins of the conflict cannot focus solely on the artillery attack on Tskhinvali in the night of 7/8 August and on what then developed into the questionable Georgian offensive in South Ossetia and the Russian military action. The evaluation also has to cover the run-up to the war during the years before and the mounting tensions in the months and weeks immediately preceding the outbreak of hostilities. It must also take into account years of provocations, mutual accusations, military and political threats and acts of violence both inside and outside the conflict zone. It has to consider, too, the impact of a great power’s coercive politics and diplomacy against a small and insubordinate neighbour, together with the small neighbour’s penchant for overplaying its hand and acting in the heat of the moment without careful consideration of the final outcome, not to mention its fear that it might permanently lose important parts of its territory through creeping annexation’ (p. 31).
To sum up: the Report rules against Russia on every ground except one. Although it acknowledges the illegality of the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali, it describes this assault not as gratuitous or unprovoked, but as having occurred in the context of a long period of sustained military and diplomatic provocations on the part of Russia, a great power, against its small neighbour, whose fears about permanent territorial loss were very real. The Report rejects Moscow’s claim that it acted for humanitarian reasons; that it acted to stop genocide; or that its action was in accordance with international law. On the contrary, it explicitly condemns Russia’s military actions as illegal under international law, and acknowledges the legality of Georgia’s attempts to defend itself from Russian invasion. The Report attributes by far the worst atrocities to the South Ossetian side, and endorses Georgian accusations of South Ossetian ethnic cleansing. It meanwhile rejects the massively exaggerated Russian claims of Georgian atrocities.
This is a Report that all friends of Georgia and opponents of Russian imperialism should be publicising to the best of their abilities. It amounts to a ringing endorsement of those of us who at the time recognised the Russian military action for what it was: an act of aggression, illegal under international law, by a hegemonic power against a small and ‘insubordinate’ neighbour. Yet while the factual conclusions of the Report represent such an endorsement, the Report’s authors seem unfortunately unable to draw the only natural conclusion from the evidence they have amassed. Instead, they conclude with a few wishy-washy ‘everyone is to blame’ platitudes of the kind that made the EU synonymous with moral bankruptcy at the time of the Bosnian war in the 1990s: ‘Where lies responsibility for what has happened ? Overall, the conflict is rooted in a profusion of causes comprising different layers in time and action combined. While it is possible to identify the authorship of some important events and decisions marking its course, there is no way to assign overall responsibility to one side alone. They have all failed, and it should be their responsibility to make good for it. Finally, it must be noted that there are no winners in this conflict [etc. etc.].’
Contrary to what the Report concludes, there was a winner in the Georgian war, and it was Russia, which was able to provoke a war against a former colony and current Western ally, inflict a heavy military blow against it and torpedo its chances of joining NATO, all without incurring much in the way of punishment from the Western alliance. The Obama Administration’s recent abandonment of the US plans to install a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic is further proof that Moscow has been successful, through its assault on Georgia and other aggressive acts, in extracting concessions from the Western alliance vis-a-vis the area that Russian imperialists view as their backyard. So long as we are afraid to draw the logical conclusion from evidence that is staring us in the face, and are afraid to call a spade a spade, an aggressor an aggressor and a victim a victim, we are simply encouraging further violent acts of the kind that the Report’s authors deplore.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
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