While it is almost certainly true that Moscow's action in the Ossetian and the Abkhazian enclave of Georgia has been revenge for the independence of Kosovo (on Feb. 14, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Western recognition of Kosovar independence would be met by intensified support for irredentism in South Ossetia), it is important to bear in mind that this does not permit us the moral sloth of allowing equivalence between the two dramas.
Perhaps one could mention some of the salient differences.
1) Russia had never expressed any interest in Ossetian or Abkhazian micronationalisms, while Georgia was an integral part of the Soviet Union. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that these small peoples are being used as "strategic minorities" to negate the independence of the larger Georgian republic and to warn all those with pro-Russian populations on their soil of what may befall them. This is like Turkish imperialism in Cyprus, Thrace and Iraq, where local minorities can be turned on and off like a faucet, according to the needs of the local superpower.
2) Kosovo was never manipulated as part of the partition or intervention plan of another country and, for a lengthy period, pursued its majority-rule claims by passive resistance and other non-violent means. NATO intervention occurred only when Serbian forces had resorted to mass deportation and full-dress ethnic cleansing. Whatever may be said of Georgia's incautious policy toward secessionism within its own internationally recognized borders, it does not deserve comparison with the criminal behaviour of the Slobodan Milosevic regime.
3) Does anybody remember the speeches in which the Russian ambassador to the United Nations asked the General Assembly or Security Council to endorse his country's plan to send forces deep into the territory and waters of a former colony that is now a UN member state? I thought not. I look at the newspaper editorials every day, waiting to see who will be the first to use the word "unilateral" in the same sentence as "Russia." Nothing so far. Yet UN Resolution 1441, warning Saddam Hussein of serious consequences, was the fruit of years of thwarted diplomacy and passed without a dissenting vote.
4) The six former constituent republics of Yugoslavia, which all exercised their constitutional right to secede from rule by Belgrade, are seated as members of the UN, as is Georgia. Twenty out of 27 states of the European Union have also recognized the government of Kosovo as an entity de jure as well as de facto. The Kosovar population is estimated at 2.1 million. Does anyone seriously imagine that Russia ever even remotely intends to sponsor statehood claims for the tiny local populations of Ossetia and Abkhazia? On the contrary, these peoples will be re-assimilated into the Russian empire. Any comparison with Kosovo would have to be to its potential absorption and annexation by Albania. Nobody has even proposed this, let alone countenanced the unilateral stationing of Albanian armed forces on Kosovar soil.
5) The emphasis of Western policy in the Balkans has been on de-emphasizing ethnic divisions; subsidizing cities and communities that practise reconciliation; and encouraging Serbs and Albanians to co-operate in Kosovo. This policy would stand up to any comparison with Russian behaviour in the Caucasus (and indeed the Balkans), which is explicitly based on an outright appeal to sectarianism, nationalism and confessionalism.
6) The fans of moral equivalence may or may not have noticed this, but the obviously long-meditated and co-ordinated military intervention in Georgia comes in the same month as threats to the sovereignty of Poland and Ukraine, and hard on the heels of a Russian obstruction of UN action in the case of Zimbabwe. Those who like to describe Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev as reacting to an "encirclement" of Russia may wish to explain how Kosovo forms part of this menacing ring of steel, or how the repression of the people of Zimbabwe can assist in Moscow's breakout strategy from it.
I agree with the critics who say the Bush administration garnered the worst of both worlds by giving the Georgians the impression of U.S. support and then defaulting at the push-comes-to-shove moment. The Clintonoids made that mistake with Serbian aggression, giving the Bosnians hope and then letting them be slaughtered until the position became untenable -- and then repeating the same dithering errors in Kosovo.
This argues quite convincingly that there was no deliberate imperial design involved. Will anyone say the same about Putin's undisguised plan for the forcible restoration of Russian hegemony around his empire's periphery?
It would be nice to think there was a consistent response from Washington, but I would not bet on the idea, which is what President George W. Bush has given the strong impression of doing in the last two weeks.
Christopher Hitchens is an author and columnist for Vanity Fair and Slate Magazine (www.slate.com), where this column originally appeared.
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