The Russian government has long highlighted the similarities between Kosovo and South Ossetia. When Kosovo declared independence six months ago, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that this would embolden South Ossetia, as well as other separatist regions around the world.
More recently, parallels have been drawn between Russia's military actions in Georgia this month and NATO's bombing campaign of 1998-99 in Serbia.
The two situations, however, while similar on some points, are fundamentally different where it matters: in their implications for the future of international relations.
The precedent issue is a bit of a red herring. Kosovo is far from the first breakaway region to become independent successfully. Throughout history, separatist inclinations have sometimes resulted in independence, sometimes in accommodation. Whenever a separatist group seeks independence, it cites those that succeeded before it. It does not cite others that failed to attain independence, like the American South, or those that, like Quebec, found a way to live within existing borders. At its core, South Ossetia's desire to break off from Georgia has little or nothing to do with Kosovo's desire to be independent of Serbia.
More interesting is the comparison between the two conflicts, which evidences both similarities and differences in some key areas:
- In 1998-99 NATO forces bombed Yugoslavia. NATO's goal was to coerce Serbia to withdraw its forces from Kosovo and come to the negotiating table. Hundreds of civilians were killed as a result.
- In 2008, Russian military forces bombed Georgia to compel Georgian troops to leave South Ossetia, which Georgia had moved to retake by force. It bombed Georgia proper well after the Georgians declared they were withdrawing from South Ossetia, and occupied territory within Georgia. Unknown numbers of civilians have been killed as a result.
- Kosovo, a majority ethnic-Albanian province, sought independence from Serbian rule.
- South Ossetia is a majority ethnic-Ossetian province that has been de facto independent since 1992, although legally within Georgian territory. South Ossetia seeks either eventual independence or union with Russia.
- The lead-up to military action by NATO in Kosovo involved sustained diplomatic efforts, which failed in the face of continuing civilian casualties and displacement.
- The lead-up to military action by Russia was the decision by Georgia to attack and retake South Ossetia. Russia had long supported the Ossetians, aggravating tensions. Fighting and shelling had recently increased along the border, although negotiations to resolve the conflict also continued. Georgia's decision to invade resulted in civilian casualties and displacement. Given Russia's support for South Ossetia, and the Russian citizenship that Moscow had granted the vast majority of the region's residents, Georgia must have expected that Russia would react.
- NATO sought negotiations that would lead to an international mandate for Kosovo with international peacekeepers deployed.
- Russia has stated that it wants a Georgian withdrawal from South Ossetia and a commitment from Georgia not to use force against separatists there or in Abkhazia. It appears that Russia also wants to punish Georgia, and particularly Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for his administration's unequivocal view of Russia as a hostile and oppressive actor, and for his efforts to join NATO.
- Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic took part in negotiations over Kosovo, and was overthrown in his own country in 2000, after allegations of election fraud. He was later arrested and tried for war crimes. He died in 2006 while the trial was ongoing.
- Allegations of genocide in South Ossetia and calls for an international investigation by Russian officials may suggest an intention to present Saakashvili as a war criminal. Russian officials have stated that they cannot envision talks with Saakashvili. Georgians have also alleged atrocities, primarily on the part of South Ossetian forces.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Kosovo and South Ossetia is this: the Kosovo campaign was, fundamentally, about Kosovo. Then, many countries, including Russia, were united in seeking a solution. Russia was, in fact, instrumental in convincing Milosevic to settle. Kosovo was a key moment in the evolution of the post-Cold War era, its resolution a product of years of Balkan conflict and international efforts to respond.
The conflict between Georgia and Russia is not about South Ossetia. The breakaway province, and Georgia's ill-advised action there, is the pretext Russia has used to demonstrate its power to its neighbors and to the world.
By going to war with Georgia, Russia has in effect said pressure from the United States, the European Union, and the West in general will not keep it from acting to defend its interests as it defines them, interests that include keeping its neighbors in check.
South Ossetia is therefore a historical turning point, as Kosovo was not. It is forcing Western countries fundamentally to reevaluate their interests, priorities, and policies toward Russia and its neighbors, and to do so in recognition of their very limited, and very weak, capacity to affect Russia's decision calculus.
Olga Oliker is a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
This commentary originally appeared on RFERL.org, the website of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty on August 25, 2008.