The comparison between South Ossetia and Kosovo is bunk.

A wartime lexicon.
Aug. 18 2008 12:00 PM

South Ossetia Isn't Kosovo

Whatever Moscow says, there are at least six significant differences between the two situations.

Vladimir Putin. Click image to expand.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

While it is almost certainly true that Moscow's action in the Ossetian and (for good measure) the Abkhazian enclave of Georgia has been, in a real sense, the revenge for the independence of Kosovo (on Feb. 14 Vladimir Putin said publicly that Western recognition of Kosovar independence would be met by intensified Russian support for irredentism in South Ossetia), it is extremely important to bear in mind that this observation does not permit us the moral sloth of allowing any equivalence between the two dramas.

Perhaps one could mention just some of the more salient differences?

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  1. Russia had never expressed any interest in Ossetian or Abkhazian micronationalisms, while Georgia was an integral part of the Soviet Union. It is thus 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, in turn, befall them. This is like nothing so much as Turkish imperialism in Cyprus and 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, which was legally part of Yugoslavia but not of Serbia was never manipulated as part of the partition or intervention plan of another country—the United States, in fact, spent far too long on the pretense that the Yugoslav federation could be saved—and, for a lengthy period, pursued its majority-rule claims by passive resistance and other nonviolent 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 lawless and criminal behavior of the Slobodan Milosevic regime. And in any case, it is unwise for Moscow to be making the analogy, since it supported Milosevic at the time and has excused him since on the less-than-adorable grounds (barely even disguised in Russian propaganda) of Christian Orthodox solidarity. It also armed and incited the most extreme and least pacifist forces in Ossetia and Abkhazia.
  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 land, air, and sea forces deep into the territory and waters of a former colony that is now a U.N. 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 the name Russia. Nothing so far. Yet U.N. Resolution 1441, warning Saddam Hussein of serious consequences, was the fruit of years of thwarted diplomacy and was passed without a dissenting vote.
  4. The six former constituent republics of Yugoslavia, which all exercised their pre-existing constitutional right to secede from rule by Belgrade, are seated as members of the United Nations, as, indeed, 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 1.8 million, which makes it larger than that of some existing E.U. member states. Does anyone seriously imagine that Russia ever even remotely intends to sponsor any statehood claims for the tiny local populations of Ossetia and Abkhazia? On the contrary, these peoples will be reassimilated into the Russian empire. So any comparison with Kosovo would have to be not to its breaking away but to its potential absorption and annexation by Albania. And nobody has even proposed this, let alone countenanced the unilateral stationing of Albanian armed forces on Kosovar soil.
  5. Heartbreakingly difficult though the task has been, and remains, the whole emphasis of Western policy in the Balkans has been on de-emphasizing ethnic divisions; subsidizing cities and communities that practice reconciliation; and encouraging, for example, Serbs and Albanians to cooperate in Kosovo. One need not romanticize this policy, but it would nonetheless stand up to any comparison with Russian behavior in the Caucasus (and indeed the Balkans), which is explicitly based on an outright appeal to sectarianism, nationalism, and—even worse—confessionalism.
  6. The fans of moral equivalence may or may not have noticed this, but the obviously long-meditated and coordinated Russian military intervention in Georgia comes in the same month as explicit threats to the sovereignty of Poland and Ukraine, and hard on the heels of a Russian obstruction of any U.N. action in the case of Zimbabwe. Those who like to describe Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev as reacting to an "encirclement" of Russia may wish to spill some geopolitical ink on explaining 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.

If it matters, I agree with the critics who say that 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 exactly that mistake with Serbian aggression a decade and more ago, giving the Bosnians hope and then letting them be slaughtered until the position became untenable—and then astoundingly, and even after the Dayton Accords, repeating the same series of dithering errors in the case of Kosovo. The longer the moment of truth was postponed, the worse things became. But this in itself 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 all around his empire's periphery? It would be nice to think that there was a consistent response to this from Washington, but I would not even bet someone else's house on the idea, which is what President Bush has given the strong impression of doing in the low farce and frivolity of the last two weeks.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

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