Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 marked a change in Russia’s approach towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the months preceding the war in Georgia in August 2008. Five years later, a short journey through this change in Moscow’s official rhetoric
Originally published on Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso
During the months that brought to the declaration of independence of Kosovo, Russian and international media have repeatedly mentioned the affinity between Kosovo and the break-away regions of the Southern Caucasus. Generally speaking, the countries supporting the independence of Kosovo stressed that it was a casus sui generis, and that Kosovo should not and could not serve as an example in other parts of the world, while Russian officials opposed this view.
After Kosovo declared its independence on February 17, 2008, and a number of countries recognized its independence, two apparently contrasting approaches toward this issue appeared in the Russian political landscape, one supported by the parliament, the other supported by the president and the government.
Just days before Kosovo’s independence declaration, on February 14, 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin held its “Annual Big Press Conference”, as the three-four hours yearly meeting with national and international journalists is officially called. Asked by a German journalist how would Russia react to Kosovo’s independence declaration, Putin offered a very lively answer:
We think that to support a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo is amoral and against the law. […] Are you Europeans not ashamed to apply double standards in settling one and the same issue in different parts of the world? Here in this region we have Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria that exist as independent states. We are always being told that Kosovo is a special case. This is all lies. […] What will we do if they start to recognize Kosovo’s independence unilaterally, and will we not do the same? We are not going to start to play the fool. If someone takes a bad, incorrect decision, it does not mean that we should act the same way. But of course it would be a signal to us, and we would respond to the behaviour of our partners in order to ensure that our interests are protected. If they believe they have the right to promote their interests in this way, then why can’t we? But, I repeat, we will not play the fool and act like this is a necessary consequence or do the same thing. We have our own affairs, and we know what we will do.
An official joint declaration by the two chambers of the Russian Parliament just four days later (on February 18, 2008), while not in open contrast with the statements of the President, supports the idea that after Kosovo Russia should change its policy regarding the “frozen conflicts” in its “near abroad”.
[The leaders of the countries that supported Kosovo’s independence] will bear all the responsibility for the inevitable intensification of existent territorial conflicts and the appearance of new ones, […] as well as for the destructive consequences for the whole system of international law and international stability. […] Now that the situation in Kosovo has become an international precedent, the existing territorial conflicts have to be dealt with by the Russian Federation considering the situation in Kosovo and the practical steps undertaken by certain countries regarding the status of Kosovo. [The Parliament] considers that the recognition of Kosovo gives all the necessary preconditions for the building of a new format of relations between the Russian Federation and the self-proclaimed states located in areas of real (“estestvenny”) interests of Russia, first of all in the post-Soviet space.
Just a couple of weeks later, on March 6, 2008, Russia put an end to the economic sanctions against Abkhazia valid since 1996. Soon thereafter, the Russian Duma made its requests more concrete and asked the government to take practical measures in relation to Abkhazia, South Ossetia (and Transnistria), including opening official Russian missions in these territories and making border crossing for local residents as easy as possible.
The Duma respects the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Georgia and Moldavia according to their internationally recognized borders. At the same time, the deputies think that the process of recognition of Kosovo that is already taking place goes completely against the norms of international law. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, which during their existence as de facto independent states have become democratic countries with all attributes of state power, have much more rights than Kosovo to claim international recognition. […] According to the deputies, in case of a possible Georgian attack on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or in case of decisive measures to force the entrance of Georgia into NATO, it is necessary to take all measures to defend Russian citizens living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and to consider the possibility of quickening the process of “soveregnization” (“suverenizatsiya”) of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The deputies of the state Duma, having considered the pledges of Abkhazia and South Ossetia ask the president and the government of the Russian Federation to consider the advisability of recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
As stressed by President Putin, Russia was particularly worried about Georgia’s intentions to join NATO, and declared that also for this reason Russian support for these territories will hold “a practical and not only declarative character”. On April 16, some of these measures were made public with an official statement; in particular, Russian authorities and institutions were asked to recognize all documents produced by the “actual organs of power” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is particularly important because it opened the possibility for Russian companies to stipulate contracts with local firms without further complications, and put an end to the legal limbo that characterized most of these business relations. This might have been related to the winter Olympic games expected to take place in Sochi in 2014 (Sochi is located just a few kilometers from the Abkhazian Western borders).
A few months later, between August 8 and August 12, full scale war broke out in South Ossetia. Georgia’s military defeat left the de facto governments of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali in control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, along the lines that defined these territories in Soviet times.
On August 26, with a presidential decree, Russia recognized the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and declared its intentions to establish normal diplomatic relations with these two new “states”.