Separatism in Kosovo and the Caucasus: Similarities and Differences

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After February 2008 when Kosovo Albanian-dominated Parliament proclaimed Kosovo independence (without organizing referendum) with obvious US diplomatic support (unilateral recognition) with the explanation that the Kosovo case is unique in the World (i.e., it will be not repeated again) one can ask the question: is the problem of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo-Metochia really unique and surely unrepeatable in some other parts of the World as the US administration was trying to convince the rest of the international community?[1]

Domino effect in international relations

The consequences of recognition of Kosovo independence by a bigger part of the international community are already (and going to be in the future) visible primarily in the Caucasus because there are some similarities in these two regions. In the Caucasus region (where about 50 different ethnolinguistic groups are living together) self-proclaimed state independence is already done by Abkhazia and South Ossetia only several months after the self-proclaimed independence of Albanian “Republic of Kosova”, following the pattern of both the Nagorno-Karabakh (formally a province in Azerbaijan) in 1991 and Kosovo in 2008. The experts from the German Ministry of the Foreign Affairs expressed already in 2007 their real fear that in the case of the US and EU unilateral recognition of Kosovo independence the same unilateral diplomatic act could be implied by Moscow by recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a matter of diplomatic compensation and as a result of domino effect in international relations. It is also known and from the official OSCE sources that Russian delegates in this pan-European security organization have been constantly warning the West before 2008 that such scenario is quite possible, but with one peculiarity: from 2007 they stopped to mention the possibility of the Russian recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-proclaimed independence (on September 2nd, 1991). It is most probably for the reason that Moscow does not want (up to now) to deteriorate good relations with Azerbaijan – a country with huge reserves of natural gas and oil.

Why South Ossetia could be different?

At the first glance, it can be said that the Orthodox South Ossetians are equally separatist as the Muslim Albanians from Kosovo. However, the South Ossetians are having sympathies towards the Serbs (not for the reason that both of them are Orthodox Christians), but not towards, as we could expect, separatist Kosovo Albanians. The real reason for such sympathies is similar legal state rights applied by both the Serbs in Kosovo and the South Ossetians.[2]

Historically, South Ossetia was never really integral and authentic part of the sovereign Georgian state, in contrast to Kosovo-Metochia which was not only integral but culturally and politically the most important region of the medieval Serbian state (called Ancient Serbia or Serbia proper) till the mid-15th century when Kosovo-Metochia became occupied by the Ottomans. The territory of present-day Georgia historically was never before it became part of Russia politically firmly united around its capital Tbilisi in contrast to Serbia which before it lost independence in 1459 was having a long period of experience of the unified state territory with Kosovo-Metochia as its center. When Serbia gained autonomy status within the Ottoman Empire in 1830/1833 and was later recognized by the European Great Powers at the Berlin Congress in 1878 as an independent state it was known for her rulers and politicians whose historical territories belonged to her: Kosovo-Metochia was on the first place. The present-day territory of Georgia entered the Russian Empire in parts – segment by segment. Ossetia as a united territory (i.e., not divided into the Northern and the Southern Ossetia as today’s situation is) became (according to the Russian historiography) voluntarily part of the Russian Empire in 1774. In the other words, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great (1762−1796), in order to be surely convinced that the Ossetians are really independent, before the incorporation of this province into the Russian Empire sent a special commission which informed St. Petersburg that “the Ossetians are free people subordinated to no one” (On the history of Georgia, see: R. G. Suny, The Making of The Georgian Nation (Indiana University Press, 1994); D. Rayfield, Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2012); S. F. Jones, Georgia: A Political History Since Independence (I. B. Tauris, 2014)).

Georgia itself became part of the Russian Empire in 1804 (27 years later than Ossetia). This fact is the most important argument used by the South Ossetians in their dispute with the Georgian authorities. The Southern part of Ossetia was given to be administered by Georgia only in the USSR by the decision of three Georgian Communists – J. V. Stalin, Sergei Ordzhonikidze, and Avelj Enukidze. It has to be also stressed that the border between two parts of Ossetia (the Northern and the Southern) never existed before 1994.

What concerns the Kosovo Albanian case, it is known that the Albanians started to settle themselves in the region of Kosovo-Metochia from present-day Northern Albania only after the First Serbian Great Migration (or Exodus) from the region in 1690. In the other words, before the Ottoman occupation of Serbia, there were no Albanians in Kosovo-Metochia in any significant number (only 2% according to the Ottoman census in 1455). According to several Byzantine and Arab historical sources, the Balkan Albanians are originating from the Caucasus Albania – in the 9th century they left the Caucasus and have been settled by the Arabs in Western Sicily (and South Italy) which they left in 1043 and came to the Balkans. The borders of the present-day territory of Kosovo-Metochia are fixed by the Yugoslav Communist authorities in 1945,[3] who in fact separated this province from the rest of Serbia together with the Province of Vojvodina. In addition, the Yugoslav Communist People’s Assembly issued the decree according to which it was forbidden for about 100.000 expelled Serbs from Kosovo-Metochia during the Second World War by the Albanian authorities to return back to the province. This decision was followed by the migration of up to 200.000 Kosovo-Metochia Serbs during the period of Socialist Yugoslavia from the province to Central Serbia. In addition, during Socialist Yugoslavia, it is estimated that up to 300.000 Albanians from Albania migrated to Kosovo-Metochia. Together with the enormously high birth-rate of the Kosovo Albanian population, these are the main reasons for a drastically altered demographic picture of the province in Albanian favor during the time of Socialist Yugoslavia thus making the legal case for Serbs stronger to challenge Albanian to thrive for Kosovo independence (and inclusion into Albania).

The people of South Ossetia on the referendum about the future of the USSR on March 17th, 1991 voted for the existence of the Soviet Union (like the Serbs upon Yugoslavia, but and Kosovo Albanians on a referendum to become independent from Serbia like the Georgians from the USSR). The referendum on March 17th, 1991 was organized two months after the Georgian army started the war against South Ossetia in which till September of the same year 86 Ossetian villages have been burned. It is calculated that more than 1.000 Ossetians lost their lives and around 12.000 Ossetians emigrated from the South to the North (Russia’s) Ossetia. This is the point of similarity with expelled at least 200.000 Serbs from Kosovo-Metochia by the Albanian the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army after the NATO peace-keeping troops entered and de facto occupied this province in June 1999.

A state’s independence of the Republic of South Ossetia from the Republic of Georgia was formally proclaimed on May 29th, 1992. However, this legal action can not be understood as a “separatist” one for the reason that at that time Georgia was not recognized by no one state in the world as an independent political subject and Georgia was not a member of the United Nations. However, in contrast to the case of South Ossetia, the unilateral proclamation of the state independence of Kosovo by the Albanians on February 18th, 2008 cannot be treated by the international community as a legitimate act (without permission by Belgrade) as Kosovo by the international law and agreements are an integral part of Serbia (the same legal reason was applied by the international community to the case of self-proclaimed the Republic of Serbian Krayina in 1991 from Croatia). Different from the case of Georgia, when South Ossetia proclaimed the state independence in May 1992, Serbia in 2008, when the Albanian dominated Parliament of Kosovo proclaimed the state independence, was an internationally recognized independent state and a member of the United Nations. This is a common point of similarity between the Ossetians and the Serbs as the nations: both of them are fighting against the separation of one part of their national body and the land from the motherland. However, Tbilisi is doing the same as Belgrade, from this point of view, i.e. claiming that South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) is a historical and state’s part of Georgia. From that point of view, there is a similarity between political claims of both states – Serbia and Georgia with one significant difference: historical rights of Serbia over Kosovo-Metochia are much stronger in comparison with the same rights of Georgia over the South Ossetia (and Abkhazia). In the other words, Kosovo-Metochia was all the time, from historical, cultural, state’s and identity points of view, a central/proper part of Serbia, while both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been just borderland provinces of Georgia.

The international system of governing and separation

The main argument for the western politicians upon the case of Kosovo self-proclaimed independence, as a “unique case” from a global perspective, is the fact that according to the “Kumanovo Agreement” between Serbia and the NATO, signed on June 10th, 1999, and the UN Resolution of 1244 (following this agreement), Kosovo-Metochia is put under the UN protectorate with the imposed international system of governing and security. However, such an “argument” does not work in the case of South Ossetia as the Ossetians are governing their land by themselves and much more successfully in comparison with the “internationally” (i.e., the NATO) protected Kosovo-Metochia. It was quite visible in March 2004 when the international organizations and military troops could not (i.e., did not want to) protect the ethnic Serbs in Kosovo-Metochia from violent attacks organized by the local Albanians when during three days (March 17−19th) 4.000 Serbs exiled, more than 800 Serbian houses are set on fire and 35 Serbian Christian Orthodox churches and cultural monuments were destroyed or being severely damaged. The “March Pogrom” of 2004 revealed the real situation in the region of Kosovo-Metochia. The position of the South Ossetians in independent Georgia from 1991 to August 2008 could be compared with the position of the Serbs in Kosovo-Metochia after June 1999 which is under total Albanian domination. The fact is that South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Pridnestrovje showed much more political-legal bases and capabilities to be recognized as an independent for the reason that they showed real ability to govern themselves by only themselves, but not by the international organizations as it is in the case of Albanian-governed Kosovo (the “Republic of Kosova” from February 2008) after June 1999 up today. They also proved much more democracy and respect for human and minority rights in comparison with Muslim Albanian-ruled Kosovo.

The Nagorno-Karabakh and Kosovo-Metochia

There are several similarities, but also dissimilarities between conflicts in the Nagorno-Karabakh province and Kosovo-Metochia. In both cases, the international community is dealing with the autonomy of a compact national minority who is making a majority on the land in question and having its own national independent state out of this territory. Both the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and the Kosovo Albanians do not want to accept any other solution except separation and internationally recognized independence (and later unification with their motherlands). Both conflicts are in fact continuations of old historic struggles between two different civilizations: the Muslim Turkish and the Christian Byzantine. In both conflicts, the international organizations are included as mediators. Some of them are the same – France, the USA, and Russia as the members of both Contact Groups for ex-Yugoslavia and the Minsk Group under the OSCE umbrella for Azerbaijan. Serbia and Azerbaijan were against that their cases (Kosovo-Metochia and the Nagorno-Karabakh) will be proclaimed as “unique” as therefore it would be a green light to both Albanian and Armenian separatists to secede their territories from Serbia and Azerbaijan without permissions given by Belgrade and Baku (what in reality already happened).

However, there are differences between Kosovo-Metochia and the Nagorno-Karabakh cases. Firstly, Kosovo-Metochia was an internal conflict within Serbia (which is after June 1999 internationalized), but in the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh, there is external military aggression (by Armenia). Secondly, in a difference to Armenia in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh, Albania formally never accepted any legal action in which Kosovo was called an integral part of a state territory of Albania (with the historical exception during the Second World War when Kosovo-Metochia, the Eastern Montenegro, and Western Macedonia have been included into Mussolini’s the so-called “Greater Albania” with the capital in Tirana). A delegation from Albania did not take any participation in the talks and negotiations upon the “final” status of Kosovo-Metochia between Prishtina and Belgrade in 2007−2013, while Armenia has the official status of “interested side” in the conflict in regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the Armenians from the Nagorno-Karabakh such status did not obtain. While the Armenian army (i.e. from the Republic of Armenia) was directly involved in the military operations in the Nagorno-Karabakh, officially part of an independent state of Azerbaijan, in the Kosovo-Metochia conflict of 1998−1999 the official regular army of the Republic of Albania was not involved (differently from a great number of the volunteers from Albania). As a result, Armenia occupied 1/5 of Azerbaijan territory and the victims of ethnic cleansing are mainly the Azerbaijani. A military weaker Azerbaijan side in comparison to Armenia, which was supported by Russia in arms and other war material, did not apply to the NATO for the military help, but military weaker Kosovo Albanian side in comparison to Serbia’s police and the Yugoslav army forces did it during the Kosovo conflict of 1998−1999.

Conclusion

It can be concluded that the Albanian unilaterally proclaimed Kosovo independence in February 2008 is not a “unique” case in the world without direct consequences to similar separatist cases following the “domino effect” (South Ossetia, South Sudan, the Crimean Peninsula, the Eastern Ukraine, Scotland, Catalonia, Bask region…). That is the real reason why, for instance, the government of Cyprus is not supporting “Kosovo Albanian rights to self-determination” as the next “unique” case can be easily the northern (Turkish) part of Cyprus which is, by the way, recognized only by the Republic of Turkey and under de facto Ankara’s protection and the occupation by the regular army of the Republic of Turkey from 1974 onward.[4] Finally, that Kosovo “domino effect” well works in the practice showed the Russian authorities in spring 2014 when Moscow recognized the separation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine based on the self-determination of the local inhabitants and clearly referring to the 2008 Kosovo case.

Prof. dr. Vladislav B. Sotirović

www.global-politics.eu/sotirovic

sotirovic@global-politics.eu

© Vladislav B. Sotirović 2015

Personal disclaimer: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

Notes:

[1] The region of Kosovo (under such a name known in western politics and science) is traditionally and historically called by the Serbs as Kosovo-Metochia, while by the Albanians as Kosova or Kosovë. The western portion of the region is Metochia and the eastern one Kosovo.

[2] There is a claim that the Ossetians are the only European nation in the Caucasus, but this claim is up to now not scientifically proved. The Ossetians themselves believe to originate from the Sarmatian tribe of Alans. The Ossetians speak a language that is remotely related to Persian.

[3] Before 1945 it was hardly known what the exact borders of this province have been as it historically depended on the power of the local feudal lords (ex. the Branković’s) or foreign power (ex. the Kosovo Vilayet in the Ottoman Empire) which was administering the province.

[4] The author of this article has a strong belief that the USA and the Russian administrations simply decided in 2008 to recognize at the moment de facto situation upon the Balkans and the Caucasus affairs: Kosovo-Metochia will be recognized as the USA domain, while South Ossetia and Abkhazia as the Russian one. By now, and of course, such a “secret diplomacy” deal cannot be proved by any document.


Source: Oriental Review

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