The politics of recognition

Attacks on Russia for recognising breakaway regions in Georgia are riddled with hypocrisy: Moscow is playing a game invented by the West.

Philip Hammond

Topics Politics

‘Unjustified and unacceptable.’

That is how British foreign secretary David Miliband described Russian recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia, he insists, must ‘abide by international law as the basis for resolving this crisis’ (1). Similarly, President George W Bush has denounced recognition as ‘irresponsible’, urging Russia to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and to respect Georgia’s ‘internationally recognised borders’ (2).

Yet Russia is closely following rules made in the West.

Just a few months ago, there was a situation that was almost an exact mirror image of the present. In February, the US and Britain were among the first to recognise the formal independence of the Serbian province of Kosovo, having brought about its de facto independence from Belgrade by military force in 1999. Earlier this year, it was the Russians, together with China and India, who urged respect for ‘the framework of international law’ and condemned Kosovo’s declaration of independence as contravening the UN Security Council’s resolution on the status of the province (3).

Back then, NATO responded to these protests by arguing that the situation in Kosovo was exceptional because of the atrocities committed by the previous Serbian regime in 1999. Taking a leaf out of NATO’s book, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev now accuses the Georgian government of committing ‘genocide’ against South Ossetian separatists. That might stretch credibility, but then again, so did NATO’s accusations of genocide in Kosovo. Post-war forensic investigations failed to corroborate NATO’s claims that 10,000 or 100,000 or even more had been killed by Serbian forces. The true figure appears to have been closer to 5,000 – a number which includes both civilians and combatants, and ethnic Albanians and Serbs (4).

Today, media reports are full of outrage at the suffering caused by Russia’s military offensive in Georgia. Yet NATO’s Kosovo campaign was far more destructive, and just as illegal. The 78-day war, conducted without UN authorisation, hit civilian and ‘dual-use’ targets such as factories, petrochemical plants, power stations and television facilities. NATO bombing caused significant civilian casualties, even among the ethnic Albanians it was supposed to protect, and included the use of indiscriminate munitions such as cluster bombs.

Afterwards, NATO governments pursued a policy of regime change in Serbia itself, and they continue to exert pressure on the country’s internal politics, using the stick of international war crimes trials and the carrot of future EU membership. Such is the West’s ‘respect’ for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of weaker states.

Indeed, for many years now the leading NATO powers have made a virtue of violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity that they suddenly seem so keen to defend in Georgia. At the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the US-led coalition imposed ‘safe havens’ and ‘no-fly zones’ to protect the Kurds and other minorities, forcibly taking part of Iraq’s territory and airspace out of its control. These special zones provided the pretext for repeated Anglo-American bombing of Iraq throughout the 1990s. We know how that story ended, and it was not with respect for Iraqi sovereignty.

The conventional wisdom of the 1990s was that a ‘right to intervene’ took precedence over the previously established principles of sovereign equality and non-interference in a state’s internal affairs. The politics of recognition – deciding on which states were legitimate and where international borders would be drawn – was central to the development of this new doctrine. The rules of the game were established in the Balkans in the early 1990s, when Western governments took it upon themselves to decide which internal administrative boundaries would form the borders of new states, and which claims to sovereignty were illegitimate.

A number of internal economic and political developments created a tendency towards fragmentation, insecurity and the rise of nationalist politics in Yugoslavia in the 1980s and early 1990s. But the factor which tipped a volatile situation into outright civil war was Western support for secession and recognition of various republics. As US analyst Susan Woodward puts it: ‘Western intervention… provided the irreversible turning point in [the] escalation towards war.’ (5) In both Croatia and Bosnia, although recognition by Western powers was presented as a measure to prevent war, in fact it made conflict much more likely, since the status of minorities had not been settled prior to independence. Indeed, it was widely predicted at the time that war was the most likely outcome of precipitate recognition.

This destructive policy was driven by a narcissistic desire to show that the West still ‘meant’ something. The US and European governments vied with each other to demonstrate their ‘ethical’ credentials, each attempting to assert its authority in the fluid post-Cold War international order. European, particularly German and Austrian, backing of Slovenian and Croatian claims to independence in 1991, and then US-led recognition of Bosnia the following year, meant that the leaders of these republics had little incentive to pursue a negotiated settlement with the federal Yugoslav state. By lending their backing to the secessionists, the meddling Western powers ensured the violent destruction of one state and the creation of new entities riven by internal divisions. If anyone has the right to lecture Russia about its ‘irresponsible’ recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it is surely not NATO governments.

Today, all sides are playing a cynical game in the Caucasus. No doubt Russian leaders are exploiting the crisis to shore up their own domestic support and assert their regional authority. But at least Russia does have a legitimate claim to be defending its interests. As NATO pushes east, holding out the prospect of Georgian and Ukrainian membership, Russia is bound to feel threatened and to react. Western governments have no such rationale for their actions, either in the Caucasus now or in the Balkans in the 1990s. Now, as then, Western governments are drunk on their own rhetoric.

Philip Hammond is reader in media and communications at London South Bank University, and is the author of Media, War and Postmodernity. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas satellite debate What is the point of British foreign policy? on 9 October.

(1) UK urges Russia to ‘abide by law, BBC News, 26 August 2008

(2) West condemns Russia over Georgia, BBC News, 26 August 2008

(3) George Friedman, Georgia and Kosovo: A Single Intertwined Crisis, Stratfor, 25 August 2008

(4) UNMIK Office of Missing Persons and Forensics, Press Release, 3 February 2003

(5) Susan L. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1995, p198.

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Topics Politics