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The Kosovo Card

Medvedev included a deadly trapdoor in the late-night agreement. The Russian president promised to halt military operations--good news, taken in isolation. Thousands of civilians uprooted by the Russian military campaign in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia’s interior urgently need aid and assistance. But one didn’t need a lawyer to notice the caveman’s club hiding among the ceasefire terms. Though Russia promised to end “resort to the use of force” and “end all military action completely,” it has yet to remove its troops from their forward positions inside Georgia. Instead, Russia’s so-called “peacekeepers” claimed the added right to “take additional security measures” until “international mechanisms” are created.

Adding insult to injury, under the one-sided terms, Georgia’s troops were to “return to their permanent positions”--including the military bases newly improved with Western aid and newly destroyed by the Russians. Driving through this mile-wide loophole, Moscow’s tanks continued down the road. The sovereign state of Georgia is now cut in half. The Russians encircle the city of Gori. The capital city of Tbilisi has been left isolated and vulnerable. It is cut off from any seaport or major rail line. The recent arrival of American troops on the scene to deliver humanitarian aid shows a stronger resolve, but the Russian footprint on the ground has limited the options. The current situation is a reminder that it is best to draw red lines before they are crossed.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush are now trying to push back, by rallying NATO allies. Russia claims it is withdrawing its forces from Georgia’s interior. But Russia has yet to make good on this captious promise. It is blowing up ships in Georgia’s harbors, still taking Georgian soldiers as prisoners, and still flaunts its plan to retain control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Lip-synching the role of the lupine character in Peter and the Wolf, President Medvedev has asked a question that only a wolf could relish: “Can the Ossetians and the Abkhaz--and do they want to--be a part of Georgia?” And with style sovietique, Medvedev graciously adds, “This question should be put to them and they will give their own, unambiguous answer.” Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has taken on the role of a Soviet nightclub bouncer. He announced last week that Georgia “can forget about” any future role in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This dainty pronunciamento follows upon the foreign minister’s standing view, as reported in the International Herald Tribune at the time, that “if Kosovo achieved independence, then Ossetia and Abkhazia would have every reason to claim independence as well.”

This is a vulgar attempt to misuse the Kosovo card. The Kremlin view seems to be a cold-blooded theory of imperium--if the Europeans and the Americans can take Kosovo from Serbia, Russia can take South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia.

But, ethically and legally, this is a false analogy. Georgia has not invaded independent neighbors, as Serbia did. Georgia has not mimicked Slobodan Milosevic’s attempt to systematically repress a minority population. Georgia was admitted to the United Nations in 1992 as a newly sovereign state, with borders that embraced both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The U.N. charter plainly states that the territorial integrity of each member state should be respected. The right of “self-determination of peoples” mentioned in the U.N. charter is far from a unilateral right to secession. Rather, in modern international law, absent extraordinary circumstances such as genocide, self-determination is taken to be the right to enjoy the preservation of culture and language within another country.

The practical solution to an irreducible clash of cultures may be autonomy. But it does not include ripping strategic territory away from a democratic state by the local vote of dissidents. Most certainly, self-determination does not mean the “right” to be forced to join the Russia Federation. 90,000 ethnic Abkhaz and 70,000 South Ossetians are not in a position to form viable states, only client states. Moscow may try to use the figleaf of faux democracy, suggesting that there should a referendum on the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If the votes are counted by Russia, don’t be surprised to see a Central Asian style tally of 99.5 percent victory.

Even with ballot box monitors, no one could vote freely on the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the face of occupying Russian troops and marauding ethnic militia. A ballot box à la russe will not count the “votes” of the 250,000 ethnic Georgians forced over the last two decades to flee from their homes in Abkhazia over the border into Georgia nor the ethnic Georgians who fled the latest fighting in South Ossetia. Russia’s plans for Abkhazia and South Ossetia are, of course, hypocritical in the extreme. Moscow has not offered to accept a secessionist referenda for the many independent oblasts and territories within the Russian Federation. Chechen rebels were not offered a choice of secessionist self-determination.

Confronted with the U.N. charter and its guarantee of the territorial integrity of sovereign states, Medvedev has tossed up a specious answer, saying, “While sovereignty is based on the will of the people and the constitution, territorial integrity, as a rule, represents the real state of affairs.” The “real state of affairs” is, of course, a euphemism for Moscow’s diktat.

Moscow’s ace in the hole, which the West will have to counter, is a lack of resolve shown in the past in protecting Georgia’s claim to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For the last sixteen yers, the “peacekeepers” deployed in Abkhazia have been heavily-armed Russian troops, acting under the fig-leaf authority of the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States and the sleepy gaze of unarmed U.N. “military observers.” In South Ossetia, the U.N. has not bothered to claim any significant role.

The CIS fiction has allowed Russia to hold sway: arming local militias, distributing Russian passports, and plastering walls in Tskhinvali with posters hailing Vladimir Putin as “Our President” in an attempt to sever these territories from Georgia’s sovereign state. The West should not let the independence of sovereign democratic states unravel so easily. America and its allies, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has noted, should make plain to Russia that its own isolation will follow from this course of action.

Russia cannot be admitted to the World Trade Organization, and should not be allowed to continue in the G8, while its tanks are occupying another country. The 2014 Olympics in Sochi should be boycotted, since they will take place adjacent to the Abkhaz territory of Georgia. And the billions of dollars in assets that belong to the Russian political plutocracy, including a reputed $40 billion hidden abroad by Putin himself, should be tracked down and made subject to international sanctions. Peoples are no longer pawns.

Ruth Wedgwood is a professor of international law and diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University.

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By Ruth Wedgwood