The ‘Bosnian model’ is no model for Georgia

Turning sections of the Caucasus into international protectorates will not deliver anything like democracy.

David Chandler

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With Russia’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, there has been a lot of discussion of how to address the problems of ethnic divisions and the potential creation of new states in the Caucasus.

For example, on the UK Guardian website, Lionel Beehner argues that peace and reconciliation cannot be brought about by a single power, Russia, operating ‘as the sole peacekeeper, peace-broker, and peace-breaker – a variant of the judge, jury and executioner analogy’ (1). Instead, he advocates that Georgia follow ‘the Bosnian model’, with an internationalised force replacing Russian international peacekeepers. Like many commentators calling for the internationalisation of the region, he is pessimistic, arguing that there’s a ‘fat chance’ that the Russians will allow it, especially with the Kosovo precedent strengthening their hand over support for the independence of the two republics (2).

A similar perspective is argued by the New York-based policy advisory group EurasiaNet, where Alexander Cooley advocates the Bosnia and Kosovo model of internationalised sovereignty for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He argues that disputes between Georgia and Russia over the territories will continue to destabilise the region if the two breakaway republics remain internationally isolated and dependent on Russia (3).

He also worries that if a deal was done between Russia and the West to partition Georgia, with Georgia receiving NATO guarantees in exchange for international recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, then the normalisation of the situation would set a more destabilising precedent than Kosovo: the territorial integrity of other former Soviet territories with large numbers of ethnic Russians, especially Ukraine, Moldova and Kazakhstan, would be implicitly open to question.

Cooley advocates that the two republics should be put under international trusteeship and administration in order to ensure internationally supervised sovereignty. Russian peacekeepers would be placed under a UN authorised international command structure and supplemented by an external civilian police force under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Under international administration, the breakaway territories could be offered valuable trade deals and would become eligible for reconstruction funds from the European Union, emergency financing from the International Monetary Fund, and development aid from the World Bank.

Cooley writes: ‘UN civilian advisers could work with de facto authorities and their respective ministries to bring administrative capacity and practices up to international democratic standards. An international body could monitor the orderly return of internally displaced persons to certain areas and begin a process of property claims and restitution. The move to final status negotiations would be deferred until international monitors were satisfied that governance had been brought in line with international standards.’

In this framework, the granting of internationalised ‘conditional’ or ‘supervised’ sovereignty to South Ossetia and Abkhazia is alleged to be a solution to the problems of the troubled Caucasus region – from economic deprivation to inter-ethnic conflict, from border disputes to the dangers of Great Power rivalries. However, it is seen as highly unlikely considering Russia’s desire for increased territorial control in the region. The dominant ‘new Cold War’ view has it that Russian President Medvedev’s agreement in talks with the European Union last week – that there would be an international conference on the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – can only be window-dressing. Likewise, Russia’s rapid putdown and reversal of South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity’s claims that the republic would join the Russian Federation, linking up with his countrymen across the border in North Ossetia, was seen as a mere ploy to make sure that Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics will not be disrupted (4).

In fact, the internationalisation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is a real possibility. It appears that, as I have previously argued on spiked, Russia’s recognition of the republics was an attempt not to strengthen control over these territories but to distance the Kremlin from annexationist claims (see Russia’s first ‘Western-style’ war, by David Chandler). The act of recognition seems to have been motivated by the desire to distance Moscow from the consequences of military intervention and the destabilising assumption that Russia would militarily threaten the annexation of other territories with separatist Russian claims.

Internationalising the question of the sovereign status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would enable Russia to put responsibility in the hands of international institutions, and thereby pass the buck for maintaining the divide between North and South Ossetia and for undermining Georgia’s territorial claims, while, of course, still being a decisive influence in the region. It is possible, therefore, that we may see some movement towards the ‘Bosnian model’ in the Caucasus, with the EU and international institutions being drawn into the Georgia-Russia stand off.

The war over Georgia was Russia’s first ‘Western-style’ war, in that it was not fought for formal territorial control over the republics or with clear strategic ends beyond repulsing the Georgian military. Russia’s exercise of its military might in easily defeating Georgian forces resulted in a formal extension of territorial control in the region, which Russia has then sought to retreat from. The mechanism of the retreat from formal responsibility was precisely the recognition of the republics’ ‘independence’. This is little different from the extension of US control which came from the use of US and NATO military force in the Balkans, resulting in the recognition of independence for Bosnia and Kosovo, accompanied by ad hoc protectorates and buck-passing to international and regional institutions, such as the EU, UN and OSCE.

If some form of the internationalised ‘Bosnian model’ is adopted for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it is unlikely that much will change for people on the ground. The presence of external funding and international financial institutional engagement, and a whole host of capacity-building and conflict-resolution institutions, has done little to revive the economies of Bosnia and Kosovo or to overcome inter-ethnic divides. The one thing that the internationalisation of these Balkan states has done is to shift policymaking responsibility away from the Western powers whose intervention helped redraw the borders of the region with such destabilising consequences. The granting of ‘independence’ without sovereign autonomy enables policy-responsibility to lie with the intervened-in state institutions while forcing political representatives to follow external guidelines.

The South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity has already learnt the subservient nature of ‘independence’ when he claimed that his republic did not want independence but unity with North Ossetia inside the Russian Federation and was rapidly forced to rescind his claims and allege that he had ‘probably been misunderstood’ on all these points (5). The South Ossetian and Abkhazian people will have even less political independence if the Russian government does allow the EU and other bodies to supervise and adjudicate upon their sovereignty. For, then, it would not be Moscow, appearing to be manipulating a puppet regime, but the EU or UN administrator tasked with ‘enforcing democracy, human rights and the rule of law’ who would condemn Kokoity for challenging international legal and constitutional norms.

In Bosnia and Kosovo, elected politicians who express popular desires for border changes face dismissal and bans from political life. The ‘Bosnian model’ would deny the people of the Caucasus a say in their future and enable external powers to obscure the mechanisms of their domination. If the US, the EU, and Russia were to agree on internationalising the issue of sovereignty in the Caucasus this would pose a much greater threat to the principles of democracy and self-government in the region than any fears of Russian expansionism.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. Visit his website here. He is the author of Empire in Denial: The Politics of Statebuilding and editor of Statebuilding and Intervention: Policies, Practices and Paradigms forthcoming later this year.

(1) Should Georgia follow Bosnia’s model?, Comment is Free, Guardian, 26 August 2008

(2) Should Georgia follow Bosnia’s model?, Comment is Free, Guardian, 26 August 2008

(3) Georgia: Examining Possible Sovereign Futures and the Internationalization Option, Eurasia Insight, 12 September 2008

(4) Analysis: Russia will accept South Ossetia – but quietly, The Times, 11 September 2008; South Ossetia slapped down over Russia unity claim, The Times, 11 September 2008

(5) South Ossetia slapped down over Russia unity claim, The Times, 11 September 2008

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Topics World


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