When the US, UK and others assented to the dismemberment of Serbia along ethno-nationalist lines, there was an expectation that separatist movements throughout Europe and beyond would garner encouragement. Two autonomous republics of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that are de facto independent from the authorities in Tbilisi, were said to be amongst those which might take the opportunity to make their own unilateral declarations of independence.
These regions of the Caucasus did not assent to Georgia’s own claims of independence, asserted as the USSR split up in 1991. Majorities in both regions claim close allegiance to Moscow. In 2006 80% of Abkhazians had taken Russian citizenship. When Russia objected to Kosovo’s declaration of sovereignty being recognised, and was ignored, the temptation to further underpin pro-Russian breakaway republics elsewhere was inevitably going to be strong.
So it has proved. Vladimir Putin recently urged his government to consolidate ties with the authorities in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The latter has also become the subject of allegations traded between Tbilisi and Moscow as tensions escalate following Putin’s statement. Georgia objects to the presence of Russian ‘peacemakers’ in Abkhazia, much as Serbia takes exception to foreign NATO troops occupying territory within its borders.
The US is explicitly backing Georgia and views Russian ties to the Abkhazian regime as an incitement to separatists. On this occasion the Americans may be correct, but their criticism of Russia lacks any moral authority after the Kosovo episode. If Kosovo’s independence can be justified with recourse to arguments of self-determination, then why should the same criteria not apply to the Abkhaz or Ossetians?