A respectful Russian bluff


LONDON — In February, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, and most of the NATO countries recognized it. Russia condemned this as an illegal and dangerous precedent, and hinted that it might recognize other breakaway states like Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Yet, this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin will show up at the NATO summit in Bucharest, in one of his last official acts before passing power to president-elect Dmitri Medvedev. He will not have recognized Abkhazia or South Ossetia. He was only bluffing.

It sounded serious at first. Early in March, Russia ended the trade restrictions it had placed on Abkhazia and South Ossetia when they declared their independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. Moscow is very angry about the way that NATO and the European Union have dismantled Serbia without permission from the United Nations, and it wanted to make a point.

Georgia accused Russia of “an undisguised attempt to infringe on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, to encourage separatism,” but all Moscow actually did was to ease the rules on trade between the two would-be countries and Russia. It did not officially recognize them as independent states, and it never will.

The back-story is that when the Soviet Union replaced the Russian empire in 1917, its new Communist rulers rationalized the patchwork quilt of smaller nationalities they inherited in the Caucasus and Central Asia into “republics” that formally respected the principle of national self-determination. But they never actually became independent, of course, and Moscow didn’t want to have to deal with dozens of them directly.

So the republics were ranked in three tiers, with 15 “Union republics” (including Russia itself) as the top tier. The lower tiers, having been granted “autonomy,” were bundled into one or another of the Union republics, with Russia getting the lion’s share of them. Georgia got several of them, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, it expected to keep them, but the locals had other ideas.

By then massive immigration into Abkhazia, a subtropical area on the Black Sea coast, had reduced the Abkhaz ethnic group to only one-fifth of the population. Over half the 550,000 people living in Abkhazia in 1991 were Georgians.

But in two years of vicious fighting an Abkhaz militia, backed by volunteers from other parts of the north Caucasus (and perhaps also secretly by Russia), drove out the Georgian army and most of the Georgian civilians as well.

It was unapologetic ethnic cleansing, conducted by a tiny nationality (less than 100,000 people) who feared that they were disappearing under an avalanche of immigrant foreigners. Now two-thirds of the previous residents of Abkhazia have fled, including all but a few tens of thousands of Georgians, and the Abkhaz are a large majority of the remaining population. But nobody recognizes the independence of their heavily armed little state.

Russia does not like the current Georgian government, which talks about joining NATO and the European Union. But Moscow has not recognized Abkhazia’s independence (or South Ossetia’s) because that would be a precedent that could be used by ethnic minorities in other “autonomous republics” in Russia itself. And there is a bigger problem, too.

What horrifies the Russians about many recent actions of the United States and some of its European allies — the war against Serbia in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the creation of an independent Kosovo in 2008 — is that they are deliberately tearing up the United Nations Charter, the rules that the victorious powers drew up at the end of the World War II in the hope of avoiding further great-power wars. Attacking the U.N. is often popular in the U.S.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain now talks about a League of Democracies that would effectively bypass the U.N. (and would presumably authorize its members to invade anybody who needed a lesson). U.S. President George W. Bush acts as though such a vigilante outfit already exists.

The Russians, who lost 26 million people in the last world war, think that this is a very bad idea. They are right. If the great powers were ever to go to war again, the nuclear weapons would come out and hundreds of millions would die.

The U.N. core rules are that no country can attack another, and that the whole international community will defend and preserve the existing borders of every U.N. member. These rules create much injustice, especially when oppressed minorities are seeking independence from intolerant majorities, but they are probably necessary. They have certainly been useful: No great power has fought another directly since 1945.

Kosovo was legally part of Serbia, even if most of its people didn’t want anything to do with Serbia. Giving it independence without Serbia’s assent and in defiance of the U.N. rules suits the Western great powers for the moment, but it undermines those essential U.N. rules that were invented to bring some order to international affairs.

If Russia one day recognizes Abkhazia’s independence without Georgian consent and Security Council approval, it will mean that Moscow has finally lost its faith in international law and accepted that the world has reverted to the jungle. For the moment it’s just bluffing, but to no avail.

The historically challenged dwarves who currently run foreign policy in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin don’t seem to understand this.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book, “After Iraq,” has just been published in the United States by Thomas Dunne.