This past Sunday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a brief visit to Abkhazia, the "breakaway statelet" within the Caucasus region's nation of Georgia.
Medvedev chatted with an Abkhazian rebel leader, and then reflected on Russia's decision in August 2008 to "liberate" Abkhazia and neighboring South Ossetia from what the Russians insistently described as Georgian ethnic domination. "It was not a simple decision," Medvedev said, according to Agence France-Presse. "But time has shown that it was the right decision. The existence of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was under threat."
Medvedev did not use the term, but the man from the Kremlin was invoking the Kosovo Precedent. When Russian forces moved on Georgia in 2008, the Kremlin pointed to the 1999 U.S.-led NATO invasion of Kosovo, at the time part of Serbia, to justify its attack. If you (NATO) can do it, the Russians said, so can we.
A Georgian deputy prime minister replied to Medvedev, asserting that the Russians "are still playing a game that they have lost." Abkhazia and South Ossetia "are now recognized as occupied territories ... "
Serbia lost the Kosovo War in 1999. Last month, Serbia lost again when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Kosovo's February 2008 unilateral declaration of independence was legal.
Serbia, supported by Russia, argued that the Kosovo Precedent opened an international Pandora's Box. After Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, separatism resulting from international action to protect an ethnic minority has an imprimatur. If protecting Kosovar Albanians elicits a NATO invasion what's to stop -- to take the non-theoretical example -- Russian peacekeepers from liberating Abkhazian and South Ossetian minorities from Georgia?
Russian diplomats estimated that in some political shape, diplomatic form or military fashion, the example of Kosovo (NATO invasion, subsequent status as a functional U.N. protectorate, then its unilateral separation from Serbia) affected over 200 separatist conflicts around the world. If self-determination supersedes national territorial integrity, the world can expect a series of secessionist crises.
In late July, the judges said nay and issued a very narrow ruling: Kosovo is a singular case of liberation of a people (Kosovar Albanians) threatened by murder at the hands of an oppressive regime (dictator Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia).
History however, may not be so blithe.
Despite the ICJ's attempt to focus on Kosovo's situation in 1998 and 1999, nation states threatened by separatist movements and the secessionist organizations interpret Kosovo in universal terms. No court is capable of containing a conflict by mere decree.
Radio Free Europe correspondent Ahto Lobjakas wrote after the ICJ decision that its greatest weakness:
" ... is that it allows treating Kosovo as a precedent set by a coalition of the willing. The particular coalition of the willing behind Kosovo may have right and morality on its side, but it's in the nature of all balances of power to be mutable, transitory." Arguing Kosovo is unique "is not a legal argument, but a political one. Like Kosovo's, Abkhazia's independence remains a function of outside backing -- though unlike Kosovo, Abkhazia could be said to have the 'wrong' friends."
Wrong equals Moscow. Right equals Washington.
Uniqueness was the U.N., British, French and U.S. diplomatic pitch: Kosovo was to be a "one off" event. The invasion of Kosovo by the Clinton administration was an invasion of conscience, intended to protect the vulnerable Albanian Kosovar minority.
In 1999, several nations facing separatist movements, including NATO member Spain, did not buy the "one off"; Basque and Catalan separatists confronted Madrid and claimed their own unique status.
In 2010, despite the ICJ ruling, how the Kosovo Precedent will affect the troubled world order remains unsettled.
Unfortunately, bitter political struggles in scores of nations around the world and -- very likely -- dirty little wars of independence (or secession) in the afflicted states will render the historical judgment, in blood.