Why Does the U.S. Government Support Independence for the Breakaway Serb Territory of Kosovo but Oppose Independence for the Breakaway Georgian Territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Previously published on May 10, 2010
In February of 2008, Kosovo took the final steps necessary to establish itself as an independent sovereign state. In turn, the process sparked civil unrest among Serbians while support from the United States lead Serbs to burn the US embassy in Serbia. Despite the consequences, the US continues to support the newly formed independent state as is consistent with the democratic belief that all people deserve the opportunity to choose their government. On the other hand, other bodies seeking independence, such the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, do not enjoy America's blessing. Under closer examination, the decision to support Kosovo's independence and not the independence of other states involves more than ideological considerations.
Considering Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia maintain similar histories of forced rule by various groups with spotted periods of independence, their regions have equally legitimate claims to independence. Only from 1946 to 1989 did Kosovo enjoy autonomy in recent history. Abkhazia had long enjoyed being an autonomous state, even when it was a member of the USSR, while South Ossetia has been fighting for its independence since the nineteenth century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both states declared themselves independent sovereign states, but Georgia refused to recognize their independence. Furthermore, with their own cultures and languages, these ethnicities certainly have not been fully assimilated into their parent nations where these groups take on a minority status and are often marginalized. Given their similar circumstances and histories of autonomy, it appears only reasonable that all three states deserve their independence.
Looking at the issue in broader terms of international conflict, however, reveals a situation that is far more complex. In 1999, US lead NATO forces began military operations against the former state of Yugoslavia in order to halt the systematic genocide of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. By reacting to the state sponsored terrorism conducted by Slobodan Miloevi, the United States politically and morally bound itself to achieving stability in the region. Ultimately, the solution to ending ethnic violence was to divide the region into several small sovereign nations; therefore, supporting an independent Kosovo is consistent with US policy. Moreover, it is viewed as a means of preventing future conflict and building stability in the region despite recent outbreaks of violence.
On the other hand, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which was created by former Soviet states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been prone to unstable relations and infighting, thus, characterizing the region as unstable. As such, supporting the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would likely further divide the region and weaken diplomatic relations with the US as Georgia has aggressively pursued its right to hold onto these territories through military action. While Kosovo's independence has the potential of helping bring greater stability to the Balkans, recognizing the independence of Abkahazia and South Ossetia would likely create further instability in an already fragile region.
Furthermore, this apparent conflict of interests has Cold War roots as Russia supports the independence of the two Georgian territories, yet fiercely fought to hold onto Georgia. As a former Soviet state, Georgia falls within Russia's immediate sphere of influence, thus, reinforcing the political strength of Georgia remains an objective of US foreign policy. As high crude prices bolster Russia's economic power and an antidemocratic movement engulfs Russia, there is the possibility Russia may move to reclaim some of its former territories. By encouraging instability in the region and allying with the two breakaway territories, Russia has the potential to form closer relations with its former territories and reassert its influence over the region. From Russia's perspective, America's support of Georgia might be considered a means of maintaining and expanding US influence.
Moreover, although America is dedicated to the spread of democracy, it must pursue what it perceives to be in its interests. While opening government to the people and helping minorities gain political representation is a means of securing democracy for the world and the homeland, democracy can only be enjoyed and embraced by a people when there is stability and peace. With the oppressive history of Russia fresh in our memories, a less influential Russia is viewed as beneficial to the United States and democracy. Under Georgian rule, the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not enjoy the right of sovereignty, but would be less susceptible to the suppressive influence of Russia while greater stability in the region leaves the territories with the possibility of achieving democratic representation within the Georgian state.