When Russia invaded Georgia and then recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, was it following the precedent of Kosovo? Interviewed by the BBC after the announcement of recognition, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President, said: "We did it as some other states did in the case of Kosovo." But in that interview he also called Georgia a "special case" that could not be compared to Kosovo, and on the same day the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said there was no parallel with the Kosovan case. The very next day, however, Medvedev published an article in the Financial Times citing the Kosovan precedent.
At first sight, this resembles the confusion of miscreant schoolboys who have not yet got their story straight. All kinds of justifications have been thrown into the argument, with little attempt at coherence: protecting Russia's borders, defending Russian passport holders, halting "genocide", and so on. But where the references to Kosovo are concerned, the confusion is surely deliberate.
On the one hand, the idea that there is a single principle, valid for both Kosovo and South Ossetia, is played down: that way, Russia can stick to its existing policy of refusing (for its own geopolitical reasons) to recognise Kosovo. But on the other hand, the K-word is invoked just frequently enough to make Westerners feel uneasy: do they bear some responsibility for the Georgian crisis (they are meant to wonder), and are they applying double standards? In this, at least, the Russian tactic has been quite successful.
Invoking the Kosovan precedent can mean either or both of two claims: that Russia's military action in Georgia resembles Nato's intervention in Kosovo; and that Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia resembles the recognition of Kosovan independence by Western governments earlier this year. The first of these claims need not detain us long.
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