The Princip precedent

Russia's all-but defunct ambassador to Nato, Dmitry Rogozin, expressed the hope yesterday that Georgia's president would not go down in history as the new Gavrilo Princip, the Serb nationalist who triggered the first world war. Two years ago, a senior Russian ambassador would have done anything to avoid that comparison. Local disputes would never have been be allowed to interfere with all those petrodollars Russia was earning in the west. Now Russia appears to be willing to trash its strategic relationships.

In defiance even of Germany and France, which adopted the most even-handed approach to the Georgian conflict, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. There was little pressure on him to do so. Both provinces have been independent from Tbilisi since 1991, when the last hothead Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, tried to seize them. Recognition will not make either the Ossetians or the Abkhaz sleep safer in their beds. It will not do anything to stop the ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages in these enclaves, which the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, condemned yesterday.

Abandoning the principle of the territorial integrity of Georgia does, however, have consequences, all of them considerable for the region as a whole. It undermines the sovereignty of each of Russia's neighbours, many of them with similar separatist enclaves. It weakens the Russian Federation's own borders. There are dozens of separatist causes north of the Caucasus mountain range, for which yesterday's decision sets a bad precedent. If Russia thinks it has pacified states surrounding Chechnya, over which it fought two wars, it should think again.

Worse still, Russia's actions are handing Georgia a military alliance with the west on a silver platter. This is the glittering strategic prize for which Mikheil Saakashvili, the nationalist Georgian president who ordered his troops to attack Tskhinvali, has been toiling day and night. It is a prize that he may consider to be worth the sacrifice of two parts of his country.

The Black Sea is already becoming dangerously militarised. Nine western warships have made their way into it. A US warship with humanitarian aid aboard is heading for the Black Sea port of Poti, outside of which Russian troops are still dug in. And the flagship of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol has also set sail. The last thing the region needs is a US naval strike force competing with a Russian one in the Black Sea. Before this gets out of hand, both sides should see where their strategic interests lie and take steps to calm this conflict down.

[Source: The Guardian, London, UK, 27Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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