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From Pristina to Tskhinvali

Pristina Kosovo 2009 New Year Fireworks - flickr-AMWRanes
New Year Fireworks in Pristina 2009. Photo: flickr/AMWRanes

Tim Judah is a British journalist who has long covered the Balkans for the Economist amongst others. We have featured his work before, for example, his first book on Kosovo is one of our pictures stories and can be found here. In autumn of 2008 Oxford University Press published his new book on Kosovo. It is called Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know. It is not a book aimed at scholars or people with a deep knowledge of Kosovo and indeed Judah had a specific target audience in his head when he wrote it. "I imagined that if I was a policeman or judge from Palermo or Goteborg and suddenly found I was off to join EULEX, the EU's peace and justice mission in Kosovo, then what could I read that was bang up to date and gave me all the complicated basics in a clear and unpretentious way?" Chapters are thematic: "Albanians", "Serbs", "The War" etc., We have chosen an extract from the book which is not specifically about Kosovo though, but links the one end of ESI's world to the other. In the chapter called "Kosovo and the World" Judah discusses the links, or not, between Kosovo and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway regions of Georgia. The book was written just before the August 2008 conflict and came out just afterwards. Until then, Russia was against recognising their independence. Afterwards it changed its policy.

It is often argued that Kosovo is a unique case, or sui generis, to use the jargon favoured by lawyers. This argument is just as commonly rejected. "If people in Kosovo can be granted full independence," asked Vladimir Putin, then Russia's president, "why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?" On the face of it, he might have a good case, but then once you look at the places in question you see quite how different they are. Take Abkhazia, on the Black Sea. Before its conflict, which took place in the early 1990s, only 17.8 percent of its population was Abkhaz. Today, of some 200,000 people, they still only constitute 45 percent of its people, and more than 200,000 Georgian refugees from Abkhazia want to return home. The Abkhaz, who are in firm control of the government and of all levers of power, argue that to allow more to come back than they have already permitted would simply be to turn back the clock and to make them once more just a small minority in their own homeland. Ironically, while Russia supports Abkhazia, if not its full independence, and it has opposed Kosovo's independence, that does not mean that the Abkhaz are against it. "Just because Russia does not want Kosovo to be recognised," says Maxim Gunja, the deputy foreign minister of Abkhazia, "it does not mean that we do not want it."

The same is true of South Ossetia. "Those rules which work for Kosovo will work for South Ossetia," says Alan Pliev, its deputy foreign minister, in Tskhinvali, the muddy, village-like capital of South Ossetia whose main thoroughfare is called "Stalin Street". But South Ossetia has a tiny population – anywhere between 22,000 as the Georgians claim, and 70,000, according to the South Ossetians. It is hardly a candidate to be a viable state, especially as large swaths of it are held by the Georgians, but perhaps that is not the aim. South Ossetia is connected to Russia by a tunnel through the mountains. On the other side lies the autonomous republic of North Ossetia. "Our aim is unification with North Ossetia," says Alan Pliev. "We don't know if that would be as part of Russia or as a separate united Ossetian state." Juri Dzittsojty, deputy speaker of parliament, says: "I would prefer there to be an independent and united Ossetia, but today it is not possible. It is safer to be with Russia. The main aim of the struggle is to be independent of Georgia."

In the wake of the 2008 conflict, Georgia no longer controls any of South Ossetia. After it had been recognised by Russia as independent Abkhazia offered mutual recognition to Kosovo – which its leaders rejected.

Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know. Tim Judah. 2008.
[pp.  132-133 / Oxford University Press]

January 2009
ESI

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