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Analysis: Opening a Pandora's Box in the Caucasus

The Caucasus conflict was brought about at least in part by the West's decision to recognize Kosovo's independence 6 months ago. Experts say this sparked a chain reaction in the region, which only Moscow can now halt.

Map of Georgia and its neighbors, with Abkhazia (left) and South Ossetia highlighted in yellow

The region has been thrown into disarray

When the West recognized Kosovo's independence half a year ago, Russia's leaders warned that the move would open a "Pandora's Box" in the Caucasus.

The mountainous region's patchwork of ethnicities and states have long been difficult to reconcile into coherent nation states.

The recent, bloody 10-day war between Russia and Georgia over the former Soviet states' rebel region of South Ossetia is the realization of that Pandora's Box scenario.

The background

Russia has long supported Georgia's two ethnically separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but stopped short of recognizing their independence -- until now -- fearing that secessions in those provinces would provide a dangerous precedent for other minority nations within the Russian Federation.

Nevertheless, Russian lawmakers this week unanimously passed a motion urging President Dmitry Medvedev to recognize Georgia's rebel regions as independent -- 15 years after they won de facto autonomy in a war of succession from Tbilisi in the early 1990s.

By some counts, over 80 percent of the populations in the regions have been issued Russian passports under an especially generous Russian policy that Saakashvili decried as the creeping annexation of Georgian territory.

The Kosovo precedent

Kosovo Albanians celebrate with the new Kosovo flag the independence in Kosovo's capital Pristina

Kosovo's independence set a dangerous precedence

As Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia on Aug. 8 to push back Georgia's offensive to re-assert control, Medvedev took the national stage, invoking the army in defense of Russian citizens.

In a series of interviews by DPA news agency after Kosovo's independence in February, Russian analysts foresaw a military flare up, but did not predict the possibility that Moscow's policy could turn to recognizing the regions.

The threat that Kosovo could stand as a secessionist precedent in the Caucasus had formed the Kremlin's most vivid protest to the province's break from its ally Serbia.

But while Moscow is still confronted by the problems that the Kosovo precedent raises, paradoxically, the comparison has now been turned into a justification of South Ossetia and Abkhazia's right to self-determination.

Western leaders have labeled Russia's move to recognize Georgia's regions as hypocrisy, while Russian leaders hit back with the accusation that a double standard has been applied in the case of Kosovo.

The resolution passed on Monday argued that by its assault on civilians Tbilisi had forgone all moral right over the area, drawing a direct link between Russia incursion and the justification of NATO's bombing campaign in Serbia in 1998.

Appealing before Russian lawmakers South Ossetia's President Eduard Kokoity repeated what has become a maxim: "We have more political-legal grounds than Kosovo does to have our independence recognized."

But Professor Yury Kolosov of the Moscow Institute of International Relations threw cold water on the much-cited "Kosovo precedent."

"There is no such thing as a 'precedent' in international law ...And, if this is a precedent, then it's a bad one," Kolosov, an eminent member of Russia's Association of International law, told DPA.

The final say

In other words, the Kremlin has the last word. While the threat of recognizing the breakaway region adds to its bargaining power with the West, analysts said it would look for ways to delay such recognition, for example, by requesting the provinces hold a new referendum.

"It seems to me that now politically it would be more favorable to leave this situation hanging," Moscow-based analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika foundation, told news agency Interfax on Monday.

The Kremlin and its allies, meanwhile, aren't deaf to its own warnings that seizing on Kosovo as a precedent could spark a "chain reaction" in the region.

Legal limbo

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev heads a security council meeting at the presidential residence in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- the ball is in his court

Medvedev sought to reassure the Molodovan and Azeri presidents -- who have similar secession worries to Georgia -- on Monday over the respective breakaway regions of Nagorno Karabakh and Transnistria.

South Ossetia's ultimate ambition to unite with Russia's ethnically-similar region of North Ossetia is no less problematic.

Russia's ties to Abkhazia, which seeks only self-determination, have traditionally been stronger, as has its economic interest in the region.

A poll by the independent Levada center in the aftermath of the conflict show near half of Russians -- or 46 percent -- say South Ossetia should become part of Russia.

Only 4 percent of those surveyed in interviews with 2,100 adults believed the province should remain part of Georgia.

But whatever the populations of the Caucasus think, with the fate of both provinces of intimate interest to Moscow and beyond, the situation is likely to remain -- for now -- in legal limbo.

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