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If we accept the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we are rewarding ethnic cleansing.

Today Russia recognised the independence of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. To many in the West, this may look like fair play. After all Kosovo was recognised by most of Europe and the USA against the wishes of the Russians. If we can grant independence to Kosovo and ignore Serbia’s territorial integrity why can’t we do the same for these regions?

However, this Russian argument is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. For a start, Kosovan independence was recognised only after a long period of UN governance of the region. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the other hand, there was no such presence (aside from a few unarmed observers). For the past fifteen years South Ossetia, and to some extent Abkhazia, have been under defacto Russian control. And whilst Kosovo’s independence, whether justified or not, is truly that, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are little more than Russian puppet regimes. The leaders of both regions openly campaigned for Putin’s United Russia party and South Ossetian ‘separatists’ openly advocate joining the Russian Federation. To put this in perspective, imagine Hashim Thaci, the Kosovan Prime Minister, campaigning for the Republican Party and calling for Kosovo to become the 51st state of the USA. In fact, the terms of Kosovo’s independence bans them from ever joining neighbouring Albania.

However the biggest difference between the two situations establishes a far more worrying precedent. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo occurred as a response to proven cases of ethnic cleansing in the region. Milosevic was responsible for the mass murder of not only Albanians in Kosovo but also (through his allies Karadzic and Mladic of the “Republika Srpska”) of Bosniaks in the internationally recognised state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Whatever his faults, Saakashvili is no Milosevic. Indeed, the Georgian government has taken major steps to integrate ethnic minorities into the Georgian polity. For example Georgian state TV airs news broadcasts in the Armenian, Azeri, Abkhaz and Ossetian languages and ballot papers were available in these minority languages during the Presidential and Parliamentary elections earlier this year. In fact, the Georgians had offered the Abkhaz and Ossetians wide autonomy and the post of Vice President with the power to veto legislation affecting those regions. Russian allegations of “genocide” have proved to be groundless; even the Russians themselves have admitted that the total body count in South Ossetia is under 200, whereas previously they were claiming that over 2000 civilians had been killed.

However when ethnic cleansing has occurred in Georgia, it has invariably been ethnic Georgians who have been the victims. At the time of the last Soviet census in 1989 46% of the population of Abkhazia was ethnic Georgian compared to the 17% that was ethnic Abkhaz and the 14% that was ethnic Russian. After the 1993 war, almost the entire Georgian population was expelled or murdered by Russian backed Abkhaz guerrillas in what has been recognised by the UN General Assembly and the OCSE as an act of ethnic cleansing. In South Ossetia, the entire ethnic Georgian population has been expelled as a result of the Russian invasion. Russia openly admits that it will not allow ethnic Georgians to return to their homes for a long time to come. For this reason, Abkhazia and South Ossetia cannot be compared to Kosovo; the better parallel by far is Radovan Karadzic’s genocidal ‘Republika Srpska’.

So therefore if the international community allow Russia to get away with what is a defacto annexation of Georgian territory, the message will be that ethnic cleansing is not only acceptable but rewarded. Why go through the bother of a democratic process when you can just murder and expel those who disagree with you? Why be content with internationally recognised borders when the world will turn a blind eye to military aggression? The repercussions of this event will be tragic unless the world wakes up to what is happening, moves beyond empty rhetoric and imposes severe sanctions on Russia.

Alexander Scrivener is an expert on Georgian politics.