In the wake of Russia's recognition of two separatist Georgian republics Tuesday, Moscow is moving swiftly in another war – how to define and present its legal case to the world. One chief area of this battle is Kosovo, the Serbian province that declared its independence in February – something Moscow had long warned would "legitimize" the separation of territories such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
Yet hours after Russia recognized the independence of those republics Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov turned the tables. Taking a new legal tack, he called any parallels between Kosovo and Georgia "irrelevant," and offered an interpretation of events that essentially makes Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili a worse war criminal than former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.
Now, much of the world's media is explaining how Kosovo led to Russian tanks in Georgia. This week, Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, something that took the West a nine-year process of careful negotiation, minority rights clauses, and statebuilding to do in Kosovo partly because of due diligence over Russian warnings about a "Kosovo precedent."
Russia looking for China's backing
Yet ahead of Thursday Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Tajikistan – where Moscow hopes to get Chinese acceptance of its acts in Georgia – it is trying to portray its intervention in Georgia as moderate and humane, and that of the West in Kosovo as brutal and "inhumane."
"Drawing parallels [between Kosovo and Georgia] is irrelevant," Mr. Lavrov said, "and the difference is evident between Belgrade's policy towards Kosovo and how Saakashvili's regime behaved towards South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"The conflicts were halted in different ways – through the ruthless inhumane bombardment of Belgrade in the case of Kosovo, and without punishing Tbilisi for its attacks on Sukumi [Abkhazia's capital]," he said.
Significantly, Lavrov added that Russia will not recognize Kosovo. In interviews with the Russian press on Tuesday, Sergei Romanenko, a senior scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said this inconsistency is a problem for Russia since, "a 'no' to the independence of Kosovo and a 'yes' to the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia [is a stand] that does not elicit trust" from other powers, in an essay posted on polit.ru.
Closer examination of Kosovo events
The new Russian legal shift comes as Moscow's ardently stated rhetoric and emotion over the West's acceptance of Kosovo statehood is being more closely examined.
The dispute is quiet but bitter: Moscow has long made a strong legal case for Serbia's territorial integrity and sovereignty. US and EU diplomats say the Kosovo case is unique, an "accommodation" that emerged out of a long and often reluctant process involving specific moral and strategic circumstances – resulting in a new principle of "humanitarian intervention."
"In Kosovo, the West decided to make the rules on what humanitarian intervention meant, said that it had the power to do so, and decided not to stand by legal arguments in the middle of a genocide," argues James Hooper, a former US diplomat who worked with Gen. Wesley Clark in Kosovo.
Russia's new position is partly seen as helping smooth relations with Belgrade, whose claims on Kosovo have been left in the lurch by Moscow's recognition of separtists territories in the Caucasus, say diplomats. After a decade of ardent legal purity on Serbia's territorial integrity at the UN and other global groupings, Russia has suddenly changed those rules in Georgia – putting Serbia in the awkward position of having to choose between Russia and Europe, that has untold consequences for the new Serbian government.
Difference between Kosovo, Georgia
What truly irritates US diplomats and intellectuals involved in Kosovo, is Russia's creation of a moral equivalency between Georgia and Kosovo. Since 1999, a considerable amount of work has been done on the specific legal, moral, status, and historical differences between Kosovo and Abkhazia and South Ossestia by Western experts and organizations such as the Public International Law and Policy Group in Washington.
The genocide question
If the Balkans wars were simply an inchoate outbreak of ethnic squabbling among "three warring parties" of equal culpability, then the Russian legal argument might win the day, diplomats agree.
But that isn't the story that has been detailed exhaustively in the record of the war crimes tribunal at the Hague, in many books, videos, eyewitness accounts, and confessions by combatants.
Rather, what happened in Kosovo was part of a program engineered by Slobodan Milosevic to link up enclaves of Serbs from the former Yugoslavia into a new "Greater Serbia," which required the killing or removal of non-Serbs from their homes and towns. This took place for five years. Finally, as the elected Serbian dictator turned his operations and his paramilitary troops to Kosovo, NATO acted, after months of negotiations with Belgrade.
The otherwise passionate Russian legal arguments on Kosovo have ignored the genocide question. Indeed, Russia sided with Milosevic throughout the Balkans campaign, as did China, which has chastised Russia privately for using in Georgia its claim of a genocide as a rationale.
Human Rights Watch has found no evidence for the war toll of 2,000 in South Ossetia that Moscow initially claimed as a rationale for entering.
A typical view of Western diplomats involved in the Kosovo crisis is that of Marshall Harris, a former US diplomat.
In recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Mr. Harris says, "Moscow is acting with reckless malice, in contravention of international law.... It was alone among the major powers in opposing Kosovo's independence. With the exception of a few regimes of its ilk and in its orbit, Russia will be alone in trying to dismember Georgia – a sovereign democracy that can and should be entrusted with proper treatment of its ethnic Russian and other minority populations."
In a sense, Russia has used the Kosovo precedent in order to take action in Georgia, but now finds the argument against its interests, say Russian analysts interviewed for this article.
In the past year, Russian thinkers have argued that allowing "ethnic separatism" ill-serves a Russia with many restless minority groups.
Sergei Sorokin, a foreign affairs expert with the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant says, "This is not what Russian authorities would prefer to do, because they will be adopting a principle [ethnic separatism] that they have roundly condemned in the past, and which is not in Russia's long-term interests. The adoption of this position was driven by the dynamics of war, and all the accompanying emotions of war. It's very short-sighted, because we will effectively be multiplying the Kosovo precedent, and this will inevitably boost the dreams of independence-seeking minorities everywhere, including on Russian territory."
For Mr. Hooper, the differences are complex, but also simple: "What happened in Georgia was not a humanitarian intervention," he says. "What happened in Kosovo was."
• Fred Weir contributed from Moscow.