Marko Hoare points out that South Ossetia, with its small population, isn’t comparable to Kosovo:
South Ossetia is, unlike the former ‘Republic of Serb Krajina’ in Croatia, a legitimate entity representing a genuine national minority, with a right to enjoy very extensive autonomy – which Tbilisi has offered it. But with an ethnic Ossetian population at the start of the 1990s of only about 65,000 and a total population of about 100,000, South Ossetia is more on the scale of a town or enclave than of a nation: its resident population is approximately one thirtieth the size of Kosova’s; smaller than the Muslim Bosniak population of Serbia’s Sanjak region or the Albanian population of Macedonia (neither of whose right to secede, incidentally, I would recognise); smaller than any European nation other than the mini-states of Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein and San Marino. The ‘independence’ of this tiny region means, effectively, its annexation by Russia – which is, in effect, a process that is underway, and which the desperate Georgian offensive is attempting to halt. I have already explained at length why South Ossetia is in no way equivalent to Kosova, either in terms of its constitutional or legal status, or in terms of its actual credentials as a ‘nation’. ‘Self-determination’ does not mean the right of a former colonial power – in this case Russia – to annex enclaves in its former colonies.
One problem with this analysis is that the Ossetians actually want to be part of the Russian empire, which seems a bit silly to me. Maybe the best solution would be to let South Ossetia join Russia, let Georgia join NATO and the EU, pump lots of EU money into Georgia to help its economy, and then laugh at the foolish Ossetians who’ve chosen to live in Russia-style poverty and squalor. (That’s also my proposed solution to the Transnistria problem, by the way).
This is not a case of Moscow supporting the right of national majorities to secede – the Abkhaz have no majority, not even a plurality, in Abkhazia. Nor is it a case of Moscow supporting the right of autonomous entities of the former Soviet Union to secede – Moscow has extended the same support to the separatists of Transnistria, which enjoyed no autonomous status in the USSR, while denying the right to secede of the Chechen Republic. This is simply a case of naked Russian imperialist expansionism. It is Georgia which is fighting to establish its independence, and Georgia which deserves our support. Georgia is a staunch ally of the West; the third largest contributor of troops to the allied coalition in Iraq. A Russian defeat of Georgia would be a tremendous setback for the West’s credibility and moral standing; it would increase Russian control of our energy supplies and encourage further Russian acts of aggression in the former Soviet Union.
Hoare is right here, in that if the West doesn’t back Georgia, it will lose credibility. It will also lose out economically, because the proposed Nabucco pipeline which would make Europe less reliant on Russia for gas, goes through Georgia.