Drawing comparisons and simplifying situations can often be helpful when trying to understand sociopolitical issues as complex as those found here in Georgia. It can lead to misunderstandings, however, when parallels are drawn between very distinct situations. A substantial amount of news/academic articles reference the Balkans when talking about the Caucasus. I don’t have any problems with comparisons, as long as they are somewhat balanced and take situational differences into account–even processes that look similar on the surface still arose from historic precedents unique to the respective regions.
Most “conflict journalism” on the 2008 Russo-Georgian war lacked this balance, and was based on simplistic equations such as Russia + Serbia vs. Kosovo + US + EU = Russia + South Ossetia/Abkhazia vs. Georgia + US + EU. Those same analysts then usually asked why Russia was initially against independence in the Kosovo case, and then became pro-independence in the Abkhazia/South Ossetia case–thus acknowledging the limits of their own system of analysis. Essentially, just because both regions include mountains, border the Black Sea, experience more frequent conflict than other European states, and could be said to have once been a part of the “Soviet sphere of influence” does not mean their present-day issues can be analyzed in parallel. Before examining their differences, here is an elaboration of the similarities that often lead Western observers to compare the two regions:
- In contrast to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkan and Caucasian states were not independent during the Cold War, but part of federal or confederative structures whose memories are still alive. Independence was generally acquired through violent conflicts.
- In both regions, dramatic reforms were introduced in the early 1990s, but the legacy of socialism complicated these processes–leading many observers to label the states as “weak.”
- Election monitors often report higher instances of electoral fraud in both the Balkans and the Caucasus.
- The two regions are characterized by various migration trends following interstate conflicts and civil wars as well as periods of social and economic hardship. Both have comparatively high minority populations that are difficult to map, and demographic sources are frequently unreliable.
- In light of recent conflicts, demands for minority rights are often interpreted by central governments as demands for secession.
- As is true in many post-socialist states, there is little sense of civil society and the public is considered “demobilized.”
- The EU and NATO are looking for stability in their “eastern neighborhood,” and have encouraged any short, medium, and long-term solutions for putting an end to tensions.
- Both the Balkans and the Caucasus are included in various European and American plans related to energy corridors, leading the West to push for security and stability.
- The independence and sovereignty of both regions depends less on themselves and their internal development, and more on the interests and politics of other countries.
- In the 19th century, the Caucasus was incorporated into the Russian Empire, while the Balkans were part of the Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian Empires. The social, economic, and political legacies of imperial rule should not be overlooked.
- From the start, Kosovo stated that the goal of its struggle for independence was aimed at the creation of an independent state unconnected to Albania. The leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were less consistent about their ambitions and their desired relationship to Georgia.
- The ethno-territorial conflicts in the Caucasus appear deadlocked in irreconcilable opposing demands for common state (confederation)-based solutions on one side vs. autonomy (federation)-based solutions on the other. With the rejection of common state solutions by Georgia and Azerbaijan, the sub-state entities were radicalized and saw outright independence as the only solution.
- While conflicts in both regions tend to involve foreign intervention of one kind or another, UN and NATO forces played decisive roles in the Balkans, but were never active in the Caucasus.
- Given the diversity of ethnic, social, and political problems, the process of solution-finding in the Caucasus is at its very beginning, while the Balkans are no longer considered a “black hole of Europe.” Structural problems persist, but there has been dramatic progress in terms of openness to finding solutions for the establishment of viable states, even if the outcome is still uncertain. Croatia has proven to be a successful candidate for EU integration, despite the persistence of problems regarding human rights, treatment of war criminals, and disagreements with its neighbors. And while the Yugoslav crisis effectively ended in 1999 after the FRY was bombed by NATO during its Kosovo campaign, “breakaway” regions in the Caucasus remain conflict-ridden areas where Russian and Western influences continue to collide.
Sources Dinescu, Ana. “The Balkans and the Caucasus: Limits of the Comparative Perspective,” in The Balkans and the Caucasus: Parallel Processes on Opposite Sides of the Black Sea, 2012.