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Elections in doubtful countries

Kosovo and South Ossetia have both held parliamentary elections. In each case, the fundamental issue is their status as independent countries.

Last Sunday saw parliamentary elections in two countries – or perhaps not countries, depending on who you listen to.

One was Kosovo, which most other countries recognise as the newest independent nation in Europe, but which a large minority regard as still legally part of Serbia, from which it was separated de facto after the Kosovo War in 1999 and from which it declared independence in 2008.

Official results show the list organised by the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) – a broadly centrist party headed by incumbent prime minister Hashim Thaçi – in the lead with 30.7% of the vote, followed by the more centre-right Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) with 25.7%. Turnout was a disappointing 41.5%, down from 47.5% in 2010.

Assuming Wikipedia’s translation of votes to seats is accurate, that gives the PDK 36 of the 120 seats (up two on its 2010 result), the LDK 31 (up four), and three smaller parties another 33 between them. The remaining 20 are allocated to Serbs and other national minorities. Clearly no party will have anything like overall control.

The other place going to the polls was South Ossetia, in a position that’s similar to Kosovo but also intriguingly different. It enjoys much less international acceptance, being recognised only by Russia and a handful of other countries. The rest of the world regard it as part of Georgia, from which it has enjoyed de facto independence since 1990.

Results show four parties clearing the 7% threshold required to enter the South Ossetian parliament, but a clear victory going to United Ossetia, with 43.2% and 20 of the 34 seats. “Unity of the People” was well back with 13.2% and six seats. Turnout was said to be a little over 60%.

First the similarities. Kosovo and South Ossetia are both ethnically distinct from the nationality of their parent countries, Serb and Georgian. In neither case is there any reason to doubt the majority’s wish for self-determination. But in each case that self-determination has only been possible through outside military protection: from NATO in Kosovo and from Russia in South Ossetia.

Moreover, in each case there is a larger neighboring homeland for the population to look to: Albania for Kosovo, and North Ossetia, a constituent republic of Russia, for South Ossetia. The new South Ossetian government has promised a referendum to join Russia – obviously a sensitive topic in light of recent events in Ukraine. Logically one would expect Kosovo one day to merge with Albania.

Now for the differences. Kosovo is much bigger; it’s at least potentially viable as a separate state in a way that South Ossetia is not. Kosovo went through a long process of negotiation with Serbia to try to reach an agreeable settlement; neither South Ossetia nor Russia has shown much interest in talking to the Georgians (an attitude that seems to be reciprocated). Kosovo has offered reasonably generous terms to its Serb minority (although in my view it would be better off redrawing the border to exclude most of them); South Ossetia has ethnically cleansed most of its Georgians.

Depending on one’s point of view, the differing international treatment for Kosovo is due either to these objective factors or to western hypocrisy. The truth is probably somewhere in between: South Ossetia might not deserve recognition as much as Kosovo, but it deserves more than it gets.

In terms of hypocrisy, however, you’re unlikely to beat that shown by Russia. Put bluntly, it is hard to think of any possible argument for South Ossetian independence that does not apply as much or more to Kosovo. Yet Russia opposes recognition of Kosovo and would presumably veto any application for UN membership.

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