One of the main justifications for Russia's recent invasion of Georgia was that it had to protect its citizens from - what Moscow's leaders chose to call - "genocide" by the Georgian army, in South Ossetia. The reasons behind Russia's embrace of this particular argument seems to be that the protection of one's own citizens has been a common rationalization for military action abroad, by many countries, including major Western powers. Russia thus apparently follows internationally-accepted modes of behavior: Governments have to protect their citizens, using military means if necessary.
What is lost in this, at first glance, legitimate line of argument is not only that many South Ossetians became citizens of the Russian Federation relatively recently (imagine, moreover, Moscow's reaction if Germany would start offering German passports to the inhabitants of the Kaliningrad Region and protecting these new Germans' "rights and dignity"). Even more important is the fact that there is a subtle difference between, on the one hand, a state's protection of the lives and dignity of its citizens merely living in another country, and, on the other hand, a government defending citizens who are engaged in creating their own independent state on the territory of another country. When in recent years many South Ossetians chose to become citizens of Russia, they, consciously or not, changed the nature of their political aspirations.
When they were still citizens of Georgia or stateless, they were involved in a dispute about the status of their territory with the government of Georgia. Thus their activities reminded of the strive for independence by many of the world's national minorities, including numerous in Europe like the Basques in Spain or Kosovars in Serbia. Once most inhabitants of South Ossetia -- including members of the "government" of this unacknowledged state -- became official subjects of the Russian Federation, their political project of an independent South Ossetian republic transformed into a Russian imperialist enterprise, and changed the role of Russia's "peacekeepers" in South Ossetia. Citizens of all countries should live safely and with dignity in other countries. But should a country's government allow foreign citizens to create an independent state within the internationally recognized borders of its territory? And should a country's government let such foreign subjects do so under the umbrella of an armed "peacekeeping" force sent by the same state that provided the separatists with foreign passports? Even the most ardent defenders of the rights of national minorities might not agree.
These distinctions may be seen as hair-splitting. In fact, they go to the heart of the problem. In various recent opinion polls in Russia, more than 50 percent of the respondents supported the "Russia for Russians" slogan. By "Russians," these respondents mean not the citizens of the Russian Federation, but only ethnic Russians (russkie), preferably with a "Slavic face."
This commentary appeared first on the web site "Russia Profile" (http://www.russiaprofile.org/) on August 21st, 2008. The full text may be found in the attached PDF document below.