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Sovereignty and Separatists: Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Independence movements have been a lot on my mind since the harsh European reaction to Catalonian independence. Actually, independence movements have always been a lot on my mind; one of the main reasons I wanted to study the Peace of Westphalia was to learn about how the European map achieved its modern shape. One aspect of that shape is the fact that Catalonia is part of Spain rather than France or an independent country of its own.

The situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia obviously owes nothing to the Peace of Westphalia. The conflict and complicated mixture of languages, ethnicities, and religions in the Caucasus is far older and infinitely more complex: if you think the Balkans are difficult to sort out, they have nothing on the Caucasus. The similarity is that all three regions — Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Catalonia — wish to be independent (or, at any rate, contain a sizeable proportion of people who wish to be independent) but are not widely recognized in the West. Catalonia, of course, is not at all independent at the moment. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been de facto independent since the early 1990’s, but they remain so only thanks to major support from Russia. The only other nations that recognized their sovereignty are Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru; in the last month, Syria has joined that list. The obvious connection between these four states is their close relationship with Russia (or, in the case of Nauru, financial aid). The rest of the world presumably considers the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia as illegitimate, and European nations have stated as much explicitly.

At least the West is being consistent in supporting the “territorial integrity” of both Spain and Georgia in these cases. But what about the territorial integrity of Russia, which following 1989 lost Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia along the Baltic, as well as a series of Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.), and several nations in the Caucasus, among them Georgia itself? Who in the West spoke out for the territorial integrity of Russia against these independence movements? A similar scenario unfolded in Yugoslavia, where Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia broke away from Serbia.

One could argue, of course, that the circumstances were different. These newly independent nations had their own languages, cultures, and histories that predated Russian or Yugoslavian control. On the other hand, the same is true of Catalonia, and to some extent of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I have seen people argue against Catalan independence on the grounds that Catalonia has never been independent. This is mostly true (leaving aside some brief periods following revolts, e.g. in 1640), but it is equally true of almost all of the new countries. Very few of the new Balkan nations had ever experienced independence, and it had certainly been a long time since Georgia and Azerbaijan had ruled themselves. The Baltic States were independent for about two decades following World War I, but apart from that Latvia had hardly ever existed as an independent polity.

Should this matter? If a country has a distinct culture and history, is that enough to warrant its right to independence? What about the people who live in the country but don’t want to be independent of its current government? The Spanish government is quick to point out that opinion about independence in Catalonia is divided, although since they outlawed a vote on the matter and actually dragged people away from polling places, it is hard to see how the Catalans could prove that a majority support independence. In the United States itself, arguably only a minority supported independence against Great Britain in the 18th century, yet we still celebrate the results of our revolution.

What of a nation’s viability as an international political actor? South Ossetia is home to only about 50,000 people, which is clearly not enough to maintain its independence from Georgia without major outside support. Then again, Nauru, one of the five countries that has recognized it, has only a fifth as many as that. I frequently think about this when I hear of objections to the creation of an independent Kurdistan because it would be a landlocked nation with territorial claims in various neighbours (assuming that it would be created from only some of the countries that currently occupy the Kurish homeland, perhaps Iraq and Syria but very likely not Turkey or Iran). Sure, one could argue that an independent Kurdish nation would be a “source of instability” in the Middle East, but since when has that been a dominant concern in our foreign policy? What people have ever suffered so much at the hands of their rulers that they deserved a chance at independence more than the Kurds? Unless, indeed, one were to cite the Jews, whose homeland was explicitly created as a safe haven against hostile rulers. Would anything that could happen with Kurdistan be more destabilizing than the existence of the state of Israel?

I raise these points, not because I have answers, but because it seems some people don’t want to acknowledge that they are difficult questions. The people who support Spain and Georgia against separatists seem to do so without asking themselves under what circumstances they could be convinced to change their minds. It is, of course, idealistic of me to think that nations would ever pursue a coherent foreign policy based on rational principles, but I think it is worth striving for. Indeed, it is not so much the governments themselves that disappoint me as the people who are not government officials who are so quick to oppose independence movements. As one Russian researcher said about the question of independence, “International law is ambivalent. On the one hand, it gives the people the right to self-determination, and on the other hand it protects the territorial integrity of states. In each specific case, a country decides which of the principles for it is more priority.”

(N.B. The last quotation, as well as my original source for learning about Syrian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was an article in Izvestiya. My Russian is pretty limited, and I pasted that translation directly from Google. There has been little Western news about Syria’s diplomatic moves, but you can find articles on it in English, e.g. Peace of Westphalia

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