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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why not recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

David Emerson, Minister of Foreign Affairs, issued a statement yesterday on the situation in Georgia:

“Canada is gravely concerned about Russia’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This recognition violates Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and is contrary to UN Security Council resolutions supported by Russia, as well as to the six-point peace plan brokered by President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the EU.”

Putting aside the issue of Russia’s broken promise to Sarkozy, the EU and the UN Security Council, which is no doubt serious, what is wrong with recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Do people not have the right to democratically secede?

South Ossetia voted twice to secede from Georgia, once in 1992 and again in 2006.

The People's Assembly of Abkhazia passed a resolution in 2006 calling upon Russia to recognize Abkhaz as an independent state after declaring its independence in 1992.

No nation has a permanent claim on its citizens, not even for geopolitical expediency.

Ludwig von Misses wrote in Omnipotent Government that “A nation, therefore, has no right to say to a province: You belong to me, I want to take you. A province consists of its inhabitants. If anybody has a right to be heard in this case it is these inhabitants. Boundary disputes should be settled by plebiscite.” He also wrote in Nation, State, and Economy that “No people and no part of a people shall be held against its will in a political association that it does not want.”

It appears that in both the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the people have expressed a desire through democratic processes to change their political association. The concept in international law that demands that a secessionist movement, in order to be legitimate, must first be recognized by the nation from which it hopes to secede is like demanding bi-partisan agreement before a divorce is recognized. Unilateral secession must be allowed after it can be demonstrated that there is a genuine will among the people to separate.

Furthermore, even applying the standards of Canada’s Clarity Act, which established the rules for secession in accordance with international law, Georgia had an obligation to negotiate terms of secession with both these breakaway regions. And after more than 15 years, Georgia has failed to do this -- although, to its credit, it did grant both these regions a high degree of autonomy.

In an interview for this post, Dr. Jason Sorens, founder of the Free State Project and expert on international secessionist movements, said “It is difficult to defend Russia's conduct of the war with Georgia, but it is equally difficult to defend the willingness of the U.S., Canada, and other NATO governments to recognize Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence while ruling out future recognition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If independence for minorities is ruled out from the start, then they have no alternative but to turn to violence. Independence with security guarantees for ethnic Georgians should at least be on the negotiating table.”

As I stated in my previous post on this matter, Russia should stay out of Georgia, and Georgia should stay out of South Ossetia (and Abkhazia). Let me add that the international community should also be less reluctant to recognize independence movements.

Sorens thinks we can learn something else: “The other lesson from this whole episode is that NATO expansion is foolish. Bringing Georgia into the security guarantee would entail that our soldiers could end up dying in a war against Russia while helping Georgia crush the legitimate aspirations of its ethnic minorities. Is that what we really want?”

Posted by Matthew Johnston on August 27, 2008 in International Affairs | Permalink


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* yawn *


Posted by: John V | 2008-08-27 9:47:10 AM

Most likely this is Russia's payback for Western countries recognizing Kosovo's independence. Russia had deep concerns about the international community's willingness to legitimize breakaway states, as it has suffered from this firsthand to a degree experienced by few other countries.

While Russia's motives are hardly pure, it does seem hypocritical for the West to recognize Kosovo but not South Ossetia or Abkhazia. And if the latter states wish to join Russia, or at least ally themselves with it, that is their decision. But Russia must then allow them to leave any such association freely in the future.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-08-27 9:56:01 AM

Dear Author,
You wrote "..South Ossetia and Abkhazia[..] people have expressed a desire through democratic processes to change their political association"
and therefore "Georgia should stay out of South Ossetia (and Abkhazia)"

International Law definetely is not my field, but You i think missed one important aspect; (I assume you are just not informed about it);

In both breakaway regions when they held this "democratic" referendums most Georgian and Pro-georgian ethnoses (400 thousand people) were cleansed out and this happened after so called ethnic conflicts in 1990-1994, which actually were wars with Russia;

Another Myth:
"Georgia had an obligation to negotiate terms of secession with both these breakaway regions. And after more than 15 years, Georgia has failed to do this -- although, to its credit, it did grant both these regions a high degree of autonomy"

You can easily find all proposals re peacefull regularization of these conflicts prepared and offered by Georgia and OSCE etc to both regional leaders, granting them maximum of autonomy and security; And all this efforts were blocked by only interested party which is Russia;

On other hand Your question of course is valid as a question!

With Kind Regards

Posted by: levan | 2008-08-27 10:20:42 AM

This is not so much comment on the blog but the economics behind things in Georgia and area...


Just like Afganistan...there's a pipeline involved.

Posted by: JC | 2008-08-27 10:43:33 AM

So if native communities in polar Canada are suddenly granted Russian passports en masse and a fraction of its people decide to join the Russian Federation while procuring arms, according to your logic this is perfectly acceptable?

Posted by: Matt | 2008-08-27 11:14:09 AM

Great article.

I can see by the comments herein that most people see secession from a nationalist perspective. Nations are treated as corporate persons that can be 'hurt' by having pieces of their sovereign territory 'taken' from them.

As Von Mises explained, this is not the case. Rather, the sovereignty of states is nothing more than the pooling of individuals' sovereignty across a particular territory. To see it any differently would cause individuals to surrender all rights to serve as cells in the corporate whole. Germany invading Lombardy is not wrong because it bugs the people in Rome, but because it bugs the people in Lombardy. We are not servants of our capital cities or our nation-states.

Most libertarians will hold firm to the principle of unilateral secession as a bedrock of liberty de jure, while recognizing the complications of secession in practice. Every secessionist movement without a set territory (like a province or historical region) prior to its independence is subject to nationalists in the mother country trying to keep as much land as possible. This is little more than a resource grab, much as colonial powers will retain bases in their former colonies, e.g. Cyprus. Another typical complication is forced or voluntary migration, or genocide, prior to the secession. This is much more relevant in the Old World – where such occurrences are more commonplace – than in a place like Quebec. I believe that most libertarians would be sympathetic to arguments about pre-secession land-grabbing, and would support pursuit of a settlement prior to the territory's departure.

Unfortunately, the news media usually does not present the background of a secessionist movement without a heavy bias toward one of the superpowers that stakes its reputation on the outcome. I suspect, but have never seen coverage of, ethnic strife in South Ossetia and Abkhazia leading to the current conflict. If Georgians were 'cleansed' before the votes, that would definitely corrupt the declaration of independence. It might morally authorize Georgian military intervention. My impression, however, is that there is a certain element of nationalism – always a vice of the cyrillic world – that led Saakashvili to attempt to 'reconquer' these lands in the name of Georgia. If that is not the case, then I suggest Georgians get about educating the rest of us about past crimes that justify the invasion of these two statelets.

On a final note to what has become the longest comment I have ever left on a blog, my personal wish is to see the Russian Federation/Empire disintegrate into a sea of small states. These news states would be in direct competition with one another to liberalize or face mass emigration. The only way to hold together an empire the size of Russia, China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Canada or America is by coercion writ large. Though they are often cited as the great powers of the world, their achievements per capita are so often less than that of small states. They are more rigid, less likely to liberalize, and harder to escape. Moreover, they are a danger to the smaller states of the world, like Georgia. The Russian government, through its many incarnations, has held the world hostage too long, it has held its own 'subjects' as slaves for too long, and it is the greatest candidate for dissolution. I believe such a transformation will herald a golden age for Eurasia. I hope I will live to see it.

Posted by: Mike Vine | 2008-08-27 2:03:46 PM

Wow, this blog is more informative in two pages than the last 50 newspaper articles I've read about this.

One other point to make is that it is entirely up to Russia whether to recognize the territories as independent. Each nation can take its own view on this and is not bound by the views of other nations. Russia, as a nation bordering these regions, has interests in how to deal with countries on is borders, and if it chooses to consider a terrority as sovereign, or insurgents as belligerants, it has the right to do so. Conversely, nations with no real interests in far away disputes should stay out of them.

It's also true that sovereignty derives from the wishes of the people living there, and not from some vote by NATO, the G7 or even the UN. If a plebesite was taken after Georgians left, what should happen is that the exiled Georgians should be able to write-in their votes. If Georgia is the beacon of democracy its claimed to be, one would think they have voter rolls and can validate people's identities and addresses.

Finally, I don't buy the argument that Kosovo has anything to do with this. International law is centuries old and didn't change overnight when NATO split up Serbia. It's an argument that NATO is hypocritical, but not an argument to re-evaluate basic principles of international law.

Now, if Russia allows South Ossetia to join it, I think we can say there is a violation of international law. Recognizing it as a sovereign state is different.

Posted by: Paul Wolf | 2008-08-27 3:19:58 PM

Well, I would think Michael Totten, who has the disadvantage of actually, you now, BEING in Georgia, might have some answers:


"...by the time the dust settles, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 dead. Many atrocities committed by both sides, but mostly – at least that's what the Georgians say – by the Abkhaz. And the end result is everybody gets kicked out. Everybody who is not Abkhaz or Russian gets kicked out. That's about 400,000 people. 250,000 of those still live as Internally Displaced Persons within Georgia.

"Who are the Ossetians and where do they live? This is the question that has been lost in all of the static from this story. This autonomy [South Ossetia] is an autonomous district, as opposed to an autonomous republic, with about 60,000 people max. So, where are the rest of the Ossetians? Guess where they live? Tbilisi. Here. There. Everywhere. There are more Ossetians – take a look around this lobby. You will find Ossetians here. Of those Ossetians who are theoretically citizens of the Republic of Georgia, 60,000 live there and around 40,000 live here.”

And as we tell Quebec, if Canada is divisible, then Quebec is divisible. And so would be South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And Russia, for that matter...

Posted by: James Goneaux | 2008-08-28 8:49:10 AM

Paul, you seem to suggsest that if Russia allows South Ossetia to join it, that it is a violation of law, but that recognizing it as an independent state is not. But is an independent state not allowed to apply for admission to another federation?

By the way, NATO didn't split up Serbia; Kosovo seceded from Serbia by way of popular vote. If there is an international law that forbids a given region from seceding from a sovereign state, I should like to see it.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-08-28 8:58:18 AM

Matt wrote: So if native communities in polar Canada are suddenly granted Russian passports en masse and a fraction of its people decide to join the Russian Federation while procuring arms, according to your logic this is perfectly acceptable?"

That depends on whether the "fraction" is a majority or not. Under the Clarity Act of 2000, any region of Canada has the right to secede if it negotiates in good faith. Once a sovereign state, that region can then join anyone else, ally itself with anyone else, or remain a neutral independent.

Of course, the Clarity Act does not apply to Georgia, but the concept is the same: If a majority in a given region decide to change their political alignment, to what extent do the other regions have a right to stop them, and on what grounds? Perhaps Dion will become Prime Minister and try to implement his Green Shift; then the Clarity Act may face a test.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-08-28 9:02:14 AM

P.S. Honestly, Matt, did you think I would make an exception to general policy simply because your example involves us? Whatever do you take me for, a narcissist?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-08-28 9:37:01 AM

The obvious objection to recognizing these states as independent is that they aren't in fact independent, and are too small to be expected ever to become so. They've chosen to be part of Russia rather than of Georgia.

That said, there's no good reason why that shouldn't be accepted, and eventually you can bet that will happen. Nobody wants to recognize it right now, because nobody wants to be seen to be rewarding Russia for aggression. Once that perception ceases to arise, there won't be any problem.

And may I say that there's no point at all trying to cast this in Canadian terms. If the Russians actually wanted our North, they'd take it. If Quebec actually wanted to separate, it would. The Americans might do something about it, if they thought in the circumstances that it actually affected their interests, but nobody else would.

Posted by: ebt | 2008-08-28 2:10:52 PM

Thanks for the analysis, if anything looks like a theater this conflict is a mix of classical plays. There was a serious preparation of both military and public acts, followed by tragic scenes of violence with loud speeches, and finger pointing over a dead body. A viewer always wanders why don’t they ever learn from each other and from own mistakes? Well, the flow cannot be broken by the artists and all must be played as written.

Posted by: augustine | 2008-08-31 11:17:27 AM

Watch these interviews Putin gave CNN and ARD on South Osetia.

CNN only showed a few clips of the interview leaving out most important parts.

cnn interview

german ARD interview

Posted by: slava | 2008-08-31 11:32:21 AM

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