Thursday, August 28, 2008

The perils of recognizing South Ossetia

FP's current Seven Questions post is about Russia's war with Georgia, interviewing ex-CIA regional expert Paul Goble. The interview is a good one, in particular answering a question that I had:

FP: But if the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians don’t want to be part of Georgia, why should the West support President Saakashvili’s position? Why is it a good idea to support Georgia’s “territorial integrity”?

Since 1932 — since the Stimson Doctrine was articulated when the Japanese seized Manchuria and transformed it into “Manchukuo” as a client state — it has been (largely) consistent American policy that the United States does not recognize territorial change achieved by an act of aggression. So, the issue is not, as the Russians have put it, between simple territory integrity or the right of nations to self-determination. It is whether the United States and Western governments will accept border changes brought about by the use of force.

Western and US officials produced many soundbites on upholding Georgian territorial integrity, but little or nothing on why this principle must be upheld. It seemed to run counter to "facts on the ground" demonstrating that Abkhazia and South Ossetia had little interest in being part of Georgia.

Abkhazia is largely independent anyway. South Ossetia is really a shell; independent yes, but mainly a smuggling route into Russia, and under implicit Russian control anyway. Neither wanted to be part of Georgia before the war, and now, really do not wish to be part of Georgia.

Thus, self-determination (freedom) runs up against another sound, logical principle: do not encourage aggressive states to redraw boundaries by force of arms. In any case, unlimited self-determination is a bad idea anyway. Fragmenting an existing nation-state has the potential to destabilize entire regions.

Redrawing nation-state boundaries as the West did with Kosovo did indeed open a new can of worms. As the Seven Questions post indicates, redrawing boundaries for breakaway regions is a double-edged sword. That is true for Kosovo and the West as it is for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Russia.

This wikipedia article provides a surprising amount of depth on worldwide reaction to Kosovo recognition, and various regions striving for independence. (WARNING: read the wikipedia article with two grains of salt, rather than the usual one)

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