Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Georgia on my mind...

What are the issues?

Russia has recognized the formation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries.

Just like that, Russia hopes to create two whole new countries out of nothing (or out of Georgia, depending how you look at it).

Can they do that?

What is the controlling international law?

Normally, Russia cannot create another country by recognizing a breakaway region of their neighbor.

Countries are defined under international law by specific qualities: "a state is an entity that has a defined territory and a permanent population under the control of its own government, and that engages in, or has the capacity to engage in, formal relations with other such entities."

Restatement (Third) of the Law of Foreign Relations, section 201

None of these qualities - defined territory, permanent population, government control, & capacity for formal relations with other states - depends on an outside actor. That means South Ossetia has to meet the requirements of statehood on its own. Russia's recognition - while helpful as evidence of capacity to engage in formal relations with other states - does not automatically create a new country.

This is especially true as there is a dispute to territorial integrity in the area. Georgia still claims that area as a dependent province of their own country. No legal actions - including the recent ceasefire agreement - negates Georgia's claim.

Russia might have an argument if the breakaway region was currently part of Russia. Russia could always voluntarily give up part of their own territory to create new countries. Such events were seen to occur when the former U.S.S.R. let it's member states form their own independent countries.

Also governing is the the 1975 Helsinki Final Act that specifically endorses the "Inviolability of frontiers" and "Territorial integrity of States."

Muddying the waters on this issue is the recent formation of Kosovo as a independent nation. Legally speaking, Serbia had the right to maintain control over Kosovo when it broke away. However, many Western countries - including the United States - were quick to recognize Kosovo as an independent state. This vocal support acts as a limiting factor on how Serbia reacts to this separatist movement. So far, they've turned away from military solutions to the International Court of Justice for a ruling on Kosovo's independence.

What does this mean to you?

Believe it or not, separatism movements are commonplace in North America. Quebec wants to leave Canada. Certain populations in the southern states in the U.S. have always maintained that they will 'rise again' and leave the United States. The Zapatistas in Mexico often speak of self-rule for the region of Chiapas. Sometimes, it seems like we're struggling to hold it all together.

Right now, a new precedent is emerging on how the international community deals with separatist movements and breakaway regions.

Kosovo and Georgia are test cases that will determine if our international rules are changing.

If they do change, future upheavals might make it easier for the delicate constructions of nations that we maintain to fall apart. We can go from a situation of assumed national integrity to a fragile coalition that can fall apart at any minute. More importantly, outside actors can take steps - legally - to hasten such breakups.

Russia is trying to set a precedent that outside actors can help tear apart nations to create new states.

If we allow this to be the new international rule, we shouldn't be surprised when some other nation supports Texas leaving the United States.