Argument: South Ossetia has a right to self-determination

Issue Report: South Ossetia independence


“South Ossetians, too, have the right to self-determination”. Daily Telegraph. 11 Aug. 2008 Regular readers will know that this blog has been a consistent champion of liberal nationalism. Where there is a nation, as Mazzini put it, let there be a state. As I have tried to support the national principle consistently in Kosovo, Belgium, Bosnia and (obviously) the EU, so I apply it now. That’s the thing about ideological compasses: they guide you faithfully even across virgin terrain.

Kosovo is rather an interesting parallel. It lay within the internationally recognised borders of Serbia, just as South Ossetia lies within Georgia. It had, however, enjoyed a measure of autonomy as part of Yugoslavia, and felt that, with the break-up of the federation, it should be free to determine its own future. A large majority of Kosovars voted for independence in a referendum, which Belgrade ignored.

South Ossetia was an Autonomous Oblast within the USSR (and Abkhazia an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic). Both entities deployed an argument exactly congruent to that of the Kosovan separatists, viz that the break-up of the Soviet Union, entitled them to determine their status. The South Ossetians, again like the Kosovars, held an independence referendum in the early 1990s. Both ballots were boycotted by unionists, resulting in overwhelming secessionist majorities.

Needless to say, almost no one is being consistent about this. The Kremlin aggressively denied the claims of the Kosovars, while pressing those of the South Ossetians (and Abkhazians). Most Western governments are guilty of the same hypocrisy in reverse.

This is perhaps inevitable: prejudice is part of the human condition. We all feel sympathetic to peoples and nations to whom we are tied by history and culture. Heaven knows, it is difficult for any Telegraph writer to disregard the paper’s 150-year-old support for anti-Russian national movements in the Caucasus. The last thing I want is for an emboldened Vladimir Putin – and this war removes any doubt about who is running Russia – to start proclaiming himself the defender of Russians in the Baltic States. Nor is it easy to be sanguine about the Kremlin’s anti-British attitudes, nor its bullying of its neighbours, nor its authoritarianism. (Though Saakashvili is no saint either. He came to power through a coup in 2004, and then awarded himself a Saddam-like score of 96 per cent in an ex post facto election. Like Putin, he knows that a sense of national crisis can bolster an autocratic regime: that is part of the problem on both sides.)

But we ought at least to try to cleave to the principle that the chief factor in determining the status of a territory should be the will of its inhabitants, and that democracy should ultimately trump considerations of geography, history or the convenience of neighbouring states.

Of course this can be difficult, and nowhere more so than in the Caucasian mountains where, according to one local story, God stumbled while carrying his sack of peoples, so scattering them that each valley spoke a different language. None the less, our starting point should be that people ought to be free to decide whom they want as their lawmakers. If the South Ossetians want to stay in Georgia under some new dispensation, good luck to them. If they want to unite with their fellow Ossetians to form a new state of Alania, fine. If they want to join the Russian Federation, удачи. Actually, they have applied to join the Russian Federation, but Moscow has so far refused to entertain their application, wary of setting a precedent for Chechnya. Yet another example of how almost no national government is consistent in its attitude to self-determination.

“Independence of the Republic of South Ossetia”. Speech at the VI congress of the Ossetian people. 18 Mar. 2008 – Self-determination of South Ossetia. Disintegration of the Soviet Union deprived again the Georgian barrel of imperial hoops. Proclaiming independence and finding new patrons, Georgia returned to the forced methods of unfinished aggression, set to direct destruction of South Ossetia, to war and genocide.
The processes of democratization in the USSR of the period of Perestroika legalized Georgian national movement with its slogans of ethnic discrimination and abolition of the autonomies in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Georgian language development State program of 1988 imposing Georgian for paper-work became the first step. An unbridled racist-chauvinistic campaign was launched in the press; its main objects being South Ossetia and Ossetians in Georgia, and the proclaimed purposes – destruction of the autonomy and ethnic cleansing.
From November 1989 to June, 1990 the Supreme body of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic had made unconstitutional decisions canceling legislative acts of the Soviet period, among which Agreement of 1922 on formation of the USSR and Decree on formation of South-Ossetian Autonomous District. These decisions actually abolished the South-Ossetian Autonomous Region which thereby was put out of the legal framework of Georgia. To deprive the population of South Ossetia of lawful forms of will, the next elections to the Regional Soviet weren’t fixed – for such decision belonged exclusively to the competence of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic. Under these conditions preservation of the format of an autonomous region would have turned South Ossetia into a powerless territory, an easy game for the legislative aggression of Tbilisi.
According to the procedure established in the USSR, extraordinary session of People’s Deputies of South Ossetia on November 10, 1989 made a decision on transformation of Autonomous Region to Constitutional Autonomous Republic as a part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. The decision was passed on for consideration to the Georgian Supreme Soviet, but the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet turned it down, without submitting it to sessions, and on 23 of November a 30-thousand armed crowd under the leadership of the Communist Party of Georgia and the leaders of the national movement advanced against South Ossetia. Barred from Tskhinval, for half a year Georgian militia units together with the informal bands were besieging the town and committing acts of violence in the countryside of the republic.
Repeated appeals to the leaders and the governing bodies of the USSR and the Georgian Soviet Republic – with the request to assess, if not to stop, current developments – were
neglected. The situation aggravated in autumn 1990 with Georgian fascists coming to power and the declaration of independence of Georgia: armed provocations now were followed by economic, transport, information blockade and direct destruction of the social infrastructure. Again as at the beginning of the century South Ossetia faced the jeopardy of demolition. To rescue life and property of citizens, preserve law and order and the system of governance the people of South Ossetia took advantage of the right to self-determination. Using the principles of international law and the operating legislation of the USSR, on 20th of September, 1990 the session of the Country Council with participation of People’s Deputies of all levels
transformed the autonomous region to South-Ossetian Soviet Democratic Republic as a part of the USSR. Elections to the Supreme body of the Republic took place on 9th of December, 1990.
In a day, on 11th of December, 1990 the Supreme body of Georgia made a special decision on abolition of the South-Ossetian Autonomous Region that had been already repeatedly liquidated during the previous year. The true purpose for the new decision was to make a political grounding for military occupation which Georgia started at Christmas of 1991. Along with this the legal consequences of the one-sided decision made by Georgia appeared considerable. This decision, as well as the decision of South Ossetia to establish republic, was cancelled on 7th of January, 1991 by the decree of the President of the USSR. But Georgia refused to submit to the decree, while South Ossetia accepted it to execution. On 17th of March, 1991 the referendum about preservation of the USSR was held: Georgia refused to participate in it, and South Ossetia voted for preservation of the USSR (72 % present, 97 % votes). Two weeks later, on 31th of March, Georgia held a referendum about independence in which South Ossetia did not participate. The decree of the President of the USSR and two referendums completed the legal registration of the status of South Ossetia as an administrative and territorial unit out of Georgia and a part of the USSR.
In the meantime the occupation of South Ossetia continued. It begun on 6th of January, 1991 with the seizure of Tskhinval that was handed over to a six-thousand grouping of Georgian militia and informals by the internal troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR. Having occupied all the objects of life-support, blocked the roads, disconnected the electric power and blew up a water pipe, the aggressors started physical destruction of Ossetians. Resistances of the forces of self-defense made interventionists leave Tskhinval, but they occupied dominating heights and were firing point-blank at residential blocks with heavy guns and rocket installations. The terror organized in the areas of South Ossetia, was marked by mass violence against the peaceful population, robbery and arson of Ossetian settlements.
The most amazing in that, was that again as in 1918, the Ossetians showed readiness for compromise. Under the pressure of Moscow and Vladikavkaz, trusting to the promises of the Centre to stop extermination of people, the Meeting of Deputies at all levels, held on May 4, 1991, took a decision on the abolition of Republic and returning to the status of an autonomous region. Naturally, a new advance of armed forces of Georgia and a new stage of a systematic, well organized genocide was the answer to the double-dealing of Moscow, unscrupulousness of Vladikavkaz and historical forgetfulness of Tskhinval. The lesson seemed to be learnt. On the 1st of September, 1991 The Council of People’s Deputies of South Ossetia cancelled the unilateral compromise, together with the unconstitutional body – Meeting of Deputies at all levels.
In December, 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist. When the Constitution of the USSR, also valid in the territory of South Ossetia, was abolished, on December, 21st, 1991 the Supreme body of the Republic accepted the Declaration on Independence of the Republic of South Ossetia. A month later, on January, 19th, 1992 the referendum was held in support of the independence of the Republic South Ossetia and reunion with Russia as the successor of the USSR (70 % present, 99 % votes).
The last illusions and expectations – I hope, the last in our history – have dissipated after the downfall of the fascist dictatorship in Georgia: the new regime didn’t stop military operations, but threw against South Ossetia new regular units armed with heavy military hardware. The acts of genocide now were especially cruel. Ethnic cleansing – mass exile of Ossetians from Georgia – renewed an apogee.
The war against South Ossetia continued till July 14, 1992, when peace-making forces were brought into South Ossetia – in accordance with the Quadrilateral (Russia, Georgia, Northern and South Ossetia) Agreement on Principles of Settlement of the Georgian-Ossetian Conflict.
The general number of victims of the genocide and military aggression against the Republic South Ossetia totals more than 2 000 people killed, more than 3 500 wounded, more than 120 missing. The number of the burnt settlements is 117. In the territory of North Ossetia and Russian Federation there are registered over 20 000 refugees from South Ossetia and over 100 000 refugee-Ossetians from Georgia. The sum of the material damage totals more than 516 billion rubles at the prices of 2005.
Peace-making forces honorably carry out their mission of peace maintenance. Fragility of this world we have once again witnessed in the summer of 2004. The true purposes of the Georgian side, consistently breaking the activities of the Joint Supervisory Commission on the conflict settlement, were demonstrated by the official Tbilisi when regular units armed with heavy hardware, artillery, military-transport aircraft were thrown against South Ossetia. Certainly, they achieved nothing, but people were lost, houses, economic and public buildings ruined, and the process of conflict settlement was neglected. Nothing new was demonstrated after that too, except for a train of provocations and Kurta buffoons. But we ourselves have changed.
We understand now, that the artillery cannonade, destruction and exile of Ossetians are the original, invariable sense of the Georgian policy, with its main objective – liquidation of South Ossetia. We have for ever abandoned the dependant expectation of a kind international Uncle, extraneous wisdom and alien justice. Independence and the state sovereignty of Republic South Ossetia are the unique protection against genocide, the best guarantee of a reliable future.
Self-determination as a norm of international law
Historically Ossetia has never been a part of Georgia and has never been in the structure of the Georgian state. At the moment the Republic of South Ossetia declared its independence it had already seceded the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic which cancelled all legal acts, stipulating the presence of South-Ossetian AR as a part of the GSSR. At the moment of
international recognition of an independent Georgia, South Ossetia had no longer been part of this state. Ignoring these circumstances, the defenders of imperialism and colonial approaches refer to the norms of international law, suggesting they are limiting the possibility of self-determination for the Ossetians.
Modern international law is grounded on the unity and equally strict application of the basic principles – equal right of people to free self-determination and territorial integrity of states.
These principles do not exclude but supplement one another for each of them has its own sphere of application.
The principle of territorial integrity is valid in the sphere of interstate relations. It aims at protection of one state against external encroachment of another. The self-determination principle regulates relations between the people, as the primary bearer of territorial rights, and the state to which it delegates the realization of the rights and obliges it to act on behalf and in the interests of the people it governs. “Declaration of the Principles of International Law, of Friendship and Cooperation between the states in accordance with UN Charter”, accepted by the UN General Assembly in 1970, directly specifies, that territorial integrity of the states should be based on self-determination of the people.
Realization of the right of people to self-determination is not considered as a violation of territorial integrity. International law protects the territorial integrity only of those states, whose borders are based on self-determination of the people.
This parity between the two principles is fixed and confirmed in the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and also in the Vienna Declaration and the Program accepted by the World Conference on Human Rights on June, 25, 1993. This last is of particular importance for, firstly, it was accepted after the people of South Ossetia declared their self-determination, and, secondly, it excludes any contraposition of human rights to the rights of the people. The Vienna Declaration states, “All people have the right to self-determination. Owing to this right they freely establish their political status and freely provide their economic, social and cultural development”; “World Conference on Human Rights considers refusal of the right to self-determination as a violation of human rights and emphasizes the necessity of effective realization of this right”.
The same document establishes people’s self-determination as a single sufficient reason for territorial rights of the state and a necessary condition of protection of its territorial integrity. The play performed by Georgia, in an attempt to establish a comprador-puppet administration, all these masked traitors and fugitives are nothing but a manifestation of understanding and recognition de-facto of the indisputable fact: any references to the principle of territorial integrity of the state are possible only in case if this state “in its actions follows the principle of equality and self-determination of the people” and if it “represents all people”.
The overwhelming majority of modern states in the world gained their independence through separation from other states. But we can speak about separation only in case when the territory of the people that are separating belongs to the state by right. In case when the state which has never possessed the right to this territory objects to separation – then the fact of occupation of a foreign territory by this state is at issue.
We now put a question – what is the state the independent South Ossetia came from? – The disintegrated USSR. What state has sovereign rights to the territory of South Ossetia gained through the good will of the Ossetian people? This state is Russia. But Russia does not lay territorial or any other claim to South Ossetia. As to the attempts of Georgia to affect the process of self-determination of the Republic of South Ossetia they bear no relation either to the history, national will or to the norms of international law.
The right to self-determination is recognized as the highest international legal basis of the state ownership of territory, proceeding from recognition of inseparable connection of each people with its territory historically established. Borders change; states arise and disappear, while this connection of the people with ethnic territory remains. When people’s destruction is meant, as a rule, they are deprived of territory. When foreign territory is held by force, the indigenous population is destroyed. The people’s right of to their territory is recognized even when these people are governed by a foreign state.
The population of such territory acts as a subject of law of self-determination and does not fall under action of the principle of territorial integrity of the states. Ethnic cleansings and genocide over the annexed territory are also recognized as the grounds for self-determination. We know from experience, that preservation of the integrity of states-aggressors dooms the people of the annexed countries and territories to a new genocide. And, on the contrary, state sovereignty serves them as a reliable protection.