Argument: South Ossetia has as much claim to independence as Kosovo

Issue Report: South Ossetia independence


“The Washington Note Georgia-Russia Clash: American Culpability and the Kosovo Connection”. The Washington Note. 9 Aug 2008 – “When Kosovo declared independence and the US and other European states recognized it — thus sidestepping Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council — many of us believed that the price for Russian cooperation in other major global problems just went much higher and that the chance of a clash over Georgia’s breakaway border provinces increased dramatically.”

Jen Alic. “Kosovo vs South Ossetia”. ISN Security Watch. 15 Nov. 2006 – It has been impossible to find any arguments as to why South Ossetia should not be allowed to pursue self-determination. When questioned on this, Western officials have generally responded by saying that Kosovo and South Ossetia cannot be compared. End of story, no further explanation needed.

But perhaps they can be compared.

Neither South Ossetia nor Kosovo has ever been an independent nation, as far back in history as is rationally warranted to look. Both have at times enjoyed various levels of autonomy. Both have minorities whose rights may not be ensured and whose safety is anything but guaranteed. South Ossetia is home to 14,000 ethnic Georgians, while Kosovo is home to an estimated 120,000 Serbs, who live in fear in UN-guarded enclaves. There is no indication that either minority will be offered adequate protection or adequate rights. And conflict could result from a decision either way.

On Sunday, some 99 percent of South Ossetian voters backed independence from Georgia. The 14,000 ethnic Georgians living in a handful of villages in the breakaway republic were not allowed to vote, as registration required a Russian passport, which all Ossetians have been granted. This was unfair, as the international community has pointed out, but the ethnic Georgian vote would not have changed the outcome.

President of Southern Ossetia, Eduard Kokojty. – “Southern Ossetia and Abchasia have a better political and legal basis for their recognition than Kosovo.”[1]


Furthering the comparison, neither Kosovo nor South Ossetia are necessarily prepared for independence, though Kosovo can expect help from its kin in neighboring Albania and the international community, while South Ossetia can expect some, though likely limited, aid from neighboring Russia. In economic terms, it is unclear how either could support their populations, however small. Industry is for all intents and purposes absent in both locales, while the majority of income is rumored to be made on the black market, largely through arms and drug smuggling.

What has been lacking throughout is an honest debate on these issues, which can easily be compared, despite vague statements to the contrary.

“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.