South Ossetia is a region in the South Caucasus, formerly the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. A part of it has been de facto independent from Georgia since it declared independence as the Republic of South Ossetia early in the 1990s during the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. The issue of its independence arose again in 2008, as Georgia launched military operations to regain control of the territory. Russia, long an advocate of S. Ossetian independence and/or integration into Russia with N. Ossetia, launched a counter-attack, and obtained control of S. Ossetia in the middle of August 2008. The primary factor in favor of S. Ossetian independence is the fact that 99% of South Ossetians voted for independence in a 2006 referendum that saw a 95% turnout rate from S. Ossetia’s population of 70,000. But, this does not necessarily mean that S. Ossetia has a right to independence. International law considers many factors beyond the the desire for independence within a region, in assessing the legitimacy of a states claim to independence. This fact must be weighed against many other factors in this debate in determining whether S. Ossetian independence would be justified. S. Ossetian independence has been diplomatically recognized by four members of the United Nations – Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru, as well as one unrecognized by the United Nations state – Transnistria. Georgia has retained control over parts of the region’s eastern and southern districts where it created, in April 2007, a Provisional Administrative Entity of South Ossetia headed by ethnic Ossetians (former members of the separatist government) under the leadership of Dmitry Sanakoev which would negotiate with central Georgian authorities regarding its final status and conflict resolution.
The 1993 Vienna Declaration, which reaffirmed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter (and so sets the standard in current international law), unequivocally gives all peoples the right to self-determination: “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”. By this measure, South Ossetia has the right to self-determination (by democratic processes), and any suppression of that right should be seen as a human rights violation.
In 2006, South Ossetia held a referendum that found over 99% of its population of over 100,000 desire independence from Georgia. 95% of the the population turned out to vote. The referendum was monitored by a team of 34 international observers. These facts are the core of the case for South Ossetian independence. It demonstrates that South Ossetians are entirely unified and enthusiastic in their desire for independence. The strength and unity of these calls for independence are almost unprecedented and cannot be ignored by the international community. And, certainly, the percentage of a population that desires independence is of relevance to assessing the legitimacy of the call and a country’s right to self-determination. By this standard, South Ossetia’s right to self-determination is highly legitimate.
It is important to recognize that South Ossetia has been de facto independent for some time. If it does not achieve independence, the proposed alternative is that it re-integrate into Georgia. Yet, %99 of South Ossetians have made it clear that they will not accept this. The only possible course of action, therefore, would be to force over 100,000 South Ossetians to live under the tyranny of the majority of the Georgian state. This is a clear violation of self-determination and basic democratic principles.
Self-determination is not an absolute right. Not every territory and region in the world that seeks independence has the right to it. This is due in no small part to the fact that such a system would be unworkable. Certain criteria must be met for a territory and people to obtain a legitimate right to self-determination. Much of the below case outlines these criteria and why S. Ossetia fails to meet them satisfactorily.
Georgia has a legitimate sovereign right to maintain its territorial integrity as well as the social contract accompanying it. Georgia has the right to take action to secure the integrity of these things, unless blocked by a higher international authority.
In 2006, South Ossetia held a referendum that found over 99% of its population of over 100,000 desire independence from Georgia. 95% of the the population turned out to vote. The referendum was monitored by a team of 34 international observers. These facts are the core of the case for South Ossetian independence.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the 2006 referendum as a “free expression of the will of South Ossetia’s people through democratic procedures. Many countries in Europe and America could only envy the level of organization and democratic transparency [in South Ossetia].” Denying the legitimacy of this democratic referendum is to deny the South Ossetian people the right to self determination. That the international community refuses to recognize
The US State Department as well as the European Union both argued that the South Ossetia referendum was wrong on the basis that it was “unhelpful” and could exacerbate tensions with Georgia. This, however, is an invalid status quo argument. It posits that any vote taken by the South Ossetians that disrupts the status quo is invalid, while a vote that might uphold the status quote could be considered valid. This is an unprincipled argument. The South Ossetians have a right to express their beliefs, and those beliefs are legitimate and should be respected, irrespective of whether it disrupts the status quo or even leads to conflict with Georgia. And, if Georgia and other states want to maintain stability, they can do so by not reacting violently to an independent South Ossetia.
No countries recognized South Ossetia’s 2006 referendum and vote for independence. Without such approval, the referendum should be considered illegitimate.
The European human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, denounced the referendum as “unnecessary, unhelpful and unfair”.
In 2006, South Ossetia can be said to have been in 8 conflicts with Georgia when it held its 2006 referendum on independence. Holding referendums under such conflict conditions is generally illegitimate because the results of the elections are skewed by the conflict, threats, and the various risks for the voters involved. This caused David Bakradze, the chairman of a Georgian parliamentary European Integration Committee, to comment, “Under conflict conditions, you cannot speak about legitimate elections.”
“On November 12 the Russian-installed authorities in South Ossetia held a referendum and “presidential” election in the portions of territory under their control. The balloting returned the de facto president, Eduard Kokoiti, to office for another term and produced a “yes” answer to the question: “Do you agree that the Republic of South Ossetia should retain its current status as an independent state and be recognized by the international community?””
“The United States rejects the “independence referendum” and concurrent so-called “presidential” elections scheduled for November 12 in Georgia’s South Ossetia region. These actions will only serve to exacerbate tensions and divert attention from the need to peacefully resolve the conflict.”
The world is certainly not united in opposing S. Ossetia’s move for independence. Russia has clearly offered support to S. Ossetia’s move toward independence, and has called for the world to recognize the will of the S. Ossetian people.
This fact is critical against S. Ossetia’s case for independence. In order to obtain independence, it is important that a country be recognized diplomatically by a significant number of the members of the United Nations. This is important in large part because it ensures that a state will have viable diplomatic relations internationally if it becomes independent. It also demonstrates that the international system supports a certain action being taken internationally.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2007. Most Western scholars consider this to have been a legitimate claim. A comparative analysis reveals that South Ossetia has an equally legitimate claim to independence as Kosovo. Both have populations that overwhelmingly support independence (over 90%). Both have a population with a distinct ethnic, national, and linguistic identity. Both have governed themselves autonomously for some time. And, both have been oppressed by the governments that make a claim to have sovereign rights over their territory. Both are very small, landlocked states. There appear to be more similarities between Kosovo and S. Ossetia than dissimilarities. Therefore, Kosovo’s independence sets a strong precedent for South Ossetia also declaring independence.
There is no reason to use the Kosovo case in assessing S. Ossetia’s prospects for independence. International norms and criteria should be used on a case-by-case basis in assessing the legitimacy of moves toward independence.
There are significant differences between South Ossetia and Kosovo that make South Ossetia a less legitimate prospect for independence.
South Ossetia has only 70,000 residents, whereas Kosovo has over 2,100,000. This makes Kosovo thirty times as populous. This is a major difference.
Kosovo suffered much more egregiously under Serbia. Serbia engaged in clear cases of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. It is much less clear that Georgia engaged in such behavior against South Ossetia.
Kosovo should not have been given independence. Its independence is, therefore, illegitimate, and should not be held up as a precedent by which South Ossetian independence can be justified.
South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia shortly after Georgia gained independence from the disintegrating USSR in 1991. South Ossetia has maintained de facto independence ever since. Goergia, therefore, cannot really claim to have had sustained, legitimate sovereign control over South Ossetia in modern times. Therefore, its only real claim to South Ossetia must extend back nearly a century, before the time of the Soviet Union. This significantly weakens Georgia’s claim over South Ossetia.
Georgia has been accused of committing genocide against the South Ossetians in 1920, 1993, and 2008.
Georgia’s government is democratic and modern in its institutions. It is fully capable and intent on governing S. Ossetia democratically and honestly.
Georgia has been absent in S. Ossetia. Yet, this is not the will of the Georgian government, but the result of S. Ossetian separatism. If Georgia was given a chance to govern S. Ossetia, it would do so very well.
South Ossetia has been de facto independent since the 1990s. It has excercised authority over its own affairs since then. Georgia, therefore, was wrong to attempt to re-claim South Ossetia by force.
“The organized government carries out an effective control over the territory and the population. The Republic has its own Constitution accepted by the referendum of 2001, the Army, the National flag and the Hymn. The status of the citizen is certified by the passport given out by the state. The president and Parliament are elected by general voting. The Republic of South Ossetia is a legally valid democratic state. The Republic of South Ossetia held all the elections without exception, all the procedures of delegation of powers to the President, Parliament, and the Government in strict accordance with the constitutional order. The Republic has independent legal procedure, army and militia and security service. The state levies taxes, provides property rights and social service – public health services, provision of pensions, public safety, power and road and transport services, etc.”
It is false to claim that South Ossetia’s de facto independence from Georgia is some how a sign of its independence. It was only able to secure such de facto independence with substantial military and foreign aid from Russia.
There are many factors that make South Ossetia unviable as a state. South Ossetia is very small with a very small population. It is also a landlocked state and very poor. These facts make it unlikely that South Ossetia could act effectively as an independent state. The result is that it would become dependent on other states.
South Ossetian GDP was estimated at US$ 15 million (US$ 250 per capita) in a work published in 2002. Daria Vaisman wrote in a 2006 Christian Science Monitor article that South Ossetia is “lacking…the basic economic necessities for autonomy.” Indeed, a $15 million GDP would make South Ossetia one of the poorest nations in the world. Following a war with Georgia in the 1990s, South Ossetia has struggled economically. Employment and supplies are scarce. The majority of the population survives on subsistence farming. Virtually the only significant economic asset that South Ossetia possesses is control of the Roki Tunnel that links Russia and Georgia, from which the South Ossetian government reportedly obtains as much as a third of its budget by levying customs duties on freight traffic. The separatist officials admitted that Tskhinvali received more than 60 percent of its 2006 budget revenue directly from the Russian government.
South Ossetia has a population of roughly 70,000. This would make it one of the smallest states in the world. This fact, combined with its high level of poverty, makes it a poor candidate for independence.