Gwynne Dyer is one of Canada's most sober and insightful journalists on geo-political matters. His most recent novel After Iraq: Anarchy and Renewal in the Middle East is one of many books he's written on the Iraq war, examining the broader consequences this display of military folly could have on the region. This article published in late March of this year provides a concise account of the shaky legal ground that independence movements face when the UN charter is circumvented.
Abkhazia: Russian Bluff
By Gwynne Dyer
Last month Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, and
most of the NATO countries recognised it. Russia condemned
this as an illegal and dangerous precedent, and hinted that
it might recognise other breakaway states like Abkhazia and
South Ossetia. But early next month Russian President
Vladimir Putin will show up at the NATO summit in Bucharest,
in one of his last official acts before passing power to the
president-elect, Dmitri Medvedev. He will not have recognised
Abkhazia or South Ossetia. He was only bluffing.
It sounded serious at first. Early this month, Russia ended
the trade restrictions it placed on Abkhazia and South Ossetia
when they declared their independence from Georgia in the early
1990s. Moscow is very angry about the way that NATO and the
European Union have dismantled Serbia without permission from
the United Nations, and it wanted to make a point.
Georgia accused Russia of "an undisguised attempt to infringe
the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, to
encourage separatism," but all Moscow actually did was to
ease the rules on trade between the two would-be countries
and Russia. It did not officially recognise them as
independent states, and it never will.
The back-story is that when the Soviet Union replaced the
Russian empire in 1917, its new Communist rulers rationalised
the patchwork quilt of smaller nationalities they inherited
in the Caucasus and Central Asia into "republics" that
formally respected the principle of national self-
determination. But they never actually became independent,
of course, and Moscow didn't want to have to deal with
dozens of them directly.
So the republics were ranked in three tiers, with
fifteen "Union republics" (including Russia itself) as the
top tier. The lower tiers, having been granted "autonomy",
were bundled into one or another of the Union republics,
with Russia getting the lion's share of them. Georgia got
several of them, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia,
and when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 it expected to
keep them. However, the locals had other ideas.
By then massive immigration into Abkhazia, a subtropical
area on the Black Sea coast, had reduced the Abkhaz ethnic
group to only one-fifth of the population. Over half the
550,000 people living in Abkhazia in 1991 were Georgians.
But in two years of vicious fighting an Abkhaz militia, backed
by volunteers from other parts of the north Caucasus (and
perhaps also secretly by Russia), drove out the Georgian
army and most of the Georgian civilians as well.
It was unapologetic ethnic cleansing, conducted by a tiny
nationality (less than 100,000 people) who feared that
they were disappearing under an avalanche of immigrant
foreigners. Now two-thirds of the previous residents of
Abkhazia have fled, including all but a few tens of
thousands of Georgians, and the Abkhaz are a large majority
of the remaining population. But nobody recognises the
independence of their heavily armed little state.
Russia does not like the current Georgian government, which
talks about joining NATO and the European Union. But Moscow
has not recognised Abkhazia's independence (or South
Ossetia's) because that would be a precedent that could
be used by ethnic minorities in other "autonomous republics"
in Russia itself. And there is a bigger problem, too.
What horrifies the Russians about many recent actions of the
United States and some its European allies -- the war against
Serbia in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the creation
of an independent Kosovo in 2008 -- is that they are
deliberately tearing up the United Nations Charter, the
rules that the victorious powers drew up at the end of the
Second World War in the hope of avoiding further great-
Attacking the UN is often popular in the United States.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain now talks
about a League of Democracies that would effectively bypass
the UN (and would presumably authorise its members to
invade anybody who needed a lesson). President George
W. Bush acts as though such a vigilante outfit already exists.
The Russians, who lost forty million killed in the last
world war, think that this is a very bad idea. They are
right. If the great powers were ever to go to war again,
the nuclear weapons would come out and hundreds of millions
The United Nations' core rules are that no country can attack
another, and that the whole international community will
defend and preserve the existing borders of every UN member.
These rules creates much injustice, especially when
oppressed minorities are seeking independence from
intolerant majorities, but they are probably necessary.
They have certainly been useful: no great power has fought
another directly since 1945.
Kosovo was legally part of Serbia, even if most of its
people didn't want anything to do with Serbia. Giving it
independence without Serbia's assent and in defiance of
the UN rules suits the Western great powers for the moment,
but it undermines those essential UN rules that were invented
to bring some order to international affairs.
If Russia one day recognises Abkhazia's independence without
Georgian consent and Security Council approval, it will mean
that Moscow has finally lost its faith in international law
and accepted that the world has reverted to jungle. For
the moment it's just bluffing, but to no avail. The
historically challenged dwarves who currently run foreign
policy in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin don't
even understand what really troubles the Russians.