Friday, August 29, 2008

Abkhazia and South Ossetia: why not independence?

When Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on 25 August, 2008, practically the entire world community denounced the decision. The matter was considered beyond discussion. At the same time, the people most nearly concerned in the matter, the Abkhazians and South Ossetians, were dancing in the streets. Something appears to be wrong here.

There is no doubt that Russia has perpetrated egregious aggression in Georgia, that it has its own ulterior motives and Abkhazia and South Ossetia are little more than pawns in a bigger game. But if we consider the issue of independence in itself, why should it be considered such a huge error that it cannot even be discussed?

Of course the matter is not straightforward. For one thing, when a minority becomes independent, it usually becomes the new majority, and those who used to be in the majority are now the minority, often leading to repression or even ethnic cleansing. This happened in the Balkans and it is likely to happen in the Caucasus. But if everybody knew this, why were there no attempts to resolve the conflicts while there was still time, rather than simply shutting one's eyes and ears until it was too late?

For another thing, there is a fear that the example will spread to the other ethnic groups in the Caucasus, to the Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria, to the Muslims in Kashmir and the Tamils in Sri Lanka, to the Uigurs and Tibetans in China, etc. But that is a circular argument: "independence is bad because it makes more people want independence". (It is like saying that fugitive slaves should be returned to their "rightful" owners because otherwise other slaves may be encouraged to flee.) No doubt all those independence movements will be met by repressive measures, but surely that is the fault of the oppressors, not of those seeking independence.

Again, it might be argued that granting independence means caving in to nationalist sentiment, and that nationalism is a matter of the past. But declaring nationalism to be a matter of the past does not make it go away. On the contrary, by repressing nationalist sentiment we are certain to encourage it.

(This does not mean that any region clamoring for independence should automatically be granted it. Sometimes is is merely a question of a prosperous region wishing to free itself of the responsibility for the rest of the country, as in the case of Katanga in the Congo in 1960, or Santa Cruz in Bolivia, or Northern Italy. The question is never a simple one. But surely repression by a central government representing an ethnic majority together with large consensus among the members of the minority should create a strong presumption in favour of independence, or, at the very least, autonomy. )

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