Georgia: self-determination of whom? Nino Kemoklidze discusses the question of the 'indivisibility' of his country in relation to the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

AuthorKemoklidze, Nino

As a Georgian scholar whose research has largely centred on conflicts in the former Soviet space, I am no stranger to questions concerning Georgia's conflicts. Whenever I give talks on Georgia, almost always I am asked about the rights of the Abkhaz and Ossetians to (national) self-determination. As one of the NZIR's readers also pointed out recently (vol 46, no 2, p.33), many often express doubt whether these two break-away territories 'will be returning to Georgian control' any time soon, not necessarily because of Russia's involvement in these conflicts but largely 'because their residents do not want to'. Below I am going to try and address this issue further.

I will start by briefly outlining the background to these conflicts before turning attention to the questions of self-determination and secession. I will discuss the linkage of a national identity and an (external) self-determination as well as more liberal-democratic understanding of self-determination as an issue of consent. In the process I will outline some of the problems with this line of thinking, such as the issue of 'trapped' minorities and the 'indivisibility' of the territory. What I am hoping to demonstrate is that while at first sight people's right to self-determination might sound rather straightforward, the reality on the ground is often far more complicated.

Georgia remains a rather interesting case in the Soviet and post-Soviet studies literature. It was one of the first Soviet republics to see the establishment of dissident organisations and the emergence of a national liberation movement in the 1980s. It was also one of the first republics to hold multiparty legislative and presidential elections in 1991. Refusing to participate in the All-Union referendum on the future of the Soviet Union, Georgia was one of the first republics to hold its own referendum on the restoration of state sovereignty and was at the forefront of declaring independence from the Soviet Union in April 1991, months before the official end of the Soviet Union at the end of that year. Furthermore, besides the Baltic states, Georgia was the only re public not to join the newly created Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on 21 December 1991 that unified eleven former Soviet republics within a new regional organisational structure. (1)

Georgia was also an exception when it came to the military confrontations in the former Soviet Union. As one scholar remarked, 'none of the other post-Soviet republics has been riven by as many different violent conflicts as has Georgia'. (2) Armed conflict in South Ossetia (3) first erupted roughly on 5 January 1991 and lasted until 24 June 1992, while a more large-scale violence in Abkhazia took place during the period of 14 August 1992 to 27 September 1993. Georgia also experienced a coup d'etat in the winter of 1991-92 and a civil war among ethnic Georgians following the overthrew of its first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

The results were devastating for the country with thousands killed and wounded and hundreds of thousands displaced. Georgia was also left facing international isolation at the dawn of its independence; it was the last of the former Soviet republics to be admitted to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) (4) and the United Nations in July 1992. Moreover, it effectively left two of its former autonomous territories--Abkhazia (formerly Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) and South Ossetia (formerly South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast) outside of official Tbilisi's control.

Since then, these territories have remained de facto independent. It was only in August 2008, following the military confrontation between Georgia and Russia, that the latter officially recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Since then only a handful of countries, mostly Russia's allies, have followed suit: Nicaragua (September 2008), Venezuela (September 2009), Nauru (December 2009) and most recently Syria (May 2018). (5)

The causes of conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as is often so in such cases, are, of course, rather complex. Some have argued that it was the newly independent Georgian government's refusal to recognise some of the legitimate grievances of minority groups such as the Abkhaz and Ossetians (rather than ethno-linguistic differences per se) that led to the wars in the early 1990s in the first place. Others have pointed to Russia's continuous (direct or indirect) interference in its so-called zones of privileged interest over the years as the main culprit. Elsewhere I have argued that ethnic fears and hostility between Georgians and Abkhaz and Ossetians--one of the important contributing factors to the outbreak of violence--were neither deep-rooted nor longstanding; rather, they were socially constructed. And Soviet nationality policies and historical and cultural narratives (embedded in myths and metaphors of the ethnic groups concerned) played an important role in the construction of these conflicting group identities. (6) Space limitations do not allow me here to explore these causes of violence in greater depth. Thus, my focus will be on the initial question of (external) self-determination of peoples, which often translates to a group's right to secession.

Russian rationale


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