There are important lessons to be learned from diplomatic fireworks in the Caucasus. For all the chatter warning of new Cold War confrontations, the most interesting consequences from the events this week will be their effects on other secessionist movements. Whilst Russian President Dmitri Medvedev left little doubt that his recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was in retribution for Western support in Kosovo, some say his decision marks a new precedent in international law rather than a diplomatic reaction.
But Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not radical separatists spontaneously gifted with Russian support. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have operated as functional de facto governments since the early 1990s, with a stable independent government structure and judiciary.
The international community should consider this carefully. For all the heated rhetoric this week about the dangers of manifesting the right to self-determination, these de facto states are very different from the majority of breakaway territories in the world. There is little reason for panic over opening floodgates to secessionism. The situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia represent, however, a much larger issue.
The bulk of Abkhaz and South Ossetian grievances stemmed from the fact that despite being nearly two decade-old de facto governments, they are cast in political and economic isolation. Unrepresented internationally with no diplomatic relations to speak of, Abkhaz and South Ossetian governments turned to Russia as their only supporter, who happily granted Russian passports and citizenship to their citizens.
This happened whilst the international community was in stalemate, paralyzed by fanfares of Georgian territorial integrity, failing to attempt addressing Abkhaz and South Ossetian calls for some form of recognition. In this stalemate, Abkhazia and South Ossetia found themselves in complete seclusion. Abkhaz and South Ossetian authorities spoke of the deprivation of its peoples' rights in their exclusion from international human rights treaties and debates.
In reality, the dilemma should never have been between recognition and Georgian integrity. Avoiding isolation could have been as simple as an invitation to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty 1997. After decades of skirmishes, Abkhazia is amongst the most mine-affected communities in the world. The Abkhaz government has openly expressed readiness to address landmine issues, but cannot sign the Mine Ban Treaty as a non-internationally recognized state. A simple invitation to attend any of the annual meetings of Mine Ban Treaty signatories may have sufficed in lulling Abkhazia out of isolation and into the international community, and undermined Russia's appeal as sole ally. The lesson here is two-fold. Not only did the decade-old failure to engage Abkhazia in mine ban dialogue likely result in humanitarian consequences from continued mine use, it injected Abkhaz nationalists with a growing sense of indignant isolation.
Here, the lesson should be widely applied to secessionist movements across the world. From Basque Country to Kurdistan, states must realize the need to address the right of self-determination in some form without relinquishing to territorial integrity as a trump card above all other consideration.
Judy Fu works as a researcher for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in The Hague, Netherlands.