South Ossetia – The Caucasian Montenegro?
The right to national self-determination is a fundamental right that must be balanced with the effects it would have with all directly affected. This is the only road to a peaceful solution based on the equality between peoples. It is this principle that must prevail in the dispute between South Ossetia and Georgia.
The strategy that should be used in this dispute is the strategy used between Montenegro and Yugoslavia. It would transform South Ossetia and Georgia into a confederation of two equal states, characterized as a "joint state." If South Ossetian demands for increased autonomy are not met, South Ossetia could hold a referendum on independence from Georgia.
South Ossetia was an Autonomous-Oblast in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. It is a region inhabited by Ossetians, an ethnic group with a distinct culture, and language. Amidst the disintegrating Soviet Union, South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia in 1992. The fear motivating the Ossetians to secede were Georgian requirements that Georgian was to be the only official language, effectively muting the Ossetian identity. After an armed confrontation with Georgia, South Ossetia remains in a frozen conflict, a de facto state that is fully self-governing, and without the vestiges of independence.
The International Court of Justice recognizes the right to self-determination as "a right held by people rather than a right held by governments alone." The Canadian Supreme Court, in referring to Quebec's quest for unitary secession from Canada, stated separation would be legal only "where 'a people' is denied any meaningful exercise of its right to self-determination within the state of which it forms a part." The Canadian Supreme Court stated this opinion balancing both the right to self-determination, and the widely accepted principle of territorial integrity.
It is clear South Ossetia has every legal right to pursue self-determination. The "Ossetian people" decided they want statehood. Furthermore, it is also evident that the Ossetian people were effectively being "denied any meaningful exercise of self-determination" within Georgia when their language was pushed aside.
Possessing the right of self-determination is a legal question, while accomplishing self-determination is a question of power and diplomacy.
Georgia is a key transit point in the recent Central Asian oil boom, being the central hub of the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Its relations with Russia are poor over military base closures, and allowing NATO forces on its territory. Georgia has ethnically diverse provinces, each having problems with the central Georgian government about their identities. Ossetian independence would encourage minorities in Abkhazia, Ajaria and Akhalkalai to seek their own sovereignty, with Russian (fueling independent tendencies) and Western (promoting stability to prevent oil-transit stoppages) interests directly competing with each other, potentially leading to complete civil war.
However, practical fears of governments should never influence the normative ideologies breathing life into international law. Therefore, a joint-state solution would be ideal in this conflict in order to ensure unnecessary violence that would erupt with immediate South Ossetian independence, and to prevent a xenophobic central government purposefully watering down separate ethnic identities.