In February 2008, Kosovo’s parliament unilaterally declared itself independent from Serbia. Tens of thousands crowded the streets of Pristina against a backdrop of fireworks and firecrackers.
These celebrations were not repeated in the Kremlin. Even as Western states moved to support Kosovo, Russia's President Vladimir Putin branded the declaration “immoral and illegal”.
Then war erupted in the Caucasus and two tiny Georgian enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, were recognised as independent by Russia and Nicaragua. It was the West's turn to fume.
Some commentators have been quick to conclude a new Cold War is inevitable. Elsewhere there has been growing alarm that the fireworks in Kosovo - and now the Caucasus - will lead to new waves of unilateral declarations of independence and self-determination.
The panic is ill-founded for a number of reasons. For one thing, secessionism is not new. Since 1990, almost 30 new states have been created, mostly following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.
Indeed, since 1945, the United Nations has grown from 51 members to 192 today as independence movements took on life even as colonial empires disintegrated. Naturally, state boundaries change as geopolitics and power balances evolve.
For a secessionist movement to be recognised by other states is quite different to it be represented in diplomatic relations and become an active player in international processes. Taiwan, enjoying diplomatic relations with 23 states, cannot be said to be an active party in the international community until it gains representation at the United Nations and in its agencies. Until Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia gain this representation, they remain in state limbo.
Thirdly, Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are very different from the majority of secessionist territories in the world. Kosovo was under UN authority for nearly a decade prior to its independence, the statement of which emphasised that Kosovo was a “special case” after the volatile breakup of Yugoslavia. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have operated as functional de facto governments since the early 1990s, with a stable, independent government structure and a functional judiciary.
And indeed, secessionism is little more than a blanket term for a diverse grouping of political movements around the world. The Kurds, with 30 million dispersed across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, hardly face the same challenges as the South Ossetians, numbering 70,000. Secessionist movements in South Tyrol, Flanders, and Scotland may all operate within large, western European, well-established political administrations, but their histories and political situations stand in stark contrast to one another.
Even within states, secessionist movements can differ enormously. Indonesia has seen two very different major movements – East Timour was granted independence in 1999 whilst separatist calls in Aceh have been largely muted as the region enjoys increasing internal autonomy. The election of the Kuomintang Party in Taiwan has seen a political cross-Strait truce since March 2008, whilst pre-Olympic crackdowns in Western China saw demonstrations and increasing support for autonomy amongst Tibetan and Uyghur groups.
It is far too early to say what effect the international recognition of Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia will be on these movements. Indeed, it is too early to predict whether these de facto states will be represented in international forums in the near future, or whether they will remain in de facto limbo.
But for all that can be said about the differences amongst secessionist movements, one important issue is shared by most. The bulk of Abkhaz grievances, for example, stemmed from the fact that despite being a nearly two decade-old de facto government, it has been cast in political and economic isolation.
Unrepresented internationally and with no diplomatic relations to speak of, the Abkhaz government counted on Russia as their only supporter, who happily granted Russian passports to their citizens.
This happened whilst the international community was put to a stalemate, paralysed by fanfares of respect for the territorial integrity of Georgia, and failed to even attempt addressing Abkhaz calls for recognition. It is in this stalemate that Abkhazia found itself in complete diplomatic seclusion. For over a decade, Abkhaz authorities spoke of the deprivation of its peoples’ rights in their exclusion from international human rights treaties and debates.
The international community should consider this carefully. Self-determination movements around the world call for autonomy because they are isolated from decision-making processes. States must find a way to actively engage these unrepresented groups without violating the territorial integrity of the state which they are in.
In the case of Abkhazia, avoiding isolation could have been as simple as an invitation to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty 1997. After decades of skirmishes, Georgia and Abkhazia are 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 it is not an internationally recognized state. A simple invitation to participate in or 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 Abkhazia’s sole ally.
The lesson here is important. Not only did the international community’s decade-old failure to engage Abkhazia in mine ban dialogue likely result in grave humanitarian consequences from continued mine use, it injected Abkhazians with a growing sense of indignant isolation and anger. The lesson should be widely applied to secessionist movements across the world. From Kurdistan, with 30 million unrepresented and isolated peoples, to Taiwan, with a distinct political system and history to China, states around the world must recognize the need to address the right of self-determination without relinquishing to territorial integrity as a trump card above all other consideration. The choice has little to do with territorial integrity; it is between isolation and engagement.
All in all, did Kosovo open a Pandora’s Box of unilateral declarations of independence? All things considered, no. However, if the international community intends to keep the floodgates of secessionist movements closed, it would do well to learn from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The international community must move away from black-and-white conceptions of statehood – the choice is not between independence and territorial integrity. Dare we say, the choice should be to think a little outside the box.