International Law and the Post-2008 Status Quo in Georgia: Implications for Western Policies

June 9, 2011, 7:56 p.m.

International Law and the Post-2008 Status Quo in Georgia: Implications for Western Policies by Johanna Popjanevski analyzes the current state of affairs in Georgia from an international law perspective and provides five recommendations on how the U.S. and the EU should move forward.  The paper is broken down into six main sections as follows: International Law and the Key Issues in the Post-War Era, The Fallout of the 2008 War, The Legal Status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, What is the Nature of Russia‘s Military Presence in Georgia?, Engagement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Policy Recommendations.  The current status quo cannot remain for an extended period of time and does not follow international law.  Russia has effectively disregarded international protocol and has become a participant in the conflict through its occupation of the two territories.  The policy recommendations provided by Popjanevski provide suggestions for the next steps for the U.S. and the EU to take.

This paper examines these key issues from the perspective of international law. First, it addresses the international legal status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after 2008. This issue is particularly important given that Russia bases its continuous military presence in the two territories on bilateral agreements with the leaderships in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali – both unrecognized by the overwhelming majority of the international community as legitimate governments. The issue is examined out of several different angles, including the right of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to self-determination and statehood; the role and implications of the unilateral recognition of the two regions by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru; and, finally, the notion that Kosovo‘s independence in February 2008 constitutes a legal precedent for independence of Georgia‘s secessionist territories. It concludes that neither Abkhazia nor South Ossetia lives up the norms of statehood in contemporary international law. This conclusion is inescapable for several reasons, not least because statehood requires effective control of a territory independent of for-eign powers. There is moreover increasing consensus in international law and practice that the process of state-formation is only lawful in the absence of the use of force or other violations of fundamental international norms. Given the forceful demographic changes that have taken place in the region over the last two decades, Abkhazia and South Ossetia fail on both counts.

Second, the paper studies the nature of Russia‘s troop presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It concludes that Russia‘s military presence in Georgia, for all practical purposes, amounts to occupation of Georgian territory. Russia‘s significant troop presence in, and overall influence over, Georgia‘s secessionist territories has already been deemed by international expert com-missions as constituting effective control over the two regions. This, in effect, enforces the international law on occupation, whose primary aim is to protect humanitarian standards in the territories.

Third, it addresses the prospects for deeper engagement by the West in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and highlights particular issues for Western governments to consider in this respect, mainly the need to establish an appropriate balance between engagement and the West‘s non-recognition policy, and, indeed, Georgian national legislation.

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