The half-pregnanacy solution

Business Times - 19 Aug 2008

When seceding gets ugly, half pregnancy may be best


RUSSIAN Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has complained that while the United States and its Nato allies have demanded that the province of Kosovo be allowed to declare its independence from Serbia and be recognised by the United Nations as an independent state, they have rejected Russian demands that the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia be permitted to secede from Georgia and either become independent or join the Russian Federation.

So, in a way, the fate of Kosovo depends very much on the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. For the US and its allies, it makes a lot of sense that Kosovo be split from Serbia and that the Albanian-Muslim majority in the province enjoy the 'right' of self-determination. To the Russians, who have traditionally regarded the Serbs as historical and cultural allies, the decision to divide Serbia (and before that Yugoslavia) was perceived to be a blow to the Pan-Slavic aspirations of New Russia in the Balkans.

Mirror-imaging this Russian view is the Western assertion that the pro-West Georgia should not be broken up and that the separatist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been backed by Moscow as part of an effort to challenge Western influence in the Caucasus.

The bottom line is that since Russia, which is Serbia's backer, and the US as well as France and Britain, which are Georgia's supporters, are all permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto power, neither Kosovo nor South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be able to win the required international recognition as independent states - UN membership - without an agreement between the West and Russia.

So what? The fact is that even without UN membership, all the three provinces have for all practical purposes seceded from their former states. And Kosovo, now a protectorate of Nato, as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are expected to remain under Russian military control, will be able to enjoy political and economic independence for years to come, even if the UN does not recognise them as sovereign nation-states.

What determines these outcomes is not the 'right' of Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia to self-determination, but the reality of the global and regional balance of power: The separatist ethnic groups in these provinces enjoy the backing of global players that are willing to guarantee their autonomy as a pseudo-state but will not go to war in order to help them gain full political sovereignty.

To put in different terms: American and Russian soldiers are not going to die in order to allow the birth of new nation-states in the Balkans and the Caucasus. Instead, they seem to compromise on providing for the creation of what could be described as a form of 'half pregnancy'. In fact, in the long run, half pregnancy - an interim condition in which ethnic and religious minorities are provided with full autonomy without gaining full independence - could become the norm rather than the exception when it comes to demands for separation and secession that could threaten wide regional and global conflicts.

Taiwan is probably the most important example of a pseudo-state in a condition of half pregnancy. It has a prosperous economy and a lively democratic political system. America and its allies would be willing to recognise Taiwan as an independent state. Yet, the fact that China, a nuclear power and a member of the UN Security Council, rejects that idea makes it likely that Taiwan's half-pregnant condition will not change anytime soon. An effort by the Chinese to militarily absorb Taiwan or a decision by the Americans to recognise Taiwan as an independent state could ignite a costly Sino-American confrontation.

In the island of Cyprus, the current status quo of a divided island - the Greek-dominated part is now a member of the European Union but has refrained from taking steps to re-establish sovereignty over the Turkish-controlled area - has been maintained for several decades. The UN has tried to promote negotiations to unify the island. But without an agreement on unification between Greece and Turkey, Cyprus will remain divided.

Similar forms of half-pregnant 'solutions' are apparent in other parts of the Balkans, Moldova, Kashmir and the Horn of Africa, and could be applied to Iraq and Israel-Palestine. As regional nation-states and interested global powers recognise that these groups aren't able to reach agreement over partition of disputed territory and population exchange, they conclude that the most cost-effective way of preventing all-out wars are, indeed, interim accords that provide limited autonomy and limited population exchange backed by outside security guarantees.

Hence, self-determination that allows for the birth of an independent state is now becoming a long-term goal - as opposed to a natural right - in Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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