If you’ve never heard of South Ossetia before this week, you’re probably not alone. The region was an Autonomous Oblast (think county, but with a bit more independence) within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1990, when the Soviet Union broke up. Georgia claimed ownership of South Ossetia, but the region declared its independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. Since then, it’s had its own separatist government which hoped to negotiate independence from Georgia. Despite two popular referenda which approved independence, the government of Georgia refused to grant independence, and no other country has recognized South Ossetia’s claim.
Why all this fuss over independence, autonomy, recognition, and statehood? The state has long been the central unit of analysis (and has frequently been viewed as the most important actor) in political science. The Nation-State—where the boundaries of a physical territory and government correspond to the boundaries of a group of people with a common national identity—has traditionally been the ideal-form of state. But nation-states have also been exceedingly rare, as the boundaries of nations and states rarely correspond. In the modern world, perhaps only a few states are truly nation-states: Japan, Portugal, and Iceland.
Far more often, the boundaries of nation and state do not correspond. Thus we get stateless nations (the Kurds, the Palestinians) and multinational states (Belgium, the United Kingdom, China).
But the nation-state continues to be viewed as the highest form of political order. As a result, there is the constant threat that multinational states will tear themselves apart, as separate nations each seek to secure statehood. The Basques in Spain have been seeking independence for decades. Belgium always seems on the verge of disintegration, as the Flemish and the Wallonians contest the meaning of Belgian. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe removed the lid from simmering demands for autonomy. Witness the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 or the violent demise of Yugoslavia into at least seven separate states (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and the disputed Kosovo) in the early 1990s.
The breakup of the Soviet Union afforded many opportunities for similar demands to be placed on the new states. South Ossetia represents one example of these tensions, intensified because of competing U.S. and Russian interests in the future of Georgia, which are at the heart of the fighting that broke out this week.