Tag Archives: South Ossetia

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Economic data out this week suggests that the end of the global recession may be nearing. The most recent jobless numbers out of the United States gave economists reason to celebrate, as the unemployment rate declined by 1/10 of a point, leading to a price rally on Wall Street. Germany, which has seen a sharp decline in gross domestic product (glossary) during the global recession, benefitted from an unexpected expansion of exports—7 percent in June. While other countries continue to struggle, including Russia and Iceland, many economists now believe we are seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

In other news from the previous week:

1. The trial of dozens of people, including a French national and two Iranians employed in the British and French embassies began in Iran on Saturday. The defendants are charged with espionage and “acting against national security” by taking part in and reporting on post-election protests to Western embassies. Under Iranian law, a conviction on either charge could be punished by death. Several of the defendants have confessed, but Western governments have dismissed the charges as “baseless” and contend the confessions were made under duress. The government of Iran accuses the United States and Britain of interfering in its internal affairs by “proving financial help to Iran’s opposition.” Meanwhile, the trial of 100 opposition leaders continued last week. The opposition leaders have condemned the trials as a spectacle, but the defendants face charges punishable by death. Opposition leaders continue to assert that the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad in June’s disputed presidential election was the result of electoral fraud. Nevertheless, Ahmadi-Nejad was sworn in on Monday.

2. A power struggle inside Taliban in Pakistan emerged over the weekend after the organization’s top leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike on Friday. Mehsud was a powerful figure in the Waziristan district of Pakistan, and Pakistani officials believe he was responsible for nearly all of the major terrorist attacks in Pakistan over the past two years, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the bombing of Marriot Hotel in Islamabad in 2008. Many analysts believe that Mehsud’s death will undermine the ability of the Taliban to operate in Pakistan. Already, political infighting in the Taliban in Pakistan’s leadership has led to the murder of one top leader by another, as Waliur Rehman, a leading contender to lead the organization, killed Hakimullah Mehsud, a rival for the same position. Pakistani intelligence now believes the organization is likely to splinter into several factions, each operating independently, but collectively much weaker than the original organization.

3. Former President Bill Clinton met with North Korean President Kim Jong-il this week, securing the release of two American journalists who had been sentenced to twelve years of hard labor for illegally entering the country. The meeting, which the White House maintains was not part of its official diplomatic efforts to address the challenges posed by the North Korean regime, was the highest level contact between the two countries in more than ten years. The Obama administration also reminded North Korea that, despite Clinton’s trip, that the United States will continue its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the North Korean state unless it abandons efforts to secure nuclear weapons.

4. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her Africa tour this week, meeting with Kenyan officials on Wednesday. Clinton is hoping to apply pressure on the coalition government to move forward with political reforms intended to bring grater stability to the country and to prevent another flare up of the violence which rocked the country after February’s disputed presidential election.

On Thursday, Clinton met with Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the embattled president of Somalia. Clinton used the opportunity to reiterate U.S. support for the Ahmed government, pledging to provide more military and economic assistance as the government continues its battle against Islamist insurgents. Meanwhile, in neighboring Eritrea, President Isaias Afewerki, who is believed to be a supporter of rebel groups in Somalia, dismissed U.S. efforts, saying that it is unrealistic to try and “imposing [a government] that doesn’t exist in reality.” Somalia has long topped Foreign Policy’s list of failed states. The lack of an effective central state has also made the country a haven for pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

5. A series of cyber-attacks aimed at social networking sites last week were believed to be directed at one individual—a blogger posting under the name of Cyxymu Livejournal. The denial-of-service attacks targeted several popular sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the blogging site Livejournal. Cyxymu Livejournal is a critic of Russian policy in the Caucuses, particularly Georgia. According to some sources, the Russian government has used denial-of-service attacks in the past, targeting sites critical of the Russian government in Georgia, Estonia, and Eastern Europe. But if responsible for the most recent round of attacks, this could represent an expansion of the strategy. Leading credence to the theory is the fact that this week marked the one year anniversary of the Russian-Georgian War over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The big news this week was John McCain’s surprise choice for running mate choice: Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska.  There were many developments outside the United States and its presidential race, however.  Here are a five important stories you might have missed:

1. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called for new elections, which will take place on October 14.  Harper’s Conservative Party has ruled Canada as a minority government since February 2006.  The election is expected to be closely contested, as the Liberal Party, under the leadership of Stéphane Dion, mount their challenge.  With Canada’s economy tittering on the brink of recession, the economy figures to be the central issue of the campaign.  The outcome of the election may also signal a fundamental shift in Canadian politics, as the Bloc Quebecois appears to be losing its regional support in Quebec, creating the possibility of a Conservative majority in the national legislature.

2. There were two important developments in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute last week.  On Wednesday, the Palestinian Strategy Study Group released a report which indicated that Palestinians may be willing to endorse a bi-national state with Israel should the U.S.-backed two-state solution fail.  The proposal would mark a dramatic change in the structure and intended goal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  In an unrelated development, Israeli President Shimon Peres on Friday called for direct talks between Israel and Syria to address outstanding issues.  The two countries been engaged in mediated indirect talks for a number of years, but relations between the two have generally been poor since 1947.  Normalization of relations between Syria and Israel would have to be a central component of any comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian question.

3. In a not-so-subtle confirmation of the flood of divestment from the country following the conflict over South Ossetia, the Russian central bank was forced on Thursday to intervene to support the rouble.  According to some estimates, as much as $21 billion in foreign currency has been withdrawn from Russia over the past several weeks, leading to a dramatic decline in the value of the rouble.  This represents the worst currency collapse for Russia since the 1998 crisis.  But despite the crisis, the Russian government still have the third largest currency reserve in the world—estimated at some $582 billion—thanks in large part to the dramatic increase in oil and natural gas prices over the past few years.

4. In Paksitan, Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party won Saturday’s presidential elections as expected.  Zardari, who is the widow of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, now faces a number of challenges: reinforcing the fledgling democracy amidst growing political and economic instability, normalizing relations with the west in the face of strong opposition in key regions of the country, and establishing a stronger degree of national unity while addressing growing violence within Pakistan. 

5. Talks between Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and the ruling ZANU-PF suffered their most serious setback to date last week.  The MDC announced it had lost faith in negotiations intended to bring about a power sharing agreement, accusing South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating the negotiations, of trying to force through a deal which would see ZANU-PF’s Robert Mugabe retain political power.  The MDC also refuses to sign an agreement under which Mugabe would retain control of the country’s security forces, which they contend have been used for the political gain of the ruling party.

How do we “Recognize” a State?

The South Ossetia crisis continues.  Yesterday, the Russian government announced yesterday that it would recognize the two (former?) Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Nato’s Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, condemned Russia’s move, saying it was a “direct violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions regarding Georgia’s territorial integrity” and cautioning Russia that “Nato firmly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and calls on Russia to respect these principles.”
 
South Ossetia and Abkhazia have long demanded independence from Georgia.  But Russia’ recognition of the two has some important implications.  The 1933 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States outlines the four fundamental criteria for statehood. According to the treaty,

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications:
(a) a permanent population;
(b) a defined territory;
(c) government; and
(d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

The requirement that a state have the “capacity to enter into relations with other states” has usually been interpreted as meaning a state is recognized by other states.  Unilateral recognition is not usually sufficient.  Thus, Russia’s recognition of the two regions as independent states does not necessarily make them states.  And the hesitation of other countries to follow suit suggests that further movement towards statehood may not be forthcoming.  Recognition by the United Nations has usually been used as shorthand for meeting this criterion. But some states may choose not to participate as members of the United Nations (e.g., Switzerland), while others may be excluded for political reasons (e.g., Taiwan). 

Deciding whether a state is a state or not can be surprisingly difficult.  Some states fail to meet all of the criteria, particularly if we also carry over Weber’s definition that a state “possess a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.”  By that definition, countries like Iraq Afghanistan, and Somalia would also not qualify, despite their membership in the United Nations.

Given this difficulty, it is also difficult to get an exact count on the number of states in the world.  There are currently 192 members of the United Nations.  The United States, however, recognizes 194 (including the Vatican and Kosovo, which are not recognized by the United Nations).  Taiwan may also be added to the list.  Palestine aspires to statehood, and the Palestinian government is recognized by many countries, but is not included in the total.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The closing of the Beijing Olympics and Barack Obama’s announcement of his Vice-Presidential candidate have been the two most widely covered stories over the past few days.  Here are a few other important stories from the past week:

1.  Growing instability in Afghanistan: A Taliban attack outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, resulted in the deaths of ten French soldiers.  The attack appeared to be part of a coordinated effort by the Taliban against Nato forces in the country, coinciding with another attack against US forces in the southwestern part of the country.  The attacks highlight the shortage of material and soldiers  in the country.  Attending a memorial service for the soldiers, French President Nicolas Sarkozy asserted that he would continue French involvement in Afghanistan, asserting that it was “essential to the freedom of the world.”  Reflecting growing tensions in the country, the government of Afghanistan on Friday accused Nato of killing 76 civilians, mostly children, during operations against Taliban insurgents.

2. The Crisis in South Ossetia: After negotiating a ceasefire, Russia and the west once again appear unable to resolve their differences over Russian withdrawal.  Russia has rejected Nato’s call for a total withdrawal to pre-crisis positions.  Nato has moved to isolate Russia, and in return Russia has cancelled joint military operations with Nato countries.  The crisis gave new impetus to the United States and Poland to sign a missile defense shield.  Demonstrating the link between international security and global political economy, the crisis also helped to push oil prices higher and marked the beginning of a trend of western investors pulling their money from Russia at a rate not seen since the Russian Ruble crisis of 1998.

3. The Rise of Food Neo-Colonialism: In a report issued on Tuesday, Jacques Dious, director general of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, warned that the drive for farmland could result in the development of a neo-colonial system for agriculture.  Driven by record high commodity prices, foreign direct investment in farms and agricultural production has grown dramatically over the last couple of years.

4. The Pakistani Presidential Race: After the departure of embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf last week, the struggle to find a new president has begun.  Mohammad Mian Soomro, chair of Pakistan’s Senate, has been named acting President and is heading the search for a new leader.  Asif Ali Zardari, widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has emerged as the leading candidate from the Pakistan People’s Party, the largest party in the parliament.  

5. Unified European Parliament: After part of the ceiling of the European Parliament in Strasbourg collapsed last week, the Parliament was forced to cancel its monthly trek from Brussels to Strasbourg.  The Parliament traditionally moved to the French city of Strasbourg from Brussels for its monthly meetings, despite the fact that the majority of the Union’s administrative and bureaucratic support—not to mention its most important institutions—are based in Brussels, Belgium.  The move, widely denounced by both the EU’s proponents and opponents—costs an estimated €200 million (($350 million) per year.  It is hoped that the forced relocation of the Parliament may encourage a reconsideration of the monthly move, although French opposition may be hard to overcome.

Towards a New Cold War? Understanding the Russian-Georgian Conflict

The announcement of a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia this afternoon has taken the Georgian crisis off the front burner, at least for the time being.  But the underlying cause of the conflict—the status of Georgia’s breakaway republic of South Ossetia—remains largely unresolved. 

The status of South Ossetia highlights sharper divisions emerging in the world today.  The days of closer relations between the United States and Russia appear to be dwindling.  Western leaders seem less happy with Putin and Medvedev—a far cry from the days that President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and claimed to have gotten a sense of his soul.  The BBC coverage of Russia-US relations has moved from headlines like “Bush and Putin: Best of Friends” in 2001 to “Bush condemns ‘bullying’ Russia” today.

Why the change?  How did Russia move from being a friend (if not yet an ally) to a bully?  There are several reasons for the shift.

First, US policy towards Russia has become more bellicose in recent years.  While campaigning for the presidency, Republican candidate John McCain has taken numerous opportunities to criticize Russia.  Even before the Georgian crisis, he was calling for Russia’s expulsion from the G8 and the creation of a “League of Democracies” to counter Russia’s global influence.  This shift is largely confined to the US and Britain, as other European democracies have been hesitant to adopt a similar stance.

Russia’s perception of American policies may be more important than the policies themselves.  The expansion of NATO into eastern Europe—potentially to include Ukraine and Georgia—leave Russia feeling surrounded by the very organization which had been developed to counter their influence.  The negotiation of agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to deploy the US missile defense shield, which Russia believes is targeted against it rather than against rogue states like Iran and North Korea, further divides Russia and the US. 

Second, Russia’s growing economic prowess has increased its ability to act on the world stage.  The European Union has grown increasingly dependent on Russian oil and natural gas exports, which in turn generate more than $1 billion per day for the Russian government.  The announcement that the Russian government would take control of up to half of the country’s grain exports further expands the foreign policy tools available to the Russian government.  If, for example, Europe moved to isolate Russia, Russia could retaliate by cutting natural gas shipments to the EU…a continuation of war by other [political] means, to paraphrase Clausewitz.

We may not be witnessing the start of a new cold war yet…but it’s not inconceivable that we may be heading that direction.

Statehood for South Ossetia?

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.