Vienna, January 27 – Under the fig leaf of negotiations with South Ossetia, the Russian government plans to annex a section of Georgian territory, an action that would violate a longstanding principle of international law and one that the Georgian government has called on the international community to oppose.
Moscow’s “Vedomosti” reports today, in an article entitled “Russia will Become Bigger,” that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has named Ambassador Aleksandr Golovin his special representative for the delimitation and demarcation of borders with the CIS, Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article.shtml?2009/01/27/178739).
The paper’s journalists, Mariya Tsvetkova and Denis Malkov, report that a source in the Presidential Administration says that by this action Medvedev “is beginning the process of the juridical formation of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian borders,” part of Moscow’s broader effort to boost the status of these breakaway republics.
After 1991, Moscow and Tbilisi were unable to reach agreement about their borders because Georgia claimed a portion of the Black Sea which the Russian government, on the basis of its reading of the 1982 UN convention on maritime law, was convinced belonged not to Georgia but to it.
(While no new talks on border delimitation are currently scheduled between Abkhazia and the Russian Federation, “Vedomosti” reports, Abkhaz foreign minister Sergey Shamba says that “conflicts on the use of the sea between Russia and Abkhazia have never arisen,” an indication of what the outcome of future talks would likely be.)
Now, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Vadim Postnov, Russia “hopes that there will be fewer questions and that we will quickly resolve them with our friends” in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, especially since Moscow already has been in talks with Abkhazia concerning its border with Russia.
Those talks were initiated by Moscow, Konstantin Zatulin, the director of the Moscow Institute of CIS Countries, told Tsvetkova and Malkov, because that that border, which passes through a mountainous region passes very near where the Russian government plans to host the Olympic games in 2014.
But the most important result of talks between Russia and South Ossetia, Russian officials say, is likely to be recognition of Russia’s long-standing claims to the tunnel passing from Russian territory into that breakaway republic, claims that the Georgian government has consistently rejected.
That tunnel through which Russian forces invaded Georgia in August after Tbilisi failed to blow it up, South Ossetian Vice Premier Khasan Pliyev now says, belongs to Russia, and according to him, it will be “serviced and guarded by Russian services.” Other South Ossetia officials say that their government will guard only the tunnel’s southern exit.
That would effectively amount to an annexation by Russia of Georgian territory as the result of its military invasion of Georgia last summer, and not surprisingly the Georgian foreign ministry is now calling on the members of the international community to “take a firm position” against it.
Because of Russian power and its control of the situation on the ground, Moscow almost certainly will not only get away with this action but will be spared criticism by countries which in their desire to move forward in their relations with the Russian government want to put the Georgia affair behind them.
But Tbilisi has international law on its side. In 1931, in response to the Japanese invasion of China and Tokyo’s establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria, the United States articulated the Stimson Doctrine, which holds that the world must not recognize territorial changes achieved by force alone but insist that any change be by negotiations.
That principle, which was the basis for the US-led non-recognition policy with respect to the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, is the legal foundation of the unwillingness of the entire international community -- except for the Russian Federation, Nicaragua and Hamas -- to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
And it should be the basis for a rejection by the international community of any agreement between Moscow and the breakaway republics that results in border changes among them, even if, as seems likely, there is little else the international community can now do to oppose them and even though there will likely be a broader negotiated settlement in the future.
Meanwhile, however, Moscow seems set to go ahead not only with these talks but by issuing new maps on which Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be shown as independent countries and their capitals designated as Sukhum and Tskhinval, the spellings preferred by the Abkhaz and South Ossetians (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.146823.html).
From 1940 to 1991, maps prepared by the U.S. government featured the statement that Washington did not recognize the incorporation of the three Baltic States. Soviet officials and many Western commentators often objected to this as something that unnecessarily exacerbated East-West tensions.
But that designation mattered, ultimately helping Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to recover their independence. A similar non-recognition policy with regard to Russia’s latest annexationist moves could have an equally happy outcome. Unfortunately, in the current environment, there seems little interest in Western capitals in taking this step.