South Ossetia and the Morality of Secession:

Russia and its client regime in South Ossetia have been citing the precedent of Kosovo’s recent secession from Serbia as a justification for Russia’s effort to detach South Ossetia from Georgia. It’s unlikely that the “Kosovo precedent” is the true motive for Russia’s massive attack on Georgia; after all, the Russians have been supporting secessionist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the early 1990s – long before Kosovar independence was on the table. Be that as it may, the Kosovo and South Ossetia cases both raise the issue of the justification of secession. When, if ever, should a region have the right to separate from its central government?

I. The Comparative Approach to Evaluating Secession Movements.

Russia’s “Kosovo precedent” argument poses a false dichotomy: either all secessionist movements are justified or none are. In reality, the moral legitimacy of secession varies from case to case. The worse the existing government and the better the new one the secessionists are likely to set up, the stronger the justification for secession. A secessionist movement that seeks to establish a new state in order to engage in repression is very different from one intended to defend its own people against oppression by the central government.

Thus, as I noted in this post, the southern states’ attempted secession in 1861 was indefensible because undertaken for the purpose of extending and protecting the horrendous institution of slavery; however, it would have been a different case if free states had seceded in order to prevent a proslavery federal government from forcing them to accept the “peculiar institution” against their will.

The Kosovo case is at the opposite pole from that of the Confederates. The Kosovar Albanians had been victims of mass murder and “ethnic cleansing” at the hands of the Serbian government; although the regime that instituted these policies was no longer in power by the time Kosovo formally declared independence earlier this year, extreme nationalists retain enough influence in Serbian politics that the Kosovar Albanians could not reasonably be expected to accept the return of Serbian rule. Moreover, the 2008 declaration of independence simply ratified a de facto secession that had already been in place for nine years. So the key point at issue is the legitimacy of Kosovo’s de facto separation from Serbia back in 1999.

This is not to say that the Kosovo Albanians haven’t committed some human rights violations of their own or that their new government is a model regime. However, there is little question that Kosovo’s secession after occupation by NATO forces in 1999 prevented a great deal more injustice than it caused.

South Ossetia is an intermediate case between these two. The Ossetian separatists claim that the Georgian government discriminated against ethnic Ossetians in various ways. Even if some of the claims are true, there was nothing remotely comparable to what was done to the Kosovars. Moreover, an independent South Ossetia is likely to come under the control of Russia (as it largely has already). And the Russian government is itself often repressive, and surely cannot be trusted to protect the rights of the ethnic Georgians who live in the area. Thus, at least to this nonexpert, the question of whether South Ossetian secession would reduce ethnic oppression or increase it is a close call. The issue certainly can’t be resolved through ritualistic citation of the “Kosovo precedent.”

The basic point, however, is that the morality of secession must be considered on a case by case basis. The key variable is the relative quality of the central government as compared to the new regime the secessionists seek to establish.

II. The Case Against a Presumption in Favor of Status Quo Governments.

My approach is at odds with the conventional view that there should be a heavy presumption in favor of the “territorial integrity” of existing states. I don’t have time and space for a detailed critique of that position. So I will briefly note three major points against it. First, most existing states were themselves established through coercion, putting down potential opposition by force. I don’t think that the results of such processes are entitled to automatic deference. Second, the international law norms that exalt the integrity of status quo governments were, of course, established by status quo governments, which have an obvious conflict of interest here. Existing states – particularly those that oppress large portions of their population – have an obvious interest in establishing a monopoly over their subjects by denying them the opportunity to set up new and potentially better governments through secession. I see little reason to defer to such transparently self-interested “lawmaking.” Finally, I am unconvinced by claims that abandoning the presumption against secession would lead to uncontrolled chaos through endlessly proliferating secession movements. Given the substantial transition costs of setting up a new government and breaking ties with the old one, few regions are likely to attempt secession without strong genuine grievances against the previous government. Even a peaceful secession will carry significant costs. It is telling that the “Kosovo precedent” (like the secession of the various former Soviet republics from Russia in the 1990s) has not led to establishment of any new secession movements anywhere in the world. Secession movements are usually driven by local grievances and agendas, not by “precedents” arising from events in other parts of the world.

The comparative framework I advocate in this post doesn’t consider the hard question of whether a region should be allowed to secede if the potential new government is likely to be both no worse and no better than the current one. Should such a region have the right to secede anyway if the majority of its people wish to do so? If time permits, I will take up that issue in a later post.

UPDATE: I fully recognize that I haven’t define such key concepts as “oppression” in this post. I can’t possibly develop a comprehensive theory of political morality here. The post is limited to arguing that the moral legitimacy of secession should be evaluated through a comparative approach. People with differing political philosophies can legitimately disagree over which factors should be weighed in determining which government is better, and how much weight should be assigned to each.