Marco Siddi, Marie Curie Research Fellow and Ph.D. candidate at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, United Kingdom)


On 26 August, 2008 the Russian Federation recognized the independence of Georgias breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the statement that explained the reasons for Russias recognition, President Dmitry Medvedev referred to the freely expressed will of the Abkhaz and Ossetian peoples and to several fundamental international instruments that stress inter alia the principle of self-determination of peoples, notably the U.N. Charter, the 1970 U.N. General Assembly Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States (U.N. General Assembly Resolution 2625) and the 1975 Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Medvedev also specified that Abkhazians and South Ossetians had the right to decide their destiny by themselves in the light of Georgias allegedly genocidal policies in South Ossetia and the existence of similar plans for Abkhazia.

Therefore, in the August 2008 crisis Russia supported the controversial principle of external self-determination of peoples in exceptional circumstances, which it had fiercely opposed until then, most notably in the case of Kosovos declaration of independence. External self determination implies the right of every people to choose the sovereignty under which they live. The concept of external self-determination is broader than that of internal self-determination, which refers primarily to the right of peoples to select their own form of government within a sovereign state. Internal self-determination thus concerns the granting of minority rights, regional autonomy regimes or federalism within an existing state. On the other hand, external self-determination refers in particular to the right to establish an internationally recognized independent state to represent a people. In other words, external self-determination implies the separation of a sub-group of a state with the consent of the central government, or its secession without the consent of the state concerned, and the establishment of a new state. Considering that international law is dominated by sovereign states and that secession poses a threat to their territorial integrity, the principle of external self-determination constitutes a very controversial issue.

The controversy is further complicated by the fact that the concept of self-determination is a right granted to peoples. The definition of people as enshrined in international documents and court decisions is vague and evasive. Language, race and religion fail to provide solid criteria for the identification of a people. In addition, so far state practice has favored the classical territorial approach to self-determination rather than the romantic or ethnic approach, which stresses the relevance of ethnicity, language and religion. Since the 19th century, particularly in the context of decolonization and during the break-up of multinational states such as the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia after the end of the Cold War, the principle of uti possidetis was applied, which meant that the borders of former colonies or federated republics became the borders of

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