Georgia on my mind

I recently drove some Georgians in my taxi, and they explained about how depressed they were about what is happening in their home. I've been watching the depressing news over the past few days about the conflict in the country of Georgia, on American, British and Russian media, which give different versions. It apparently started when Georgian forces attempted to take over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has been supported by Russia. The Russians retaliated. Both sides are blaming the other; Russia is accusing Georgia of "genocide", while Georgia is accusing Russia of "ethnic cleansing" and attempting "regime change". I think that both share blame. Fortunately, there now appears to be a ceasefire; I hope it holds.

The current conflict raises a difficult question: when do regions have the right to secede from their parent country? It is ironic that Russia supports two breakaway regions in Georgia, while brutally suppressing such regions within their own borders, most notably Chechnya. In defending their actions in Chechnya, Russia pointed out that the US used force to prevent the secession of several states, including another Georgia, during the US Civil War. While those states failed then, some of those same states, along with those on the other side, successfully seceded from the British Empire some fourscore and several years earlier. There are many other secessionist movements around the world. The country of Georgia, itself, seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991, and had previously seceded, in 1918, from Bolshevik Russia, before being reconquered in 1921. The usual resolution of these issues is by force.

I believe in the concept of self-determination. People should be free to democratically choose to be part of whichever government they want. If the parent country wants to keep a region (and they usually d0) then it should use persuasion, other than the threat of force, to make it worthwhile to stay together. This would encourage the parent government to settle outstanding grievances. If that fails, then they should go their separate ways, peacefully.

I mentioned the US Civil War. Would I apply the same principle there? Sure. I would oppose using force to prevent states from seceding from the Union, if that was the will of the people in those states, even though I personally am in favor of maintaining the integrity of the Union. However, there is one difference with the states of the Confederacy: nobody asked the slaves. A large part of the populations of those states, a majority in some, even, were deprived of their rights, and not allowed to participate in the democratic process, just as under apartheid, only worse. However, although democracy was instituted after the war, its practice was brief and not enforced by the national government again until a century later.

One disturbing aspect of secessionist movements is that they tend to be driven by ethnicity. People often want to associate with those with whom they share linguistic, religious and racial/tribal affiliations. Unfortunately, most places are not ethnically homogeneous; different groups live to different extents intermixed with each other, so that if an ethnic enclave secedes, it has smaller ethnic enclaves within it. This is what has repeatedly led to ethnic cleansing and other evils. However, in a society of equal rights and secular rule of law, it does not matter so much who your neighbors are. What difference does it make whether I live under this government or that one, if they are the same, and leave me alone? It also helps if there is devolved local authority, rather than strictly centralized control. The more liberal and democratic a country becomes, the weaker secessionist movements seem to be.

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