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Fragile Fictions

The sudden outbreak of hostilities between Georgia and Russia took much of the world by surprise - except, of course, the Moscow government, which demonstrably was ready and waiting, and Georgia's staunchest ally, the United States. In what is seen by many as a terrible miscalculation, Georgia launched a military onslaught to end, once and for all, the South Ossetians' independence struggle, but instead triggered a hammer blow from the Russian military. Quite apart from the implications for global power distributions, the events of the past week have important lessons for independence struggles everywhere, not least that of the Tamils. Most importantly, it is a reminder, if one were needed, that notions such as 'sovereignty' and 'territorial integrity' are not cast-iron principles of international politics, but fragile covers for the pursuit of interests by powerful states.
 
This week's short, sharp war in Georgia is mainly about old-fashioned Great Power rivalry. In short, a resurgent Russia is re-establishing the terms on which other powerful states, notably the United States and the European Bloc, will henceforth have to deal with it. In this context, both Russia's support for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and America's support for Georgia are merely aspects of the Moscow-Washington tussle. Just a few months ago the United States along with Britain, Germany and a host of Western states, embraced the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo from Serbia, over the vehement protests of Russia. The Western states solemnly declared that the will of the majority of Kosovans could not be ignored for the sake of 'sovereignty' or 'territorial integrity' (the same states, in 1999, had launched a military onslaught against Russia-backed Serbia, ostensibly to prevent 'ethnic cleansing' in Kosovo).
 
This week these roles were laughably reversed. It was the West which backed Georgia's onslaught into South Ossetia to end the rebellion - even though the entire population there, along with that of Abhazia, clearly want to be free of Georgian rule. And, conversely, this time it was Russia's military that intervened - in the interests, naturally, of 'preventing genocide'. The Russian operation not only drove Georgian forces far from South Ossetia's borders, but also from the fragments of Abkhazia they were still holding. Whilst it remains to be seen how the diplomatic machinations play out in the future, it is already clear that these two independence struggles have taken important practical steps forward.
 
The two contrasting situations have revealed the utter hypocrisy of the United States, Europe and the Russia when it comes to notions of 'sovereignty' or 'territorial integrity'; they have amply illustrated that whether these are important principles or fragile fictions depends wholly on if and how they suit or frustrate the self-interested maneuvers of powerful states. For decades Sri Lanka and its allies have been lecturing the Tamils on the inviolability of a country's 'territorial integrity' - even as state after state has emerged elsewhere, frequently with the active support of many of these nay sayers. In fact, Sri Lanka's sovereignty and territorial integrity, like those of Serbia, Georgia, Ethiopia, and many others, is - and has always been - utterly contingent on these being sufficiently useful to all the relevant Great Powers, at the same time. In other words, the moment the emergence of Tamil Eelam becomes useful to any of the Great Powers, a new game will begin. Can it be said with any certainty that this will never happen?
 
Meanwhile, in the wake of strong resistance by many Asian states to Western interventions justified in terms of 'human rights' and 'good governance', it is often suggested that Asian countries have some sort of peculiar proclivity for prioritising the notions of 'sovereignty' or 'territorial integrity' - i.e. 'non-interference' - above universal values. In fact, contrary to this orientalist characterization, Asian states have the same commitment - or lack thereof - to so-called universal principles and, indeed, to sovereignty and territorial integrity as Western ones. Since WW2, many Asian states have waged war on each other, sponsored insurgencies and other allies within their enemies' territories and engaged in the other traditional forms of inter-state rivalry. The much claimed Asian principles of tolerance and harmony, for example, have not permitted the withdrawal of the tens of thousands of American soldiers from Asia, nor have they prevented the expansion of the militaries of a number of major states of all politico-economic persuasions. In short, the calculations that underpin respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are the same the world over. New states will continue to emerge, the world over, in the decades to come.