O’Loughlin on Statehood in the Caucuses

My colleague, co-editor, and methodological sparring partner, John O’Loughlin delivered a seminar to the Politics, Development, and Sustainability research group at Royal Holloway yesterday, and the talk has left me with several thoughts that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

First, though, I’m pleased to note that both Johno (as he’s universally known) and I were truly impressed by the comments and questions from postgrads.  That’s yet another sign of the success of the Geopolitics and Security MSc programme (and the other degree programmes whose students attended the seminar).

The talk revolved around a presentation of data from a recently completed survey conducted by Johno and colleagues Gerard Toal and Vladimir Kolossov in four de facto states on the fringes of the former Soviet Union: Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transdniestria. Among the many interesting findings was the observation that the vast-majority of non-Georgian residents of Abkhazia favoured independence as a political goal while South Ossetians almost universally favoured absorption by Russia. This led to an intriguing question from a postgrad who noticed that on another graph the data showed that the vast majority of non-Georgian Abkhazia residents favoured a continued Russian military presence. The student wondered if these two views were contradictory: How could the Abkhazians be advocating independence while also seeking a continued Russian military presence?

Johno’s response was that the two responses were not in contradiction with each other since they were both endorsements of the status quo: Abkhazians see themselves as already “independent” and they see that Russian troops are guaranteeing that “independence”…and they want things to stay that way. Furthermore, stories that Johno told about how his presence in each de facto state was celebrated by the ‘national’ media suggests that while the people in these states may consider themselves to presently be independent, they’re still seeking the formal recognition that historically has played a role in conferring the ‘statehood’ designation.

Of course, there are many fully recognized “independent” states that, arguably, survive only because of the protection of a more powerful patron state. I’m not arguing that the presence of the Russian military in Abkhazia makes it any less ‘real’. But the discussion does beg the question of the relationship between military (or economic) dependency and (political) independence and whether recognition can make up for a lack of functional independence.

The point, I would contend, is not to identify a point at which ‘real’ independence becomes ‘make-believe’ statehood, but rather to appreciate the gradations and uses of self-determination that can be achieved through the adaptation of statist institutions, ceremonies, and symbols. And underlying this, from a researcher’s point-of-view, is the question of whether an appreciation of such nuances and strategies requires a methodology that goes beyond the analysis of large-n survey data.

Phil S.


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