The interrelated concepts of sovereignty, self-determination, and the territorial integrity of states form a Gordian knot at the core of public international law. These concepts encompass not only how we define the classic actors of the international system—states—but also how seriously international law takes claims of civil and political rights. This Article considers how geographic concepts can be used to try to untangle—or slice through this knot of issues.
The frozen conflicts of Eurasia are a series of ongoing secessionist crises in the post-Soviet states of Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. I will use the example of the so-called "frozen conflict" in Moldova as a central illustration. Part I is a discussion of how we "imagine sovereignty"—using techniques of political geography and cartography to designate sovereignty and how this affects our perception of claims. Related to this, I consider how "territory" is both a physical thing—a plot of land—and also an ideological concept—an idea of a homeland. Part II briefly sets out the evolution of the concept of self-determination and how it is used to regulate legal claims for secession. Part III further examines the theory of self-determination through the optic of the conflict in Moldova. This part will also consider the "legal geography" of secessionist enclaves. Part IV will situate these legal arguments in the broader discourse of realpolitik, including whether and how these issues relate to the debate over the final status of Kosovo. Finally, Part V considers implications of these findings and addresses arguments that perhaps it is time to reorder the international system around something other than states.
The frozen conflicts have been considered intractable in part because it is very difficult to find negotiated solutions on purely political bases. Realpolitik has its limits. Perhaps seeing these conflicts through the optic of international law, and that the contested territory has a legal geography as well as a political geography, may provide a framework in which, based on the norms of the international community, some claims will be favored and others viewed as weak. The challenge is to use the norms of self-determination not merely to protect the prerogatives of states but also to envision a means towards principled and just resolutions of these, and similar, conflicts.