Policy Memos

Crossing Borders, Validating Sovereignty: Russia, Georgia, and the WTO

Policy Memo:


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Political scientists generally recognize the importance of international regimes, rules, and norms for understanding international interactions. Even in the absence of global enforcement, these factors arguably matter because they frame goals, expectations, and the terms of interaction among international actors. In particular, reputable studies have shown that global economic forces—such as trade—and associated institutions and norms de facto limit state sovereignty and help level the playing field for weaker states to interact more equitably with the “great powers.”

This memo shows how a state—particularly a large and regionally important military power—may strike back, and in more ways than using or “gaming” international institutions and norms to achieve specific policy objectives, as illustrated by political maneuvering at the UN Security Council. Such a state may use international institutions and norms on global issues such as trade—that seemingly erode state sovereignty—to assert its sovereignty and to create or legitimize sovereignty for states with disputed international status. The illustrative case study is Moscow’s official interpretation of the Russia-Georgia deal on bilateral customs administration and trade monitoring signed in late 2011 as part of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2012. The case study focuses on: (1) the agreement’s text, showing how it may signify the primacy of international rules and norms above state authority; (2) official Russian interpretations of the same text, showing Moscow’s view of the treaty as a tool to promote international recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence from Georgia; and (3) implications of this type of major power behavior for monitoring interstate conflict. [...]

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About the author

Professor of Political Science
San Diego State University