Self-Determination for the Kremlin

16 April 2014, 23:45

There are dozens of disputed territories and a number of unrecognized states in the world. Most of them are independent countries that have sprung up in the place of former colonial empires. There are relatively few of such entities in the territory of the OSCE members, but nearly all of them emerged with Russia’s active support in the post-Soviet states of the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.

European (in)security

After the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was signed in Helsinki in 1975, its participants, including the USSR, USA, Canada, Turkey and most European states, agreed to “regard as inviolable all one another’s frontiers as well as the frontiers of all States in Europe and … refrain now and in the future from assaulting these frontiers” and to “respect the territorial integrity of each of the participating States”.

The withdrawal of union republics from the USSR and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s did not contradict the OSCE principles, because they had a constitutional right to do so, while some of them, such as Ukraine and Belarus, were distinct entities and co-founders of the UN. They increased the membership of the organization, which adopted the name OSCE on 1 January 1995.

Since the signing of the Helsinki Accords and until now, six self-proclaimed states have appeared in the OSCE territory. Five of them (Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Republic of Crimea) have sprung up in post-Soviet territory. The sixth one is Kosovo, but it is a unique case fundamentally different from the previous five. Kosovo was separated from Serbia in order to stop the genocide against the local Albanian population by the Slobodan Milošević regime.

Opposite effect

From the very beginning, self-proclaimed post-Soviet republics emerged as a tool with which Russia blackmailed the “mother countries” to keep them in its orbit. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and the occupation of the adjacent Azerbaijani territories drove Yerevan into total dependence on Russia. (It recently abandoned an association with the EU at the final stretch of negotiations.) At the same time, Russia obtained a seemingly unfailing tool with which to blackmail Azerbaijan. For a long time, Russia successfully utilized its occupation of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia to put pressure on, respectively, Moldova and Georgia in foreign policy issues, such as EU and NATO integration.

At the same time, the factor of breakaway republics was used in all these cases to make the population of the Caucasian states and Moldova believe that their pro-Russian orientation would help bring these regions back. However, the experience of Moldova, where Russia-oriented communists led by Vladimir Voronin were in power for a long time, proved these hopes to be vain. As the elites and the population in Georgia and Moldova gradually became aware of this tactic, it helped bring to power forces that put the European prospect above the illusion of recovering territorial integrity in exchange for loyalty to Moscow.

Moreover, by pulling territories with a potentially significant pro-Russian majority out of the electoral field, the Kremlin single-handedly undermined the prospects of Russia-leaning forces. For example, Moldova has a balance of pro-Russian and pro-European camps that is similar to Ukraine. If the entire population of Transnistria participated in elections, it would boost the communists’ result by at least 10%, tipping the scales in their favour.  Instead, due to the Kremlin’s support for separatists in Tiraspol, this factor has been inactive in Moldovan politics.

Moscow’s support for Yerevan forced the authoritarian Azerbaijan, which is much closer to Putin’s Russia in terms of political culture than Armenia is, to look to the West and consistently avoid Russia’s restoration projects in post-Soviet territory. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan with its rapidly growing population (currently 9.6mn), large energy resources and transit potential between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea has much greater potential than Armenia with its 3mn population, dependence on remittances from the diaspora and absence of resources or transit potential.

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Military aggression against Georgia in 2008 followed by Russia’s official recognition of its breakaway regions forced Tbilisi to leave the CIS and buried the slightest prospects of coming to power for any Georgian political project truly loyal to Russia, while also establishing the Euro-Atlantic and European vector in Georgia’s foreign policy.

By annexing the Crimea and Sevastopol after their independence was proclaimed at an obviously rigged-up “referendum”, Moscow triggered a similar effect in Ukraine where pro-Russian forces no longer stand a chance of winning. An analysis of election results over the past decade shows that neither Viktor Yanukovych nor Russia-leaning parliamentary parties would have been able to come to power without the support of pro-Russian forces in the Crimea and Sevastopol. The hypothetic annexation of the Donbas will ultimately marginalize pro-Russian political forces and their electoral base.

The only effect that self-proclaimed separatist republics and annexed territories (the Crimea and Sevastopol have joined the club) can achieve is cementing Russian military presence and serving as combat outposts. At the same time, the socioeconomic standards are rapidly deteriorating there as compared to the countries from which they broke away. In its turn, this discredits the very idea of pro-Russian orientation. The past decades have proved it at the examples of Abkhazia’s previously prospering resorts and Transnistria’s newly required infamy for being a hotbed of contraband activity.

Suitcase without a handle

If official Kyiv eventually implements previously announced measures to impose a transportation blockade and raise the price of electricity and fresh water to market levels, the Russia-occupied Crimea will also face a deep economic downturn. In 2013, the Crimea’s exports to Russia were at US $239.6mn and imports from there at US $232.3mn, which was a significant part (23-25%) of the republic’s overall foreign trade volume. However, these figures are just a fraction of the Crimea’s trade with the rest of Ukraine, especially if it is calculated at market prices. For example, various regions of Ukraine supplied 5.96bn kWh of electricity to the Crimea in 2013, which would cost over US $400mn after the price is adjusted to what Moldova, a country located close to the Crimea, pays for Ukrainian electricity. The peninsula received some 1.2bn cu m of fresh water. At the price of US $0.7-0.8 per cu m, it amounts to US $840-960mn. (Desalination is even costlier at US $1 per cu m.) Add to this the foodstuffs which were until recently brought to the Crimea from the continental part of Ukraine where food prices are much lower than in Russia.

Nearly 70% of vacationers traditionally came to the Crimea from other parts of Ukraine. The remaining 30% were not only Russians – tourists arrived from Belarus and other countries in large numbers. Belarus has already announced that it is cancelling flights to the Crimea. Eurocontrol (European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation) has also banned flights to the peninsula. Turkish Airlines has similarly cancelled all its flights in this direction. The Russian Tourist Industry Union has acknowledged that it is impossible to restore the flow of tourists – not even Russian tourists – to the Crimea. The organization says in its statement that if Ukraine imposes a transportation blockade, compensating for the drop off in the number of tourists who used to come by car or train is out of the question. To secure this much traffic by air, airlines would have to make 600 flights per week from the territory of the Russian Federation alone (at much higher prices). As an alternative, Russia’s Ministry of Transport suggested a route that involves several different types of transport: train, bus, ferry and then again bus. However, this kind of inconvenience will force a large part of Russian tourists to seek alternative resorts, including on the coasts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov in Russia or in continental Ukraine where they will be able to travel absolutely legally.

Thus, a realization will gradually come that it was these objective economic, transport and communications factors, rather than an ephemeral subjective sympathy of the Soviet leadership, that prompted it to hand over the Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR back in Soviet times.

The policy of producing self-proclaimed states and disputed territories does not bode well for Russia itself in the medium- and long-term perspective. By creating a belt of unviable artificial entities along its borders, Moscow is ruining relations with its neighbours and is surrounding itself with enemies, thereby objectively making it easier for its current and potential opponents to play their geopolitical games against Russia.

Ever since self-proclaimed republics emerged in post-Soviet states, they have been used by the Kremlin as blackmail tools. By supporting unviable separatist projects Moscow is surrounding itself with a belt of enemies.

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Dubious “peacekeeping”

Russia has claimed in all cases that its military presence and support for separatists is dictated by the need to protect Russian population and Russian-speaking “compatriots”. However, most of the territory of all self-proclaimed republics did not have a Russian majority at the moment of occupation. If necessary, this “issue” was resolved by way of ethnic cleansing under the cover of Russian troops.

Prior to the war in Abkhazia in the early 1990s, the republic’s total population of 525,000 included 93,000 Abkhaz. They were in the majority only in Gudauta District, a mountainous area adjacent to the Russian Federation. The Russians and Armenians dominated both in the economy and administration of Abkhazia. For example, a mere 12.5% of the residents of Sukhumi, the capital city, were Abkhaz in 1989. Their presence seemed to be nothing more than the necessary cover for the real masters of the situation in the republic – the Russian and Armenian business and administrative elites that exploited the recreational resources of this subtropical region. However, the Georgians, which made up the real majority (up to 240,000), stood in their way. In flat, densely-populated southern and central regions, they were in the absolute or relative majority: 94% in Gali District, 53% in Gulripshi District, 46.2% in Ochamchire District and 44% in Sukhumi District. The problem was resolved strictly along the lines of ethnic cleansing, and the Georgians were forced into mass emigration from their own ancient lands. Abkhazia’s population dropped from 525,000 to 216,000, while the number of Georgians fell from 240,000 to 46,000. In some areas, they completely disappeared after being subjected to terror. For example, a mere 400 out of 63,000 Georgians remained in Sukhumi and Sukhumi District as of 2003. In this area, where the Georgians were once in the majority, the dominant population group is not the Abkhaz but the Russified Armenians (61.4%). A similar situation is in Gulripshi District: the Georgians were in the absolute majority there in 1989, but their numbers dropped from 29,000 to a mere 2,700 by 2003. In Gagra, 1,200 out of 21,600 Georgians remain. In Gudauta District, the Georgian population decreased from 7,700 to 600. Similar ethnic cleansing took place in South Ossetia, especially after the war in August 2008.

Nor does Transnistria have a Russian majority. According to the latest census, its population (over 500,000) is nearly equally split among three ethnic groups: 177,000 (31.9%) Moldovans, 168,000 (30.4%) Russians and 160,000 (28.8%) Ukrainians. The self-proclaimed republic is divided into fairly distinct areas. The largely Russian Tiraspol-Bendery urban agglomeration is home to over half of the total population and two-thirds of the Russians but occupies just five% of Transnistria’s territory. The largely Moldovan south occupies more than one third of the republic’s territory, while the predominantly Ukrainian north takes up another third.

The situation in the Crimea is similar. In general, the Russians were indeed in the majority (58.3%, according to the 2001 census). Of course, the proportion of the Crimean Tatars has greatly increased since that time thanks to both a higher rate of natural increase and return from exile. This means that the relative proportion of the Russians, Ukrainians and other ethnic groups has gone down. But even the 2001 census data per raion shows that in the administrative raions covering 68% of the Crimea’s territory, less than 50% of the population are Russians. In five northern and western raions (34% of the total area), the Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars are in the majority. The Russians form the absolute majority (60-80%) only in large cities (Simferopol, Sevastopol, Kerch, Yevpatoria and Saky) and along the southern coast (see Diversity in the Crimea). Is the Crimean peninsula under threat of ethnic cleansing like that in Abkhazia? It is still an open question.

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