Monday, November 26, 2007

Window on Eurasia: ‘Balkanization’ Threatens Existence of Russian Federation

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 26 – Many Russians, including some in the Kremlin itself, believe that Moscow should respond to any unilateral Western recognition of the independence of Kosovo by recognizing or even absorbing some or all of the four “unrecognized” states on its periphery, according to a leading Russian analyst.
But such a move or even continued suggestions of its possibility, Sergei Markedonov argues in an article posted online at the end of last week, not only could exacerbate the “Balkanization” of the former Soviet space but also lead to the demise of the Russian Federation itself (
Balkanization, the Moscow specialist on ethnic conflicts writes, means in this case “the instrumental use of the Kosovo and Montenegrin precedents in the struggle for one’s own ethno-political self-determination” – a use that can be powerful even if the analogies often drawn are far from exact or even totally inappropriate.
And consequently, even though many in Western countries regularly insist with some justice that what is taking place in the former Yugoslavia should have no application in Eurasia, “the ‘Balkanization’ of the post Soviet space has begun” and could easily accelerate.
The attraction of such analogies to the leaders of Abkhazia, South Osetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Transdniestria are obvious, Markedonov continues. Were the principles on which Kosovo has moved toward independence applied to them, they might gain what they have long sought.
But the implications of such an achievement for the Russian Federation are anything but positive, however emotionally satisfying the undermining of some of its neighbors might be to Russian nationalists still licking their wounds over the loss of the Soviet empire.
Moscow thus today confronts a choice, albeit not the one many suggest. It can seek the continuation of the status quo, a not entirely happy one but something that defends the inviolability of borders including its own, or it can risk changing the status of the “unrecognized” states with all the dangers that could entail for Russia itself.
Markedonov makes it very clear that he favors the first option, but he says that if Moscow does decide to move in the second direction, it “must not force the process of the recognition of the unrecognized formations” by acting unilaterally and without a clear-eyed recognition of what could happen.
In all four cases, Moscow would confront the opposition of the countries from which these states would be carved, anger on the part of the international community that overwhelmingly opposes border changes, and increased demands for independence by various non-Russian groups inside the Russian Federation.
Consequently, it needs to operate on the basis of five principles. First, Markedonov says, Moscow needs to ask whether the non-recognized entities could in fact act effectively as states. If not, then the Russian government would only make the situation worse by helping them become de jure independent.
Second, the Kremlin needs to consider whether the countries within the borders of which these entities exist have any options besides deportation of ethnic cleansing to re-integrate these places. In some, re-integration may be impossible without violence, and pointing that out could help Moscow get support for going ahead.
Third, the Russian government should ask whether the governments involved in what some call “the CIS-2” are in fact democratic – or at least more democratic than the states that now claim them. If not, then there is little reason to help them: if so, that may be an argument in favor.
Fourth, Moscow must understand that dealing with these problems will require not only public negotiations but behind the scenes talks, conversations that could allow for the kind of trade-offs that would correspond to Russia’s national interests even if those of the “unrecognized” entities have to be sacrificed.
Indeed, Markedonov says, in conducting such talks, “Moscow ought not to close the door to the possibility of the re-integration of Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia.” Given its own multi-ethnic population, that could end by working to Russia’s advantage even if it infuriates some Russian nationalists and imperialists.
And fifth, Moscow must clearly state to others and to itself that “the recognition of the unrecognized states in no way means their inclusion within Russia” itself. These are two very different things, but unfortunately among much of the Russian elite, he continues, they are not carefully distinguished.
In short, Markedonov says, Moscow must “be guided not by Soviet phantoms or the interests of the self-proclaimed elites, but by Russian national interests,” interests that could easily be harmed if the Russian government responds too emotionally to what is likely to happen in Kosovo.
Up to now, most analysts who have discussed the impact of any Western moves on Kosovo have focused on the four so-called “unrecognized” states, but over the last several weeks, more and more writers have turned their attention to the effect of decisions about the former Yugoslavia on Crimea.
In an article posted online last week, Sergei Putilov asks whether recent developments in Crimea point to the emergence of “a Kosovo scenario for Crimea,” one in which that peninsula would be transformed into the latest flashpoint of “a clash of civilizations” (
Markedonov last week also offered a commentary on that possibility and on what he believes should be Moscow’s response. His remarks there underline his position that Russia’s primary concern should be inter-ethnic stability and peace rather than the projection of Russian power (
He acknowledges that “Crimea is an important constituent part of Russian identity ethnic and political,” something that explains both the efforts of ethnic Russian there to seek “union with Russia” and the support they often receive from Russian nationalists in the metropolitan country.
But however emotionally satisfying that might appear to be, Markedonov continues, “it is now time to clearly recognize that Russia does not have any possibility of securing the return of Crimea by military-political means” and that its long term interests there are best served by stability there.
Instead of focusing on whether Khrushchev or someone else made a mistake in the past, Russians should advance their national interests by working to transform Crimea into a space for “the growth of the economic and socio-cultural integration” of Russia and Ukraine – a kind of trans-border “Euro region” within the CIS.
That of course will not be emotionally satisfying in the short term, Markedonov concedes, because many Russians will continue to feel about Crimea the way Poles feel about Lvov and Vilnius, Tajiks about Sakharkand and Bukhara, Serbs about Kosovo and Armenians about Ararat.
But it will lead to an expansion of Moscow’s influence in the region rather than the threat that ethnic conflicts in a neighboring country will spread back into the Russian Federation and lead to a weakening of Russia not only as an international actor but also as a state.
Markedonov, of course, is not the only commentator on these issues, and there is no guarantee that President Vladimir Putin or his advisors will listen to his advice. But others, who may have a greater impact in their countries, are also discussing what Russia could and should do. And their words deserve attention as well.
Perhaps the most interesting discussion on this point last week was offered by Vafa Guluzade, the former Azerbaijani national security advisor and a leading specialist on ethnic issues across the region, in an interview carried by Baku’s “Day” newspaper on November 21 (
Asked about whether Russia is seeking to destabilize not only Georgia but also Azerbaijan by its involvement with the “unrecognized” states and other groups, Guluzade said that “undoubtedly, Russia has attempted and will continue to attempt to destabilize the situation” in both countries.
But, he continued, the Azerbaijani government is now in a position to block Moscow’s moves both because of its own strength and because of its close ties with the United States and Turkey, something Moscow should take into account before it continues its current course.
At the same time, Guluzade said, Moscow should be more attentive to the implications of what it is doing in the region on its own future. “All the processes which are taking place now in Russia now will lead to its complete collapse,” something the former Azerbaijani official suggested was fraught with disaster.
“It would be a good thing if this collapse of empire would take place peacefully and lead to the establishment of a new state. Up to now, the [ethnic] Russians do not have their own state, and Russia [as currently constituted] remains an empire.”
“Exactly as after the collapse of Great Britain remained England and after the collapse of the enormous Ottoman Empire remained Turkey, so too after the collapse of Russia there ought to appear a new state for Russians.” But that is not going to be easy.
“The small peoples who populate this empire require their own sovereignty. [And consequently] it would be a good thing if the leadership of Russia would now think about what the future Russian state might be. It is possible that there might be several such states.”
But reagrdless of whether or not Russia’s current generation of leaders is capable of doing so or not, Guluzade continued, “the process of the collapse of Russia as an empire is proceeding, and any reversal, one that would revive the empire, is not going to happen.”

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