Monday, September 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: When ‘the Non-Existing Recognize the Unrecognized’

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 22 – The decision of several sub-state actors to “recognize” the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has become the occasion for some humor, but in fact, such actions both reduce the chance that other countries will follow Moscow’s lead and create additional problems for the Russian Federation both domestically and abroad.
When Hamas followed Moscow’s lead and recognized the independence of the two breakaway regions, the Georgian foreign ministry put out a statement congratulating the Russian Federation on having formed an alliance with such an important international actor as a Palestinian terrorist group.
Now, some in the Moscow media are having a field day as a result of decisions last week by the Gagauz Autonomy in Moldova and the self-proclaimed Republic of Srpska Krajina (which functions as a government in exile in Belgrade) to extend diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
One commentary even chose to headline its article on this “The Non-Existing Recognize the Unrecognized” ( But as even the authors of that essay recognized, such steps are no laughing matter either for the entities that make them or for the Russian Federation itself.
For places like the Gagauz Autonomy in the southern portion of the Republic of Moldova and the government-in-exile of Srpska Krajina, the advantages of making such declarations are obvious. On the one hand, this action gives them a chance to attract international attention to their own causes.
And on the other, by taking a step analogous to the one that a powerful state wants, they invite or even imply support by that state for themselves, something that both helps mobilize their own people and, what is more important, can give them some leverage in dealing with the state governments where they are.
But if the consequences of recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia are almost entirely positive for the Gagauz Autonomy and the Srpska Krajina, the editors argue, they are almost entirely negative for the Russian Federation.
First, they call attention to Moscow’s failure to get other countries to follow its lead and the reasons why, all the optimism expressed by Russian officials to the contrary, few countries are likely to do so in the future.
Since Russia extended diplomatic recognition to the two breakaway republics, only Nicaragua, among internationally recognized countries, and Hamas, a substate actor in the eyes of most, have taken the steps necessary to do the same. As US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said, “approval by Daniel Ortega and Hamas is difficult to call a diplomatic triumph.”
Russia’s action has been rebuffed by its traditional partners, most because like China or the countries of Central Asia, they have their own secessionist or potentially secessionist minorities, but others like Belarus because they do not want to offend the West or appear to sanction the possible use of military power against themselves.
Second, they complicate Moscow’s relations with Serbia and Moldova. The Serbian government is doing everything it can to become a member of European institutions. Its hosting of an entity like the government in exile of Srpska Krajina only complicates that effort and will certainly cause some in Belgrade to look even more askance at Moscow.
The action by Gagauzia creates even more difficulties for Moscow. It has offended the ruling Communist Party whose deputies boycotted the vote with which Moscow has tried to improve relations. And it has thrown an additional obstacle on the path toward normalization of relations between Chisinau and the breakaway regime in Tiraspol.
And third, they invite republics and regions within the Russian Federation itself to do the same thing, a move that could help power national movements there and at the very least highlight the ethnic diversity and increasing brittleness of Russia’s ever more authoritarian regime.
Not only do the actions of the Gagauz and the Srpska Krajina émigrés represent models of what republics or regions within Russia might do to generate domestic support, but they play into the hands of those in the West who hope to encourage separatism in the Russian Federation as a response to what Moscow has done in Georgia.
Consequently, dismissing what these substate actors have done as the equivalent of moves by some kind of “Kingdom of the Elves or Land of the Goblins” is a mistake, however much their actions may appear at first glance to be an occasion for humor.

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