Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s New Man in the North Caucasus Seen Ready to Change Borders There

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 26 – Aleksandr Khloponin, Moscow’s newly appointed head of the North Caucasus Federal District, has experience with amalgamating regions in the past and thus may be inclined to combine or otherwise change the borders among the republics of that region, according to a leading Russian analyst.
In an article posted online today, Eduard Popov, the head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies in Rostov-na-Donu, notes that Khloponin, in his capacity of Krasnoyarsk governor, organized the unification of the Taymyr (Dolgano-Nenets) and Evenk autonomous districts with that kray (geopolitica.ru/Articles/872/).
And consequently, that 2005 experience, along with the new talk about amalgamation following the recent declarations of Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, suggests, Popov continues, that Moscow may be ready to change borders in the Caucasus despite what everyone concedes is the extraordinary sensitivities of the people in that region to such steps.
The possibility that the central Russian government may in fact take on that challenge is suggested by the reactions of a range of Duma deputies to Gryzlov’s proposal, reactions that were reported yesterday in a Regions.ru article perhaps significantly entitled “Size Matters” (www.regions.ru/news/2266358/).
Most of those the news agency contacted said they favored uniting weaker units with stronger ones but believed that Moscow must move cautiously because in the words of one deputy “sovereignty is always a plus,” even if those involved are not in a position to pay their own way.
Others, including Untied Russia’s Vladimir Pekhtin, said that the amalgamation of federal subjects was “an absolutely wise measure” as long as the center develops for each subject involved “an individual plan of social-economic and infrastructure development, the consistent realization of which gives a positive effect.”
In his listing of Moscow’s successes in this area, he pointed to the folding in of the two non-Russian districts into Krasnoyarsk kray that the new presidential plenipotentiary in the North Caucasus oversaw, although Pekhtin added that amalgamation might be “especially” relevant for the Far North, perhaps an indication of concerns about doing in the Caucasus.
Given that Gryzlov suggested recipient regions should be amalgamated with donor ones, it is not entirely easy to see where Khloponin would begin as all the republics of the North Caucasus receive significant subsidies and none appears likely to become a donor subject any time soon.
Nonetheless, the suggestion that Moscow might be thinking about amalgamation in the Caucasus and Khloponin’s own technocratic – that is economic rather than ethnically sensitive approach – is by itself likely to raise concerns across the North Caucasus, the very region that even Vladimir Putin earlier suggested would be the last candidate for such combinations.
Meanwhile, an article posted online yesterday highlights border problems elsewhere in the former Soviet space: All Central Asian countries have potentially explosive border disputes with each other -- except for Turkmenistan, which has one with Baku about the Caspian seabed (www.stoletie.ru/geopolitika/centralnaja_azija_budet_li_peredel_granic_2010-01-25.htm).
In that article, Aleksandr Shustov notes that these disputes are not only between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as many know because of the comments of the Tajik president last year, but also between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and between Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation and among the region over several non-contiguous ethnic exclaves.
These disputes are yet another legacy of the Soviet period when Moscow not only delimited the territories of these republics in the 1920s in ways that left significant communities of various national groups on the “wrong” side of the border but also repeatedly shifted the borders among these republics during the course of the next six decades.
These “slow-acting mines” have been made even dangerous by local government decisions – there is only one road linking the predominantly Kyrgyz north of that country with the increasingly Uzbek south – and by differential growth rates of the various nationalities, with the Uzbeks having a far higher birthrate than most of the others.
So far, these disputes have simmered, with only occasional military action by border guards in the case of Uzbekistan or the decision to create a naval flotilla by Turkmenistan, but, as Shustov suggests, “any sharpening of ethno-territorial conflicts [in this region] is extremely dangerous.”
“The destabilization of the situation in any of the three most conflict-ridden states of Central Asia – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – are capable of generating a chain reaction throughout the entire region,” Shustov says, one that would inevitably drawn in Russia and possibly other outside powers.

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