Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Are More Border Changes Ahead in Eurasia?

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 2 – The widespread assumption that the Russian Federation will ultimately incorporate South Ossetia into its territory has led a Georgian parliamentarian to suggest Tbilisi should be making its own territorial demands on Russia, a proposal that calls attention to the ways in which border changes have taken place in Eurasia in recent times.
Yesterday, Georgian agencies reported that Koba Habazi, a member of the Georgian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, has urged Tbilisi to lodge a territorial claim against Russia with the United Nations for Sochi in order to make it more difficult for Moscow to hold the Olympics there in 2014 (www.sobkorr.ru/news/48BBB62F5364D.html).
“I am not saying that this is achievable at the present stage,” Habazi said, “but when a territory becomes disputed [as this action would make Sochi], then the chances for holding the Olympiad there are reduced” – especially since the world is now dividing up between those who back Moscow and those who are its opponents.
In making this proposal, Habazi was adding his voice to those in the United States Congress who have introduced a resolution calling on the International Olympic Committee not to hold the games in Sochi because of Moscow’s military actions in Georgia, a resolution that is slated to be voted on later this month.
Commenting on this Georgian parliamentarian’s suggestion, Sobkorr.ru’s Igor Gladysh says that “one can certainly understand the logic” behind it and even find certain “historical justifications” for Georgia’s claim as well as for a variety of other claims that countries might lodge against the Russian Federation – or other states.
“In almost the entire territory of the present-day Russian Federation there lived in former times peoples who did not have any relationship to the Slavs,” he writes. And “even the basin of the Moscow river was a place where Finno-Ugric tribes lived,” something which Gladysh noted, he himself “had more than once had the occasion” to comment upon.
And he noted that others have picked up this theme as well. On this week’s “Vesti nedeli” television program, Dmitry Kiselyev went so far as to cite communism’s founding father, Karl Marx, as having “expressed doubt in the very fact of the existence of the Russian nation as such.”
But -- and this is Gladysh’s main point -- “the majority of major powers of the world find themselves in an analogous situation,” on in which many other countries or peoples “might advance similar claims,” something most do not do because they know similar claims could be advanced against them and because they can be confident that almost no one will support them.
Nonetheless, Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and widespread predictions that it will ultimately absorb the latter if not the former call attention to three things that the international community has largely ignored or even flatly denied. First, border changes among the Soviet republics before 1991 were not rare – there were more than 200 of them.
Second, there have been territorial changes among the post-Soviet states since that time, most recently between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which sparked protests in the latter, and between Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation, which has been managed relatively calmly over the last month (www.easttime.ru/news/1/3/708.html).
And third, because of this history and because of its implications for the future of the former Soviet republics and even their survival, Russia’s latest moves have renewed discussions in many of them about the way in which tsarist and Soviet officials changed borders in order to control them. (See, for example, www.ethnoglobus.com/?page=full&id=355).
There is a fourth aspect of this situation but it is not truly political: That is the shifting of the borders of economic or religious groups as the result of political border changes. Among the most contentious of these at present are possible changes in the borders of the canonical territory of various Orthodox churches (www.vremya.ru/2008/159/51/211564.html).
Russia’s actions in Georgia thus entail yet another threat to stability: By suggesting that borders are in play and that they can be changed by military action rather than negotiation, Moscow has exacerbated national feelings among both Russians who see this as a step toward rebuilding the empire and non-Russians who fear that is exactly what Moscow intends.
And those feelings are going to play a significant role in the lives of all the countries of Eurasia, even if at the end of the day, the borders remain where they have been, because by casting doubt on that, the Russian government has not only snubbed its nose at the international system but raised a question the answer to which always cuts more than one way.

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