The new great game

Our next anniversary guest post is written by the the great Jonathan Edelstein.

It’s starting to look like the season of referenda in the near abroad.

On September 17, less than a week from today, voters in the unrecognized republic of Transnistria, located between Moldova and Ukraine, will be asked to vote on whether to “renounce [their] independent status and subsequently become part of the Republic of Moldova” or “support a policy of independence… and subsequent free association with the Russian Federation.” The option of “free association” with Russia, which is widely considered a prelude to outright annexation, is reportedly backed by a large number of Russian-financed business and political organizations, some with long-standing presence in Transnistrian politics and others apparently formed for the occasion. In the meantime, South Ossetia, which had earlier explored the possibility of petitioning Russia’s constitutional court for annexation, has just announced its own referendum for November 12, and although Abkhazia currently denies similar plans, there are rumors that a plebiscite may be in the works there as well.

The referenda, which are rather transparently supported by Moscow, represent something of a change in policy for the Russian Federation. It’s certainly nothing new for post-Soviet Russia to attempt to maintain its influence over the countries comprising the former Soviet Union, and it has at times used Russian citizenship to cement the “soft” annexation of neighboring territories; for instance, at least 90 percent of Abkhazians and South Ossetians now hold Russian passports. Nevertheless, up to now, it has soft-pedaled the issue of de jure territorial expansion. The forthcoming vote on whether Transnistria should become a second Kaliningrad suggests that policymakers in Moscow are at least starting to think seriously about taking formal responsibility for the territories that have broken away from other former Soviet republics.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why Russia would push such a policy at the present time. All three of the breakaway republics have substantial minorities who oppose union with Russia; Transnistria is almost evenly divided between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians, and despite post-Soviet ethnic cleansing, South Ossetia and Abkhazia retain Georgian minority enclaves. The recent wave of terrorist bombings in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol may well be linked to the referendum, and Russian annexation of the Georgian breakaway republics would only intensify border conflicts such as the Kodori Gorge. Nor would successful plebiscites lend a veneer of legitimacy to a Russian annexation; indeed, given the current international attitude toward non-consensual secessions from recognized states, this would only make Russia’s legal position worse by transforming it into an occupying power.

In other words, the referenda seem like a recipe for stirring up ethnic conflict within the breakaway republics, making Moldova and Georgia even more alarmed over Russian political ambitions than they already are, and creating new diplomatic and legal problems for Moscow. Which leads naturally to three questions: why now, what does Russia stand to gain in compensation for these risks, and how much should the rest of the world (and particularly Europe) care?
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The Outermost Regions

In the comments to a recent post, the question arose of the “natural boundaries” of the EU. Apropos of that, let us briefly consider those parts of the EU that are outside of Europe. Sometimes very far outside.

The EU has a formal name for these territories: they are “the Outermost Regions of Europe”. Officially, there are six of them: Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion, the Azores, the Canaries and Madeira. Four French overseas possessions, two Spanish and one Portuguese archipelago.

I say “officially”, because there are a number of territories that aren’t covered under this. The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Africa aren’t, presumably because they’re considered part of metropolitan Spain. The Falkland Islands aren’t, because that would be very upsetting to Argentina. And French Polynesia isn’t, because French Polynesia is very confusing. (This is a territory where everyone has double citizenship — French and French Polynesian — and that’s the least complicated thing about it.)

Then there’s Greenland, which is part of Denmark, except not exactly; the Turks and Caicos Islands, whose citizens are British citizens, and so EU citizens, but who can’t vote in EU elections; the Netherlands Antilles… oh, the list goes on.

But let’s keep it simple, and just look at the bits that are absolutely, positively part of the EU: the seven official “outermost regions”, plus Ceuta and Melilla.
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CAP Research File

In the internal political life of the EU the Common Agricultural Policy seems guaranteed to hold and maintain pride of place as the topic which produces the highest level of acrimony and vitriol per paragraph of debate space. It has also featured of late as the hotspot which lead to the summer low-point in Franco-British relations. Yet while the debate is strong on heat, it is often poor on detailed information. A report whose final draft is being made available to a wider public this week may help to do something to remedy this failing.
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Regional Elections in France: The UMP takes a hit

Yesterday was regional elections day in France. France has not traditionally had any strong local government structure – one of the first acts of the revolution was the abolition of the old provinces and their replacement with purely administrative “departments.” However, the last 20 years have seen radical changes in the way French government is structured and the EU in particular has been a big force in decentralising the French state. The creation of the regions in 1982 was motivated by a desire to create institutions able to participate in partnering programmes with German Länder, particularly programmes subsidised by the EU. However, they have since taken on a life of their own. France is a quite diverse country on the ground and it has a number of long-standing problems related to regional differences.

So, although the regions are still not very powerful in comparison to the central state, they have been growing in power, particularly in areas that are culturally or economically outside of the core of the French state – Corsica, Alsace, Brittany and the overseas territories in particular. A number of significant powers over regional economic development and education are shared with the regions.
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