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?
The short answer, at least from Moscow’s standpoint, is that it may be now or never. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s method of choice for projecting influence over the “near abroad” has been to prop up friendly governments in the CIS nations where they exist and to install them where they don’t. This strategy remains, to a great extent, effective in central Asia, where democratization is still at an early stage and where local leaders have few realistic alternative strategic partners. In the Caucasus and eastern Europe, however, this system has broken down during the past three years.
To be sure, Russia isn’t entirely without clients in these regions. Moscow can still exercise influence over Belarus, where Lukashenko needs Putin’s patronage to stay in office, and in Armenia, which has a clientage relationship with Russia similar to Israel’s with the United States. Since the Rose Revolution in Georgia, however, Tblisi’s politics have shifted away from Moscow and toward Brussels, and similar evolution has taken place in Ukraine and Moldova. Even Azerbaijan is increasingly developing a mass opposition politics and has made tentative suggestions about eventual European Union membership.
The bottom line is that Putin can’t be certain that his remaining Caucasian and European clients will remain in his camp forever. The three unrecognized republics, which are almost entirely dependent on Russia for diplomatic and financial support, represent Moscow’s best method of maintaining influence in these regions. And even there, pro-Russian political alignment may not last forever. In the 2004 Abkhazian presidential election, for instance, Moscow’s candidate initially lost, leading to a controversy which was resolved after heavy-handed Russian intervention. The 2005 parliamentary election in Transnistria likewise resulted in victory for the Renewal party, which ran on an anti-corruption ticket and beat out President Igor Smirnov’s Republican faction. Smirnov himself may, for the first time in his career, face a serious challenge in elections scheduled for December. None of these countries can be called a full-fledged democracy, but domestic politics isn’t as domesticated as it has been in the past.
Granted, neither of these political events have had any immediate effect in foreign policy terms. The Renewal party has been co-opted to a considerable extent, and as evidenced by its support of the referendum, its leaders haven’t dissented to a significant degree on alignment with Russia. Pro-Russian politics are still the consensus in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well, particularly the latter. Nevertheless, as Moldova and Georgia develop more attractive European-oriented economies, the growing importance of corruption and development issues might spur the formation of political opposition and put the EU in competition with Russia for local influence. The political climate even in Transnistria or the Georgian breakaway provinces might not favor annexation to Russia five or ten years from now, so Moscow may be striking while the iron is hot.
What’s at stake?
The question remains of what Moscow hopes to gain if the referenda are successful. The United States, the European Union and Ukraine have already announced that they won’t recognize the referenda and that they won’t regard the results as having any impact on the breakaway republics’ legal status. In the immediate term, Russia stands little chance of gaining international support for annexation, and given that Transnistria has neither a seacoast nor a land border with Russia, the movement of Russian military forces or logistical support into the region could lead to trouble with Moldova and Ukraine.
The referenda can provide Moscow with leverage to pressure Moldova and Georgia, however, and even if their results are suspended, they could be used to create options in the medium to long term. Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are all the subjects of international mediation processes – mediation which has been stalled for various reasons, but which has as its goal a consensual resolution of the breakaway republics’ status. Up to now, the options have been independence, reabsorption into unitary Georgian or Moldovan states or some form of local autonomy, with the unrecognized states insisting on the first, Georgia and Moldova on the second and the international community not really pushing the last. If a fourth option of annexation by Russia is brought into the equation, however, and if Moscow can point to the results of a plebiscite as credible evidence of support for that option, then autonomy under Russian patronage could become the middle ground.
There is, after all, precedent in the Balkans. The 1995 constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, which was brokered at Dayton, created an autonomous “Republika Srpska” with 49 percent of the country’s land area and the authority to “establish special parallel relationships with neighboring states.” This Serb canton has maintained broad de facto autonomy, including its own paramilitary police, and has tended to align its politics with the Serbian state. It may be that Russia’s long-term ambition in the South Caucasus and Transnistria is similar – not to annex the breakaway territories per se, but to use the prospect of annexation to manipulate the international mediation processes and secure a legally recognized arrangement under which Moscow can maintain influence through autonomous provincial governments.
Why should the EU care?
The impact of Russian neo-imperial ambitions and clashing nationalisms on stability in the Caucasus and the countries bordering the Dniester is reason enough to care. For those who are looking for a more concrete reason (and have a fascination with worst-case scenarios), the European Union could inherit the Transnistria conflict sooner than it might think. In less than four months, barring unforeseen complications in Brussels, Romania will become an EU member state. At that point, the slumbering issue of Moldovan reunification with Romania would take on a new dimension, given that reunion would be a means for Moldova to jump the queue and receive the benefits of EU membership a decade or two ahead of schedule. This isn’t something that seems likely to happen soon – nationalist politics in Moldova would pull both ways, Russia’s capital in Chisinau isn’t entirely spent, the costs would potentially be prohibitive from the Romanian side and sorting out financial obligations would be a major headache – but the chances of it happening eventually are greater than zero. If so, then the Transnistria issue, and its potential for direct conflict with Russia, would suddenly be inside the EU’s borders.
Even barring such an extreme scenario, developments in the Transnistria and South Caucasus conflicts could potentially complicate relations with EU candidate states. The Transnistria referendum, for instance, has already created yet another rift in Ukraine’s ethnically-charged politics. The Ukrainian government has refused to send observers to monitor the referendum, but Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions will be sending an independent delegation. If the referendum results in a decision favoring “free association” with Russia and if the issue of Dniester transit rights comes before the Verkhovna Rada, then Transnistria policy could become both politically and (given Transnistria’s 30-percent Ukrainian minority) ethnically divisive. If it becomes divisive enough, then it could impact Ukraine’s still-unfinished democratization.
The Caucasian republics are farther from Europe, but the crises there – and particularly the EU’s role or lack thereof in resolving those crises – could nevertheless have an eventual impact. Unlike Moldova, where European integration is a fairly natural progression, the Caucasus has several other potential partners, and it isn’t inevitable that the Caucasian states will become European-aligned. And at least one of the factors that will play a part in whether countries like Georgia ultimately opt for a European orientation is how reliable the EU’s soft power is in protecting them against Russia. If South Ossetia, or ultimately Abkhazia, petitions to join the Russian Federation, then Tblisi will need to see some concrete opposition from Brussels, and the latter may face a choice between losing Georgia or supporting solutions that it doesn’t really favor.
The overriding possibility is that, if Europe and the remainder of the international community let the referenda happen without making any proposals themselves to break the deadlock, they risk losing the diplomatic initiative to Russia and having their future regional options constrained. I’m not nearly familiar enough with the politics and needs of the region to suggest what kind of proposal should be made or what tactics should be used to persuade the parties to compliance. Continuing to keep the crises on a back burner, though, which after all amounts to de facto support of the status quo, may not be a viable option for much longer.