Following the recent referendum in Crimea and the growing tensions between the West and Russia over the latter’s military actions in Ukraine, many analysts are looking at what the secession may mean, not just for Ukraine but the region as a whole. One major question is whether Russia will stop at Crimea when it comes to welcoming former regions of the Soviet Union back into the fold. Russia’s past involvement in the region’s various secessionist movements may be helpful in understanding what could happen next, as well as highlight how recent developments reflect unfinished business from the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Eastern Ukraine – Now that Crimea voted to join Russia, many analysts worry that the provinces of Eastern Ukraine with their significant ethnic Russian populations may be next. Like Crimea, most of the population of Eastern Ukraine reject the Euromaidan uprising that deposed President Viktor Yanukovych and favor closer ties with Russia over association with the EU. Recent attempts by the Ukrainian parliament to abolish the option of official regional languages for areas of the country with strong ethnic minorities, although ultimately vetoed by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, spurred fears of ethnic Russians of oppression as Ukraine moves to the West. Local pro-Russian militias have already clashed with pro-Kiev groups in the eastern city of Donetsk, killing one and injuring dozens. The new government in Kiev seems at a loss about what to do as Russia adds fuel to the fire by mobilizing tank and artillery units along the border. As Ukraine prepares for new elections in May, Eastern Ukraine remains a potential hotspot for a far more volatile political conflict that could rip Ukraine apart.
Transnistria (Moldova) – Bordering Ukraine, this region of Moldova never wanted to leave the Soviet Union and suffered from rising ethnic tensions even before the USSR dissolved in 1991. Because of growing pro-Romanian nationalism in the rest of Moldova, Transnistria declared independence in 1990. As the USSR finally fell apart Transnistria became part of an independent Moldova and within months, open conflict broke out between Transnistria and the Moldovan government.
By July 1992, both sides agreed to a ceasefire and autonomous status for the region that has held to this day but also places Transnistria in limbo. Sporadic international negotiations over the last 15 years has resulted in no lasting agreement on the official rights or status of the region. A 2006 referendum received 97% vote in favor of joining with Russia, but the referendum is not recognized by the international community and has so far mainly been ignore by Russia. However, following recent events in Crimea, lawmakers in Transnistria are once again asking for accession.
Gagauzia (Moldova) – Like Transnistria, Gagauzia hold autonomous status within Moldova and shares a similar history in the wake of the breakup of the USSR. A regional referendum in 1991 heavily favored staying within the USSR, mainly due to concerns over the pro-Romanian nationalist movement. While Gagauzia unilaterally declared independence in August 1991, half of the representatives from the region still voted in favor of Moldavian independence later that same month. Ultimately, parliament passed special laws to grant autonomous status for the region and incorporated a right to external self-determination within the national constitution. This successfully avoided armed conflict but also means many divisions remain unresolved.
These divisions were on display in February when Gagauzia held a referendum on the direction of the region. As Moldova prepares to enter into an Association Agreement with the EU, 98.4% of voters in Gagauzia voted in favor of the Russian-backed customs union while 98.9% voted for independence if Moldova joins the EU or gives up its sovereignty, for example by uniting with neighboring Romania. Despite their pro-Russian leanings, Gagauzia is generally less troublesome than Transnistria but the situation is lining up very similarly to the situation in Ukraine meaning that Gagauzia could wind up being the next domino to fall.
Abkhazia (Georgia) – This small region of Georgia on the Black Sea already enjoys de facto independence even though it is not recognized by most of the international community. Following the dissolution of the USSR, conflict broke out between ethnic Georgians and Abkhazians in 1992, ultimately ending in defeat for the Georgian military and the cleansing of most of the ethnic Georgian population through killings and mass displacement. While Abkhazia did not officially declare independence until 1999, the Georgian government in Tbilisi has not had control over the area since 1993.
Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Tuvalu ultimately recognized Abkhazia’s official declaration of independence in the wake of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. The region remains heavily dependent on Russia for all trade. Russia also introduced new mechanisms for Abkhazians to gain Russian citizenship, which most inhabitants of the region now have. However despite these close ties, Abkhazia still finds itself largely sidelined by Russia as seen most recently during the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
South Ossetia (Georgia) – Like Abkhazia, South Ossetia first experience turmoil with Tbilisi in the lead up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The region which borders Russia first declared independence in 1991. A year of sporadic fighting between Ossentian and Georgian irregular fighters ended with an agreement on deployment of international peacekeepers to the region and recognized autonomy for South Ossetia within Georgia. However, this ultimately was not enough and following the political shift towards the West after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Ossetians voted overwhelmingly in a regional referendum for full independence.
The referendum is not recognized by Georgia but fueled tensions between separatists and the government in Tbilisi. In 2008, the Georgian military launched a concerted land and air campaign to regain control of the region. As most Ossetians hold Russian passports, Russian responded with their own land and air campaigns, arguing such action was necessary to protect their citizens. Russian forces swept through Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a matter of days and started to occupy other regions of Georgia as well. Russia ultimately withdrew its troops back to the contested regions but complicated the situation by granting formal recognition to South Ossetia. Like Abkhazia, the euphoria over recognition did not last long as South Ossetia’s economy is now entirely dependent on an apathetic Russia and is largely ignored by politicians in Moscow.
In all these cases, regions with sizable ethnic minority populations sought greater independence and self-determination in light of changing national policies, typically a greater move towards the West through closer ties with NATO and the EU over closer association with Russia. In each case, Russia has been more than happy to intervene, whether politically or militarily, to assure that does not happen. At times, such as in Eastern Ukraine or Crimea, this may be to assist ethnic Russians but in the other regions discussed here, the groups at issue are not ethnic Russian but are granted Russian passports that then serve as a pretext for intervention. It is a dangerous game of redrawing map borders through political manipulation and military deployment which already led to open conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and may lead to open conflict between Russia and Ukraine, currently the third largest country in Europe, if further meddling in the east continues.
Developments in Crimea also pose problems for Moldova who like Ukraine is finally about to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, will hold key parliamentary elections later this year and is still heavily reliant on Russia for trade and its natural gas supply. If Russia pursues Transnistria accession, it will create pockets of the Russian Federation with borders on Romania, Western Ukraine and Moldova, raising far more issues for more countries in the region.
It is also possible that these five regions are just the beginning. Belarus has thus far been a good partner to Russia but is also making moves for greater partnership and cooperation with NATO while Russia is already stating their concern over ethnic Russians in neighboring Estonia. But this is not just about potential Russian ambitions; setting the precedent of redrawing borders based on ethnic and citizen distribution but without political engagement with existing sovereign states could open doors for increased ethnic conflict and secession movements in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as well as Russia itself. In this light, Russia’s recent actions are far more than just a resurgence of Russian imperial ambitions but a potential Pandora’s Box that can have long lasting implications throughout Europe and Central Asia.
Originally published on UN Dispatch