South Ossetia and the fate of the 'mini-republics'

August 13, 2008
Something about the recent crisis in South Ossetia that needs to be underscored is the absolute necessity of the next US president coming to some kind of understanding with Russia over the fate of the mini-republics, the “national” republics within states which have been the conflict zone of Eurasian space since the end of the Cold War. Chechnya, the republics of the former Yugoslavia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are all examples of such “mini-republics,” regions which had their own state apparati--usually autonomous regions or republics within Yugoslavia or the republics of the former USSR.
As I discussed in my post yesterday, the question of when to recognize the independence of mini-republics and when to support the territorial integrity of larger state entities has never been answered consistently. Indeed, after years of insisting upon the sanctity of respecting the territorial integrity of states, Russia has now become more aggressive in defending separatism when it suits its interests. The United States, which for years has supported separatist movements when it felt like it, is now up in arms over Russia's support for South Ossetia.
While all eyes have been on South Ossetia this week, the breakaway region of Georgia may only be a preview to what could be a larger, and far more dangerous, conflict over the Crimea—yet another “national” republic within a larger state. The Autonomous Republic of Crimea is predominantly Russian, living rather grumpily within Ukraine, a country with NATO ambitions. The Crimea, moreover, is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, but only for another nine years. According to the treaty concluded between Russia and Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia gets to lease its base in Sevastopol only until 2017, at which point it is supposed to revert to Ukraine. 
Map of Ukraine, with Crimea at the bottom

The possible repercussions for the Crimea of the events taking place now in Georgia are hardly lost on the pro-American government in Kiev, which has announced that it might not allow the Russian Black Sea fleet back into the Crimea should they participate in the fighting in Georgia—a declaration which invited a furious response from Moscow. Unlike South Ossetia, which hardly anyone in Russia cared about until last week, people in Russia would love to have their government take a stronger stand on Crimean independence. Indeed, the Crimea is the one part of the former USSR that Russians clearly pine for, often referring to it in conversation as “the south of Russia.” Whereas South Ossetia only became an issue for Russians after the Georgian attack on the region, retaking Crimea would be a popular move in many quarters in Russia even without a Saakashvilian pretext.
It's thus important for both the United States and Russia to start being honest--at least in private--about the opportunism and hypocrisy that has characterized the foreign policies of both countries with respect to mini-republics. In this context, John McCain's bellicose rhetoric--blaming Russia alone for the crisis and placing these events within a broad and simplistic historical sweep--is particularly unhelpful.
Something else that is worth keeping in mind about the mini-republics is that the problem is not simply "nationalism." Indeed, while there has been ethnic conflict in many regions of the Balkans and former Soviet Union over the past twenty years, full-scale war tended to break out only in those regions where a mini-republic was involved. This is because in the mini-republics, you don't simply have nationalism, but also a state apparatus devoted to expanding its autonomy or becoming independent altogether.
Thus, rather than simply shrug our shoulders and chalk up the violence to "ancient hatreds," it's necessary to try to be proactive about these conflicts because we can see where they might be heading next.
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