MONTENEGRO BREAKS AWAY: WILL ABKHAZIA FOLLOW?

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Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Trans-Dniester are watching Montenegro

Montenegro’s independence is sure to inspire all those who are striving for a revision of internationally-recognized borders. This primarily applies to the regions where interethnic bloodshed has flared already, with conflicts being “frozen” at some stage. Frozen, but not resolved.


Will Montenegro’s separation from Serbia trigger a chain reaction? That might well be the most pressing question in European politics today. The continent has at least ten other territories striving for separation from the states to which they “belong” at present.

All of Europe’s potential separatists have been paying close attention to developments in Montenegro. It’s hardly surprising that the leaders of Abkhazia and the Trans-Dniester region were among the first foreign politicians to respond to the referendum results. They welcomed the “free expression of the people’s will” in Montenegro, and stated that they would also like to hold independence referendums. But who would recognize the outcomes of those referendums?

The Europeans and Americans are prepared to recognize Montenegro’s independence, but say it’s a special case and any analogies with other separatist regions would be inappropriate. There’s a certain amount of logic behind those words.

Three federative states broke up after the communist system collapsed: the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. The international community was faced with a tough decision: what kind of criteria it would use for recognizing or not recognizing new countries.

Eventually, it was decided that recognition would be extended to territories that possessed something akin to sovereignty within their former states (in the case of the USSR, that meant the 15 union republics). But autonomous formations within those republics could not aspire to independence.

This criterion isn’t incontestable, but at least it’s clear and definite. It has been used to redraw the map of the world. Fifteen new state arose to replace the Soviet Union, and two states replaced Czechoslovakia. Only the case of Yugoslavia produced a glitch: Montenegro declined to separate from Serbia. This situation continued for 15 years. But now the Montenegrins have changed their minds and decided to make use of their “postponed” right to sovereignty.

This doesn’t seem to disrupt the logic of the process – but just try explaining it to the residents of “autonomous formations” in Georgia, Moldova, or Bosnia. They don’t care about the subtleties of diplomatic formulations. They simply can’t understand why the Montenegrins are allowed to do this, but they are not. Why the double standards?

So Montenegro’s independence is sure to inspire all those who are striving for a revision of internationally-recognized borders. This primarily applies to the regions where interethnic bloodshed has flared already, with conflicts being “frozen” at some stage. Frozen, but not resolved.

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Abkhazia and South Ossetia (want to separate from Georgia)

1. Conflict History

After Georgia declared independence in 1991, Abkhazia (holding autonomous republic status) and South Ossetia (an autonomous region) declared their wish to secede from Georgia and become part of Russia. Matters reached the point of war with Tbilisi in both cases. Russia sided with the autonomies. The Georgians were defeated in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and at present they don’t control either of the self-proclaimed republics.

2. Russia’s position

Officially, Moscow recognizes Georgia’s territorial integrity and refuses repeated requests from Sukhumi and Tskhinvali for “admittance into the Russian Federation.” All the same, Russia provides various forms of aid to the governments of both unrecognized republics; most of their residents have been granted Russian citizenship, and the ruble is used as currency on their territories. Tbilisi accuses Moscow of “creeping annexation.”

3. The West’s position

The United States and Europe are in full solidarity with Georgia, recognizing its territorial integrity and calling for both conflicts to be resolved via peaceful negotiations. Last year, when Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili seemed on the verge of launching a military operation against South Ossetia, the Americans pressured him to exercising restraint. A war was averted. However, the West has been arming and training the Georgian military.

4. Prospects

In Tbilisi, many believe that the fate of both territories is sealed: sooner or later, Russia will annex them. At the official level, Moscow tries not to provide the slightest reason to suspect it of harboring such intentions. Unofficially, Moscow makes it clear to the Georgians that if Tbilisi attempts to use force to settle the question of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, Russia is unlikely to stand aside. So it’s better to negotiate, not fight. But the negotiations have been deadlocked for years.

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The Trans-Dniester region (wants to separate from Moldova)

1. Conflict History

In many respects, the Trans-Dniester scenario is reminiscent of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. The residents of the Dniester River’s left bank didn’t want to be part of independent Moldova, and declared that they wanted to join Russia. The result was a brief but bloody war, stopped only after Russia intervened, sending in troops commanded by General Alexander Lebed. There hasn’t been any more fighting since then, but negotiations haven’t made any progress either.

2. Russia’s position

The Russian authorities probably haven’t ever given any serious consideration to annexing Trans-Dniester. The practical aspects would be too difficult: Russia doesn’t share a border with the unrecognized republic – they are separted by Ukraine. Moscow hoped to resolve the conflict with the Kozak Plan, drawn up by Dmitri Kozak when he was the senior deputy director of the presidential administration. But Chisinau rejected the Kozak Plan, following unprecedented pressure from EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

3. The West’s position

The Europeans and Americans were strongly opposed to the Kozak Plan. They were particularly annoyed by the point specifying a continued Russian military presence on Trans-Dniester territory. When Viktor Yushchenko’s orange team came to power in Ukraine, the West decided to use economic measures of influence on the “separatists” in Tiraspol. The Ukrainian authorities blocked access to Trans-Dniester for goods that didn’t go through Moldovan customs. Tiraspol called it a blockade. Russia sent humanitarian aid to Trans-Dniester. The West expressed full support for Kiev.

4. Prospects

The West won’t accept the Trans-Dniester region’s separation from Moldova under any circumstances. The European Union’s activity with regard to Trans-Dniester is likely to increase, especially after Romania joins the EU, since it’s the major force lobbying for Moldova’s interests. A military solution to the conflict is unlikely, especially since Russian peacekeepers are still present in Trans-Dniester.

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Nagorno-Karabakh (wants to separate from Azerbaijan)

1. Conflict History

The Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region, part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, had a mostly Armenian population. In the late 1980s, they started making demands to join Armenia. The first inter-ethnic clashes flared up even before the USSR collapsed, and the bloodiest fighting happened in 1992-93. With Armenia’s support, the Armenians of Karabakh won the war – capturing all the disputed districts, as well as some adjacent regions of Azerbaijan. The conflict has been frozen ever since.

2. Russia’s position

Moscow officially recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, and acts as a mediator. All the same, many Azeris suspect Russia of siding with the Armenians and lobbying for their interests. The Azeris claim that the Armenians wouldn’t have won the war for Nagorno-Karabakh without help from Russian Armed Forces units stationed in the region.

3. The West’s position

The United States maintains close relations with Azerbaijan, encouraging it to pursue “a foreign policy independent of Russia.” Relations with Armenia are more complicated, since Washington considers that the Armenian government looks to Moscow too much. However, there are influential Armenian diasporas in the United States and in Europe. They prevent the West from siding entirely with Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

4. Prospects

The Nagorno-Karabakh status negotiations are deadlocked. Armenia insists that Nagorno-Karabakh should be independent, while Azerbaijan refuses to consider the idea. Baku occasionally threatens to resolve the problem by force, while pointing out that time is on Azerbaijan’s side: it’s an oil-rich country that can spend far more on its military needs than Armenia, which has essentially been existing in blockade conditions for the past 15 years. All the same, the Azeri military isn’t ready to challenge Armenia as yet.

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