Archive for category secessionist conflicts

Ukraine’s impact on Russia

The crisis in Ukraine now dominates the Russian foreign and domestic policy agendas. Domestically, Putin has done well out of recent events. According to the Levada-Centre, a polling organisation, just before major protests erupted against former President Yanukovich in Ukraine, Putin’s approval ratings were at their lowest since he came to power 15 years ago. By May 2014, however, they had shot up to 83% – some of the highest levels he has ever enjoyed.

There are several reasons for this development. One is the simple fact that Crimea’s – ‘return’ to Russia is popular in its own right. But there has also been a sea change in public option since the 2011 anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow. Although many Russian citizens remain frustrated by government incompetence and corruption, the prevailing mood in Russia is that bad government is better than no government at all like in eastern Ukraine.

The manner in which the annexation of Crimea was carried out – quick, efficient and ruthless – proved that Putin is ready to take risks and capable of delivering results. The successful holding of the Olympics in Sochi also reinforced the official narrative of a ‘functional Russia’. And although Moscow fears that a third wave of Western sanctions could be damaging, current measures do not seem to have made much of an impact. Russian markets are recovering, as is the rouble, and expectations of economic growth have been revised upwards. With post-revolutionary Ukraine seemingly descending into civil war next door, more and more Russians appear content with the fatalist and minimalist slogan of a famous phrase from a 1960s Soviet movie “lish by ne bylo voiny” (anything but war). Read the rest of this entry »


Ukraine: four crises, one country

For most of the last two decades virtually every Ukrainian election or opinion poll has displayed two Ukraines – one Western-leaning and another looking to Moscow; one voting Timoshenko or Yushchenko and another pro Yanukovich; one against Putin and another in favour of him. Unsurprisingly, many feared that the ousting of Yanukovich, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the infiltration of eastern Ukraine by Russian military intelligence would lead Ukraine to split in two or collapse altogether like a house of cards.

Ukraine still faces four interconnected existential crises: economic, political, territorial and diplomatic (with Russia). It is also clear that even if the country manages to overcome these challenges, it will not be left unscathed. The past three months, however, have shown that Ukraine was not a powder keg waiting to explode, despite several matches having been thrown at it.
The country’s resilience has proven stronger than many assumed (both in Russia and the rest of Europe) and while its blend of problems might be poisonous, they are not insurmountable. Petro Poroshenko’s unexpectedly smooth popular election – with support drawn evenly across Ukraine – represents a potential turning point in the spiral of overlapping crises that have characterised its recent past.

One Ukraine, not two

Both Sunday’s elections results and the localised nature of the armed insurgency in east suggest there is neither two Ukraines nor a distinct ‘southeastern’ Ukraine. Although electoral preferences in Ukraine may have differed in the past, there is overwhelming popular and elite support for maintaining Ukraine as one state in the majority of its regions. Read the rest of this entry »


After Crimea: Putin’s Balance Sheet

When it comes to foreign policy, Russia is good at sprinting, while the West – and especially the EU – is better at marathons. The use of kinetic military force by Moscow is to a large extent a sign that other, long-term foreign policy means failed in Ukraine: Russian coercive diplomacy – based on sticks (embargoes and sanctions) and carrots (offers of cheaper gas and greater market access) – did not have the desired effect.

Moscow believes it can achieve its goals with rapid bursts of sprinting, and that the West will not quicken its pace in response. In Crimea, the territory was captured in a manner that was both quick and bloodless, with the weak state institutions of Ukraine simply crumbling in the face of Russian aggression. The problem is that other post-Soviet states are equally weak (or even weaker) and although they have successfully withstood periodic Russian embargoes over the last two decades, they are unlikely to be able to resist any form of military action. Worryingly, the option of sending armed, masked men to take over public buildings in a third state is very much on the table – particularly because this has proved not only easy, but also effective – and is therefore dangerously appealing. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ukraine: the view from China

With every new major international crisis – be it the Arab Spring, the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, recurrent emergencies in Africa, or the current Ukrainian-Russian tensions – it does not take long for diplomats and observers to start wondering ‘what does China think’. It is increasingly frequent during such crises for China to be put in the spotlight and expected to have a position on events and regions on which, until recently, Chinese opinions were barely worth a footnote. This is also true for the Crimean crisis. A few days into the crisis, the Russian foreign ministry announced that the Chinese and Russians shared “broadly coinciding points of view” on the situation.

Looking at China for comfort is driven by many factors. The rise of Chinese power is just one. In international public opinion China is often seen as a sort of ‘swing’ power, capable of tipping the political balance between entrenched political warriors whose preferences are already well known. On a crisis like the one in Crimea – which elicits completely different narratives from Russia, on the one hand, and the EU and US on the other – the Chinese are seen by some as a potentially less subjective or biased source of opinions. In this sense, China can offer surprises. After the 2008 Russia-Georgian war the Chinese maintained public politeness towards Russia but, in private, were clearly against the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – thereby helping Central Asian countries resist alleged Russian pressures to recognise the independence of those entities.

Hence the rush by Russia to claim Chinese support for its actions in Ukraine – as an effort to claim greater legitimacy for its military invasion of a post-Soviet state. However, the claim that China is on Russia’s side is spurious. Read the rest of this entry »

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Three scenarios for Ukraine

In two weeks Ukraine has gone through two major shocks. The Ukrainian revolution was one of the most violent transitions to date, and not just in the post-Soviet space. And the Russian military intervention in Crimea arguably constituted the biggest European security crisis since the Balkans wars of the 1990s.

The events in Ukraine will long be contested by competing narratives and propaganda both inside and outside Ukraine. What matters now is managing the political fallout from the crisis and learning the right lessons to prevent any future recurrence of similar events. A useful way to consider future policy responses is to organise them around possible scenarios. For Ukraine, there may be at least three: a return to the status quo ante, a ‘Transnistrisation’ of Crimea, and a future of more military interventions.

Status quo ante?

The status quo ante would mean the return of Crimea within the legal realm of the Ukrainian state. It would mean that local authorities in Crimea are subordinated to Kiev and that local police, border guards and tax authority operate within Ukraine’s legal framework. Such a scenario appears very unlikely now.

Once Russia moved in militarily and dismantled the normal functioning of the Ukrainian state institutions – from the army to police and border guards – there is not much that could reverse this fait accompli. If one compares the developments in Crimea with the events in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the late 1980s/early 1990s, one notices that whereas it took 2-3 years for the secessionist entities to gradually and painfully secede – de facto – from Georgia and Moldova, it took 3 days for the same to happen in Crimea. The reason is that, in the early 1990s, the process was mostly bottom-up: Russia offered some support but was mostly confused and consumed by its own crisis.

In Crimea, the opposite is true. First Russia moved in troops, then local actors mobilised to dismantle the Ukrainian state institutions in the region through a swift and targeted military action that took hours, not years. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rogozin’s travails in Moldova

Brussels might have started to get used to the sharp-tongued former Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin, but Moldova is only in the early stages of doing so. After a stint in Brussels, Rogozin moved back to Moscow last December to be appointed deputy prime-minister in charge of the military-industrial complex. Rogozin is a Russian populist nationalist politician with huge  (rumour has it that presidential) ambitions. A couple of weeks ago he was also appointed special representative of the Russian president on Transnistria (rather than on conflict settlement in Transnistria) and co-chair of the Russian-Moldovan intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. The move was badly staged. The Moldovans learned about it from the media. The appointment came in the same package as the nomination of two Russian regional governors (of Krasnodar Krai and North Ossetia) as ‘special representatives’, read overseers, for the adjacent Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Rogozin on the third day of his new appointment called Moldova a ‘hencoop’ on his twitter account.

The Moldovans are worried, the EU unimpressed and both irritated. Clearly the appointment of Rogozin shows a much higher Russian political interest in Transnistria. The trouble is that when Russia would rather put up a show instead of cooperating – Rogozin is the right person to (mis)handle dossiers. Given that in the last couple of months there have been some hopes regarding conflict settlement in Transnistria after the long-serving Transnistrian leader Igor Smirnov lost power to the younger Evgeny Shevchuk and Moldova finally elected a president, the appointment of Rogozin is an ever bigger nuisance. Rogozin is likely to be more concerned with self-promotion than pursuing conflict-settlement. Read the rest of this entry »

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The end of “de facto states”

For years the secessionist entities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria have been refered to as “de facto states” and the conflicts around them – “frozen conflicts” (see previous posts on South Ossetia and Abkhazia). There has been a wide consensus that the term “frozen conflicts” is a misnomer. The conflicts have never been frozen, their settlement was. But the evolving realities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are making the term “de facto states” also increasingly obsolete.

Scott Pegg launched the debate on de facto states with a book published over a decade ago. He referred mainly to North Cyprus, Taiwan, Somaliland, and Tamil Eelam. Dov Lynch took the debate into the post-Soviet space with his book on the “Engaging Eurasia’s Separatist States: Unresolved Conflicts and De Facto States”. The argument in both books is that secessionist regions which control a more or less well-defined territory, population and have a set of state-like institutions can be termed as “de facto states”. They are unrecognised, but de facto independent.

The truth is of course more complicated because most “de facto” states have always relied on various levels of external support to ensure their security and/or economic development (think of Taiwan, North Cyprus or Abkhazia). So the term has always been relative. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria have outsourced a large chunk of their de facto independence to Russia: Read the rest of this entry »

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Ikea and the Abkhaz paradox

As promissed, more impressions from my recent trip to Sukhumi. In Abkhazia, the economic imperative of rebuilding the region and attracting investments (predominantly Russian) clashes with its political project of staying more or less independent. Abkhazia might face the following paradox: until August 2008 Abkhazia was de facto independent but unrecognised; now it is recognised (by Russia and Nicaragua only), but not de facto independent anymore. The closure of the UNOMIG mission (anounced today) will also leave Abkhazia more internationally isolated than ever before.


Compared to my previous visit there in March 2006, now Sukhumi was livelier. There are more renovated buildings, more expensive cars, more people on the promenade by the sea, and the cafés are fuller. This is both a sign of some economic progress, but also the fact that summer is always livelier than the rest of the year (because of the tourists).

In the hotel I stayed (Ritsa) – very central and right by the sea – there were three wi-fi networks in the range of my laptop. The local GSM operator “Aquaphone” boasts with its 3G network. On one of the formerly abandoned piers in Sukhumi – a café was opened that serves sushi (and where the local authorities took Solana and Lavrov on their recent visits to Abkhazia). I even saw a yellow Hummer (!) (I also saw another one in Tbilisi –apparently that is trendy). A recent spat between the Georgian government and Benetton is also telling. Read the rest of this entry »

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On the meanings of “war”

Wars are defining moments in the life of states and nations. Throughout history wars often gave birth to nations, or caused the disappearance of states. Most nations had fought many wars, but almost every nation has one war to which they refer to as “the war”. For a German, Greek or Serb the term “before the war” means entirely different things and different periods.

I just spent a few days in Abkhazia and Tbilisi. I will write more about the trip in the following days. But it was interesting to see that the word “war” refers to different historical events. For the Georgians the phrase “after the war” means “after the August 2008 war”. Read the rest of this entry »

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New priorities in Georgia and Moldova

As Moldova and Georgia are plunging into political crisis, increasing polarisation, and growing tensions between the government and opposition EU’s priorities in these countries suddenly look different than a few months ago. This is clearly captured by what the EU special representatives (EUSR) to these countries are doing. If EU special representatives for South Caucasus and Moldova were appointed (in 2003 and 2005 respectively) to deal primarily with secessionist conflicts, now they have to deal primarily with domestic political crises.

When Georgia plunged into crisis in November 2007, Peter Semneby, EUSR for South Caucasus, flew immediately to Tbilisi and sought to diffuse the crisis by mediating between government and opposition. As the opposition launched again a series to rallies to unseat president Saakashvili less than two months ago, Peter Semneby is trying again to diffuse the crisis through mediation. Read the rest of this entry »

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