As tensions escalate again in the Eastern regions of Ukraine and talks of a renewed Cold War resonate in diplomatic circles, it is interesting to revisit similar conflicts between Russia and neighbouring countries in modern history. The current events in the regions of Donetsk, Kharkiv or Lugansk are not isolated and the fracture existing in Ukraine can – to some extent – be studied in the light of recent conflicts between Moscow and G7 countries, including the standoff over Georgia in 2008.
One has to be very cautious, however, when drawing any historical comparison as each conflict is the result of unique sets of conditions. The use of past grids of analysis is often the result of partisan political motivations in order to reinforce biased perspectives. For example, the recent references to Kosovo or Mayotte made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are of limited relevance. These comparisons do support Russian claims over East Ukraine and Crimea but any in-depth analysis easily underlines why these cannot serve as blueprints. In the case of Mayotte, the island separated from the Comoros to join France in the midst of decolonisation, it was not separatism per se from a constituted sovereign entity but rather a democratic decision between status quo and independence, favouring the incumbent institutional framework.
As for Kosovo, the referendum followed widescale abuses from Serbia including a civilian death toll nearing ethnic genocide levels while there had not been any casualty among the pro-Russian civilian population in Crimea. Moreover, what is unique and highly contestable in the case of Ukraine is the staggering speed of the dislocation process encouraged by Moscow, preventing for example the OSCE international observers to enter the territory and assess the validity of the ballot in Crimea until the last day. This very much contrasts with Kosovo where the referendum held in 2008 followed a long, yet unsuccessful, United Nations mediation.
The populations of Crimea and the Eastern regions of Ukraine should not be denied the right to decide whether to stay within Ukraine or join Russia, in accordance with the self-determination principle. However, elections only have value if they are organised in an appeased context, not under the pressures of urgency and martial propaganda. It is interesting to note that Russia rejected, on April 14, the proposal from Ukraine’s interim president to organise a referendum in Eastern Ukraine because it claimed the terms of the referendum would not be balanced, much like what happened in Crimea last month where the terms of the question asked to Crimeans were blatantly biased.
Recent events taught us here that whoever oversees the organisation of an election in a country, most likely controls its destiny. Similarly it is important to recall that Moscow has regularly denied the same right to some of its own republics such as Chechnya, violently answering its call for independence with two wars.
Modern history offers us a few additional illustrations of separatisms in a contested geopolitical space between Russia and the NATO forces. Since the crumbling of the Soviet Union in 1991, two countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus have experienced similar turmoil as the one Ukraine faces today: Moldova and Georgia. In Georgia, two republics unilaterally declared independence from Georgia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while Transnistria is now a landlocked territory between Moldova and Ukraine.
Here again, several differences should be underlined. In Georgia and Moldova, territories broke away from newly independent weak countries incapable of implementing control within their frontiers, while the Ukrainian government enjoyed until recently, a complete authority over Crimea and the eastern republics. The issue then was the absence of clear establishment of sovereign institutions which does not apply in the case of Ukraine. Instead, what is currently developing in front of our eyes is a violent breakaway from a sovereign state with obvious exogenous influence and support, a manifest breach of sovereignty orchestrated by Moscow.
What is currently developing in front of our eyes is a violent breakaway from a sovereign state with obvious exogenous influence and support, a manifest breach of sovereignty orchestrated by Moscow.
This explains the unanimous opposition from the international community. Even China, Russia’s traditional ally, denied support to Moscow as its main objective is to prevent similar separatism inside its own borders.
Yet despite these historical differences, a study of the current Abkhazian and South Ossetian situations 20 years after their unilateral declaration of independence provides us with interesting insights as to likely scenarios for the future of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Last week, the Council of Europe, a human rights organisation which includes Russia many European countries, officially expressed its concerns about Russia’s non-fulfillment of past resolutions regarding “the occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russian forces and Russian refusal to admit EU monitors and to stop ethnic cleansing”.
Economically, both territories are still waiting to see the support adamantly promised to them by Moscow. The Sochi Olympics, a few kilometres away from Abkhazia, were a sound illustration that the separatist territory failed to receive any positive economic outcome from its neighbour’s promised investments. To ensure the security of the global sporting event, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not hesitate to swiftly shut down the border with Abkhazia, putting in jeopardy the economic development of the small territory.
Similarly, the former Georgian province of South Ossetia showcases the despair of a population disillusioned by the lack of local development, high inflation and unemployment. According to Aleksei V Malashenko, from the Carnegie Moscow Center, only 30 percent of the promised Russian aid actually reached its target and the domestic security in South Ossetia is far from ensured. Instead, South Ossetia has witnessed a staggering increase in corruption and inequalities. The exultation and hope of 20 years ago have quickly been replaced by frustration and disenchantment.
To be fair, the prospects for Ukraine’s economy are grim in any case. Kiev recently had no other option but to agree to a 50 percent domestic gas price hike to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The Ukrainian population will have to make significant sacrifices amid the forced restructuring demanded by global institutions. The liberal economic model promoted by the EU has its own flaws, including a widening of income gaps, and a sometimes counterproductive commitment to austerity measures. On the other hand, it ensures the qualitative development of domestic institutions and regimes, essential for long term development, as shown in the case of the development of eastern European countries that recently joined the EU.
The best interest of populations in Crimea and the Eastern Republic of Ukraine will not result from the actions of its neighbours over the next few weeks and months, but rather from a long term dedication to local and institutional development. So far historical comparisons show us that Russian promises have been short lived. Abkhazian and South Ossetian populations’ isolation deepened and their cheers and hopes quickly faded away. On the other hand, Mayotte overwhelmingly voted in 2009 to increase their integration with France over economic progress, and the recent development of former European Soviet Republics now part of the EU, continue to foster interest from additional countries, most recently Moldova.
Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.