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Unification of partly recognized states with Russia: “emergency exits shut"

Possible unification with Russia has been discussed in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria for already 25 years. The discourse is public and is regularly put on agenda in South Ossetia and Transnistria, unlike Abkhazia where the issue is topical but not discussed openly.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia have seen elections recently. Transnistria elected a new president earlier in December.

Not long before leaving his post, the ex-president Yevgeny Shevchuk decreed that results of the nation-wide referendum of Sept 17, 2006, are to be implemented. 97% of Transnistria’s population voted for unification with Russia at the referendum. The decree mostly demanded that the local legislation is brought in harmony with the Russian laws.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Council of the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic (TMR) passed a bill approving use of the state symbols of the Russian Federation along with symbols of Transnistria. From now on, the law says, Russia’s national flag shall be placed on the right of the Transnistrian flag wherever it is raised.

In fact, it is rather symbolical, since it will be a kind of “unilateral” unification of the small country to Russia. However, this process will not go beyond symbols.

Anatoly Bibilov is the new president of South Ossetia and his only distinct program at present is to speed up the process of joining Russia. He lobbied the idea yet in 2011, when he lost the presidential campaign. That campaign was dirty and affected Bibilov’s political image dramatically. Since the country’s incorporation into Russia enjoys high public support, it has turned into the new president’s major rhetoric now.

The situation in Abkhazia is more complicated. Discussion of any status change is a taboo. Judging from public sentiments, one can suppose that there is a part of the public that could support the idea of joining Russia. At the same time, we do not know if the number of such people is large. There were some sociological “surveys” conducted by a non-governmental organization from the Czech Republic, but data of those surveys cannot be deemed reliable, since there was no poll as such, it was just imitation, and the final data were pulled out of a hat.

Anyway, in all the three republics mentioned above, hypothetical unification with Russia is one of the permanent issues on the public and political agenda.

An insight into the issue that became relevant in mid-1990s and is reaching the third decade of the 21st century will unveil several interesting moments.

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There are nuances on the surface; there are many publications of political scientists, journalists and others on the issue. This is about common culture and language. In the case of South Ossetia, this is about the people that is divided by the Greater Caucasian Mountain Range. Things are quite clear here.

Yet, there are things that go much deeper. To look into the matter, it is necessary to look into the epoch in which the societies of the partially recognized countries and unrecognized Transnistria live. Post-imperial elites or intellectual resources of nations and intellectuals at large organize the life in these societies. They are direct successors of the Soviet experience of life arrangement. Many of them lived the greatest part of their lives in that epoch. They have brought the old perception of the world to the present and discuss the prospects of their countries from the positions of the second half of the 20th century.

For them Russia is a space for inevitable expansion, in the direct sense, through integration of neighborhoods into the zone of their jurisdiction. No matter if elites are ready to integrate or not. They perceive Russia as the country that has always greenlighted their unification. Although there are some tactical, geopolitical and domestic political circumstances that impede “immediate” unification, if they tackle the issue, it will be an inevitable success.

Yet, those elites were not so wrong. In the last decade, we could see examples of deliberate efforts to create conditions for full incorporation of these countries into Russia. They were not so wrong, because Crimea’s unification happened.

However, with Crimea this hypothetical “window of opportunities” has perhaps closed forever.

This process came at a high cost, but it is not the only problem. Actually, geopolitical costs have disturbed the balance of Russia’s economy. Besides, Russia is facing a demographic problem that affects economy, specifically, development of infrastructures, human capital etc. In further words, Russia will not care for its neighborhoods for long.

It is critical to understand that irrespective of their state in the middle of the current century, Big Powers will not be using instruments of the 19th century in their foreign policies. It is extremely expensive, senseless and does not meet the demographic realities absolutely.

That is why, neither Abkhazia nor South Ossetia, and much less Transnistria that has no common border with Russia, will unite with it.

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Noteworthy that public opinion in Russia has undergone important changes. It will be rejecting any ideas of cultural affinity with the post-Soviet space. Suppose that in Russia they no longer perceive Abkhazia as “their own.” For the next generations of Russians, it will be just a foreign country.

Discussion of possible unification with Russia unveils a range of interesting aspects of corporate thinking of the post-Soviet elites in the above countries.

First, irrespective of the public attitude to the idea of uniting with Russia, it appears to be one of the most efficient “emergency exits” in case the state building process fails finally. This is very apparent in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

There are some more “emergency exits” in public conscience in Abkhazia, for instance, repatriation of ethnic Abkhazians from Middle East as a measure to settle demographic problems. Although this plan is deemed to failure and there are no preconditions for the situation to change in the future, the public still takes this “emergency exit” as a chance. The situation is the same with the “emergency exits” to Russia. For the Abkhazian public, it is an extreme option in case of an extreme level of decline. In fact, that option does not exist. Some section of the elite believe that the state building process is passing a kind of examination. If it fails, the country “will be united” with Russia.

In fact, nothing of the kind is possible. There can be tactical programs, projects, and support to defuse tensions, nothing else. The myth of certain “statehood quality standard” is nothing but wishful thinking. There is a myth that these territories are extremely important for the external world as battlefronts of the World War III.

In fact, the situation in exactly the opposite. Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a deep periphery of the post-Soviet area. As for Sukhum and Tskhinval, Moscow has settled its strategic issues there for decades to come. There is a defense shield and military bases that were built there not because of high threats, but because there was much money when they were built. Nothing else makes these countries important for Big Powers. Even Georgia is suffering now, as its problems have paled into insignificance. We are witnessing a new epoch. Nothing will change for these republics within the coming decades.

Anton Krivenyuk for EADaily

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