Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Borders of Post-Soviet States Should Be Changed, Moscow Analysts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 5 – Moscow’s acceptance of the transformation of internal administrative borders into international ones at the time of the collapse of the USSR was a reflection of Russia’s weakness, three Moscow analysts say. Now that Russia is again strong and the surrounding states weak, those borders can and should be changed.

            In a commentary on the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal yesterday, Aleksey Polubota argues that “after the collapse of the USSR, Russia hastily rejected any territorial claims on its neighbors” and accepted “the principle of the recognition of administrative borders [left over from Soviet times] as state borders (

            But that approach, which reflected Russia’s weakness at the time and the insistence of the West on this issue, he says, has been called into question by the weakness of some of the former Soviet republics now, the demands of groups within them for separation, and the return of Russian power and thus Moscow’s ability to advance Russia’s interests.

            Not only are the borders of Moldova, which formally include Transdniestria and Gagauzia, and Ukraine, which include Crimea and the East, increasingly viewed by many in Russia as problematic, Polubota continues, but there are the so-callled “frozen” conlicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

            According to the “Svobodnaya pressa” commentators, “Russia suffered the most of all these states from this administrative voluntarism, in which by ‘a stroke of the pen’ were cut of Crimea and the enormous territories which today are called Northern Kazakhstan.” Consequently, it may be time to revise them.

            Polubota queried two other analysts on this point, Aleksandr Shatilov, a sociologist and political scientist at Moscow’s Finance University, and Valery Korovin, the director of the Moscow Center for Geopolitical Expertise. Both argued that there are many reasons to think the post-Soviet borders can and will be changed.

            Shatilov said that “preconditions for redrawing borders exist not just in the post-Soviet space” and that separatist tendencies, intensified by the economic crisis, exist in many countries, including those in Western Europe.  In the post-Soviet space, the depressed economies of Moldova and Ukraine are calling into question the existing borders.

            As to Moldova, Transdniestria has lived “de facto” as an independent state for “more than 20 years,” and Gagauzia, angered by the Romanianism of Chisinau and supported by both Russia and Turkey, sees itself threatened by what the Moldovan state is doing and seeks to go its own way.

            The Finance University dean said that no one is about to declare the inviolability of borders no longer a valid principle. Too much depends on the maintenance of that idea. “But,” he added, “in practice we see that the political and economic crisis in Ukraine is intensifying the contradictions between different regions of this country” and others.  “It is difficult to say what will happen next.”

            The Russian Federation has “a problem territory” too: the North Caucasus, Shatilov acknowledged, although he said that the political elites in that region are attached to Russia.  If borders are changed, then “Russia will receive [some] additions” including Northern Kazakhstan, a transfer that might happen after the passing of Nursultan Nazarbayev.

            Korovin adopted a more geopolitical approach. He argued that “if a state does not realize expansion and does not spread its civilizational codes into adjoining territories, then it sooner or later will pass under the control of [its] geopolitical opponents,” something he suggested had happened in the near abroad when Russia was weak.

            “Having left the republics of the USSR to themselves, we in act left them to the mercies o our geopolitical opponents, in the first instance, the United States, which took up the task for the reforming of these territories ‘under itself,’” Korovin said. It sought to fill these countries with “anti-Russian values and cultural codes” and establish “a belt of Russophobia” around Russia.

            But now the situation is changing. The West is upset because Russia “instead of continuing to weaken and surrender its geopolitical positions as they expected is ever more actively showing itself in the foreign policy sphere.” Russia’s return, he suggested, has led some in the former Soviet republics to expect the West to adopt “a harsher scenario” towards Moscow.

             According to Korovin, Russians need to understand that “every time we began to convince ourselves that the West or some fragments of it could be our allies or partners, we weakened ourselves” and that whenever Moscow does stand up for its interests, the West will react in a negative way.

            Western countries are quite prepared to have borders change when it suits their interests, Korovin said, as they showed in the former Yugoslavia and Sudan, he argued. But they stand on the principle of the inviolability of borders when any change threatens them as was the case in Georgia and the other post-Soviet states.

            “The recognition of internal Soviet borders as state borders at the moment of the collapse of the USSR was a manifestation of the weakness of Russia”  in 1991. “A disintegrating country could not allow itself, or so it appeared then, to insist on the return of territories that had arbitrarily been taken away from it.”

            According to Korovin, “the borders between the republics in the format of the Soviet empire did not mean practically anything.” Instead, they were like “borders between districts of Moscow,” drawn for convenience of economic activity and without regard for ethnic settlement.  “Recognizing them [as international borders] was an extraordinary act of stupidity.”

                “If we return to the international arena and recognize that Russia in principle has certain interests,” Korovin continued, “then we must raise the question about the review of existing borders on the post-Soviet territories. There are a massive number of legal reasons for this,” including that the disintegration of the USSR was “doubtful from a legal point of view” and that “many of the former Soviet republics” are now failed states.

            And he concluded that “if we want to preserve the identity of the peoples of the post-Soviet states who are close to us, we must begin a humanitarian, cultural, and civilizational counter-attack,” not the “military expansion” like the West uses around the world and accuses Moscow of doing.

                The views of these three writers are important not because they reflect settled Russian policy: there are many Russians who believe that any revisiting of the border issue would hurt them more than anyone else, undermine the possibilities for Russia’s own development, and isolate Russia from the rest of the world.

            Rather they are a sign that some in the Russian capital are prepared to talk more broadly about redrawing the borders in the post-Soviet world, the product of what they see as the success of Moscow’s approach to Georgia, the dangers of a turn to the West in Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin’s frequent expressions of nostalgia for the USSR.

            If the arguments of these people succeed, then the post-Soviet space will become more dangerous than it has ever been before, not only for the countries around Russia but also for that state formation as well.  Indeed, it may very well be that the only thing restraining Moscow from trying to extend its territory is the fear that it could lose some of it in the process.


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