Monday, June 16, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Push for Federalization of Non-Russian Countries Intended to Weaken Them

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 16 – Moscow’s calls for the federalization of Ukraine and Moldova have attracted widespread attention as an all-too-obvious tactic intended to dismember those countries, but its suggestion that other former Soviet republics should federalize as well have not, perhaps because such appeals appear designed to weaken rather than deconstruct these countries.

            Indeed, Russia’s promotion of federalization elsewhere – Moscow has no interest in promoting federalism at home – represents an updated version of Stalin’s classical ethnic engineering in which he included ethnic minorities within the borders of union republics to be a check on the titular nationality by ensuring Moscow reliable allies among minority groups.

            Stalin’s strategy in this regard had the additional virtue from Moscow’s point of view of exacerbating tensions between these nationalities and thus deflecting attention from any underlying conflicts between the titular nationalities and the ethnic Russians, a strategy that worked so well that it explains most of the conflicts on the post-Soviet space.

            The Soviet dictator’s inclusions of large ethnic Russian territories in northern Kazakhstan and eastern Ukraine and of a significant Armenian minority within Azerbaijan are perhaps the most obvious examples, but every single union republic as a result of the way Moscow drew the borders or shifted populations by force or incentive had some arrangements of this kind.

            But what is especially interesting is the way in which the leaders of some countries, particularly those who have tried to maintain “a balanced foreign policy,” are currently trying to ride what might be called the “federalization wave” for their own purposes, an indication of how much pressure they are under and of how they are trying to counter it.

            All these factors are reflected in a new article about developments in Azerbaijan on a Russian nationalist news site by Fakhraddin Aboszoda,  a Talysh activist who was chairman of the Milli Mejlis of the self-proclaimed an short-lived Talysh-Mugan Autonomous Republic in 1993 (

            Aboszoda has his own nationalist axe to grind, and both his specific reporting and more general analysis should be treated with caution. But while that is certainly the case, the appearance of such an article now as well as Moscow’s long-standing involvement with the Talysh minority make it worthy of note.

            According to the Lezgin activist, the federalization of Ukraine that Moscow and some ethnic Russians inside that country have sought will at best maintain Ukraine’s territorial integrity only for a certain period because “with each day, the collapse of Ukraine [as a whole] is becoming ever more real.”

            But however that may be, he continues, “the events in Ukraine have opened a Pandora’s for the entire Trans-Caucasus,” not only by raising the spectre in the minds of  some of the leaders of the countries there of a “Trans-Caucasus Spring” but also by suggesting to them that federalization could be a useful form of defense.

            This has been somewhat concealed, he says, by the anti-Russian rhetoric in Azerbaijan where the Baku government has sought to deflect criticism of itself by playing up the idea that Moscow is prepared to change borders as it has in Ukraine and thus represents a threat to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

            Aboszoda argues that “scholars long ago recognized that after the fall of Rome in the fifth century, scholarship, thought, and educational standards of the Roman Empire were essentially lost in Europe. These words,” he continues. “could be completely applied to Azerbaijan which following the acquisition of independence, totally lost these qualities.”

            But instead of seeking to overcome this loss as Europeans ultimately did, the Azerbaijani authorities have promoted them, viewing such decay as the very best means of maintaining themselves in power, the Lezgin activist says. But because their position is in his view increasingly precarious, Baku leaders are seeking other means as well.

            Aboszoda says that he has information which suggests that President Ilham Aliyev “is preparing for a cosmetic change in the administrative-territorial configuration of Azerbaijan in the direction of its partial federalization.” Given the existence of Nakhichevan, this in fact points to a move toward confederalism.

            Underlying this shift, Aboszoda says, are talks between Aliyev and the leadership of Karabakh, under the terms of which the Azerbaijani president “would secure the return of this republic into Azerbaijan on a confederative basis.” These talks, the Lezgin leader suggests, involve the Iranians as intermediaries.

            To make this step credible, he continues, Baku is also prepared to make some concessions to the Talysh and Lezgins. The Azerbaijani authorities have also sent a signal that that is their intent by restoring after an eight-year lapse, the position of presidential advisor on nationality questions.

                Aboszoda says that some pro-Baku Talysh are prepared  to go along seeing all this as “the appearance of ‘a unique chance’” for their community in Azerbaijan. But he adds that he is convinced that however much they or the equivalent Lezgin leaders may hope for that, past Azerbaijani moves and Baku’s pseudo-federalism should disabuse them.

            And then in words that almost certainly contradict Moscow’s messages, Aboszoda argues that “such half-measures cannot save the Azerbaijan Republic from inevitable collapse or it exit from ‘the arc of instability.’” “’Cosmetic’” federalism simply won’t “correct the situation,” and oppressed minorities will view it as a half-way house to independence.

            For a certain brief period, federalization may “save” Azerbaijan, he continues, but only if this federation has “genuine autonomies with all rights and powers,” something the central government isn’t prepared to offer.  And that fact, Aboszoda says, “is the biggest lesson of the Ukrainian events” for Azerbaijan.

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