Staunton, October 27 – The borders the Soviet government established between republics and the ethnic enclaves it set up within them are “among the chief causes of constant inter-ethnic and inter-state conflicts in the region,” according to Aleksey Baliyev, who writes frequently on security issues for Russian nationalist portals.
He begins by observing that “almost a third of the European portion of the RSFSR in the 1920s was ‘divided up’ among Ukraine … Belarus and Georgia” and that “no less than a third of the total territory of Western Siberia and the Southern Urals was given to Kazakhstan (specifically the cities of Orenburg, Omsk, Iletsk, Uralsk and Guryev).”
“Only at the end of the 1920s and in the 1930s was the system able to return to the RSFSR about half of that which it had earlier transferred to other union republics,” Baliyev continues, reading the history of territorial arrangements then as Putin does (stoletie.ru/politika/konfliktnyje_granicy_719.htm).
(For details on why some Russians have this view and a discussion of some of their assumptions, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2018/07/stalin-frequently-modified-russias.html and especially the current author’s RFE/RL Report on the USSR, September 28, 1990.)
Baliyev points out that this was far from the only ethno-territorial delimitation that the Soviet government engaged in and that its creation of ethnic enclaves and exclaves within union and autonomous republics and even autonomous oblasts, which was intended to ensure “inter-ethnic proportionality” and leave Moscow “the only arbiter” of ethnic disputes.
That system worked when Moscow was strong but laid the foundations for problems as soon as the central government was weak or distracted. Until the death of Stalin in 1953, these enclaves and exclaves meant little because Moscow, not the union republics whose titular nationality was represented in them, decided how they would function.
But as the Soviet government weakened after Stalin, republics and the nations they represented began to make demands about relations between the union republics and these exclaves and enclaves. Baliyev cites a 1971 study by the Munich Institute for the Study of the USSR and Eastern Europe on this point.
That study suggested that the problems such enclaves and exclaves inevitably created when the union republics got involved were kept under control “only by threats and repressions from the side of Moscow.” When those threats and repressions disappeared, open conflict became inevitable.
There were “about 50” such exclaves and enclaves in existence at the end of Soviet times. More than 30 of them were in Central Asia where they continue to spark conflicts between the countries of the region. There is also a Moldovan exclave in the northwestern part of Odessa Oblast in Ukraine but it has so far led to far fewer problems.
According to Baliyev, “the very same causes lie at the foundation of today’s conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan: in the Armenian-Azerbaijan border region were established four exclaves of Azerbaijan and in the Azerbaijan-Armenian one three of Armenia.” But both were demolished in 1990-1991 by the two republics “without any mutual agreement.”
The situation within Nagorno-Karabakh was truly complex in this regard, he argues. In the 1920s and 1930s, five small Azerbaijani enclaves were established and put under Baku’s administration “even without having the status of a national district within the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast!”
Four of the five were situated near the borders between the Azerbaijani and Armenian SSRs,” which set the stage for “territorial conflicts between Baku and Yerevan. But in the 1990s, all of them were liquidated by Stepanakert without any agreement with Baku. Such actions in the absence of outside rule by Moscow explain why both sides fear not having control.
If Armenian control of Karabakh (Artsakh) continues, Azerbaijanis have little reason to expect that their rights will be respected, Baliyev suggests; but if Azerbaijan restores its sovereign control of the region, the very same fears animate the Armenians there, one more reason why this conflict has proven so intractable.
Soviet borders and the creation of enclaves and exclaves represented a compromise with reality, an attempt to ensure that Moscow would be able to manage tensions between various ethnic groups. It was based on the assumption that Moscow would always play that role. Now that it can’t or won’t, the system was certain to give rise to explosions as now.