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The coming of the micro-states

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 2006


As goes Montenegro, so goes Kosovo, Transdniestria, and South Ossetia?

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As Montenegro officially declared independence this weekend, accepting the world's welcome into the community of nations, a handful of obscure "statelets" are demanding the same opportunity to choose their own destinies.

In the latest example, Transdniestria, a Russian-speaking enclave that won de facto independence in the early 1990s, declared last week that it will hold a Montenegro-style referendum in September as part of its campaign for statehood.

Experts fear that many "frozen conflicts" around the world - in which a territory has gained de facto independence through war but failed to win international recognition - could reignite as ethnic minorities demand the same right to self-determination that many former Yugoslav territories have been offered by the international community.

Even more significant than Montenegro's rise to statehood would be the international community's acceptance of Kosovo's bid for independence. The province of Serbia was seized by NATO in 1999. Ongoing talks discussing that possibility are being watched with intense interest by rebel statelets. But as tiny, newly independent states such as East Timor find themselves mired in ethnic violence, international observers are wary of the implications of such a move.

"If Kosovo becomes independent, this precedent will cause further fragmentation of the global order and lead to the creation of more unviable little states," predicts Dmitri Suslov, an analyst with the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.

Russia has backed the emergence of several pro-Moscow separatist enclaves in the post-Soviet region, as a means of keeping pressure on defiant neighbors, but has so far been deterred from granting them official recognition by international strictures against changing the borders of existing states. Montenegro's successful May 21 vote of independence from Yugoslavia - recognized by the world community - has encouraged others' thoughts of following the same path.

The United Nations Charter mentions both the right of "self-determination" of peoples and the "territorial integrity" of states as bedrock principles of the world order. But these principles come into conflict when a separatist minority threatens to rupture an existing country. Russia, which has a score of ethnic "republics," including an active rebellion in Chechnya, has long championed the "territorial integrity" side of the equation. But the Kremlin's emphasis, at least regarding some of its neighbors, appears to be shifting.

"If such precedents are possible [in the former Yugoslavia], they will also be precedents in the post-Soviet space," President Vladimir Putin told journalists Friday. "Why can Albanians in Kosovo have independence, but [Georgian breakaway republics] South Ossetia and Abkhazia can't? What's the difference?"

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all of its 15 major republics gained their freedom and basked in the glow of global acceptance. But within some of those new states, smaller ethnic groups raised their own banners of rebellion. In the early 1990s, two "autonomous republics" in Georgia - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - defeated government forces with Russian assistance and established regimes that are effectively independent but stuck in legal limbo because they remain officially unrecognized, even by Moscow. The Russian-speaking province of Transdniestria, aided by the Russian 14th army, similarly broke away from the ethnically Romanian republic of Moldova. The Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan fell under Armenian control after a savage war; and rebels in Russia's southern republic of Chechnya briefly won de facto independence in the late '90s after crushing Russian forces on the battlefield.

In all of these cases, the international principle respecting the "territorial integrity" of existing states has so far trumped the yearning of small nationalities for their own statehood. Citing that rule, Moscow launched a brutal military campaign in 1999 that has since largely succeeded in reintegrating Chechnya as a province of Russia.