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The coming of the micro-states

(Page 2 of 2)

But Russia's relations with Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan have soured in recent years, as those countries have broken from Moscow's orbit and charted a more pro-West course. That, plus the precedents being set in the former Yugoslavia, has led some nationalist politicians in Moscow to demand the Kremlin salvage what influence it can in the region by granting recognition - or even membership in the Russian Federation - to some of those breakaway entities.

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Transdniestria has already signed an economic pact with Moscow that will allow the tiny but heavily-industrialized territory to sell its goods in Russia and eventually join the Russian ruble's currency zone. Also in the focus of Russia's changing policies are the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"Russia needs to be more active in solving the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," says Igor Panarin, a professor at the official Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats. "Both the people and governments of [these statelets] want to join Russia, and there's every legal reason for them to do so. Polls show the majority of Russians support this, too."

Eduard Kokoity, president of the Georgian breakaway republic of South Ossetia, said last week he will ask Russia to annex his statelet, which has existed in legal limbo since driving out Georgian forces in a bitter civil war in the early '90s. "In the nearest future, we will submit documents to the Russian Constitutional Court proving the fact that South Ossetia joined the Russian Empire together with North Ossetia as an indivisible entity and never left Russia," Mr. Kokoity said.

South Ossetia, with a population of about 70,000, is ethnically and geographically linked with the Russian Caucasus republic of North Ossetia. Experts say there is a local campaign, supported by Russian nationalists, to join the two territories into a new Moscow-ruled republic that would be named "Alania" - the ancient name of the Ossetian nation. "South Ossetia really wants to join Russia, and I wouldn't rule this out as a long-term prospect," says Suslov.

Abkhazia, a sub-tropical Black Sea enclave, expelled its Georgian residents during the 1992-93 civil war, and now is home to about 200,000 ethnic Abkhaz who eke out a living exporting fruit to Russia and welcoming the few Russian tourists that visit each year.

Georgians cry foul, and complain the entire issue is a made-in-Moscow land grab. "South Ossetia and Abkhazia were created as a Bolshevik divide-and-rule device to control Georgia, and they are still being used that way," says Alexander Rondeli, president of the Strategic and International Studies Foundation, an independent think tank based in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. "What is actually going on is the de facto annexation of these territories by Russia. Since Russia is strong, the Western powers let it do whatever it wants."

Many Western experts argue that the process of dismantling the former Yugoslavia is a unique event, directly supervised by the UN and carried out with a maximum of democratic safeguards. If Russia acts alone in its region, it risks alienating the world and multiplying regional conflicts. "This is a double-edged sword," says Ariel Cohen, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "By recognizing Moscow-supported statelets, Russia would perpetuate frictions for decades to come. Post-Soviet borders should remain inviolate. This would save a lot of headaches, first of all for Russia itself."

But for now, the mood in Moscow appears to be hardening. "We disagree with the concept that Kosovo is a unique case, because that runs counter to the norms of international law," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov warned in an interview with Vremya Novostei, a Russian newspaper, last week. "The resolution on Kosovo will create a precedent in international law that will later be applied to other frozen conflicts."