The coming of the micro-states

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

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.

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.

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."

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