Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 131

Russia’s Duma adopted last week in its third and final reading a law on the procedure of accession to the Russian Federation of other states or parts thereof. Under the legislation, any state that is a subject of international law, or a territory of a foreign state, can become a constituent unit of the Russian Federation. Common borders with Russia are not a prerequisite. The law provides for accession by mutual consent and through negotiation with the authorized bodies of the acceding state and/or territory.

This ostensible “legal mechanism” for absorption had until now been lacking in Russia. It is seen as designed to facilitate the incorporation–or raise the specter of incorporation–of Belarus as a state, and of Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia as parts of states, “at their request,” into the Russian Federation.

In an accompanying move on July 4 the Duma adopted a resolution, proposing to the presidents of Russia, Belarus, Moldova and the unrecognized Transdniester to form a joint working group for launching the procedure of Moldova’s and Transdniester’s “simultaneous accession to the Russia-Belarus Union State.” The Duma then voted down a motion by Yevgeny Primakov, the presidentially appointed chairman of Russia’s State Commission on Transdniester negotiations, who had asked the Duma to rescind that resolution as incompatible with international law.

It was against this backdrop that four breakaway regions of newly independent states held a meeting in Karabakh. On July 2-3, the self-styled foreign affairs ministers of Karabakh, Transdniester, Abkhazia and South Ossetia conferred in Karabakh’s administrative center Stepanakert, which they were able to reach courtesy of the government of Armenia. It was the second meeting of this type, the first having been held last November under Russian military protection in Tiraspol. At that inaugural meeting, the four Russian-backed breakaway regions decided to set up a consultative body of their unrecognized foreign affairs ministers and hold regular meetings twice a year. The same officials–Naira Melkumian of Karabakh, Valery Litskay of Transdniester, Sergei Shamba of Abkhazia and Marat Dzioev of South Ossetia–took part in both meetings.

Both the November 2000 and the July 2-3, 2001 meetings were held in the wake of summits of GUUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan-Moldova), a grouping that Moscow seeks to break up. The two secessionist conferences appeared designed in part to display one of the levers at Russia’s disposal for pressuring the GUUAM members Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. That function has earned the sobriquet “mini-anti-GUUAM” for the four breakaway regions’ group (see the Monitor, November 8, 30, December 1, 2000; the Fortnight in Review, November 17, 2000).

The foursome’s meetings in Karabakh included a lengthy session with the local defense minister, Seiran Ohanian, for comparing notes on the military organization of the four breakaway regions. Among them, Karabakh is unique in enjoying not only Russian support but also that of one other recognized country. This helps explain why Armenia undertook to publicize the quadripartite secessionist meeting held in Tiraspol as well as that in Stepanakert.

A joint news conference and a final document of the Stepanakert meeting conveyed several salient points. First, the four parties announced the start of a coordinated effort to seek international recognition. To that end they resolved to create a joint information center and common system of communications, which they described no more fully than that. Second, they welcomed international mediation in their respective conflicts with the recognized states. The welcome reflects their understanding that international mediation supplies a certain degree of implicit recognition de facto, which they hope ultimately to parlay into a status that may be construed as international legal recognition. Third, and only seemingly inconsistent with the second, they undescored “Russia’s special role as peacekeeper on post-Soviet territories.” This view reflects the importance of Russian military support in cementing these secessions and the shared goal to have any political settlement “guaranteed” by Russian troops in place. And, fourth, the meeting expressed (in its final communique) “doubt that the decisions of GUUAM’s [June 2001] summit can be implemented in practice, unless they are coordinated with all interested parties.” Those parties are understood to include Russia in the first place, given that the four regions themselves have only a marginal interest in GUUAM’s fortunes one way or another.

The four regions, and the conflicts in which they are involved, have both individual and common features. The Stepanakert meeting used the obligatory rhetoric about human rights, self-determination and democracy in an attempt to endow the group with a common, respectable political platform. Yet the common denominators are of a different nature. For example, Abkhazia and Transdniester are characterized by ethnic minority rule, with Abkhaz and Russians forming 17 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of the two regions’ respective populations at the time of secession. Transdniester, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the only ex-Soviet territories in which the August 1991 putsch prevailed, its leaders in power to this day in Tiraspol and Sukhumi.

Abkhazia and Karabakh resorted to mass ethnic cleansing of Georgians and of Azeris, respectively. Karabakh’s and Armenia’s forces, moreover, occupy core districts of Azerbaijan, having turned some 700,000 native Azeri inhabitants into refugees. In all these conflicts, Russian military support decided the outcome, and the Russian troops never left.

Transdniester also hosts massive Russian arsenals, the contents of which are accounted for. Karabakh, without Russian troops on its territory, is believed to host Russian heavy weaponry above the regional “flank” ceilings set by the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), and which escapes international verification. That long-standing, yet mostly tacit concern was recently voiced openly by the American ambassador in Baku, Ross Wilson, in a Moscow press interview: “This is a serious problem indeed. The [Karabakh] territory is beyond control, and nobody knows how the [CFE] flank limitations are observed. This is one more reason why peace has to be established there as soon as possible” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 26).

In all, given the necessary level of Russian military support, even these statelets can act like rogue states. And as long as the conflicts fester unresolved, the secessionist regions receive international attention proportionate to their nuisance value (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Azg, July 2, 4-5; see the Monitor, January 23, February 19, May 10, June 12; Fortnight in Review, February 1).