The week before the September 18 referendum saw high drama, due to the release of a yougov poll on September 6 suggesting that the Yes vote had a 51% to 49% lead. The surge was in part due to a lackluster performance by Better Together’s Alistair Darling in his second debate with Alex Salmond on August 25. Salmond had answers to Darling’s economic questions about currency and the NHS, while Darling failed to come up with any arguments to appeal to Scots’ sense of belonging and identity.
The Yes surge triggered a flurry of activity from the Better Together campaign, with the leaders of all three Westminster parties heading north of the border to plead their case. On September 15 David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband signed a pledge promising more powers for the Scottish parliament if full independence was rejected. Downing Street placed calls to business leaders urging them to speak out, and a string of corporate leaders made statements in the final week warning of the dire economic consequences of a Yes vote.
But the most noteworthy development was the extraordinary speech delivered by Gordon Brown’s in Maryhill, Glasgow two days before the referendum. It was Gordon Brown’s finest hour: Scotland’s version of the Gettysburg Address.
Brown reiterated some of the economic arguments against secession. But his speech was remarkable for the passion with which he laid out the Better Together case on identity grounds. He eviscerated what he referred to as “the nationalists” for claiming to speak for Scotland, with some followers calling their opponents “traitors.” He argued that the institutions of which the nationalists are most proud, such as the pound sterling and the National Health Service, were built together, as part of the United Kingdom. He pointed out that Scots and English had fought and died together for a common cause in two world wars. He argued for cooperation and solidarity over disparagement and division.
Seeing Brown performance raised the question of why he had not been given a more prominent role in the Better Together campaign from the outset. Veteran Scottish Labour politician John Reid explained that Alistair Darling had been chosen as the front man for the No campaign because he was a less partisan and divisive figure than Brown, and was more likely to be able to forge a common approach with the Conservative and Liberal-Democratic leaders.
Brown’s speech was probably too late to sway any voters – exit polls (see below) indicated that while some 15% of Yes voters were undecided until the final week, only 9% of No voters had made up their mind in the last week.
Curiously, neither the BBC nor any other news organization bothered to pay for exit polls on election day. So the only source we have for analysis of the demographics of the rival camps is a poll sponsored by Lord Ashcroft. It makes for fascinating reading. 73% of those over the age of 65 voted No, and women were 6% more likely than men to vote No. 57% of No voters said the pound was one of the most important factors in their decision, vindicating Alistair Darling’s focus on currency in the campaign, while the main driver for Yes voters was “disaffection with Westminster politics.” Only 27% of No voters selected a “strong attachment to the UK and its shared history, culture and traditions” as a reason for voting No, while 47% said it was due to fear of the consequences of independence.
More broadly, the whole exercise raises some interesting questions for political scientists. What is the role of history and identity in shaping political decisions? While both sides made emotional appeals to voters’ sense of identity, in the end it seems to have been bread and butter issues that won out.
The referendum drew some praise from around the world for providing an example of how to decide the fate of a country through a peaceful, rational deliberative procedure. The upsurge of public involvement in the campaign and the high (85%) turnout was taken as a sign that democracy is alive and well and can serve as a tool for resolving ethnic disputes.
However, there are also some troubling aspects to the referendum from the point of view of democratic theory. What right does a minority have to set terms for its participation in collective decision making? Under what circumstances should they be allowed to opt out of laws and policies that are applied to citizens living in other regions? Under what conditions does a group have the right to secede – and should that require the consent of the rest of the polity from which they are seceding? Most counties, including China, Russia, Spain and the United States, do not allow secession at all. Moral philosophers tend to argue that secession is only justified if some clear harm has been done to the minority seeking independence. No such direct grievances were present in the Scottish case.
Second, as my Wesleyan colleague Donald Moon has pointed out, neither side really knew what they were voting for. The Yes campaign could not provide definitive questions to whether Scotland would or would not be able to keep the pound or stay in the European Union. The No campaign also was unclear on what exactly was being promised by way of new powers for the Scottish parliament – not least because there was an immediate reaction from many Labour and Conservative MPs questioning the wisdom and fairness of cutting a special deal for Scotland without also giving more powers to England and Wales.
Ideally, one can imagine that if a referendum were to be a solid basis for dividing a functioning democracy, there should be a three-stage process. First, a vote on the principle of secession. Second, assuming the vote was positive, the convening of a constitutional convention which would hammer out the precise terms of the split. Third, a second referendum in which voters are given a chance to vote on independence, this time knowing more or less what it would entail.
Residents of Scotland will head to the polls on September 18 to vote on whether to preserve or dissolve their 300-year old union with the United Kingdom. It is a stunning example of the persistence of nationalism despite decades of assurances by liberals and socialists alike that globalization dissolves national identities and/or makes national sovereignty increasingly irrelevant.
In a global context, the Scottish independence movement is unusual because Great Britain has been unified for so long, and the union (in 1707) was voluntary and not a result of conquest. Also, there has been no repression of Scots by the English for centuries, nor any threat to their ethnic identity; and the UK is a well-functioning democracy with robust human rights and a high standard of living.
Elsewhere in the world, Matt Qvortup reports, there have been 49 independence referenda since Texas voted to secede in 1861, and most of them have been ended in secession, with an average Yes vote of 83%. In Britain there have been ten referendums since the vote on whether to stay in the European Economic Community in 1974, and in seven of those cases voters opted for change over the status quo. So to the extent that this broader pool of cases is relevant, the chances of a nationalist victory cannot be ruled out.
As election day approaches, Scottish voters realize that they are facing a momentous decision and the country is in a grip of intense and for some exhilarating debate. For a flavor of the issues, check out the pro-independence website Yes Scotland and its pro-union rival Better Together. For a neutral academic discussion site, see Future of UK and Scotland. For the pro-independence case, see the speech by Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland on March 4, 2014, or read this article by Neal Ascherson. A trenchant argument for preserving the union is made by Gideon Rachman in The National Interest. Various celebrities have weighed in, with pro-independence Sean Connery facing off against Edinburgh resident J.K. Rowling, who donated £1 million to the No campaign.
South of the border, the independence movement is often seem as something whimsical and irrational, the product of a nostalgia for a land of wild, free, poetic Highland past. In a concise summary of the debate, John Lloyd suggests that Scotland is torn between “heart and head,” between a headstrong assertion of “who we are” and a rational calculation of collective self-interest.
Alternatively, the nationalist movement is portrayed as the creation of self-interested politicians – notably, Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party – seeking power and a place in the history books. In this reading, independence is almost the accidental result of a sequence of short-sighted decisions by Labour politicians in Westminster – a failed devolution referendum in 1979, the creation of a Scottish parliament in 1998 – who had no inkling that their actions could lead to the break-up of the UK. (Just as Mikhail Gorbachev did not realize that glasnost and perestroika would lead to the collapse of the USSR.)
In her study of the break-up of Yugoslavia, Secessionist Movements and Ethnic Conflict, Beata Huszka argues that secessionist movements deploy one or more of three frames: ethnic security, democracy, and prosperity. Scots do not invoke any threat to their ethnic identity, so the case for independence depends on the latter two appeals – democracy and prosperity.
The democracy case hinges on the fact that Scots are more left-leaning than the English. Scots complain that they are repeatedly ruled by Conservative governments which would not have won power in an independent Scotland. The Conservative Party currently holds only 15 out of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament. In the 2010 British general election, they won 17 percent of the votes in Scotland, and they hold just one of the 59 Scottish seats in the Westminster parliament (which is elected on the first-past-the-post electoral system, unlike the Scottish and European parliaments, which use proportional representation). After the 1997 Labour landslide the Conservatives did not have a single MP in Scotland.
More broadly, in a climate of increasing disillusion with the institutions of democracy (from banker bailouts, to phone backing, to MP expenses fraud) independence is seen as vote for social change and the reinvigoration of participatory democracy. For example, Hilary Wainwright argues that the referendum is “not even about nationalism” but rather is “an invitation to say no to a super power whose wars, most recently against Iraq, the Scottish people found abhorrent, and yet have been forced to join; a chance to say no to decades of social injustice and sacrifice at the altar of the global market by Conservative and Labour Governments at Westminster.”
Scotland already enjoys a high degree of devolution of powers. It has its own legal, police and education systems, complete control over its National Health Service, and so on. It lacks autonomy in foreign and military policy – an important point given that Britain’s controversial Trident nuclear deterrence submarines are based in Faslane, Scotland. It also lacks control over fiscal and monetary policy – a sensitive issue given the UK coalition government’s commitment to austerity to forestall inflation and preserve the value of the pound.
The counter arguments to the democracy thesis are:
(a) any democracy is about winning some and losing some – and Labour governments have ruled Britain for half the post-war period.
(b) If you believe in social democracy and social justice, then these goals are more likely to be realized in the 60 million strong British community if Scotland stays part of the union. Thus the utilitarian principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number” argues for the preservation of the union. The Scots should make common cause against the London elite with their cousins in the struggling north of England.
Sometimes it is argued that Scottish secession would mean permanent right-wing governments in the rump UK. This is an exaggeration. Because Scotland has only 4.2 million voters out of a UK electorate of 46 million, it is quite rare for Scottish votes to swing an election (to Labour, from the Tories). It only happened twice since 1945 (in 1964 and 1974, and only for a total of 26 months). Additionally, in 2010 Scottish votes did deny the Conservatives a majority at Westminster, and forced them to form a coalition with the Lib-Dems.
(c) One issue is who gets to vote. The decision was made to restrict the franchise to people residing in Scotland. That gives the right to vote to 400,000 people living in Scotland who were not born there, but disenfranchises 800,000 Scots living elsewhere in the UK. (In contrast, in recent referenda in Montenegro and South Sudan emigres were given the right to vote.) The SNP promoted this approach presumably out of fear that diaspora Scots would be more likely to vote No.
Another contentious decision was to lower the voting age to 16 – Austria is the only other European country with such a low voting age. The SNP was gambling that younger, more impressionable voters would be easier to rally to their cause.
(d) There is also the classic liberal argument against secession (as laid out for example by Michael Ignatieff): that it divides people who were peacefully living together, forcing them to pick one identity at the expense of other identities and creating a downward spiral of action and response.
On the prosperity front, oil is central to the psychology of the nationalists. It was the discovery of oil in the North Sea that enabled the hitherto marginal Scottish Nationalist Party to capture 30% of the vote in 1974 with the slogan “It’s Scotland’s oil.” Oil and gas revenue remains key to the economic viability of an independent Scotland, and hence to the political confidence of the nationalist movement. The problem is that oil only accounts for 15% of Scotland’s trade, and other sectors of the economy would be hard hit by the uncertainty following independence. Leading banks have signaled that they would probably have to re-register in London, where most of their business originates, to conform to EU rules.
The main counter-arguments of the No campaign have focused on the pound sterling, Scotland’s status within the European Union, and the question of budget subsidies.
Alex Salmond has tried to argue that “it is Scotland’s pound too” and that an independent Scotland has the right to continue using the pound as its national currency. This is a somewhat unusual stance for a nationalist – historically, having your own currency was up there along with the flag and anthem as symbols of national autonomy. English politicians responded by insisting that London would not allow Scotland to print money to cover government deficits – citing the crisis in the Eurozone as a sobering example of what happens when monetary union runs ahead of fiscal union.
In the televised debate on August 5 between Salmond and former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, head of the Better Together campaign, the latter hammered home the currency theme, arguing that “even an eight year old can name a country’s capital, flag and currency” but Salmond is unable to commit an independent Scotland to using the pound sterling, the Euro, or a new Scottish pound.
Salmond’s clinging to the pound sterling is an example of his broader political dilemma. To secure more than 50% of the votes on September 18 he needs to win over wavering voters who are worried about the possible disruptive impact of independence and who do not share the fervor of the nationalist true believers. Hence his insistence that Scotland will retain the Queen as head of state and the pound as its currency, and will stay part of the EU and NATO. Speaking on the BBC on August 7, Scottish Conservative Ruth Davidson characterized his position as one where “everything will change but nothing will change.”
On the European Union, the question is whether Scotland would automatically stay a member, or would have to apply for entry as a new applicant. The EU charter is ambiguous on the issue, but given the opposition of some EU members (notably Spain) to secession it is unlikely that Scotland would get a smooth passage to membership.
The budget subsidy issue arises because Westminster spends £1400 per head (15%) more on Scots than on residents of England (in part, this is seen as informal compensation for North Sea oil revenues). Thus for example Scottish students go to university for free, but English students have to pay £9,000 annual tuition (through state-provided loans). NHS patients in Scotland have free prescriptions while in England they pay £8 per item.
No survey over the past year has showed a majority favoring independence. The latest polls put the Yes vote at 46% and No at 51%, with forecasters confidently predicting a No victory. However, given the vagaries of turnout, and the uniqueness of the occasion, it is impossible to rule out a victory for the Yes campaign. And even if the referendum fails, a narrow margin of victory for union would mean that the issue would not go away. More devolution of policy responsibility is bound to follow – with likely pushback from English counties, triggering more calls for independence from north of the border.
Nationalism Beyond the Parades
A traveling exhibition explores the personal dimension of a phenomenon usually associated with the public square.
By Peter Rutland, Transitions Online, 4 August 2014
Nationalism is back in the news, from Crimea to Scotland. Judging by an unusual and important exhibition that is travelling around Central Europe, artists might have more insights into the dynamics of nationalist belonging than politicians and journalists.
Some artists are engaged in the production of works that bolster national identity – the most striking recent example being Danny Boyle’s orchestration of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics. But most contemporary artists, to the extent that they address nationalism at all, tend to subject it to ridicule and contempt.
A new exhibition, “Private Nationalism,” takes a different approach. Rather than celebrating or denigrating nationalism, the curators invited artists from the region to reflect on how nationalism manifests itself in the fabric of personal everyday life. The exhibits cover the gamut of nationalist expression: anthems, names, monuments, parades, etc. The tone is ironic and sardonic, while still recognizing the emotional force of nationalist appeals.
The exhibition began earlier this year in Prague and Kosice, Slovakia, before moving to Pecs, Hungary, where it ended 15 June. The centerpiece in Pecs was Battle of Inner Truth by the Little Warsaw artist group (Balint Havas and Andras Galik): a floor display of several dozen miniature statuettes and figurines of monuments from across Hungary, ranging from socialist workers to medieval knights. It is disconcerting to see monuments in shrunken form, and set alongside one another – since usually they are seen in splendid isolation.
Continuing the monumental theme, Martin Piacek presented a dozen models for works commemorating The Biggest Embarrassments of Slovak History, ranging from the car bomb that killed a police whistleblower in 1996 to Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes signing the decrees expelling the Sudeten Germans in 1945. As an exercise in national humility, each country’s history museum should have such an exhibit.
Kristina Norman’s video Monolith is a gripping account of the debate over the Soviet war memorial in central Tallinn, eventually removed in 2007 at the insistence of Estonian nationalists. She uses Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey as a humorous framing device, with the bronze soldier zooming in from outer space. The film shows the powerful feelings displayed by the two sides: for local Russians Alyosha was a reminder of the victory over fascism, while Estonian nationalists saw it as symbol of occupation. Norman reminds us that a monument can have multiple meanings and that nationalism unleashes turbulent emotions, hard to reconcile between opposing sides.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from monumental art, Alban Muja’s striking My Name, Their City consists of photos of young Kosovans holding pictures of the cities after which they were named. It was apparently not uncommon in Kosovo in the 1970s and 1980s for parents to name their children after cities in the Albanian motherland from which they were separated. (There are also a dozen Kosovan boys with the first name “Tonybler,” in recognition of the British Prime Minister’s role in their liberation.)
Other videos on display include a piece by Dan Perjovschi, showing the artist having the word “ROMANIA” tattooed on his arm, and then removing it 10 years later; and a witty film from Andras Csefalvay (Slovakia), in which a digitized talking dinosaur strolls through Budapest explaining the Darwinian perspective on nationalism.
The World Cup, of course, reminds us that soccer and nationalism are intimately connected. Janos Borsos and Lilla Lorinc use soccer as a metaphor for civil war. A video shows the two artists wearing an identical mask (a composite of their two faces) and facing off in a soccer game. In front of the video, several wooden carvings of a soccer pitch show various distortions to the “level playing field” – a mountainous terrain, a chasm between the two halves, and a pitch where one side’s half was bigger than the other. In a simple but direct way it reminds the viewer that civil wars are about two sides claiming the same identity – and that despite that symmetry, the actual strengths of the two sides are invariably lopsided. The work adds a new dimension to understanding recent developments in eastern Ukraine.
Most of the works avoid politics per se. One exception is the piece by Szabolcs Kisspal in which he posts the replies he received from Hungarian radio stations when he asked them to play the Jewish anthem Hatikvah on 20 April 2014 – the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen. He proposed using the recording of the camp inmates singing that was made by a BBC correspondent at the time. Only one of the stations complied, the others gave various spurious grounds for declining, such as the “poor quality” of the recording.
There was some controversy around the exhibition in Kosice because Slovak artist Dalibor Baca placed a flag of the former Czechoslovakia (and current Czech Republic) on the floor, for people to walk on. In the “velvet divorce” back in 1992 the Czechs had promised the Slovaks they would not use the old flag for their new republic but did so anyway.
From Pecs the show has moved on to Dresden (18 July to 1 September), and then it heads to Krakow, Berlin, and Debrecen, Hungary. The core consists of eight institutions from six countries, drawing upon 60 artists from 17 nations. Most of the pieces in Pecs were by Slovak and Hungarian artists: project leader Rita Vargas said it was difficult to recruit Czech and Polish artists, with the Czechs arguing the topic was passé. The Pecs exhibition also included pieces on the divided communities in Cyprus and Israel – a nod, perhaps, to the fact that Pecs, the “Gateway to the Balkans,” was under Ottoman rule from 1543 to 1686.
Hungary is a logical place to ponder the resurgence of nationalism. Since 2010 the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been centralizing power in a manner that has alarmed Hungary’s European Union partners. Orban has also embarked on an energetic campaign of nationalist rebranding: renaming streets, re-installing old monuments from the Hapsburg Empire, and introducing new school textbooks that celebrate the writers and achievements of interwar Hungary.
A new monument is being erected on Freedom Square in downtown Budapest to mark the occupation of Hungary by German forces in March 1944. The site is often ringed by protesters, who complain that the structure is intended to erase memories of the complicity of the Hungarian regime in the Nazi war effort up until 1944.
As Edit Andras explains in a catalog essay, nationalism is usually seen as a quintessentially public, collective act. Scholars have been slow to explore how it is reflected in private life, the pioneering work being Michael Billig’s Banal Nationalism (1995). Alongside the familiar high politics of nationalist symbolism, the exhibits in “Private Nationalism” remind us that nationalism is a part of the daily life of ordinary people and a component of the complex and shifting character of individual identity in today’s mobile, transnational world.
By Glorifying WWI, Putin Ignores Its Tragedy
- By Peter Rutland
- Moscow Times, Aug. 04 2014
On Friday, Aug. 1, President Vladimir Putin took time off from making history, to reflect on history.
At a ceremony marking, to the day, the centenary of Germany’s declaration of war on Russia, Putin spoke at the opening of a new World War I monument. In his statements, Putin appeared to be more and more explicitly embracing a deeply historical view of Russia’s statehood — or what his critics would call an imperialist mindset.
Even the tone of the speech reflected this historical, almost imperialist outlook. Instead of the more inclusive “Rossiisky” adjective, which pertains to the Russian state with its multiethnic population, Putin made more frequent use of the more Slavic “Russky” to refer to the military glories of World War I.
But what stood out the most was Putin’s explanation of Russia’s part in World War I. Putin complained that in Soviet times World War I “had been written out of history as an imperialist war.” Far from being an imperialist war, he argued, Russia had acted justly to “defend its Slavic brothers” and fulfill its commitments to its allies. This eerily echoes Putin’s own justifications for annexing Crimea.
He even argued that Russia was on the verge of winning, thanks to the 1916 Brusilov Offensive, but “victory was stolen from the country by those who sowed dissension within Russia, who longed for power, and who betrayed the national interest.” Putin, of course, was referring to the Bolsheviks, though by failing to mention them by name he was in effect turning the tables and writing them out of history.
From remarks earlier this year, it is clear that Putin also blames the Bolsheviks for splitting up Russia’s empire. On April 16, during a televised phone-in, he condemned the Bolsheviks for giving Russian territory to Ukraine. He said “Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk and Odessa were not part of Ukraine in tsarist times; they were transferred in 1920. Why? God only knows.”
But the issue of commemorating World War I had been on Putin’s mind long before the current crisis in Ukraine. In a Federation Council meeting on June 2012, Putin complained that “it was called an imperialist war in Soviet times.” He added that “there is no difference between the first and second world wars” because in both cases “people gave their lives for their country and should not be forgotten.”
He suggested that Soviet leaders deliberately chose to ignore the war because they had capitulated to the Germans in 1918, an act that he called “national betrayal.” Putin’s anti-Bolshevik analysis, of course, drew a strong protest from Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who still defends the Leninist legacy.
In his December 2012 state-of-the-nation address, Putin came back to the theme, lamenting that there was not a single World War I memorial in the country and arguing that it is important “to remember that Russia did not start in 1917 or even 1991.” The State Duma responded by promptly declaring Aug. 1 a day to commemorate the heroes of World War I and authorizing the construction of a monument, to be paid for mainly by voluntary donations.
In 2005, Putin famously referred to the Soviet collapse as “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.” But it seems that he considers the collapse of the tsarist empire to have been equally catastrophic.
By his actions in Ukraine, and by his words over the past several years, it is clear that Putin is motivated not just by a desire to stay in power but also by a desire to fulfill his historic duties as a leader of the Russian state. This is, to put it mildly, strikingly different from the way that World War I is being remembered in the rest of Europe, where it is portrayed as a tragedy testifying to the futility of war.
Abkhazia’s Crisis Not Over Yet
Moscow Times, Jun. 09 2014
Last week saw the toppling of the president of Abkhazia in mass protests reminiscent of those in Kiev’s Maidan Square. But while the new government may resolve some tensions, the breakaway republic’s ambiguous relationship to Russia may lead to yet more problems in the future.
Abkhazia, a province with about 240,000 inhabitants, broke away from Georgia with help from Russia after emerging victorious from a brutal war from 1992 to 1993. In the wake of the August 2008 war over South Ossetia, Moscow formally recognized Abkhaz sovereignty but only Nicaragua, Venezuela, Vanuatu and Nauru followed suit. Abkhazia remains an isolated enclave dependent on Russia for contact with the outside world — and for subsidies that amount to 70 percent of its budget.
On May 27 demonstrators, variously estimated at 1,000 to 10,000 strong, stormed the presidential administration building in Sukhumi, forcing President Alexander Ankvab to flee to a nearby Russian military base. Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov flew in the next day for negotiations with the two sides. The parliament, which previously had supported Ankvab, then declared that he was unable to fulfill his duties and appointed its speaker Valery Bganba as interim president on May 31.
Ankvab had been elected in a more or less free election in 2011, but had grown increasingly unpopular due to corruption, unemployment and his tendency to micromanage Abkhaz affairs. The target of six failed assassination attempts, he had also reportedly angered criminal elements who still loom large in Abkhaz society. Ankvab was also criticized by opposition leader Raul Khajimba for giving passports to ethnic Georgian, mainly Mingrelian, residents in the southern Gali district, in part because of the fear that the votes of those 50,000 Georgians could sway the results of future elections.
Conspiracy theories abound, though, and the role of Moscow in these developments remains unclear. In an interview with Dozhd television on June 2, former vice speaker of the Abkhaz parliament Irina Argba blamed Russia for instigating the protests and failing to support President Ankvab.
However, no matter Abkhazia’s current fate or Moscow’s possible role in the protests that pushed out Ankvab, long term anxiety exists over Russia’s ambiguous relationship with Abkhazia. Professor Kornely Kakachia of Tbilisi State University suggests that some Abkhaz fear that Moscow might follow up on its seizure of Crimea by annexing Abkhazia. There is also the perennial worry that at some point in the future improved relations between Russia and Georgia, a larger and more significant potential ally, might cause Moscow to abandon Abkhazia.
As a way to guarantee its independent status, Abkhazia has asked to join the new Eurasian Economic Union treaty between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan which was signed in Astana on May 29. This is unlikely to happen, though, since neither Belarus nor Kazakhstan has recognized the sovereignty of Abkhazia, nor that of Russian-allied breakaway republics South Ossetia, Karabakh or the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic.
Russian tourists are the backbone of Abkhazia’s anemic economy, with roughly 1 million visitors per year, and oil company Rosneft is exploring for oil and gas under the Black Sea off the Abkhaz coast. The Russian government has been investing heavily in developing the transport infrastructure of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since 2010, as explained by Kommersant’s Olga Allenova.
However, Russia’s relationship with Abkhazia has not been all positive. According to a report last year from the auditing commission in Moscow, half of the $200 million spent in Abkhazia since 2010 had been stolen. Last year Moscow suspended payments, causing an acute financial squeeze. The Abkhaz government turned to Transdnestr, the secessionist region of Moldova, for a $6 million bridging loan.
The turmoil in Abkhazia is a small example of the way in which the recent dramatic developments in Ukraine cast a new light on Moscow’s relations with all its neighboring countries and change the behavior of political actors, in ways that are hard to understand, let alone predict.
Moscow Times, May. 18 2014
President Vladimir Putin’s unwillingness to endorse the separatist referendums in eastern Ukraine on May 11 caused some confusion in Western capitals. The first reaction of most Western media was to suggest that it was just part of a deception by Moscow — just as Putin had initially denied any Russian involvement in Crimean separatist actions.
There are at least two ways to explain Putin’s behavior during this evolving crisis. First, the conservative, “realist” position would argue that the main goal of Putin was to preserve Russia’s “hard power” position by securing the Sevastopol naval base. Sevastopol is the only port on the Black Sea with berths deep enough to house Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Giving up Sevastopol would mean abandoning Russia’s pretensions to be a naval power in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. It was pretty clear once Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February that any new nationalist government that replaced him would renounce the 2010 treaty extending Russia lease of the Sevastopol naval base through 2042.
It seems reasonable to assume that the siloviki — a pressure group that Putin cannot afford to ignore — insisted that Putin act to preserve Russia’s military assets.
According to this analysis, Russia has been acting as a status quo power, trying to preserve the balance of power after the Soviet collapse.
People in the West may agree or disagree whether this was a desirable state of affairs. Some people in Washington will not be happy until Russia is pushed back beyond its 1780 borders. But an objective realist would probably conclude that Russia was behaving like any other status quo power.
But recent developments have made this realist perspective itself look quaintly anachronistic. It seems to have been displaced by a new approach which will be far more tricky for the West to deal with. Writing in the April 27 edition of Global Affairs, political scientist Igor Zevelev argued that Putin’s thinking about Russia’s place in the world has undergone a seismic shift over the past year — and especially over the past three months.
Putin appears to have decided to embrace ethno-nationalism and not state interests as the overarching rationale for foreign policy decisions. Defending the rights of ethnic Russians — and by extension Russian speakers — will henceforth be a central goal for Russian diplomacy. Russian leaders had paid some lip service to this dimension since the early 1990s but had never taken it very seriously. Even Russia’s military intervention in defense of South Ossetia in August 2008 was more about protecting Russia’s credibility as a military power than about preserving the rights of Ossetians and Abkhaz.
But the shift in rhetoric and thinking seems unmistakable, as evidenced by Putin’s March 18 “victory speech” on the annexation of Crimea. And this comes against a background of parallel tectonic shifts in domestic policy — from the persecution of Pussy Riot and the “nationalization” of the elite through limits on foreign bank accounts to the dismantling of what remained of professional journalism.
Another sign of a paradigm shift is the appearance of members of Russian radical nationalist groups such as Russian National Unity among the leaders of separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, as political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov wrote in the April 28 issue of Open Democracy. These figures have had a very testy relationship with the government over the past two decades — sometimes favored by certain circles within the Kremlin but often suppressed. To see them playing a leading role on the front lines of Russian foreign policy is surely not accidental and represents a new and disturbing development. The fact that similar groups are operating on the Ukrainian side has just multiplied the potential for an explosive escalation of violence.
It is hard to say what exactly are the steps that the Ukrainian government could take to satisfy the new nationalist paradigm coming out of Moscow. In practice, Ukrainian nationalists had been unable to enforce a Ukrainianization program on Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. Merely abstaining from changing the linguistic status quo may not be enough to satisfy the self-appointed leaders in eastern and southern Ukraine, who are also demanding a new federalist model. In the absence of a reliable court system and rule of law, there is a risk that an attempt to introduce federalism would be a recipe for endless squabbling and political polarization.
Western policy makers were already unhappy when they were trying to deal with Russia operating within the realist paradigm. They are now in for an unpleasant surprise. The new nationalist Russia will mean a far more unpredictable and conflict-ridden zone in the countries bordering Russia — unless, that is, diplomacy prevails and these disturbing developments are rolled back.