Russia’s Stance on Disputed Territories: Just How “Hypocritical” is it?

By Michael Averko

As of late, there has been a good deal of action on matter pertaining to post Communist bloc land disputes. Within the confines of the former Soviet Union, representatives of Nagorno Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Trans-Dniester regularly meet, with some of their discussions occurring in Russia. On another front, former Yugoslavia is embroiled in an international dialogue on whether Kosovo should be allowed to separate from Serbia. This has no doubt encouraged Republika Srpska to consider breaking away from Bosnia.

Certain elements in the West accuse Moscow of showing a bias for pro-Russian independence movements and recalcitrance towards not so pro-Russian ones. The New York Times’ C.J. Chivers (“Sun and Surf, but Also Lines in the ‘Russian’ Sand,” Aug. 20) and Publius Pundit’s Robert Mayer (“Russia’s Kosovo Double Standard,” Nov. 14) are among those suggesting such. The title of Mayer’s article is enough of a hint to his view. Chivers cites Russia’s refusal to let Chechnya become formally independent, while sympathizing with some independence movements elsewhere. Chivers’ point is non-parallel, since most Chechens aren’t supportive of independence because of what “independence” had twice done to their republic over the last decade. On two different occasions during that period, Chechnya operated as an independent entity. In each instance, there was an enhanced chaos that made life more miserable for Chechnya’s population. Like it or not, a greater Russian control of Chechnya has led to an increased stability in that republic.

Those arguing in support of the Russian position (myself included) stress that each of the disputed former Soviet and former Yugoslav regions have different degrees of legitimacy for independence. Under this very same belief, there are those going against Russia. A critical review of these areas is therefore required.

The Kremlin hasn’t formally recognized the four disputed former Soviet territories as independent states. With the exception of Nagorno Karabakh, the other three have shown an interest in reunifying with Russia. Nagorno Karabakh is interested in unifying with Armenia. In this sense, these regions aren’t necessarily seeking to become independent.

Nagorno Karabakh’s separatist drive has the least enthusiasm among Russian political elites. It’s a landlocked area within Azerbaijan’s Communist drawn boundaries, thereby making its separation from Azerbaijan all the more difficult. The Russian city/region of Kaliningrad is an example of how a territory can exist outside of its affiliated country. However, unlike Nagorno Karabakh – Kaliningrad hasn’t been involved in a violent dispute for decades (towards the end of World War II, under its former name Konigsberg and as a part of Germany, it was the scene of a violent ethnic cleansing campaign against the ethnic German population).

As the Soviet Union broke up, old hatreds between Orthodox Christian Armenians and Turkic Muslim Azeris re-ignited. Up to 30,000 were killed over who would govern Nagorno Karabakh. In the end, the Armenian government supported Nagorno Karabakh Armenians defeated the Azeri government forces. For well over a decade, there has been a cold peace between Yerevan and Baku.

Russia’s position on that dispute is tempered by conflicting realities. Armenia has historically been more pro-Russian than Azerbaijan. Materialistically, fossil fuel rich Azerbaijan is of greater value. Current Azeri foreign policy appears motivated to play the West and Russia off with each other. It’s not out of the realm to hypothesize that a “deal” (official or otherwise) could be made where Russia could tacitly support an Azeri takeover of Nagorno Karabakh in exchange for Azerbaijan becoming geo-politically closer to Russia. Azerbaijan is using its energy revenue to enhance its military.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia share a border with Russia. These two regions were part of a pre-19th century independent Georgia. Between 1801 and the Soviet breakup, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia proper were affiliated with Russia as parts of the Russian Empire and the USSR. South Ossetia’s majority ethnic Ossetian population is related to the majority Ossetian population in the neighboring Russian republic of North Ossetia. The two Ossetias share the same flag and coat of arms.

When in office, the three post-Soviet Georgian presidents have advocated closer ties to the West and a lessened dependency on Russia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia prefer the opposite. As is true with the Armenians and Azeris, there’s animosity between Georgians and the Abkhaz and South Ossetian communities. These differences could be attenuated with an improvement of Russo-Georgian relations. This isn’t impossible because many Georgians welcome close ties with Russia.

As part of a March 1, 2006 Russia Blog feature on Moldova, my article “Moldova: The Most Overlooked of the European Former Soviet Republics” detailed Trans-Dniester’s excellent case for independence. This region was never part of an independent Moldova. Trans-Dniester’s captial Tiraspol, was founded in 1792 by Russian Field Marshall Alexander Suvorov. (arguably Russia’s greatest military commander) At the time, Tiraspol served as a fortress marking the border on the Dniester River between Imperial Russia and Ottoman Empire ruled Moldova. In a recent referendum, Trans-Dniester’s peaceful, multi-ethnic and democratic society expressed the desire to reunify with Russia.

For a variety of reasons, Kosovo doesn’t have a great case for independence. It has been a continuous part of Serbia since 1912. Prior to that, it had been under Ottoman occupation for a lengthy period. Centuries earlier, Kosovo was an integral part of Serbia. It was never an independent entity unto itself or a part of an independent Albania. For decades, Kosovo’s non-Albanian population has lived under constant threat from extreme Albanian nationalists

Since the end of the Bosnian Civil War, Republika Srpska has been at peace as a good number of Muslims and Croats have resettled in that republic. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accord governing Bosnia gave Republika Srpska the right to establish its own relations with other states.

In comparison, UN Resolution 1244 governing Kosovo states that the province is a continued part of Serbia. This resolution also calls for a return of Serb military and civilian administration to that province. Serbia is internationally recognized as the de facto successor state of the now defunct Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which had signed UN Resolution 1244. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia consisted of Serbia and Montenegro. At the time and to the present, Kosovo is recognized as a part of Serbia.

On the matter of hypocrisy, there’s a recent New York Times editorial (“No More Delays for Kosovo,” Nov. 17) which nonchalantly supports Kosovo independence. “The paper of record” has yet to endorse Trans-Dniester’s independence even though it has a much better case than Kosovo.


Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic. His commentary has appeared in the Action Ukraine Report, Eurasian Home,, Johnson’s Russia List, Russia Blog, The New York Times and The Tiraspol Times.