DIVISIONS OF NATIONALITY AND ETHNICITY COMPLICATE RUSSIA’S RECENT CLAIM TO A SPHERE OF INFLUENCE
By Judith Latham
Voice of America
08 October 2008
Russia sent its troops in August 2008 across its borders to crush
the Georgian offensive against South Ossetia
For the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991,
Russia intervened in one of its former republics when it sent its
troops in August 2008 across its borders to crush the Georgian
offensive against South Ossetia. Regardless of Western demands,
Russians occupied large parts of Georgia and set a buffer zone
around South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev
justified those actions because of Moscow’s "privileged interests"
in areas formerly in its domain. He said Russian foreign policy would
be guided by this principle of special rights within its perceived
"sphere of influence."
So what exactly is Russia’s self-proclaimed "sphere of influence"? And
what forces of ethnic separatism in the post-Soviet world abut
Paul Goble is director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan
Diplomatic Academy in Baku. He is an analyst and writer with expertise
on Russia, Eurasia and public diplomacy
Paul Goble, an American analyst and writer with expertise on
Russia, Eurasia, public diplomacy, and international broadcasting,
is the editor of five volumes on ethnicity and religion in the former
Soviet Union. Currently director of research and publications at the
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku, Goble has published more than
150 articles on ethnic and nationality problems, and he reads 15 of
the separate languages used in the post-Soviet region.
Important Distinctions Regarding "Nationality"
Appearing on VOA’s Press Conference USA with co-hosts Judith Latham
and Elez Biberaj, Goble presented some details about the Russian
population. He notes that in 2002, the Russian Federation officially
listed about 400 national and ethnic groups. Of those, ethnic
Russians represented about 70 percent of the total population. Four
years earlier, in the last Soviet census (which included all 15
former Soviet republics), Goble says the list of national and
ethnic groups was nearly twice as large. The point, says Goble,
is that the Russian word for "nationality" has several meanings –
and uses. To ethnographers, nationality refers to an ethnic group
with "some degree of self-consciousness." Legally speaking, one is
thought to be a member of a group because one’s parents were. But
Goble says the Soviet definition of nationality was almost entirely
driven by language.
Russia’s Perceived "Sphere" of Influence
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev wants to restore a 19th century
concept of Russia’s "sphere of influence" Regarding President
Medvedev’s concept of "sphere of influence," Goble says the concept
can be interpreted in different ways. In the view of the Russian
president, he says, the first dimension is "territorial" and it
includes the former Soviet republics, especially the 12 members of the
Commonwealth of Independent States. But beyond that, Goble suggests
that Mr. Medvedev wants to restore a 19th century concept of Russia’s
"sphere of influence" – something that includes the former "Eastern
bloc" of Europe as well as those countries that "neighbor the former
Soviet space," such as Afghanistan and Turkey. It would be a claim
that no longer exists in the international legal system. It is also an
assertion of power that U.S. foreign policy has rejected for some time.
A second meaning for what Medvedev calls a "privileged" sphere of
influence refers to what Paul Goble defines as a "functional division"
of the world – that is, those economic and military questions in
which Russia believes it should be a full participant.
The Impact of Ethnicity on Russia’s Claim
Goble says there are several reasons why Russia’s move into Georgia
is not likely to be repeated in Ukraine. First, he explains, Georgia
is a small country with 5-6 million people whereas Ukraine is a state
of nearly 50 million people. Second, Goble says the divisions within
Ukraine are not nearly so deep as Moscow claims or as U.S. journalists
based in Moscow report. He says while many ethnic Russians in eastern
Ukraine are proud of their heritage, they do not want to be citizens
of Russia because they feel they are "far better off in a Ukraine
that is on its way to becoming a member of the EU." A third reason,
Goble says, is that Ukraine has a very clear constitutional prohibition
against dual citizenship – something that would preclude a repetition
in Ukraine of Russia’s ploy to insert itself on behalf of "Russian"
citizens in Georgia’s breakaway regions who had just a month earlier
been issued Russian passports.
By supporting separatism in Georgia, Goble says Moscow runs the risk
of encouraging separatism within the Russian Federation itself. Goble
says it could lead to two possible results – either a decay of central
authority and an exodus of people in the Middle Volga region and in
the Caucasus similar to the situation at the end of the Soviet Union,
or a Russian government that becomes so repressive of its minorities
that it produces explosions. Goble says Moscow risks not only losing
the non-Russian population of the Caucasus, but also the predominantly
ethnic Russian populations of Siberia and the far eastern region.
…in the Caucasus
In the south Caucasus, there are three very different countries
in terms of their ethnic mix. Due to the Nagorno-Karabakh war,
Azerbaijan is almost all Azerbaijani, although it is one-third Sunni
Muslim and two-thirds Shi’a. Armenia, which had a significant Azeri
minority, also has Assyrians and Kurds, but it is overwhelmingly a
mono-ethnic state now. The real question for those two countries,
Goble says, is the number of people who live abroad in "diaspora"
communities. Georgia has five major ethnic minorities, two of which
(Ossetians and Abkhaz) had autonomous republic status until Russia’s
recent invasion — Ajars in Ajaria (on the Black Sea), Azerbaijanis
in the east, and Armenians in the south. Since independence in 1991,
perhaps a million Georgians have been living in the Russian Federation.
Paul Goble says the north Caucasus is among the most ethnically
complicated places on earth. In Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, North
Ossetia, and other areas of the north Caucasus, there are at least
100 small ethnic groups that speak languages that are not mutually
intelligible. And Goble says they have only three things in common –
geographic isolation, their Islamic identity, and a historical pattern
in which Moscow has "never controlled the north Caucasus until it
controlled the south Caucasus."
…in the Baltic States
Goble says as part of the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania
were occupied countries, but from the perspective of international
law, not union republics. During the recent conflict in Georgia, the
presidents of all three Baltic states- along with the presidents of
Poland and Ukraine – flew to Tbilisi to express their support for the
Georgians. They have also called for rapid NATO membership for Georgia.
Lithuania is overwhelmingly ethnic Lithuanian, and the second minority
is not Russian but Polish. In Estonia, 68 percent is ethnically
Estonian, and about 30 percent is ethnic Russian. In Latvia, about
50 percent is ethnic Latvian, 30 percent is ethnic Russian, and 15
percent is made up of Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and others. Goble
says that over the years Moscow has tried to exploit the ethnic Russian
minority in these countries because the Baltic republics did not offer
citizenship to people who had been moved in by the occupying power,
and consequently many of these people are without passports.
…in Central Asia
In Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan,
there is a quite different mix – Turkic peoples, Persians, other
non-Russians, and ethnic Russians. In the 1920’s, when borders were
drawn, most of these peoples spoke more than one language. Today,
more important than the ethnic conflicts in Central Asia, are fights
over water and food. To illustrate, within 12 to 15 months the Aral
Sea will no longer exist, which Goble says, will lead to a health
crisis in Central Asia that "we cannot imagine."
Moldova has ethnic ties to Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. Paul
Goble suggests that the separatist region of Trans-Dniestria, on the
Ukrainian border, may be the only place where the 1991 coup succeeded;
that is, it is still Soviet. Furthermore, he says Moscow has used this
"frozen conflict" primarily against Ukraine to gain leverage.
Another ethnic issue in Moldova involves the Gagauz, a people who
speak a Turkic language, but are the "only group on earth" that ever
voluntarily converted from Christianity to Islam – and then back to
Orthodox Christianity. In addition, the Gagauz are a heavily armed
population (thanks to Turkey) and have a constitutional right to
…in the Slavic States
Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have their own ethnic tensions. Most
important, Paul Goble says, is that Ukrainians are not Russians, and
Byelorussians are not Russians. One of the huge mistakes, he argues,
is that the West accepts the Russian version of reality in which
there was a Russian nation from which Ukrainians and Byelorussians
split. Ethnically they were established at about the same time,
although Russia has had a state longer.
Ukraine wants to be part of the West. Although it will not be easy,
Goble says, he thinks it will come about over time. And he predicts
that Belarus will also move away from Russia because it is unlikely
to be satisfied in the long run with the status of having six oblasts
in the Russian Federation.