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Russian 'Imperialism' Threatens

Moscow's neighbours are angered by its moves to integrate breakaway republics into the Russian Federation
By Mikhail Vignansky

"It's political provocation," said the Georgian foreign ministry of Russia's latest move to woo the region's breakaway republics into its sphere of influence.


A law passed almost unanimously by the Russian State Duma on June 28 allows unrecognised states to join the federation as republics, should the countries they wish to secede from agree.


This would apply directly to the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh, and Trandniestr, which is seeking independence from Moldova. All have openly stated their pro-Russian stance.


What unites these self-proclaimed entities is their desire to become Russian protectorates. But their motives are very different. For instance, Transdniestr, whose majority Russian population did not want to be part of Moldova after the former Soviet republic became independent, sees its future with Russia. But the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh seems to think that Moscow will prove effective in staving off Azeri claims on the enclave.


With all Duma deputies, bar one abstainee, voting in favour, the proposed legislation will now be considered by the Federation Council - and seems set to be passed there, with little modification.


Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova have seen the move as a brazen affront. All are engaged in complex negotiations with their respective breakaway regions, in which Russia is playing a leading role. And there are suggestions that Moscow is exploiting the fact that these talks are currently deadlocked.


"What Russian deputies did reveals their neo-imperialistic ambitions," said Irakli Gogava, chairman of the Georgian parliamentarian subcommittee on CIS issues. He added that the possible admission of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the Russian Federation would be a gross violation of international norms. Azerbaijan is also alarmed by the new law. "It opens the doors to separatism on CIS territory," said Vafa Guluzade, the former Azerbaijani presidential advisor on foreign policy and renowned political expert.


Russian experts say the proposed legislation is typical of the Kremlin's desire to consolidate its powers in the region, taking advantage of the fact that the breakaway republics see admission to the Russian Federation as the best way of achieving secession.


The Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta believes Russia has all the economic, political and military means to lever CIS states into relinquishing their hold on areas opting to leave. As such, the paper goes on to say that this new law could well fuel separatist movements in other parts of CIS such as Crimea, Ukraine and Kazakstan - and, in doing so, threaten the organisation's very future.


In attempting to bring the breakaway republics into its orbit, Moscow sees an opportunity to at least partially gain back some of the influence it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, drawing in Abkhazia and South Ossetia could allow Russia to maintain a military presence in the southern Caucasus, if, as seems likely, Georgia insists that all Russian army bases are removed from the country. In the case of Nagorno Karabakh, Moscow could acquire an effective trump card against Azerbaijan and Armenia.


It was a remarkable coincidence that around the time when the Duma passed it controversial bill, the Nagorno-Karabakh capital Stepanakert hosted a second meeting of the foreign ministers of the four breakaway republics, providing them with a opportunity to jointly mull over Moscow's overture.


Apart from their obvious pro-Russian sympathies, the breakaway republics are likely to warm to the Moscow offer because of their growing disillusionment with talks to resolve their respective conflicts. At their meeting last year, the ministers expressed the view that Western mediation of some kind was necessary. But they now appear to be changing their mind - and have become quite critical of international involvement, particularly that of the OSCE.


"The OSCE is trying to impose some European model without considering the regional and historical background of the conflicts," said Transdniestrian foreign minister Valeri Litskaya. "All conflict regions want to have Russia as a guarantor for security, and object to the deployment of international peacekeeping forces."


Speculating about possible developments, the Russian newspaper Kommersant said Abkhazia and Transdniestr have already approached the Duma about their possible admission to the Russian Federation.


The Ossetian president Ludwig Chibirov, meanwhile, declared that Tbilisi had not so far complied with its obligation to provide economic assistance to South Ossetia, thus forcing the entity to consider other options in the region. "South Ossetia has enjoyed de-facto independence for the past decade," said Chibirov. Although open to new OSCE initiatives, he said he would also consider taking Russia up on her offer.


Mikhail Vignansky is the editor of the Prime News information agency in Tbilisi


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