Stalin’s Cartographical Time-Bombs

Note February 2016. These were done for the Russia Profile Weekly Experts’ Panel which I cannot find on the Net now. Many were picked up by other sources and I have given links where I can find them.

No reference found.

When the USSR fell apart five of Stalin’s cartographical time-bombs exploded. After the fighting, each of the five had secured its liberty: North Ossetia, Abkhazia, Karabakh, Transdnestr and Chechnya. Of these, only Chechnya has been resolved (for the time being anyway) but only after immense bloodshed and destruction. The other four maintain their independence.

International attempts to negotiate an end to these standoffs fail, over and over again, on five obstacles.

The first is the contradiction between two fundamental principles of international relations: territorial integrity and the right of self-determination. There is, however, no means of resolution when the two principles collide as they do in these four cases. As to a third principle, uti possidetis, the “international community” seems to be too squeamish to accept that the four won their independence in war and are therefore entitled to keep it.

A second difficulty is the question of who sits at the negotiating table. This issue has particularly bedevilled attempts to resolve Karabakh. Karabakh is a player, it cannot be left out of the talks. But Baku is adamant that it will negotiate only with Yerevan. That is understandable: for Baku to admit Stepanakert as a negotiator would be to concede much of what Stepanakert demands. And so discussions fail because one of the principals – the most important, for it won its war – is not party to them.

A third difficulty is the status quo. The four, whatever their long-term hopes may be, prefer the status quo of self-government to the visible alternatives. Stepanakert’s incentive to make Baku happy or Tiraspol’s to make Chisinau happy is low.

Fourth, whatever the casus belli may have been – unwillingness to join Romania in the case of Transdnestr and fear of massacres in the case of Karabakh – the four gained their independence in war and much blood was shed on both sides. They feel that they earned their independence. Several times a possible solution to the Karabakh problem has been blocked by enraged war veterans on both sides.

Finally, there is no outside power that can “deliver” any of them. While much commentary in the West seems to assume that all of these problems were fomented or caused by Moscow that is not true; they were sui generis. Neither Moscow nor any other outside power can force a solution on any one of the four.

Perhaps there were possibilities in the 1990s to peacefully resolve these problems. For example, Kiev wisely conceded autonomy to Crimea and Chisinau to the Gagauz and these potential problems were resolved in a civilised way. But, in the cases of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdnestr and Karabakh these possibilities were not available. (Moscow did negotiate an autonomy agreement with the Chechen parliament but Dudayev would have none of it.) And so it was left to war to resolve the problems.

I do not hold out much possibility for any future negotiating session to overcome these obstacles. The irony is that the end-state – something resembling the arrangement of the Åland Islands for example – is visible. But it is hard to imagine, given the five obstacles, how to get there from here.