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The self-determination snowball

After years of paying lip service to the territorial integrity of Georgia and Moldova, Russia has moved to side with the separatist regimes on the territories of these two newly independent states in an apparent effort to pre-empt an increase in Western alliances' influence in a region that Moscow views as a zone of its strategic, if not exclusive interests.

Russia's Foreign Ministry signaled the rhetorical shift on Thursday with two senior diplomats publicly touting the idea that Moscow may recognize the right of South Ossetia and Transdniester to secede from Georgia and Moldova, respectively.

"The _expression of will of the people is the highest instance for determining the fate of those who live on a concrete territory," Ambassador Valery Nesterushkin, the Foreign Ministry's special envoy, said. "This is at least how a referendum is perceived through [the prism of] international law."

Officially, Nesterushkin was commenting on a statement by the head of the self-styled Transdniestrian Republic, Igor Smirnov, who announced earlier on Thursday that this separatist province in Moldova may hold a referendum on independence by September.

In reality, Nesterushkin was also firing back at Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, who is also the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Gucht called on Thursday for Russia to withdraw its 1,200 soldiers from this province of 400,000 so that an international peacekeeping force could be installed there. He even offered €10 million (US$13 million) out of the OSCE budget to finance the withdrawal of those troops, which have remained there since the separation of Moldova and Transdniester after the two sides went to war in 1992, according to Russia's Kommersant daily newspaper.

"It is important to start discussions on transforming the peacekeeping operation in Moldova into an internationally mandated, recognized operation that could enhance security and stability for both [Trans]Dnestr and Moldova," De Gucht told a news conference in Tiraspol, Transdniester's capital.

And the Moldovan side has repeatedly accused Russia of supporting the separatists to keep the conflict unresolved so that Russia can maintain leverage on both sides and preserve its influence in the region. Moldova has been trying to exit the zone of Russia's influence. Initially elected on a pro-Russian platform, Moldova's incumbent president Vladimir Voronin has been actively trying to anchor this tiny republic to the EU and get the Western powers involved in mediation of the conflict.

Voronin's tactics resemble those of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. This US-educated lawyer has also been trying to win Western mediation of Georgia's conflicts with separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while criticizing Russia's conduct as a mediator and peacekeeper.

On Wednesday, the Georgian government fired yet another critical salvo over what it deemed as the illegal entry of Russian peacekeepers into Georgian territory because the servicemen failed to obtain Georgian visas. Some 500 Russian soldiers were deployed to South Ossetia from Russia as part of personnel rotation of the peacekeeping operation there.

Given lack of visas, "this operation is no longer peacekeeping, but rather an operation of force conducted by the Russian military", Georgia's Conflict Resolution Minister Georgi Khaindrava told journalists in Tbilisi Thursday.

Russia's Foreign Ministry blistered at the accusations, noting that Georgia did not control the territory of South Ossetia and hinting that South Ossetia's aspirations to secede from Georgia may be viewed as legitimate by Russia.

"We treat the principle of territorial integrity with respect. So far as Georgia is concerned, however, its territorial integrity is rather a possibility, than the present-day political and legal reality," the ministry's chief spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a Thursday statement.

"It could become a reality only as a result of difficult talks, in which the stand of South Ossetia will be based, as we understand it, on another principle, which is equally recognized by the world community - the right to self-determination," the statement said.

While commenting on the right of self-determination of South Ossetia and Transdniester, Russian diplomats have remained silent on whether the separatist republics of Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh should have the same right. However, Russia may introduce a resolution to the UN Security Council, which would make no reference to Georgia's territorial integrity and allow for the possibility of Abkhazia' secession, the Friday issue of Kommersant quoted an unnamed source in the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying.

Previously, the official position of Russia, which has been involved in mediation of both conflicts and has peacekeepers stationed there, has been that it respects the territorial integrity of both Georgia and Moldova, but stands for the peaceful resolution of both conflicts on the basis of mutual compromises. In reality, Russia offered not so tacit support for Transdniester, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia by granting Russian citizenship to tens of thousands of residents in the separatist provinces. Yet Russian diplomats still pay lip service to the idea of territorial integrity. With the conflicts frozen and unresolved, Russia can count on maintaining its leverage over all the stakeholders.

But that "frozen" strategy has been increasingly undermined as the new governments of Georgia and Moldova seek to anchor themselves to the West and the latter reciprocates by boosting its support for the two governments vis-Ã -vis the separatist regimes.

Sensing the increasing pressure, both Russia and the separatist regimes are digging their heels in. The efforts of the separatists to legitimize their cause may see a major boost from the pending referendum on Kosovo's independence, as well as a recent referendum in Montenegro in which voters chose to split from the state union with Serbia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the debate on the issue in Russia and neighboring states by pointing out at a press conference in late January that Kosovo's independence would bolster similar bids by de facto independent republics in the former Soviet Union. He returned to the issue of self-determination referendums on Friday by citing the 21 May plebiscite in Montenegro.

"Such precedents would negatively affect the situation not only in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, whose people would ask why the Albanians in Kosovo could separate from a state they are part of, while they cannot," Putin told a meeting of foreign editors and reporters outside Moscow.

While Russian diplomats' reference to the right of self-determination may signal a rhetoric shift, it is unlikely that Moscow would recognize the independence of either separatist provinces anytime soon, according to Aleksei Malashenko, senior expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Nikolai Silaev, a senior expert with the Center for Caucasus Studies at the Moscow State University of Foreign Relations.

In separate telephone interviews with ISN Security Watch on Thursday, both said Russia was interested in keeping the conflicts on the territory of former Soviet Union frozen, with Malashenko noting that Moscow would hardly alter its position anytime before 2008 presidential elections.

Arthur Martirosyan, a senior program manager with the Cambridge, MA-based Conflict Management Group, agreed.

"I do not see this as a major shift in the Russian policy, as Russia has been consistently using these conflicts as a persuasion tool trying to get Georgia and Moldova and less so Azerbaijan take a less pro-Western and a more pro-Russian foreign policy stance," he said.

Russia is likely to stick to no recognition for as long as there is none for Kosovo, according to Martirosyan. However, since Kosovo's conditional independence is inevitable, the real question is about the timing of Russia's symmetric responses in conflicts in Georgia and Moldova, he said in a Friday telephone interview.

However, according to Konstantin Zatulin, State Duma deputy and head of the hard-line Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Moscow, the statements by Foreign Ministry officials do imply that Russia will recognize the separatist republics if their populations vote to secede.

"It is very a correct and timely statement, especially after the referendum in Montenegro. We need to respect opinion of people who want self-determination," he said.

Zatulin was echoed by Vadim Gustov, chairman of the Federation Council's CIS committee. Gustov told Kommersant on Thursday that Russia had every right to accept the separatist provinces if they voted to join the Russian Federation.

In addition to these federal legislators, Gennady Bukaev, assistant to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, claimed at a joint session of government of South Ossetia and Russia's North Ossetia in April that the federal government had made a principle decision to incorporate the former.

The two republics will then be united into one subject of the Russian Federation, "the name of which is already known to the world - Alania", two Russian dailies quoted Bukaev as saying. The Russian Foreign Ministry later sought to downplay this statement in what demonstrates that Russia has no plans to absorb either territory, according to independent experts.

Simon Saradzhyan is a veteran security and defense writer based in Moscow, Russia. He is a co-founder of the Eurasian Security Studies Center in Moscow.

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