United States Institute of Peace

TOC | Key Points | Foreword | Introduction | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Notes | Acknowledgments | Author

Sovereignty after Empire Self-Determination Movements in the Former Soviet Union

Hopes and Disappointments: Case Studies

The Russian Federation

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation achieved its independence, as did the other union republics of the former USSR. As the core of the union, Russia assumed most of its responsibilities. But the breakup of the USSR released Russia from two significant legacies: the maintenance of the totalitarian state and the necessity to support the other former Soviet republics.

     Russia, by far the largest of the former Soviet republics in terms of territory, population, and economic potential, did not face the danger of being torn apart by violent ethno-political conflicts during its first years of independence, unlike some of the other newly independent states. Yet from the very beginning of the post-Soviet period, problems arising from Russia's ethnic and regional diversity have influenced the country's course of economic and political reform. Its most challenging problem is trying to find a type of federation that will enable its many ethnic groups to pursue their goal of self-determination while preserving its integrity and viability as a multinational state.

     Throughout most of its millennium-long history, Russia has been a highly centralized and unified state, its enormous size and diversity notwithstanding. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only a few regions of the Russian empire had a degree of territorial autonomy, most notably Poland (1815–1831) and Finland. While the Bolsheviks held an equivocal position on the principle of self-determination, they nevertheless created autonomous territories for Russia's nationalities after the 1917 revolution. This process transformed the country into a federation constituted along ethnic lines—not a common practice in the history of federalism. Russia first emerged as a federated state in 1918, when the first constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was adopted. After the formation of the USSR in 1922, Russia became, so to speak, a federation within a federation. While other Soviet republics (e.g., Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) also had ethnically defined autonomous territories, Russia was the only federation in the Soviet Union with a three-tiered hierarchy of ethnically defined autonomous formations: autonomous republics, regions, and districts, each having a different share of the indigenous population and a different degree of autonomy from the central government.

     In reality, however, this complicated system did little to guarantee minority rights, let alone the right to self-determination; Soviet totalitarianism was fundamentally incompatible with genuine region-based federalism and ethnic autonomy. This fact became particularly obvious during the late 1920s and early 1930s, when centralism and uniformity clearly emerged as the regime's basic political goals. Most of the decision making in all fields was concentrated in the center, leaving virtually nothing within the competence of regional authorities.

     The centralization drive implied a change in Soviet nationality policy as well. The condition of non-Russian minorities in Russia and throughout the USSR as a whole, which was relatively favorable in the early period of communist rule, quickly changed for the worse as central authorities employed political terror against so-called local nationalism. This policy change, however, did not necessarily redound to the benefit of ethnic Russians, the most numerous and economically powerful nationality. Although from the mid-1930s on (particularly during and after World War II), the communist regime increasingly relied on Russian nationalism for support, the status of the Russian nation in the multinational Soviet empire was rather controversial. Both the USSR and the Russian Federation had a certain "asymmetry" in their national-political structure: Unlike the titular nationalities in the non-Russian union republics, ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation lacked basic national and cultural institutions. Russian national development was totally dependent on the central government, which was largely committed to its own political and ideological goals rather than to the salient interests of ethnic Russians. Nevertheless, Russia and the Russians were the power base of the Soviet regime, and it is only natural that in non-Russian Soviet republics and in the West, the regime was commonly perceived as essentially Russian. The difference between "Russian" and "Soviet" became obvious only in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the political divergence between Russia and the union center was a crucial factor in the disintegration of the USSR. One might say that in 1991, the Russians joined with non-Russian peoples in claiming self-determination, thus sealing the fate of the multinational Soviet empire.25

     To be sure, Russia's citizens were starting to realize that they had their own political interests, separate from those of the USSR. This process paralleled the emergence of the new Russian democratic elite. In 1990 and 1991, Russia's citizens witnessed some important steps in their country's self-determination and nation building: competitive elections for the Russian Congress of People's Deputies; the formation of Democratic Russia* and more than two hundred other popular movements and their factions in the new parliament; the country's Declaration of Sovereignty (while it was still within the USSR), adopted by the Congress of People's Deputies on June 12, 1990; the emergence of the independent Russian Communist Party, modeled after Communist parties in other Soviet republics; and the popular election of Russia's first president.

     All these signs of Russia's push for more independence and less control from the union center could only raise concern among the Soviet leadership. Indeed, there was an objective historical basis for the conflict—the clash of two opposing tendencies: Rus sia's drive to establish its sovereignty and the empire's drive to preserve its might.

     Officials in the central government naturally sought to obstruct the growing "sovereignization" of the republics, and during the last years of the Soviet Union they tried to keep the rebellious republics together by force. Armored units and special forces of the USSR Interior Ministry were periodically dispatched to the capitals of disobedient republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia (Belarus), Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakstan, and Tajikistan. Needless to say, Moscow was not immune to the wave of demonstrations.

     One bold attempt to prevent the growing sovereignization of the republics was the abortive Communist coup of August 1991. Besides the collapse of Communist power, the most important result of the coup attempt was a rise in centrifugal forces, resulting in numerous proclamations of self-determination across the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union. Six union republics declared their refusal to sign the new Union Treaty that Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders had crafted to hold the USSR together; in fact, the Baltic republics had already declared their independence. The Ukrainian referendum on independence, conducted on December 1, 1991, played a decisive role in the final disintegration of the USSR. One week after the referendum, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

     With their sudden independence, Russia and the other republics faced a number of economic and political problems. Serious concerns emerged for the first time in the political arena about the political and territorial integrity of Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and other newly independent states. These concerns manifested themselves in an entirely different way among the former Soviet republics' more prominent minorities, which—to varying degrees—refused to recognize the legitimacy of new inter- and intrastate borders (old administrative borders of the Soviet republics assumed by the newly independent states). Among the minorities that posed the strongest challenges to the new border regimes were Abkhazians and Ossetians in Georgia and Gagauz and the Transdniestr region's ethnic Russians in Moldova. Quite apart from their status as primus inter pares among ethnic groups in the non-Russian republics, ethnic Russians in the immediate post-Soviet period quickly found themselves in the position of a minority—in every respect—outside their homeland.

     In the final years of the USSR, problems within the Russian Federation were, of course, far less important than the mounting tensions within the union as a whole. But it was not long after the union republics started moving away from Moscow that Russia's autonomous regions began to demand higher status and greater rights. During 1990 and 1991, all auton omous republics unilaterally declared themselves sovereign states, deleting the word "autonomous" from their official names, while autonomous regions (except for the Jewish Autonomous Region) upgraded themselves to republics. Paradoxically, the concept of sovereignty in the Russian political lexicon at the time did not imply independence or the possibility of secession. It simply suggested more freedom for the territories to dispose of their natural resources as they saw fit, to conduct their own foreign trade relations, and to negotiate the percentage of taxes owed to the Russian government. These freedoms were encouraged by President Gorbachev, who not long before the August coup invited leaders of some the Russian republic's autonomous territories to help develop and sign a draft of the new Union Treaty, thereby ascribing to them virtually the same status the fifteen union republics enjoyed. This invitation simultaneously encouraged the impulse toward separatism on the part of Russia's autonomous territories and weakened the Russian republic's territorial integrity. The Russian leadership wisely refrained from pressuring the unruly regions into submission. Nevertheless, Russia's national cohesion was now open to question.

     In the summer of 1991, the newly elected Russian president Boris Yeltsin told the regions to take "as much sovereignty as you can swallow," implying that the federal government was ready to devolve many of its powers to regional authorities. In saying this, he did not distinguish between former autonomous ethnic territories and Russian-populated regions, the latter of which account for the bulk of Russia's territory, population, and economic potential. Russia's central leadership was wise enough at the time not to heed the call of the regions to downgrade the republics, and the problem of eliminating differences in status among constituent parts of the Russian Federation has been an extremely painful and contentious issue ever since.

     The first serious ethno-political crisis in the Russian Federation occurred when the Chechen republic in the North Caucasus proclaimed itself independent from Russia soon after the August 1991 coup, following the example of the union republics. Chechnya's president, Dzhokhar Dudaev, was elected in October 1991 on a platform of sovereignty for the Chechen republic. The Russian government's attempt to resolve the conflict by sending troops to the rebellious republic the following month seemed unwise from the start, especially since the Russian parliament voted against the decision. The troops were withdrawn within two days without having entered combat. Despite economic hardships and internal conflict, the Chechens seemed to remain committed to the ideal of sovereign nationhood, consistently declining all Russian offers aimed at keeping Chechnya in the federation. The Russian government's brutal and protracted intervention three years later is a testament to its utter rejection of Chechnya's independence, sparked by fear that such a move could trigger a chain reaction of secession across the federation.

     Russia's federal authorities also had serious problems with the republic of Tatarstan in the country's Volga region. While Tatars constitute less than half of the republic's population, Tatar nationalism has always been strong, reinforced by memories of the Kazan khanate that Russia conquered in the sixteenth century. In spite of Moscow's strongly worded admonishments, Tatarstan held a March 1992 referendum in which most voters supported the idea of the republic's becoming a sovereign state in loose association with Russia. Citizens in the neighboring republic of Bashkortostan also voiced similar demands.

     Tensions within the Russian Federation were alleviated to some extent by the so-called Federation Treaty that was signed on February 29, 1992 by all members of the federation except Chechnya and Tatarstan. The treaty, regarded as an integral element of the constitution then in force, stipulated that the republics accept their status within the Russian Federation. In return, they would be granted more political and economic autonomy, especially in comparison with the Russian Federation's regions. Such provisions mainly recognize the republics' desires for independent management of their own natural resources and direct foreign trade relations, raising the official status of the native language, and preservation of their unique national cultures. For instance, the Sakha republic (Yakutiia) has less than 1 percent of the Rus sian Federation's total population, and only one-third of this number are Yakuts, but it contains more than 90 percent of the Russian Federation's entire diamond supply and more than 25 percent of its gold. Accordingly, under a special treaty, Sakha received permission to conduct its own foreign trade relations, with the condition that about one-third of the revenues from diamond sales and nearly 12 percent of gold export receipts be reserved for the republic itself.

     In contrast, Russian-populated regions (oblasts) rich in energy resources, particularly gas and oil, have no such privileges. Their grievances could be viewed as a reaction to ethnic minorities' national movements and are reflected in their own legislation, taxation, and customs rules at their borders. Several regions (Uralskaia, Volgogradskaia, and Vologodskaia among them) attempted to upgrade their status to the republic level, and St. Petersburg successfully conducted a referendum to be a full-fledged member of the Russian Federation with the same federal relationship as that between the center and the republics.

     A much more important guarantee of the federation's stability, at least until the end of 1994, was not legal or political, but economic. In January 1992, the Russian government embarked on a comprehensive program aimed at achieving a market economy, first liberalizing prices and then privatizing state property. The scarcity of goods typical of the Soviet period soon disappeared, but during the first year of "shock therapy," inflation stood at around 2,500 percent. During 1992–1993, separatist attitudes in most Russian republics were clearly on the wane. Economic reform, albeit slow and inconsistent, did much to build an all-Russian market that provided powerful incentives for interregional integration. Republican elites were now less concerned with political powers or symbolic attributes of nationhood than with economic advantages and preferences gained through ongoing negotiations with federal authorities. The problem of separatism among Russia's regions and republics thus receded into the background for a while.

     Prior to fall 1992, Russia had been free of the ethnic violence that was prevalent in many states of the "Near Abroad" during the immediate post-Soviet period. The first bloody ethnic conflict on Russia's territory erupted in late October, the result of a long territorial dispute between two North Caucasian ethnic groups, Ossetians and Ingush. The clashes led to a virtual "ethnic cleansing" as Ingush were forcibly expelled from the Prigorodnyi district, a part of their historic homeland that now belongs to North Ossetia. Not only did Moscow fail to prevent violence, but Russian troops sent to restore order in fact took sides in the conflict, helping the mostly Orthodox Christian Ossetians against the Muslim Ingush. This incident greatly undermined the Russian government's prestige in the region. While the Ossetian-Ingush conflict remains suppressed rather than resolved for the time being, the Russian government's handling of the affair had profound implications that continue to the present. For the first time, Moscow demonstrated the lack of determination and competence necessary to settle ethnic disputes and safeguard the human rights of minorities.

     Throughout most of 1993, the political scene in Russia was dominated by increasing conflict between the reform-oriented executive branch and the more conservative legislature. This conflict had a clear impact on the development of Russian federalism, since republican and regional elites emerged as powerful political actors who could determine the balance between the two opposing forces. Both the president and the parliament vied for their support by allocating subsidies and other economic privileges, to the detriment of the nation's financial stability. Under these circumstances, the problem of equality between republics and regions largely lost its importance as both republican and regional leaders, recruited mostly from the old Communist Party nomenklatura, asserted themselves as the federation's supreme political arbiters.

     This situation, fraught with grave implications for Russia's unity and stability, changed radically with the dissolution of the Russian legislature and the suppression of the September–October 1993 coup in Moscow. Yeltsin admitted that he had overstepped the bounds of the constitution then in force, because it was adopted in the Soviet period and did not allow him to implement further political and economic reforms. The parliament, elected in spring 1990 under the conditions of the Soviet single-party system, did not garner as much trust among the Russian populace as the executive branch did, as indicated by the referendum of April 25, 1993. The center was now more politically powerful, while the influence of regional elites shrank dramatically.

     The new Russian constitution, adopted by popular vote on December 12, 1993, does not contain the Federation Treaty (although it has not been annulled) but stipulates equality among all members of the federation, a provision that in fact limits the powers of the republics and the influence of their leaders. This concession was made under pressure from the country's large, industrially developed urban areas, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg (whose regional leader attempted to create a Urals republic) among them. This constitutional component can be considered an attempt to create a symmetrical federation that equalizes the rights of its constituent members regardless of ethnic composition.

     According to the new constitution, each republic could have its own national flag and national anthem. More important, each signatory party of the Federation Treaty received the right to form its own legislative and executive bodies in accordance with its local traditions, a first in Russia's history. But the provision granting republics sovereign status was dropped from the final version of the constitution. In this context, it is clear why Russia's republics reacted to the new constitution far less favorably than the federation's regions. Besides, some of the republics had already elected their own presidents and had adopted their own constitutions even before the new Russian constitution was adopted. Moreover, some of these constitutions clearly contradicted the fundamental law of the federation by defining the republics as sovereign states.

     Article 72 of the Soviet constitution guaranteed union republics the right to "freely secede," even though other articles largely contravened this right. However, in 1990 a law was passed codifying the procedure for secession, which stipulated that a referendum be held six months after the initiation of the process. The Russian constitution, like those of the United States, Germany, and other federal states, does not contain the right of secession. However, the constitution of the Russian Federation's Tuva republic (a territory in south Siberia with a Turkic-speaking Buddhist majority) stipulates the republic's right to secede from Russia. The republic of Chechnya refused outright to hold the December 1993 referendum on the constitution. In Tatarstan, Komi, Udmurtia, and Khakasia, the referendum was not certified, as less than half the eligible voters in the republics went to the polls, while the republics of Adygeya, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Dagestan, Mordovia, and Tuva voted against the constitution. Thus, twelve of twenty-one Russian republics failed to approve the federation's new constitution, a situation that may portend new political tensions within Russia. Yet it is encouraging that both the federal center and the republics (at least some of them) have indicated a readiness for compromise. On February 15, 1994, Russia and Tatarstan signed a Treaty on Delimitation of Authority and Mutual Delegation of Powers, in which Tatarstan receives more political and economic autonomy than stipulated under the constitution. On the other hand, the treaty makes no mention of Tatarstan's controversial "sovereignty," which indicates that the republic has accepted its status within Russia. Pro-reform forces in the Russian government hoped for the signing of a similar special treaty with Chechnya, but negotiations with the republic's leaders did not begin within the required time frame.

     Instead of negotiating a settlement of the Chechen problem, Russian government officials, particularly those in the president's Security Council, relied on military force and the well-known principle of "divide and rule." In fall 1994, the government secretly supported the leaders of two northern Chechen regions who opposed President Dudaev. Toward the end of November, however, hopes for the opposition's influence were starting to fade. The "power ministries" in the Russian government (Defense, Interior, and the Federal Security Service) began to insist on more decisive measures to maintain the integrity of Russia and to stress the role of the military in resolving the issue. The results of the Budapest Summit at the end of November, where the decision to extend the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) eastward was announced with little attention paid to Russia's negative reaction, apparently had an influence on the Russian president as well. This rebuff also strengthened the position of the nationalists in the Russian leadership and led to the ill-prepared military invasion of the Chechen republic. As the military launched its assault, the Russian government declined to declare a state of emergency—a constitutional requirement under such circumstances—in which the upper chamber of the parliament must approve such an action, approval that the government knew would be difficult to obtain. The case drew protests from both chambers of the Federal Assembly (the Federation Council and the State Duma) and appeals to the Russian Constitutional Court to settle the matter.

     After seven months of undeclared war, whose victims numbered in the tens of thousands, the Consti tutional Court finally accepted arguments for consideration. In July 1995, the court concluded that the integrity of Russia is within the domain of state security and that its defense is fully within the authority of the president.

     The surprise counterassault of Chechen guerrillas on adjoining Russian territory in June 1995 forced the federal government to announce a cease-fire and begin peaceful negotiations on the prospects for reconstructing the Chechen republic, elections for new republican organs of power, and the determination of the republic's status within the Russian Federation. However, it was not until the last stages of Russia's hotly contested presidential campaign and the death of Dudaev that the Russian government made a concerted effort to at least appear committed to settling the dispute during May 1996.

     Nevertheless, hostilities in Chechnya continued through the summer of 1996, and it was only after the Chechen fighters demonstrated their military superiority by recapturing Grozny in early August that the war was brought to a close. On August 31, 1996, Russia's and Chechnya's representatives signed a peace agreement in the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt stipulating, among other things, that the problem of Chechnya's status vis-?-vis Russia be postponed until 2001, to be resolved during the interim through bilateral negotiations.

     The idea of "delayed status" clearly helped stop the bloodshed; however, as of this writing, neither of the parties to the conflict seems to take this idea seriously enough. While the Chechens (both the political elite and society at large) predictably insist on sovereignty, especially after Chechnya held its presidential and parliamentary elections in January 1997, Russia's government continues to regard Chechnya as a member of the Russian Federation, limiting its possible concession to granting the breakaway republic a special status within its legal framework. Russia's Foreign Ministry even went so far as to warn that Russia would break diplomatic relations with any nation that recognized Chechnya's sovereignty. The prospect, however, seems remote, since few if any countries are likely to offer Chechnya diplomatic recognition in the near future.

     The harsh measures against the Chechens evoked a sharp negative reaction abroad as well as among many Russian citizens, especially in the federation's republics. It is quite possible that the government's handling of its first secession crisis will revive other separatist movements that have been dormant so far, adding another perilous dimension to the country's potential for economic and political destabilization.

     Apart from the republics' and regions' claims to self-determination or more autonomy, extreme nationalist perceptions inform other views of Russia's eroding territorial integrity: Japan's claims to the Kurile Islands; Finnish politicians' claims to the Karelian isthmus and portions of the Kola peninsula; and the enclave status of the Kaliningrad region, which is separated from Russia by Belarus and Lithuania.

     In quite an opposite fashion, the legacy of Soviet territory remains a complicating factor in Russia's attempts to solidify its territorial integrity, as some regions in the "Near Abroad" of the former USSR seek to forge ties with Russia that somehow go beyond the sphere of transnational political and economic relations. Many of these connections run counter—or are in outright opposition—to the policies of central leaders in the newly independent states. Among them are the Transdniestr region in Moldova, the Crimea in Ukraine, the northeastern part of Estonia, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. The first three cases involve large communities of diaspora ethnic Russians, some even holding pro-Russian referendums aimed at changing post-Soviet international borders. Russia has so far refrained from issuing official reactions to these claims, since a positive response to, say, the Crimea's or South Ossetia's demand to join the Russian Federation would be a flagrant breach of international legal norms. On the other hand, ignoring these appeals, particularly those coming from diaspora Russian communities, clearly complicates the domestic political situation in Russia and enhances the influence of the country's nationalists.

     Preserving the integrity of the enormous Russian state poses a unique challenge, especially considering the painful transitions it is now experiencing—from an empire to a federal state, from a centrally planned to a market economy, and from totalitarianism to democracy.

     John Stuart Mill once observed that a country's ethnic diversity impedes its progress toward democracy. According to 1989 census figures, 126 nationalities inhabit the Russian Federation (about the same number as in the former USSR, although in different proportions), divided along various racial and linguistic groups as well as religious traditions. Apart from Christians of several denominations and some small ethnic groups faithful to their unique traditional beliefs (some relatively smaller nationalities of the north still profess pagan beliefs), Russia is home to millions of Muslims (among them the Tatars, Bashkirs, and most northern Caucasian peoples), hundreds of thousands of Buddhists (the Buryats, Kalmyks, and Tuvins), and Jews (some Ashkenazi Jews, the highland Jews in the Caucasus, and small communities of ethnic Russians who converted to Judaism several centuries ago).

     Despite mass migrations caused by urbanization, wartime evacuations, and Stalin's forced deportation of various ethnic groups, most peoples of Russia are deeply rooted in and intrinsically tied to their ethnic territories and natural environments and contribute to great cultural diversity, which is reflected in the national-administrative structure of Russia. The major peoples of Russia already possess the attributes of statehood: twenty-two national republics and ten other state-like formations. At the same time, ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation today make up more than 83 percent of the population, and together with naturally assimilated Byelorussians and Ukrainians, the Slavic share of the population is around 87 percent. In other words, the federation, despite the variety noted above, is more or less ethnically homogeneous. This circumstance served as the basis for the Russian right's nationalist sloganeering during the campaign for the parliamentary elections in December 1995 and its reprise during the 1996 presidential campaign. As a consequence, we will undoubtedly see a rise in the use of nationalist slogans on the part of ethnic minorities.


The case of Georgia, the newly independent Trans caucasian republic that was engulfed for years in a bloody civil war, exemplifies the problems that arise in an emerging sovereign country trying to assert its territorial integrity in the face of ethnic minorities' self-determination claims.

     Georgia's population, currently estimated at 5.5 million, is rather ethnically heterogeneous, with the titular nation, the Georgians, constituting just over 70 percent of the total. The most numerous ethnic minorities are Armenians (8.1 percent), Russians (6.3 percent), and Azeris (5.7 percent). In recent years, however, serious challenges to Georgia's incipient nationhood have come from smaller ethnic groups: the Ossetians, comprising 3 percent of the total population, and the Abkhaz, comprising less than 2 percent.

     Unlike some other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, Georgia has a history of independent statehood dating back to antiquity. Only in the late eighteenth century did the Georgian kingdom, under strong pressure from Persia and Turkey, lose its independence to its northern neighbor, Russia; Georgia's monarchy formally ended in 1801. While official Soviet history interpreted the incorporation as voluntary, a majority of Georgian historians have treated this event as an annexation of their homeland by the Russian empire. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, the mostly Orthodox Georgians were treated relatively favorably by the tsarist regime.

     Before 1917, Georgian nationalists generally limited themselves to one demand: autonomy within Russia. In the immediate aftermath of the 1917 revolution, however, Georgia declared independence and was recognized by the international community as well as by Russia's Bolshevik rulers. This second era of Georgian independence lasted for only three years, ending in 1921 with the Red Army's invasion. Popular resistance notwithstanding, Georgia was incorporated into the USSR.

     While not formally a federation, Georgia had a complex national-administrative structure under the Soviet regime. The relatively small Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic also included two autonomous republics, Abkhazia and Adzharia, and an autonomous region, South Ossetia. The Adzharian autonomous oblast was an unusual Soviet formation, since it was based on religion rather than ethnicity (its population consists mostly of Georgian-speaking Muslims), while Abkhazia and South Ossetia were established along ethnic lines. With hindsight, we can see how this ethno-territorial arrangement was characteristic of the Communist regime's efforts to create artificial sources of interethnic tension that it could exploit in classic "divide and conquer" fashion. Throughout most of the Soviet period, this ethnic-based autonomy in no way insulated the respective minorities from oppression and attempts at assimilation. Georgian Communist authorities pursued, more or less vigorously, a policy of "Georgianization."

     On the other hand, these autonomous territories encompassed sizable portions of historically Georgian lands, and nationally conscious Georgians viewed them as a threat to the nation's survival. It seemed clear that from the end of the 1980s, Georgia, while seeking its own sovereignty, would deny a similar right to its distinct regions and ethnic republics. Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Prize winner and human rights advocate, observed that Georgia could be considered a "small empire," emulating the larger Soviet empire in its unequal treatment of national groups.

     The Georgian national idea, based on memories of sovereign independence, never lost its popular appeal, even though before the late 1980s only a small group of dissident intellectuals openly expressed Georgia's claims to national self-determination and secession from the Soviet Union. Their appeals were addressed to fellow dissidents in other parts of the USSR and, of course, to worldwide public opinion. The international response, however, was minimal. Soviet dissidents, while supporting the right of Georgia to self-determination, also took up the cause of some of Georgia's minorities who suffered human rights violations, particularly the Meskhetian Turks, who were forcibly expelled from southern Georgia to Central Asia in 1944. Needless to say, not all members of the Georgian national movement could support the demand of this "punished people" to be allowed to return to its homeland.

     In 1987 and 1988, with the winds of secession already sweeping across the Baltic republics and a few other regions of the Soviet Union, the situation in Georgia remained relatively calm. The turning point came in April 1989, when Soviet troops brutally suppressed a peaceful demonstration in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. Mass indignation over the violence triggered a sharp rise in both anticommunist sentiment and secessionist attitudes. Meanwhile, Moscow's ability to control the situation in Georgia (and elsewhere in the multinational empire) rapidly deteriorated. In October 1990, Georgia took the first crucial step toward exiting the Soviet domain by holding open parliamentary elections that brought to power former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his secessionist Round Table/Free Georgia bloc. In April 1991, two months after Soviet troops were deployed to restore order in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, the Georgian parliament, chaired by Gamsakhurdia, proclaimed Georgia's independence from the USSR. One month later, Gamsakhurdia was elected president by popular vote.

     His charismatic qualities and popularity notwithstanding, Gamsakhurdia had many influential enemies inside and outside Georgia. After the presidential elections, a long and bitter power struggle ensued, culminating in the military coup of December 1991–January 1992 and Gamsakhurdia's eventual ouster. Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister under Gorbachev and general secretary of the Georgian Communist Party from 1972 to 1985, assumed power.

     It was not until new parliamentary elections in October 1992 that Shevardnadze's rule acquired a degree of legitimacy. Most Western governments and the international community in general, having shown no inclination to recognize Georgia's sovereignty under Gamsakhurdia, accepted it almost immediately after Shevardnadze came to power. During Gamsakhurdia's tenure, Georgia was perceived as lacking the political stability for diplomatic recognition. However, Georgia hardly became more stable and democratic after Shevardnadze's accession.

     Georgia's struggle for nationhood and the accompanying political strife, which has not subsided since the overthrow of Gamsakhurdia (who died under mysterious circumstances in early 1993), proceed against a background of violent ethno-political conflicts in which the Georgian ethnic majority has had to address claims to self-determination from the territorially autonomous ethnic minorities, the Ossetians and the Abkhaz.

South Ossetia

According to the last Soviet census of 1989, Georgia's Ossetians numbered about 164,000, with 65,000 living in the South Ossetian Autonomous Region, where they constitute about two-thirds of the total population; the rest are mostly ethnic Georgians. Historically, Georgian settlement of the area antedates the influx of Ossetians. (Many Georgians now reject the very notion of "South Ossetia," referring instead to "Shida Kartli" or "Samachablo," the Georgian names for these lands.) Yet Ossetians can hardly be treated as recent arrivals, having lived in the area for several hundred years.

     Under the Soviet regime, Ossetians in Georgia, particularly those living outside the autonomous region, were subject to Tbilisi's assimilationist policies. Tensions grew in the late 1980s as the South Ossetians attempted to pursue their right to self-determination and a change in territorial status. The self-determination movement, while initiated and led by the region's representative soviet (council) that was dominated by old Communist Party elites, had mass support among all segments of the region's society. In fall 1990, South Ossetia declared itself a sovereign republic within the Soviet Union, apparently aiming at eventual unification with the Russian Federation's North Ossetian Autonomous Republic. The two territories are separated by the Caucasus mountain range but are connected by a tunnel and an overland pass. South Ossetia's claims met little if any support from Moscow, fearful of bowing to pressure "from below" to make any border or status changes within the multinational state.

     In December 1990, Georgia's newly elected parliament abolished South Ossetian territorial autonomy and introduced a state of emergency in the region's capital, Tskhinvali. Torez Kulumbegov, the speaker of the newly established South Ossetian legislative body, was arrested in Tbilisi during negotiations and was imprisoned for more than a year until Russian and Ossetian human rights workers won his release. The imposition of martial law brought two and a half years of guerrilla-type warfare, with both Georgians and Ossetians involved in killing civilians, imposing blockades, and ethnic cleansing. Moscow initially tried to curb the violence by sending in special Interior Ministry troops, but they were unable to restore order.

     After the collapse of the Soviet Union, South Ossetia actively sought support from Russia, but the Russian government, despite strong pressures from nationalist political forces and North Ossetian authorities, refrained from recognizing South Ossetia's secession from Georgia. Such a move would have been tantamount to a Russian Anschluss of a portion of Georgia's territory and could have provoked demands on the part of other minorities for a similar Anschluss, for example, on Russians in the Crimea or the northeastern part of Estonia or the Lezgins in the northern Caucasus, who are divided between Russia's Dagestan republic and Azerbaijan. The results of a plebiscite held in South Ossetia, in which a majority of participants favored unification with the Russian Federation, were ignored by Russian authorities. It was only in June 1992 that a viable cease-fire in the region was achieved, thanks mainly to Russian mediation. Russia also sent a small peacekeeping force to the region, which was reinforced by troops from North Ossetia and Georgia; an OSCE mission currently observes the actions of this peacekeeping force. Georgian refugees still cannot return to the region, however.

     Violence has not erupted in South Ossetia since, but because no permanent political solution to the problem has yet been reached, a new outbreak of hostilities is certainly possible.


The situation in Abkhazia presents an even more serious challenge to Georgia's territorial integrity and internal stability. The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict also has far-reaching international implications.

     The Abkhaz, a small ethnic group clearly distinct from the Georgians, are linguistically and culturally related to highland peoples of the North Caucasus and are among the oldest inhabitants of western Transcaucasia. The Abkhazian kingdom co-existed with the Georgian kingdom in the early Middle Ages. In the 1860s, Abkhazia was incorporated into the Russian empire. At the time of the conquest and shortly thereafter, much of the Abkhaz population (which professes Islamic and Christian over traditional beliefs) was either expelled or migrated to neighboring Turkey. Nonetheless, by the early twentieth century, the Abkhaz were still a majority in their historic homeland. After the 1917 revolution, Abkhazia entered the Soviet Union as a sovereign republic within the so-called Transcaucasian Federation, and in 1925 this status was fixed in the newly adopted Abkhazian constitution. In 1931 its status was downgraded to that of an autonomous republic within Georgia.

     Throughout most of the Soviet period, particularly under Stalin, Abkhazia was subjected to extensive Georgianization. The Abkhaz suffered discrimination in many fields, and Georgian immigration was actively encouraged. Lavrentii Beria, Georgia's Communist Party boss in the 1930s, played a very active role in pursuing this policy. As a result, the ethno-demographic profile of Abkhazia has changed dramatically over the course of two generations. By 1989, the Abkhaz numbered about 93,000 and constituted just 18 percent of the republic's population, while the share of Georgians reached 240,000, or 45 percent. The numbers of Armenians (15 percent of the total) and Russians (14 percent) also increased considerably.

     The Abkhaz national movement emerged in 1978, when mass rallies were held to support a plan to secede from Georgia and join the Russian Federation. These open expressions of discontent arose over a draft of the new Abkhazian constitution. Not only was the draft constitution prepared by Georgian officials, but it recognized Georgian as the official language in Abkhazia. The movement, led by Abkhaz intellectuals and tacitly supported by influential regional clans and by the local Communist Party elite, enjoyed widespread support throughout the autonomous republic and from other ethnic minorities as well. Georgian authorities were not only forced to change the constitutional draft to recognize three official languages (Abkhaz, Georgian, and Russian), but had to nominate new political leadership for Abkhazia and provide economic aid to the autonomous republic as well.

     In the late 1980s, the Abkhaz national movement resurfaced, this time with renewed demands for union republic status. Although Georgians and Abkhaz clashed over the issue in 1989, the violence was sporadic. Abkhaz leaders concentrated their efforts on lobbying Moscow for support, trying to project an image of loyal Soviet citizens resisting anticommunist Georgian nationalism. Unlike the rest of Georgia, Abkhazia participated in the March 1991 referendum on maintaining the Soviet Union as a unified state. President Gamsakhurdia pursued a rather conciliatory policy toward the Abkhaz, since the latter (unlike the Ossetians) were officially treated as one of Georgia's "indigenous peoples." Even though one concession allotted a disproportionately greater number of seats in Abkhazia's Supreme Soviet (the Soviet-era republican legislature) for the titular ethnic group, the issue of Georgia's constitution continued to inflame Abkhaz national passions. At the time, the Georgian Supreme Soviet adhered to the 1921 constitution of independent Georgia, which did not recognize Abkhazia as a republic with its own statehood inside Georgia. In July 1992, Abkhazia's Supreme Soviet decreed that Abkhazia's 1925 constitution, under which Abkhazia was deemed independent within a Georgian confederation, should remain in force until the passage of a new constitution.

     The following month, Georgian troops invaded Abkhazia and captured its capital, Sukhumi. Abkhaz leaders, including President Vladislav Ardzinba, fled to Gudauta in the northern part of the republic to organize armed resistance. Hostilities lasted for about a year, with the Abkhaz directly supported not only by their northern Caucasian ethnic brethren (including a Chechen military battalion) but by Russian military units stationed in the area as well. In summer and fall 1993, the Abkhaz launched a counteroffensive. Eduard Shevardnadze, who had replaced President Gamsakhurdia, soon arrived in Sukhumi to lead Georgia's defense.26 However, Abkhaz forces, backed by the Russian military, recaptured the entire territory of the autonomous republic. Most of Abkhazia's Georgians were forced to flee, creating a severe refugee problem. Eager to enlist Russia's support on the Georgian side, Shevardnadze finally signed a 1994 agreement for Georgia's membership in the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, a subtle yet serious blow to Georgian nationalism. The two countries also concluded an agreement to allow Russian military bases in Georgia and to share responsibility for patrolling the Georgian-Turkish border.

     Russia, suspected of a pro-Abkhaz bias, is now pursuing a more balanced policy. Additionally, Presidents Yeltsin and Shevardnadze signed a treaty stipulating mutual recognition of existing borders. But the leaders of the various factions in the Russian State Duma have warned President Yeltsin that they will not approve the bilateral treaty until Georgian authorities have proposed a draft of a new federal constitution. In March 1994, President Shevardnadze signed an agreement with U.S. President Clinton that contained a statement on the territorial integrity of Georgia. Both leaders discussed the issue of introducing international peacekeeping troops on the border between Georgia and Russia, an unrealistic proposal in light of Russia's interests in the region. In the meantime, UN observers and representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have taken up positions on the border between Abkhazia and Georgia.

     To date, there have been no other outbreaks of mass violence in Abkhazia, but the conflict is far from being resolved, despite ongoing negotiations and mediation provided by the United Nations. The main problem underlying the conflict is, of course, Abkhazia's status. While Abkhaz leaders have so far refrained from declaring outright secession from Georgia, it does not seem likely that they would be content with the mere restoration of Abkhazian autonomy within Georgia. On the other hand, it seems equally unlikely that Georgians could reconcile themselves to Abkhazia's complete independence. Moreover, secession would likely encounter international condemnation as violating Georgia's territorial integrity, especially since ethnic Abkhaz constitute less than one-fifth of Abkhazia's population.

     In summer 1995, the Abkhazian leadership, under the supervision of peacekeeping forces and UN High Commissioner for Refugees representatives, allowed approximately 100,000 Georgian refugees to return to the southernmost district of Abkhazia, where they once constituted a sizable majority. Not long before that, the Georgian leadership, despite strong legislative opposition, offered a draft of a new Georgian constitution, which proposes establishing a federal state with a specified level of self-rule in Abkhazia, Adzharia, and South Ossetia.

     In fall 1996, Abkhazia held presidential and parliamentary elections whose legitimacy was widely questioned, since many refugees who had not returned to the republic (mostly ethnic Georgians) were excluded from the vote. Georgia's government sponsored a simultaneous referendum among Abkhazian refugees in Georgia, in which most voters predictably supported the idea of Abkhazia's status within Georgia.

     Future negotiations should focus on elaborating Abkhazia's status as a sovereign state within a Georgian federation or confederation. Equally important is Abkhazia's guarantee of equal treatment for all ethnic groups, including Georgians.

The Crimea

While the Crimea still cannot be listed among the numerous areas of violent ethno-political conflict in the Soviet successor states, it has recently become a focus of domestic and international tension, with conflicting self-determination claims voiced against a background of interstate territorial disputes and an unsettled legacy of military-political issues from the Soviet period.

     The Crimean peninsula is situated on the northern coast of the Black Sea, covering a territory of approximately 270,000 square kilometers. The largest ethnic groups among its 2.7 million people are Russians (1.7 million, or some 63 percent of the total), Ukrainians (650,000, or about 24 percent), and Crimean Tatars (250,000 to 300,000, or about 10 percent).

     From the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the peninsula was ruled by the Crimean khanate, dependent on the Ottoman Empire. Numerically and politically dominant in the khanate was a Turkic-speaking people who evolved into a distinct ethnic group, the Crimean Tatars. In the course of the Russo-Turkish wars, the Crimean khanate was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1783. This move was sealed by a peace treaty between Russia and Turkey in 1791.

     Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Crimea's ethno-demographic structure underwent significant changes. Russia's tsarist regime pursued a decidedly anti-Tatar policy, encouraging Russian (and Ukrainian) settlement in the area and forcing many Crimean Tatars to flee to Turkey. As a result, by the early twentieth century the Crimean Tatars constituted just about one-third of the region's population, while the proportion of eastern Slavs reached 50 percent.

     The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 led to a brief period of Crimean semi-independence, with Tatar political organizations playing an important role in the region. As early as November 1917, the Crimean Tatar kurultai (national congress) was convened, adopting the first Crimean constitution. Today, leaders of the Crimean Tatar national movement often invoke the experience of 1917–1920 to substantiate their claims to national statehood.

     In 1921, just a year after the Crimea was recaptured by Bolshevik Russia, the region was granted territorial autonomy within the Russian Federation. Bolshevik leaders established the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in the context of their so-called nativization policy, characteristic of the Communist regime's early nationalities policy. In general, this policy encouraged the expression of minority languages and cultures as well as a sort of "affirmative action" for non-Russian nationalities, while minimizing any challenge to centralized Communist rule. To be sure, Crimean Tatars enjoyed preferential treatment in the fields of culture and administration in the Crimean ASSR. In retrospect, however, the Crimean autonomy of the 1920s–1930s seems not to have been as clearly ethnicity-based as most other Soviet autonomies of the period. Presently, Crimean Tatar activists regard the Crimean ASSR as a recognition of Crimean Tatar statehood, while their opponents in the Crimea and beyond are convinced that the autonomous formation was purely administrative. This historical controversy is, of course, highly relevant to the present situation in the Crimea.

     The situation of the Crimean Tatars, as well as most other Soviet ethnic minorities, sharply deteriorated during the 1930s, as Stalin waged a brutal campaign of terror against so-called local nationalism. In 1944, the Crimean Tatars, along with various other nationalities (Chechens, Balkars, etc.), were targeted for forced expulsion from their native land to remote areas of the Soviet Union (mostly to Central Asia). Conducted on the pretext of alleged collaboration with the enemy during the German occupation of the Crimea during 1941–1944, the mass relocation was extremely brutal and resulted in a substantial death toll. By some estimates, nearly half the 240,000 Crimean Tatars who were selected for resettlement died in the process or shortly thereafter.

     After 1956, the Crimean Tatars were no longer treated as virtual labor camp inmates ("special settlers" in Soviet parlance at the time), but not before the Gorbachev era were they allowed to return to their homeland. For over forty years, Crimean Tatars were denied basic cultural rights and even an ethnic identity; until the late 1980s, Crimean Tatars never appeared in Soviet population statistics.

     In 1945, Soviet authorities formally abolished the Crimean ASSR and renamed the territory the Crimean province within the Russian republic. Strictly speaking, its territory remained as before—an exclave separated from the rest of Russia by Ukrainian territory. Apparently for economic and administrative reasons, the Soviet leadership decided to transfer the Crimea's jurisdiction from Russia to Ukraine, a move legally finalized by the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet in 1954, a date that coincided with the 300th anniversary of Ukraine's acceptance of Russian authority.

     At the time, Soviet leaders in Moscow were not overly concerned with the constitutional procedure of republican border changes; the Crimea remained within the USSR, and interrepublican boundaries were of no real importance. The political implications of the 1954 act became painfully clear only in the late 1980s, as the empire was facing collapse.

     The early 1960s witnessed the emergence of the Crimean Tatar national movement, whose leaders and followers came from practically every social stratum of the "punished people." The movement's initial demands were confined to freedom of return to the Crimea and restoration of the Crimean ASSR. Peaceful and democratic in character, the Crimean Tatar national movement endeavored to make its slogans acceptable to Soviet authorities; its numerous petitions and appeals were addressed mostly to Soviet leaders, calling on them to repudiate Stalin's legacy and to restore "Lenin's principles of nationality politics" with regard to the Crimean Tatars. Nevertheless, many leaders and activists of the movement encountered harsh treatment from Soviet officials. The clearest example of Soviet human and minority rights violations, the plight of the Crimean Tatars evoked sympathy and concern among democratically minded Soviet intellectuals and in the West as well, especially since the Crimean Tatar movement tried to enlist support from international human rights organizations.

     With the easing of political controls under Gorbachev, many Crimean Tatars returned to the Crimea. The process started in 1987, as Soviet authorities, after some vacillation, acknowledged the existence of the Crimean Tatar issue. The 1989 Soviet census showed the number of Crimean Tatars in the Crimea at 38,000. It has steadily increased since then, now estimated at between 250,000 and 300,000, while the total number of Crimean Tatars in the Soviet successor states has been estimated at between 360,000 and 410,000. Their return is likely to be completed in the next few years.

     As the Crimean Tatars made their way back to their homeland, the ideology of the Crimean Tatar movement shifted toward more radical demands, despite noticeable tensions between the "new" settlers and the local population. No longer content with mere ethnic minority status, the more radical Crimean Tatars now claimed the right to national self-determination with the Crimea as their ancestral homeland. In June 1991, a kurultai was convened in Simferopol proclaiming Crimean Tatar sovereignty and electing a representative legislative body (majlis), which approved a draft constitution of the Crimean republic in December 1991. The document strongly emphasizes the idea of ethnic self-determination and is clearly aimed at creating a Crimean Tatar nation-state, despite the fact that the proportion of Crimean Tatars in the peninsula's total population does not now, nor is ever likely to, exceed 10 to 15 percent.

     Meanwhile, as the Soviet Union was moving toward disintegration, new factors impinged on the Crimean political scene. During 1990–91, with Ukraine actively asserting its sovereignty and working to secede from the USSR, the ethnic Russian majority in the Crimea became increasingly concerned about its future, fearing that an independent Ukraine would pursue assimilationist policies in the Russian-speaking Crimea. These fears, exacerbated by Ukrainian nationalist groups' anti-Russian propaganda, proved largely unfounded. In March 1991, the Ukrainian parliament granted the Crimea the status of an autonomous republic within Ukraine. In the December 1, 1991, national referendum, Crimeans voted by a slim margin to support Ukraine's independence, indicating that the idea of secession had no overwhelming support at the time.

     However, while most Russian-speaking Crimeans did not seem to be particularly unhappy about living within an independent Ukraine, many Russians, including quite a few influential politicians, could not accept the idea of the Crimea's belonging to a neighboring state. The image of the Crimea as historically Russian territory is deeply rooted in the Russian national consciousness. Although as early as November 1990 Russia and Ukraine concluded a treaty that stipulated mutual recognition of each other's territorial integrity, Russia began to lay claims to the Crimea soon after the collapse of the USSR. In May 1992, Russia's Supreme Soviet declared the 1954 act awarding the Crimea to Ukraine null and void. In July 1993, another parliamentary resolution proclaimed the Crimean city of Sevastopol part of Russian territory.

     These irredentist claims came mostly from the now-dissolved Supreme Soviet, dominated by so-called national patriots, while Russia's president and executive branch officials have repeatedly reiterated their commitment to treaty obligations concerning Ukraine's territorial integrity. Nevertheless, the Crimea remains a potential source of Russo-Ukrainian territorial disputes, particularly in the context of the lasting controversy between the two nations over the status of the former Soviet Navy's Black Sea Fleet, stationed in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol. In late 1996 and early 1997, influential politicians in Russia—most notable among them, Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov—voiced renewed claims to Sevastopol. As nationalist groups and their leaders continue to rise in popularity on Russia's political scene, the dispute over the Crimea may result in a serious international conflict.

     However, political developments in the Crimea have been shaped more by internal factors than by the international environment. Throughout 1992 and 1993, Russia supported separatist movements of Crimean Russians even though leaders of the Crimean parliament restrained their push for secession while they bargained with Kiev for more autonomy and economic privileges following a failed attempt to declare independence from Ukraine in May 1992. Having won considerable concessions from the Ukrainian government, Crimean authorities indefinitely postponed a planned referendum on Crimea's status. By late 1992, the issue of Crimea's self-determination seemed to have receded into the background.

     The problem soon reemerged as Ukraine's economy rapidly deteriorated relative to Russia's, which was in better shape owing to a sustained period of more consistent reform policies. The obvious gap in living standards between Ukraine and Russia made most Crimeans (practically all Russian-speakers and, apparently, even some Ukrainians) much more responsive to calls for seceding from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation. The only segment of the Crimea's population that has remained strongly opposed to the idea is the Crimean Tatars, who continue to view the Ukrainian government as the guarantor of their political and cultural rights. Since they regard the peninsula as their historic homeland, endowing them with special rights and privileges, the Crimean Tatars are not willing to accept the notion that self-determination applies to, and ultimately will be implemented by, the entire population of the Crimea, particularly its Russian and Ukrainian segments. More important, they have valid reasons to fear that secession from Ukraine would leave them at the mercy of local authorities, who have so far proved unresponsive to their legitimate rights and grievances.

     The Crimea's secessionist mood permeated its 1994 presidential election. The former leader of the Crimean republic, Supreme Soviet chairman Nikolai Bagrov, who advocated compromise with Kiev, was easily defeated by political novice Yuri Meshkov, who promised to hold a referendum on the Crimea's independence as a means to "break free from under the ruins of the Ukrainian economy." While Meshkov became somewhat more cautious in his political oratory after his inauguration, he and the deputies of the Crimean Supreme Soviet faction Rossiya remained committed to the idea of a referendum on the status of the peninsula—an idea hardly acceptable to Ukrainian leaders.

     The mood of Ukrainian society also began changing in mid-1994, yielding to some extent under the pressure of the Crimea's grassroots movement and to its ethnic Russians, most of whom are concentrated in the country's industrially developed eastern regions; the rapid progress of Russia's market economy had an influence as well. Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk was defeated in elections by the more pro-Russian Leonid Kuchma on July 10, 1994. The change initially gave some hope for a more peaceful resolution of the Crimean problem and a more satisfactory response from Kiev to the needs of the Crimea's Russians. But at the end of 1994, the Rus sian government launched its full-scale assault on the breakaway republic of Chechnya, an action that simultaneously undermined confidence in the Russian leadership's goodwill and increased the pressure from Ukrainian nationalists who insisted that Kiev also solve the Crimean problem by force. The Ukrainian leadership, concerned with Russia's military actions and fearing the development of secessionism among ethnic Russians in the country's east, attempted to deny the Crimea its autonomous status.

     On March 30, 1995, the Ukrainian parliament demanded that several articles in the Crimea's constitution establishing the region's autonomy be brought into precise accordance with Ukraine's constitution; the interim constitution, with its institution of the presidency, was abandoned. The Russian consulate, established by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and charged with accepting applications for Russian citizenship from interested residents, was ordered to vacate the peninsula.27 The Crimean legislature scheduled a referendum for the end of June 1995, contrary to the decisions of Ukraine's parliament, but the subsequent discord in the Crimean government precluded carrying out that decision. In addition, the debates among the president, the government, and the parliament of the Crimea led to Meshkov's dismissal in spring 1995 and to the de facto suspension of the presidency.

     The summer meeting of Presidents Yeltsin and Kuchma expedited the settlement of questions over the division of the Black Sea Fleet and the status of Sevastopol as a base for the Russian portion of the fleet, but the status of the Crimean peninsula was not on the meeting's agenda. Following parliamentary elections in early June, the legislative faction Rossiya, whose members now dominated the Crimean parliament, selected a replacement for the parliamentary speaker on the grounds that he did not consistently pursue items on Rossiya's legislative program.

     Because the tensions surrounding the Crimea's status have not yet resulted in violent conflict, the international community has not felt compelled to respond. Although many international conferences on the Crimean problem have been convened, influential regional organizations and the United Nations have not been thoroughly involved in the dispute. One notable exception is the May 1995 OSCE roundtable in Locarno, Switzerland, which was dedicated to the problems of delimiting powers between the Ukrainian and Crimean governments.

     A more effective response on the part of the international community may be imperative in the near future. Russia's acting on its territorial claims to the Crimea would be the target of international opprobrium as a flagrant violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity, regardless of whatever historical substantiation it cites for such claims. Within the context of international law, changing the Crimea's status can be supported only by the principle of self-determination. At present, the Crimea's case for self-determination, involving secession from Ukraine, would attract little international support, since most observers concur that contemporary secessionist claims are basically motivated by economic considerations, and the Crimea's Russian-speaking majority has not suffered any civil or human rights violations under Ukrainian rule.

     The optimal solution to the Crimean case may lie in consolidating the Crimea's autonomous status within Ukraine, possibly involving a sort of "special relationship" with Russia (dual nationality for Crimeans, tighter economic integration, etc.), without challenging Ukraine's sovereignty. Mediation from international human rights organizations could be useful in helping to resolve ethno-political tensions within the Crimea by guaranteeing the Crimean Tatars an extensive set of minority rights as well as more opportunities to be actively involved in the ongoing process of the Crimea's self-determination.


The name of this small region, little known outside Soviet Transcaucasia as recently as nine years ago, has epitomized the bitter ethno-political disputes that have characterized the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse. The battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has been the longest and bloodiest conflict among those in the Soviet successor states. According to the most recent estimates, its death toll has reached 15,000, while the total number of refugees exceeds one million.

     During its nearly seven decades of existence as an autonomous region within Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh was populated mostly by Armenians, though the region has no common border with the Armenian republic, being separated from it by a narrow strip of Azeri land (the so-called Lachin corridor). The region consists of five districts, only one of which, the Shusha district, is predominantly Azeri. Two Azeri districts bordering Nagorno-Karabakh (the Shaumyan and Khanlar districts) have an ethnic Armenian majority.

     The latest official accurate demographic data on the region, in the 1979 Soviet population census, show the total population of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region numbering 162,200, with 123,100 Armenians (75.9 percent) and 37,300 Azeris (22.9 percent). As a result of hostilities, ethnic cleansing, and emigration in recent years, the population of the area has decreased and has become even more ethnically homogeneous; almost 100 percent of the approximately 150,000 inhabitants are ethnic Armenians.

     The ethno-demographic evolution of what is now called Nagorno-Karabakh has long been the subject of bitter controversy between Armenian and Azeri scholars, with each camp trying to uncover historical evidence to support its claim to the disputed area. Without going too far into the region's ancient and medieval history, it should nevertheless be noted that the Armenian side can produce an impressive number of objective sources suggesting that it has dominated the region for over a millennium. The Karabakh khanate, incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1813, brought a Turkic population to the region no earlier than the beginning of the eighteenth century, eventually establishing its rule over the Armenian majority. As in tsarist Russia, administrative boundaries were not drawn along ethnic lines during this period in the region's history.

     Nagorno-Karabakh first emerged as a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan when both states became independent in 1918. The dispute was not resolved until 1920, when both young nation-states lost their independence to Bolshevik Russia. In December 1920, the Azeri Communist government renounced former claims to Nagorno-Karabakh and several other Armenian-populated territories, recognizing them as parts of Soviet Armenia. Eventually, however, the Azeri leadership revived these claims, lobbying Moscow for support. On July 4, 1921, the so-called Caucasian Bureau (Kavburo) of the Russian Communist Party's Central Committee voted to include Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia. But on the next day, a new session of the Kavburo convened and revised the decision, demanding that the disputed area be incorporated into Azerbaijan. It also decreed that Nagorno-Karabakh be granted territorial autonomy within the Azeri republic; this part of the Kavburo resolution was implemented in 1923 with the creation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAO).

     Advocates of the Armenian position in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute have often pointed out that the Kavburo resolution of July 5, 1921, apparently adopted under pressure from Stalin, clearly contradicts the principle of self-determination and, in any case, cannot be regarded as legally valid. The dispute should have been resolved by the states directly involved, they argue, not by an ad hoc committee established within the ruling party of a third state.

     Throughout the nearly seven decades of its existence, the NKAO did little to preserve and promote the rights, culture, and identity of the Armenian minority in Azerbaijan. Lack of investment destined the autonomous region to remain a backward agrarian area. Limited employment opportunities and discrimination against Armenians contributed to the gradual emigration of the Armenian population from the region, while republican authorities encouraged the inflow of Azeris from outside Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, between 1926 and 1979 the proportion of Armenians in the region dropped from 95 to 76 percent while that of Azeris increased from 10 to 23 percent. Cultural rights of the Armenian minority were also violated (for example, teaching Armenian history in local schools was banned), and cultural links between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia were virtually severed. It is not easy to determine, however, whether the Azeri leadership pursued this assimilationist policy on its own or at the behest of central officials in Moscow, who by no means considered the protection of minority rights a priority.

     The idea of reuniting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia had been popular among Armenians long before the late 1980s, but the few intellectuals who dared to voice it openly under the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes met with harsh treatment from Soviet republican leaders in Armenia as well as in Azerbaijan. The situation began to change two years after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and launched his glasnost and perestroika campaigns. Encouraged by the general easing of political restrictions, Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenians now resolved to present their case to the court of world opinion and, of course, to the Soviet leadership. In January 1988, all the district soviets (councils) of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, except for the Azeri-populated Shusha district, adopted resolutions calling for the transfer of the region from Azerbaijan to Armenia. On February 20, 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh regional soviet petitioned the Supreme Soviets of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Soviet Union for the region to join Armenia (the Azeri minority in the soviet did not take part in the vote). This move prompted mass rallies in the Armenian capital of Yerevan that quickly spread throughout the republic, led by the newly formed "Karabakh Committee," a group of democratically minded intellectuals. While the incipient national movement had mass support in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, it was initially suppressed in Nagorno-Karabakh by the region's Soviet officials; whereas in Armenia, a new leadership emerged, clearly opposed to the local nomenklatura and the ruling Communist regime in general.

     Of course, Nagorno-Karabakh's petition met a fierce negative reaction in Azerbaijan. Tensions reached a critical stage after an anti-Armenian pogrom in the Azeri city of Sumgait in February 1988, the first outburst of ethnic violence in late Soviet history. Episodes of violence in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh have escalated ever since.

     Although many analysts believed then and even now that Gorbachev and his fellow reformers in Moscow would sympathize with the Armenian position, the opposite was the case. The Soviet leadership was by no means willing to accept within the multinational empire any border or territorial status changes initiated "from below." Not without reason, it feared that approving such a change might trigger the uncontrolled disintegration of the Soviet state. In addition, the national-democratic movement in Armenia had clear anticommunist overtones, which hardly made Moscow more inclined to meet its demands. Thus it was only natural that in July 1988, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet unequivocally rejected the appeal of Nagorno-Karabakh to join Armenia. (The month before, the appeal had been upheld by the Armenian parliament under strong public pressure; the Azeri parliament, of course, dismissed the appeal.) Meanwhile, the Armenian movement was wholeheartedly supported by reform-minded intellectuals in Moscow and other large Russian cities, who welcomed its peaceful and democratic character. The international response to the Armenian claim to self-determination was, at best, cautious. Western governments and publics in particular viewed the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis as a mere complication that threatened to impede Gorbachev's reform program.

     During the early stages of the conflict, both sides rarely invoked international legal principles, relying mostly on the still prevailing Marxist-Leninist ideology and the Soviet constitution. While the Armenian side emphasized the concept of self-determination—vaguely mentioned in the constitution, though once vigorously championed by Lenin—the Azeri side stressed the constitutional prohibition against changing republican borders without the approval of the republic(s) affected by the change. Besides, Azeri (and Soviet) propaganda often referred to the time-honored Communist slogan of "friendship between peoples" and tried to portray the Armenian national movement as inspired by "evil, mafia-like forces."

     As violence mounted against ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan, the number of Armenian refugees flowing into Armenia and other Soviet republics steadily rose. Still, Soviet authorities refrained from using force to restore law and order in Azerbaijan, while in Armenia force was brutally unleashed more than once to suppress peaceful demonstrations. However, by late 1988, the cycle of violence and retaliation in the Armenian-Azeri conflict was complete, as thousands of Azeris were forced to flee from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The policy of ethnic cleansing had become "bilateral."

     In January 1989, the Soviet central government tried to curb the violence by placing Nagorno-Karabakh under the direct rule of Moscow. A state of emergency was also introduced in parts of Armenia (but not in Azerbaijan) and members of the Karabakh Committee, including future Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosian, were jailed, only to be released six months later without trial. The change in Nagorno-Karabakh's status did not imply that Moscow was taking a more balanced approach to the issue; Azeri dominion over the area was never really questioned. Moreover, the central government failed to prevent or stop the Azeri blockade imposed on Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia during summer 1989. In November of that year, Moscow abandoned its "special form of administration" and Nagorno-Karabakh was returned to Azeri jurisdiction. Arme nia's Supreme Soviet reacted the following month by passing a resolution on the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

     Moscow's unsuccessful experiment with the "special form of administration" in Nagorno-Karabakh indicated that the central government was concerned not so much with resolving the conflict as with strengthening its tenuous hold on power in the region. This fact was demonstrated once again in January 1990, when Soviet troops were sent to Baku to prevent the seizure of power by the anticommunist Popular Front. This brutal action resulted in many deaths, mostly among innocent civilians, and did much to turn Azeri attitudes against Moscow, further limiting its opportunities to influence the situation constructively. Meanwhile, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was gradually transforming into a full-scale war between Azeri and Karabakh irregulars, the latter receiving support from Armenia.

     In May 1990, Armenia held open parliamentary elections, signaling the end of Communist rule in the country. In August the new parliament, chaired by Levon Ter-Petrosian, issued a declaration of independence. In early 1991 it was clear that Armenia was attempting to leave the Soviet Union without paying much heed to Gorbachev's idea of a new Union Treaty, while Azerbaijan's Communist leaders showed no inclination to secede. This situation apparently forced Moscow to revert to an openly anti-Armenian stance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In spring and summer 1991, Soviet military units, supported by Azeri Interior Ministry forces and popular militias, waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Armenian villages adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh; the operation was abandoned only after the failure of the August coup in Moscow.

     This military action proved to be the last use of force by the already moribund central government; the Soviet Union was rapidly moving toward its ultimate collapse. One month after the Moscow putsch, Armenia held a referendum on secession from the USSR; on September 23 it declared itself independent. By this time, the political situation in Nagorno-Karabakh had changed significantly. The local political elite differed from the Armenian leadership in its political orientation. No longer insisting on unification with Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh's leaders now clearly preferred independence. On September 2, a session of the regional legislature proclaimed the former Soviet autonomous region the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (RNK), including also the Armenian-populated Shaumyan district of Azerbaijan. On November 26, Azerbaijan responded by annulling the autonomous status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The self-proclaimed republic held an independence referendum on December 10; after parliamentary elections in late December, it declared its independence on January 6, 1992.

     The RNK has not been recognized by any member of the international community—not even by Armenia—and its government joins those of other unrecognized nations of the former Soviet Union (Abkhazia, the Crimea, and the Transdniestr region) in resenting the fact that they were not included in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) treaty, so much so that they created their own "CIS-2" treaty.

     The hostilities between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan intensified as the combatants received (usually illegally) heavy weaponry from former Soviet military units. Turkey also supplied weapons to the Azeri side and dispatched a small number of military instructors to train Azeri draftees. The Azeri army also supplemented its ranks for the war effort with mercenaries, including about two thousand Afghan muja hideen; both sides have used Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries as well. Azerbaijan's objective advantage in terms of human and economic potential has so far been offset by the superior fighting skills and discipline of Nagorno-Karabakh's forces. After a series of offensives, retreats, and counteroffensives, Nagorno-Karabakh now controls a sizable portion of Azerbaijan proper (about 20 percent of the whole territory), including the Lachin corridor. Despite these victories, both Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia have endured tremendous hardships imposed by Azerbaijan's blockade, and the current instability in Georgia makes the blockade even more effective. The danger continues to loom large that the conflict will become internationalized with the involvement of neighboring states—most notably Turkey and Iran.28

     While the prospects for peaceful settlement of the conflict seem increasingly remote, since late 1991 mediation efforts have been undertaken by Russia, Kazakstan, Iran, Turkey, and France, and also by the CIS and the OSCE.

     On May 12, 1994, after several failed attempts, what appears to be a permanent cease-fire was finally established, and while it has held for almost three years, the conflict's lull appears tenuous. Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts continue in the framework of the so-called Minsk Group, under the aegis of the OSCE. Finnish, Swedish, Russian, and U.S. diplomats and experts are taking active roles in the process, but a resolution of the conflict ultimately rests on the plan for the future status of the RNK.

     From the very beginning of the conflict, various proposals emerged for its resolution. For example, one proposal would have raised the status of the RNK from that of an oblast to an autonomous republic within Azerbaijan, but with its own constitution and a significant degree of self-governance. Another proposal would have introduced certain special forms of governance to Nagorno-Karabakh, akin to the dual Anglo-Egyptian administration of Sudan or the Anglo-French condominium in the New Hebrides. The possibility of Karabakh's direct subordination to Moscow was once again considered.

     Another set of proposals concerned the exchange of territories between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The following concessions were typical:

  • Ceding part of the RNK to Armenia, with the area controlling the headwaters of the Kura River (flowing to Baku) and areas of Azeri population remaining in Azerbaijan's hands.

  • Transferring the Armenian-controlled land bridge between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan (an Azeri province in Armenia) to Azeri control.29

While such an exchange would have severed Arme nia's direct access to Iran, an important economic partner, Azerbaijan ultimately rejected the plan. From the legal point of view, the plan's approval would have shifted the conflict's focus from the problem of the RNK's self-determination to a mere territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

     U.S. Ambassador John Maresca, who was involved in the lengthy negotiation process within the framework of the CSCE's Minsk Group, offered a proposal that would have granted the RNK the status of a self-governing legal entity within and freely associated with Azerbaijan, while preserving the pre-1988 borders.30 Armenia and Azerbaijan would sign a treaty on mutual transit across each other's territory (between Armenia and the RNK and between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan). These transit zones and the task of refugee resettlement would be internationally monitored. All of Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the RNK, would become a free-trade area. The provisions of the treaties signed at the Minsk Conference would be guaranteed by the OSCE and the UN Security Council, which would also maintain representatives in the area.

     This type of plan is good in theory, but unfortunately the two sides involved in the conflict never seriously considered adopting it. For one thing, it is impossible to guarantee the safe return of more than a million refugees from both sides. The RNK leadership deemed the plan unacceptable, since it removed the Lachin corridor from Armenian control; the corridor, which is maintained by Nagorno-Karabakh, has served as a "road of life" for the blockaded district over the past eight years.

     The so-called Russian plan of regulation, proposed by Ambassador S. Kazimirov, a participant in the Minsk group of the CSCE, consists of the following:

  • a cease-fire, which is already in place;

  • the introduction along the front lines of peacekeeping forces, including troops from Russia and other CIS countries; or, instead, the withdrawal of Karabakh forces from at least six of the eight occupied regions of Azerbaijan and the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force on the frontiers of the RNK;

  • a zone of at least ten kilometers separating opposing forces; and

  • negotiations on the region's status.

Negotiations are essentially ongoing, but they are sometimes complicated by Azerbaijan's demand that RNK leaders be excluded from the ranks of full-fledged participants in the process (and Armenia's response of withdrawing from the negotiations). In the past several years, a new economic factor has entered into this process—the creation of a consortium for the construction of oil pipelines that would connect the oil-bearing Caspian Sea shelf with Turkey and Europe. The optimal geographic route for this pipeline would run through the RNK and the southern part of Armenia (Zangezur), but the instability of the political situation compels international participants to search for other, more expensive routes through Georgia, Russia, or elsewhere.

     In international legal terms, the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh should be addressed not as a territorial dispute, but as a case of self-determination. From such a perspective, Armenia should be advised to be more forthright in renouncing its territorial claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. Although the Armenian government has already done so, the parliament has not yet abandoned its December 1989 resolution on unification of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, which arouses legitimate suspicion on the Azeri side. Meanwhile, there are strong reasons to suggest that the predominantly Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh may—and indeed should—be regarded as a people entitled to the right to self-determination.

     Three major reasons substantiate Nagorno-Karabakh's claim to self-determination: 1) as an autonomous region, Nagorno-Karabakh had long been a constitutive unit within both Azerbaijan and the former USSR; 2) the very subordination of Karabakh to Azerbaijan was arbitrary and is now a remnant of the Soviet empire's colonial system; and 3) Azeri rule in Nagorno-Karabakh led to massive human and minority rights violations, and after several years of bloody conflict, restoring the status quo does not guarantee the physical safety, let alone the civil and political rights, of Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenians. Moreover, Nagorno-Karabakh had actually seceded from Azerbaijan before the latter became an independent state and a member of the United Nations.

     However, in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, the possibility of reconciling the right of a people to self-determination and the principle of a state's territorial integrity is remote. Such a reconciliation may occur if both Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan voluntarily accept a solution based on granting Nagorno-Karabakh comprehensive territorial autonomy within Azerbaijan. This solution would require a readiness for both concessions and compromise from the parties to the conflict. So far, Azerbaijan has offered only "cultural autonomy" for Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenians, a concept hardly meaningful for the population of the self-proclaimed republic. More important, Azerbaijan's offer would force Nagorno-Karabakh to renounce its claim to statehood, a position that would be possible only if the autonomous territory received solid international guarantees.

Self-Determination Through Secession: Typical Stages of Conflict

The examination of conflicts associated with the attempt to achieve self-determination through secession that have plagued the former Soviet Union allows us to isolate several typical stages. The stages outlined below are not necessarily sequential or identical in every conflict over self-determination. Some of these stages occur simultaneously; some never happen at all. The purpose here is to provide a broad overview of how these conflicts typically evolve, particularly in the former Soviet Union.

     1. A precondition of the struggle for self-determination typically involves a minority ethnic group's perception that its autonomy within the framework of a multinational state—or even its very existence—is endangered. In totalitarian states, this perceived threat is usually based on mass deportations, ethnic cleansings, and even genocide facilitated by central authorities.

     Even when multinational states' central authorities employ less brutal policies to dilute ethnic minority groups' claims for autonomy or self-determination, the groups affected by these policies still view them as a threat. Such moves may include forced assimilation; the influx of an alien labor force that dramatically changes the balance of nationalities in a region; the adoption of a law declaring the primacy of a majority ethnic group's language (for example, the enforcement of statutes declaring that primary and secondary education be conducted in the official national language); the exclusion of minority groups' histories and culture from school curricula; and the restriction of mass media in the language of minority groups.

     Employment policy typically follows such exclusionary and discriminatory practices as limitations on social mobility based on nationality, restrictions in the pursuit of some professions, and educational levels according to quotas. (Usually these limitations are sanctioned not by law but by semiofficial instructions from central authorities.)

     Minorities that are separated from their ethnic "homeland" either historically or by recent changes in political or territorial jurisdictions are especially keenly aware of threats to their well-being. The situation of ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia is a typical example.

     2. The next stage involves the emergence of spontaneous grassroots resistance movements and their local activists, who are soon recognized as national leaders. The central government typically characterizes these leaders as antiregime elements who could possibly direct a "fifth column" connected with a sympathetic third country. Azerbaijan's official mass media, for example, proclaimed the Armenian leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh to be agents of the Armenian diaspora in the United States. Similarly, Ukrainian politicians proclaimed the leaders of the Crimean grassroots movement to be agents of Moscow.

     3. Simultaneously, the self-determination struggle acquires its ideological base by forming national goals and identifying obstacles to their achievement. Both sides in the dispute produce evidence of their historical right to the ethnic territory in question. At this stage, other countries consider the struggle to be a dispute over land, misinterpreting the minority group's claims to self-determination as a mere territorial squabble, when the real issue is the future of the ethnic community living on its territory, not merely the territory itself.

     Another misconception about these movements stems from the characterization of their leaders as troublemakers with their own personal agendas. Soviet officials developed such conspiracy theories to explain the motives of leaders in the Baltic, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Chechen independence movements, the latter two of which were denounced as "mafia operations" aimed at deflecting public attention away from their members' "underhanded" activities.

     Central authorities also typically advance a theory of economic determinism to explain such movements, ignoring the historical and cultural claims of minority groups. The government focuses on the low standards of living in the region and directs aid and subsidies to its inhabitants as a way of dampening the conflict, but these efforts largely fail to assuage the ethnic group's principal concerns.

     Both parties in the conflict propagate negative images of the other side and thus reinforce widely held prejudices and stereotypes. Mass media reinforce and disseminate these stereotypes.

     4. At this stage, the group seeking self-determination tries to achieve autonomy or increase the degree of autonomy it already has. Central government officials at the local level find themselves replaced by indigenous, charismatic leaders, sometimes through legitimate elections. Simultaneously, the group forms new political parties openly or underground. At first, these political organizations demonstrate a democratic orientation common among the political aims of liberation and decolonization movements, but they frequently transform into nationalist movements and advocate the use of force to achieve their goals.

     5. After the creation of "state" bodies, the group seeking self-determination develops contacts with foreign powers and tries to enter multilateral discussions to mobilize international support. Sometimes these organizations are created in exile (e.g., the Palestine Liberation Organization's congress), but they are then transplanted to their own ethnic territory. The minority group's push for statehood and separate political institutions further aggravates the central government.

     6. The next stage is the intensification of "the war of laws," usually in the form of decrees and constitutions issued by the separatist group's representative body. The primacy of central or local laws in the disputed territory thus becomes the fundamental issue in the conflict. As such, it becomes more difficult to keep "disobedient" regions within the jurisdiction of the central government.

     During this phase, the self-determination movement attempts to minimize its connections with the central government. In particular, it seeks to boycott elections to the supreme organs of state power on its territory and to ignore any statutes passed by the ruling legislative body. Examples include Abkhazia, the Transdniestr republic, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Chechnya, the latter two of which recalled their representatives from the central legislative body and refused to participate in its next elections.

     At the same time, efforts are made to secure economic and political contacts with third countries and international organizations. If it does not already have one, the self-determination group searches for a "Big Brother," whose policy can range from neutrality to economic and military assistance, provided either openly or clandestinely.

     7. Feeling pressure from its own nationalists and striving to preserve the integrity of the state, the central government disbands local bodies of self-governance, deprives them of autonomy, or introduces its own direct rule with heavy reliance on military force. The central government's dispatch of troops to the breakaway region may find support among political forces and ethnic groups in the region that are still loyal to the central government, usually members of the state's predominant ethnic group. Many Russians in Latvia and Lithuania supported the arrival of Soviet troops in the Baltic states' capitals in January 1991. Similarly, ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia supported Tbilisi's military attempts to restore the power of the Georgian central government in these regions.

     8. Fearing persecution, arrest, or assassination, the leaders of self-determination movements are forced into exile, underground, or to parts of the region inaccessible to the central government's control (as is the case of the Abkhazian separatist leader Vladislav Ardzinba, who fled to Gudauta, a remote district of Abkhazia not under the direct control of the Georgian government). The dispersal of the movement's leadership typically marks an interruption in its period of lawful struggle, as local leaders lose control over the situation. Spontaneous resistance movements prepare to resume the struggle through the use of force. The region's political organizations are radicalized and nationalist movements in sympathetic "Big Brother" countries gain strength, making it increasingly difficult for these countries' government officials to maintain a neutral position. For example, the Rus sian government is under constant pressure from Russian nationalist groups, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, to protect Russian minorities in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.

     9. The central government may attempt to organize an economic blockade to force the separatist region to submit to its authority, targeting fuel shipments at first, but encompassing other vital supplies—such as food—over time. Central government troops may also interdict humanitarian aid shipments from abroad. At the same time, a total embargo on weapons shipments to the region is announced (as was the case in Armenia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the former Yugoslavia).

     10. Some extremist leaders of the besieged region call upon members of the ethnic group to accept the use of force as a way to end the hardships imposed by the sanctions. Nationalist parties from both sides insist on an end to conflict they blame the other side for starting. Local authorities advocate a forceful response to the economic and military pressure.

     11. Organized ethnic clashes and pogroms begin to plague the region and the surrounding area. Examples abound in the Soviet successor states: Askeran and Sumgait in Azerbaijan, the Prigorodnyi district in North Ossetia (populated by Ingush and Ossetians), Bendery in the Transdniestr republic, etc.

     12. Finally, war slogans fill the mass media on both sides of the self-determination struggle as the situation gets out of control and escalates to full-scale military conflict.

     At this stage of the conflict, the intervention of the international community is usually required to limit its duration and spread and eventually achieve a peaceful resolution. However, international institutions are not always capable of effectively resolving such complex national problems. The bloody war that raged in the former Yugoslavia for so many years best illustrates the impotence of international organizations in responding to the myriad issues surrounding self-determination struggles. Moreover, members of the international community who seek an end to the conflict are constrained by the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states. As noted at the beginning of this study, the right to self-determination, even though it is recognized in key international documents, is still an immature legal norm. As such, it cannot yet offer any internationally acceptable guidelines for responding to a growing number of these complex situations.

*The author co-founded Democratic Russia

TOC | Key Points | Foreword | Introduction | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Notes | Acknowledgments | Author

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