ISSUE 4-2008
Lubos Vesely
Matsiei Falkowski Vlad Lupan
Yulia Tyshchenko Wojciech Konończuk
Vladimir Voronov
Vit Machalek
Tatyana Rachmanova

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Lubos Vesely | Researcher in Politics, the Czech Republic | Issue 4, 2008

      Lubos Vesely interviews Alexander Bogomolov, President of Association of Middle East Studies in Kyiv about situation in Crimea and Transnistria and Russian politics in areas of frozen conflicts.

      Especially after August war in Georgia many politicians and experts started to discuss possibility of escalating situation in Crimea. Do you think it is a real threat? And couldn't it be self-fulfilling prophecy in some case?

      Recent political events in the Black See region, particularly the Russian–Georgian armed conflict of August 2008, has brought Crimea to the fore of the national, regional and global security agenda. Issues of concern include: identity politics and ethnic tensions, violent conflicts over religious sites, radicalization and threat of terrorism and political extremism, debates over the Russian navy withdrawal, etc.
      Crimean politics evolve in a complex environment of often destructive competition for economic resources (land, recreational facilities, ports) and business opportunities, hot debate on ideological, foreign policy issues (NATO, relations with Russia) and confrontation on the ethnic grounds. The local political debate – party programs, discussions in the Crimean Parliament – tend to exploit the society's many divisions instead of mending them. Local politicians, instead of offering the society a strategy to avoid interethnic conflagration, often contribute to undermining social peace and stability by persistently using ethnic and ideological prejudices as motives for public mobilization.
      New policy and institutional approaches are needed in order to defuse the existing tensions and bridge the region's many communal and ideological divides. The most interethnic conflict erupted in August 2006 in Bakhchisarai over a historic Muslim holy site which had been occupied by a commercial market place. Muslim picket demanding the removal of the market was attacked by a mob organized by a local Russian nationalist group Russkaya Obschyna Kryma. The police operation to stop the clash was successful and the conflict has been resolved.
      Central government needs to develop a conflict prevention strategy and move to reduce the existing tension and reduce conflict potential in the region. So far not much has been done, while efforts of the civil society to promote greater tolerance and the civil society's lobbying capacity remains insufficient. Overall, the situation is still very much manageable and large scale conflict is by no means imminent but the balance could be undermined by anyone who would have sufficient motivation and resources.
      It is very much questionable that Russians would go for it. Volatility, however, allows for some sort of leverage in the situation when the Russian Navy is expected to leave in 2017 and shows no expressed desire to do so. It is difficult but by no means impossible for the central government to deal with both regional challenges – foreign military presence and ethnic tensions, but it needs a wholesale reassessment of many current practices and to create new opportunities for the regional development.
      Image of Crimea as a potentially breakaway area is a myth – there is a large demand for a greater engagement with the center and the process of the development of a new Ukrainian civic nation has by no means bypassed Crimea. The autonomy status, which Kyiv had been wise enough to confirm after the independence, mediated and gradually converted local Russian nationalist sentiments into a more mild form of regionalism which does not pose an imminent threat to the national integrity but calls for a more wisely defined regional policy.

      Is in general situation in Crimea comparable with situation in Transnistria? (majority of Russian speaking post-Soviet society, strong connections to Russian business, political and security circles, presence of Russian troops etc.)

      The degree and relevance of all these factors was always different in Crimea and Transnistria. Crimean society is more diverse and local politics, though not adequately representative of all social groups, are competitive, which is not the case in Transnistria. Crimea's internal socio-political situation presently is more comparable to Moldova than Transnistria. The comparison with Transnistria was more valid until mid-1990s.
      Probably such line of thought has helped Ukrainian central authorities act more wisely and avoid the kind of problems Moldova had in 1990-1992. If Transnistria were allowed to have autonomy, the two cases would perhaps still be somewhat comparable even now. Major difference from the outset has been in stronger regionalism, particularly in Transnistria's three major urban Russian-speaking centers (Tiraspol, Rybnitsa and Dubossary) which had solid cultural foundations (disrespect to Chisinau to the extent of feeling superior, the manner in which language issue had been brought up, old historic divide along Dniester, fears of Romania on one side and the expressed desire to unite with it on the other, etc.) and an economic and social base (Moscow-controlled enterprises) coupled with the weakness of the central government and incompetence of the new nationalist elite in Moldova, resulting in extremely rash and erratic policies. These factors, in the case of Transnistria, proved to be just too strong in degree.
      Crimean regionalism (rather regional identity – 'krymchane' is more often used as self-reference than Russians, or Russophones) is a prominant theme in the local self-perception, but it is not Russian nationalism. Russian nationalistic groups have hijacked the local public opinion to some extent – people vote for them for the lack of alternative, while Russia is increasingly losing its appeal. Characteristically, the Crimean Russian nationalist groups could only win local Parliamentary elections when they secured support from Ukrainian mainland (Party of Regions), otherwise they never had more than 7%. Linguistic identity remains an important concern of course. In Transnistria now the local elite and many Transnistrians perceive themselves as some part of Russia just accidentally misplaced. In a local Pizza outlet there is a picture of train on the wall with “Tiraspol – Moscow” signboard on its side – that is how Transnistrian dream looks like. It is hard to imagine such picture anywhere in Ukraine including Crimea.

      Do you see any prospects for a peaceful settlement of Transnistrian issue in foreseeable future? And are some changes inside the Transnistrian regime and society probable in 2009?

      In 2010 they will have elections which are likely to be problematic – a new business-minded and younger elite wants to replace the older one, while the President wants to ensure succession. Both anyway seem to be more interested in maintaining status quo as long as it takes. For the current regime Abkhazia-style solution also seems attractive – Transnistria never actually wanted a full-fledged independence – just a degree of self-rule in the Soviet Union or later in a some kind of greater Russia in whatever manner it could be politically defined. Such autonomy, which does not necessarily require international recognition, is nevertheless a value for the elite and Transnistrians, therefore, will try to maintain status quo by balancing among all regional powers regardless of what they officially declare.

      How would you assess Western/European engagement in resolution of so called frozen conflicts?

      It is inefficient primarily due to the lack of a clear sense of purpose. The EU's involvement is measured by the degree of the immediate threat, the degree of the EU's own security concerns. Even then it is not commensurable as in the case of August 2008 events in Georgia. Some instruments, limited as they are, prove useful – such as the EUBAM (border control mission in Transnistria). The EU could certainly do more but hardly will. Only such cases as Yugoslavia capture the EU's serious attention.

      Is the Russian recognition of Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's independence a short-sighted move which could have impact and maybe even taken as a precedent in some subjects of the Russian Federation?

      This has certainly been a short-sighted move, which seems to have been taken on impulse. Russia has effectively expanded an already volatile area under its control, which includes Northern Caucasus, further to the South. Events in Ingushetia which followed the war in Georgia could be seen as an immediate consequence.

      What is Russian strategy, instruments and goals in those conflicts? and are they same for all of them, or is there some differentiation?

      Generally, it seems like Russia's strategy is built upon the premises that conflicts, as well as their participant populations and the global opinion on them can be easily managed or manipulated as needed, and that they will always have enough resources for doing so. Conflicts seem to be looked at as an instrument of control over the former Soviet neighbors. If not a military conflict than a commercial one – as is the case with the recent gas war with Ukraine. Tactics and degrees of engagement differ, not the grand strategy. Transnistrian elite very much hoped that after Abkhazia and South Osetia they will be also recognized, but in vain.

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