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Changing international borders in Ukraine: Crimea – Russia’s bold move

Serious political unrest started in Ukraine in November 2013 with no simple solutions in sight. Russia attempted to make the Crimean peninsula a de facto Russian territory through hastily arranged local elections in March 2014, whose results favoured independence from Ukraine and joining Russia. It now appears that Europe’s post World War II borders are not as permanent as most governments had anticipated when the Cold War ended in 1990.

In Africa, South Sudan is the latest example of a new and independent state, and more new African states will certainly follow. Yet, in Europe, new post Cold War states are also several and are the result of larger countries splitting up, where former internal administrative or historical borders have become international borders. But annexations, like in Crimea in March 2014, are exceptional.

Velvet divorce or conflict

Looking at how some “unhappy” post Cold War European countries broke up shows both ideal examples and disasters. An ideal example is Czechoslovakia, which split into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic in 1992 through exemplary peaceful means and negotiations, sometimes referred to as the “Velvet Divorce”. A contrary and disastrous example is former Yugoslavia, whose different sides fought a bloody war during the 1990s ending in its disintegration, primarily along its former internal federal borders.

© Reuters

Slovenia escaped with a ten-day war, Croatia had a four-year war, while Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered three disastrous war years that ended with a NATO force (IFOR) ensuring that violence didn’t erupt again. Montenegro left the Yugoslav federation peacefully but the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia only narrowly escaped a civil war between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. Conflict was also involved in Kosovo’s move from being an autonomous province to becoming an independent state. However, Kosovo’s independence is still only recognised by about half of the world’s countries.

The Bosnian conflict of 1992-1995 also created a new border, Republika Srpska’s. Its boundary may not be officially recognised as an international border, but nonetheless it is an entirely new line on the post Cold War map, carved out through armed struggle with Serbia proper’s support. It is not difficult to see the procedural analogy between the creation of Republika Srpska in Bosnia during the 1990s and Russians carving out parts of Ukraine today. This is not so much an invasion – many of the citizens concerned have been living there for a long time - but rather a bold leader in a large neighbouring “mother country” fuelling independence and annexation ambitions.

The examples of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia show very different approaches in breaking up countries, one peaceful, the other one violent. However, they have one common trait: both created new international borders and new independent states, but they did not expand existing states. This is a key difference when compared with the Crimean annexation to Russia in March 2014. Creating new borders through splitting-up a country is not the same as erasing or moving pre-existing borders.

During Yugoslavia’s violent break-up, it could have been envisaged that minorities finding themselves on the opposite side of a newly created international border would have annexed their territory to the ‘mother state’, e.g. Croatian Serb territories becoming parts of Serbia, Bosnian Croat territories becoming part of Croatia, and so on. Such a scenario would again have created new and smaller enclaves of minorities that would have been dissatisfied with the newly created frontiers, as these areas are rarely ethnically homogeneous. For better or worse, this did not occur in former Yugoslavia. The former Yugoslav internal administrative borders became international borders.

The lessons learned from Czechoslovakia’s and Yugoslavia’s break ups are that peaceful means are preferred, but if the opposite side will not talk or make concessions, violence often breaks out. When small countries break up there is a risk that they become an object of international geopolitics between world powers that take sides and this can prolong the agony. Such a situation must be avoided in Ukraine before it is too late – leading to years or even decades of standoffs – where problems may flare up again.

What is permissible is not always clear

The German re-unification of 1990 is an almost unique example of where a post World War II border ceased to exist in the post Cold War area. After 40 years of official independence, the German Democratic Republic was absorbed into the German Federal Republic. This was done peacefully and was accepted by the majority of Germans on both sides and the international community. This was a “clean case” with practically no minorities appearing on the “wrong side”.

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Unification can indeed be used as a politically acceptable term for annexation, but the Crimean crisis of 2014 is not comparable to a re-unification. At the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea was an autonomous area that formed part of Ukraine. But Crimea has not always been Ukrainian and Crimean autonomous ambitions continued in the post-Soviet period. However, referring to ancient borders in contemporary territorial disputes is a slippery slope that has no end. We cannot go back to historical frontiers of nostalgic ancient empires like the Soviet Union or the Ottoman Empire. In general, the Soviet Union split up peacefully despite some armed clashes, in particular in the Caucasus region - Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and Ossetia, to name but a few. Yet the Crimean case is different.

The Crimean crisis in 2014 is rather unusual, as it did not create a new independent state for long. Crimea with its majority Russian population was almost immediately annexed to Russia. There was no prolonged warfare and no international recognition process. The Crimean annexation leaves Ukrainians on the Crimean peninsula as minority groups suddenly living in Russia, rather than in Ukraine.

The question must be asked: where do we draw the line? Creating new states through peaceful means seems acceptable by many. But unifications, fusions, annexations, and moving international borders are more controversial operations, particularly when they also create new but smaller ethnic enclaves within the new annexing state. To go back to the Yugoslav example, Serbs who used to make up about half of Yugoslavia’s population before its disintegration suddenly found themselves as minority groups in some parts of newly independent Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. This led to some Croatian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs claiming autonomy or independence. Some in Yugoslavia solved their minority problems through ethnic cleansing. There was the soft ethnic cleansing of making minorities understand that they would be better off by leaving; and hard ethnic cleansing through killing and burning houses.

When neighbours start killing neighbours outside intervention is almost unavoidable. Russia has stated that it feels it has the right to intervene in Ukraine. Moscow sees it as an obligation to protect Russians, Russian speakers or Russian passport holders outside Russia. Meanwhile, Kiev sees Russian military might and statements on possible intervention as a threat of invasion. The problem is that Russia has supported the “rebels” and to a large extent orchestrated events, creating a pretext for possible intervention. Many other countries with Russian minorities obviously wonder who will be next. And they marvel at the Russian double standards. Would Moscow appreciate it if, for example, Germany stated it has an “obligation” to protect Volga-Germans or Germans in Kaliningrad?

Obviously the Russian government must explain why Crimea may leave Ukraine while, for example, Chechnya cannot leave Russia. The contemporary Russian stance under President Putin could be compared to the Yugoslav and later Serbian model under President Milosevic 20 years ago: “wherever Serbians live is Serbia”. But that did not apply the other way around, which is also the case with Russia. For example, Chechnya saw full-scale wars between Chechen separatists and the Russian army where the Russians did their utmost to prevent disintegration in the region.

Economics play a role

Apart from military might, economics play a significant role in geopolitics. Based on purchasing power parities, the yearly gross domestic product in Ukraine is close to US$7,500 per capita. At the same time Russia can pride itself of US$ 18,000 per capita, mainly because of its huge exports of gas and oil. This is almost 2.5 times more than Ukraine’s gross domestic product. Nominal economic differences between Russia and Ukraine are even bigger. Although averages say very little in economics, especially in such vast and diverse countries as Russia and Ukraine, it would be surprising if the Russian government did not spend heavily to build up the Crimean infrastructure and economy to convince the population that they are better off economically under Russia than Ukraine. However, it is also clear that several decades from now, when Ukraine likely becomes an EU member and other energy types than gas and oil become more common, the economic balance will redress in the new EU member’s.

It would be unfortunate if Ukraine splits up in a stalemate situation for decades like, for example, Cyprus. It is tempting to contemplate that the only realistic answer to a struggle for independence and creation of new borders is open frontiers like the EU Schengen area. Velvet changes amongst civilised people are obviously preferable to wars. The underlying political disputes in Ukraine must be solved through dialogue and concessions, free from interference, intimidation and violence.

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the Author

Dr Magnus Bjarnason is an independent consultant and a post doctoral freelance writer on politics, economics and security policy.

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