Divisions of Nationality and Ethnicity Complicate Russia's Recent Claim to a Sphere of Influence

Rusiko Amirejibi-Mullen r.amirejibi-mullen at qmul.ac.uk
Wed Oct 8 15:47:43 UTC 2008

By Judith Latham
08 October 2008

Russia sent its troops in August 2008 across its borders to crush the  
Georgian offensive against South Ossetia

For the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991,  
Russia intervened in its former republics when it sent its troops in  
August 2008 across its borders to crush the Georgian offensive against  
South Ossetia. Regardless of Western demands, Russians occupied large  
parts of Georgia and set a buffer zone around South Ossetia and  
Abkhazia. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev justified those actions  
because of Moscow’s “privileged interests” in areas formerly in its  
domain. He said Russian foreign policy would be guided by this  
principle of special rights within its perceived “sphere of influence.”

So what exactly is Russia’s self-proclaimed “sphere of influence”? And  
what forces of ethnic separatism in the post-Soviet world abut that  

Paul Goble is director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan  
Diplomatic Academy in Baku. He is an analyst and writer with expertise  
on Russia, Eurasia and public diplomacy

Paul Goble, an American analyst and writer with expertise on Russia,  
Eurasia, public diplomacy, and international broadcasting, is the  
editor of five volumes on ethnicity and religion in the former Soviet  
Union. Currently director of research and publications at the  
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku, Goble has published more than  
150 articles on ethnic and nationality problems, and he reads 15 of  
the separate languages used in the post-Soviet region.

Important Distinctions Regarding “Nationality”

Appearing on VOA’s Press Conference USA with co-hosts Judith Latham  
and Elez Biberaj, Goble presented some details about the Russian  
population. He notes that in 2002, the Russian Federation officially  
listed about 400 national and ethnic groups.  Of those, ethnic  
Russians represented about 70 percent of the total population.  Four  
years earlier, in the last Soviet census (which included all 15 former  
Soviet republics), Goble says the list of national and ethnic groups  
was nearly twice as large. The point, says Goble, is that the Russian  
word for “nationality” has several meanings – and uses. To  
ethnographers, nationality refers to an ethnic group with “some degree  
of self-consciousness.” Legally speaking, one is thought to be a  
member of a group because one’s parents were.  But Goble says the  
Soviet definition of nationality was almost entirely driven by language.

Russia’s Perceived “Sphere” of Influence

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev wants to restore a 19th century  
concept of Russia’s “sphere of influence"
Regarding President Medvedev’s concept of “sphere of influence,” Goble  
says the concept can be interpreted in different ways.  In the view of  
the Russian president, he says, the first dimension is “territorial”  
and it includes the former Soviet republics, especially the 12 members  
of the Commonwealth of Independent States. But beyond that, Goble  
suggests that Mr. Medvedev wants to restore a 19th century concept of  
Russia’s “sphere of influence” – something that includes the former  
“Eastern bloc” of Europe as well as those countries that “neighbor the  
former Soviet space,” such as Afghanistan and Turkey.   It would be a  
claim that no longer exists in the international legal system. It is  
also an assertion of power that U.S. foreign policy has rejected for  
some time.

A second meaning for what Medvedev calls a “privileged” sphere of  
influence refers to what Paul Goble defines as a “functional division”  
of the world – that is, those economic and military questions in which  
Russia believes it should be a full participant.

The Impact of Ethnicity on Russia’s Claim

  …in Ukraine

Goble says there are several reasons why Russia’s move into Georgia is  
not likely to be repeated in Ukraine.   First, he explains, Georgia is  
a small country with 5-6 million people whereas Ukraine is a state of  
nearly 50 million people. Second, Goble says the divisions within  
Ukraine are not nearly so deep as Moscow claims or as U.S. journalists  
based in Moscow report. He says while many ethnic Russians in eastern  
Ukraine are proud of their heritage, they do not want to be citizens  
of Russia because they feel they are “far better off in a Ukraine that  
is on its way to becoming a member of the EU.”  A third reason, Goble  
says, is that Ukraine has a very clear constitutional prohibition  
against dual citizenship – something that would preclude a repetition  
in Ukraine of Russia’s ploy to insert itself on behalf of “Russian”  
citizens in Georgia’s breakaway regions who had just a month earlier  
been issued Russian passports.

By supporting separatism in Georgia, Goble says Moscow runs the risk  
of encouraging separatism within the Russian Federation itself. Goble  
says it could lead to two possible results – either a decay of central  
authority and an exodus of people in the Middle Volga region and in  
the Caucasus similar to the situation at the end of the Soviet Union,  
or a Russian government that becomes so repressive of its minorities  
that it produces explosions.  Goble says Moscow risks not only losing  
the non-Russian population of the Caucasus, but also the predominantly  
ethnic Russian populations of Siberia and the far eastern region.

  …in the Caucasus

In the south Caucasus, there are three very different countries in  
terms of their ethnic mix.  Due to the Nagorno-Karabakh war,  
Azerbaijan is almost all Azerbaijani, although it is one-third Sunni  
Muslim and two-thirds Shi’a. Armenia, which had a significant Azeri  
minority, also has Assyrians and Kurds, but it is overwhelmingly a  
mono-ethnic state now. The real question for those two countries,  
Goble says, is the number of people who live abroad in “diaspora”  
communities. Georgia has five major ethnic minorities, two of which  
(Ossetians and Abkhaz) had autonomous republic status until Russia’s  
recent invasion -- Ajars in Ajaria (on the Black Sea), Azerbaijanis in  
the east, and Armenians in the south. Since independence in 1991,  
perhaps a million Georgians have been living in the Russian Federation.

Paul Goble says the north Caucasus is among the most ethnically  
complicated places on earth.  In Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, North  
Ossetia, and other areas of the north Caucasus, there are at least 100  
small ethnic groups that speak languages that are not mutually  
intelligible. And Goble says they have only three things in common –  
geographic isolation, their Islamic identity, and a historical pattern  
in which Moscow has “never controlled the north Caucasus until it  
controlled the south Caucasus.”

  …in the Baltic States

Goble says as part of the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania  
were occupied countries, but from the perspective of international  
law, not union republics.  During the recent conflict in Georgia, the  
presidents of all three Baltic states– along with the presidents of  
Poland and Ukraine – flew to Tbilisi to express their support for the  
Georgians. They have also called for rapid NATO membership for Georgia.

Lithuania is overwhelmingly ethnic Lithuanian, and the second minority  
is not Russian but Polish.  In Estonia, 68 percent is ethnically  
Estonian, and about 30 percent is ethnic Russian. In Latvia, about 50  
percent is ethnic Latvian, 30 percent is ethnic Russian, and 15  
percent is made up of Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and others.  Goble  
says that over the years Moscow has tried to exploit the ethnic  
Russian minority in these countries because the Baltic republics did  
not offer citizenship to people who had been moved in by the occupying  
power, and consequently many of these people are without passports.

  …in Central Asia

In Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan,  
there is a quite different mix – Turkic peoples, Persians, other  
non-Russians, and ethnic Russians. In the 1920’s, when borders were  
drawn, most of these peoples spoke more than one language. Today, more  
important than the ethnic conflicts in Central Asia, are fights over  
water and food. To illustrate, within 12 to 15 months the Aral Sea  
will no longer exist, which Goble says, will lead to a health crisis  
in Central Asia that “we cannot imagine.”

  …in Moldova

Moldova has ethnic ties to Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. Paul Goble  
suggests that the separatist region of Trans-Dniestria, on the  
Ukrainian border, may be the only place where the 1991 coup succeeded;  
that is, it is still Soviet. Furthermore, he says Moscow has used this  
“frozen conflict” primarily against Ukraine to gain leverage.

Another ethnic issue in Moldova involves the Gagauz, a people who  
speak a Turkic language, but are the “only group on earth” that ever  
voluntarily converted from Christianity to Islam – and then back to  
Orthodox Christianity. In addition, the Gagauz are a heavily armed  
population (thanks to Turkey) and have a constitutional right to  
choose independence.

…in the Slavic States

Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have their own ethnic tensions. Most  
important, Paul Goble says, is that Ukrainians are not Russians, and  
Byelorussians are not Russians. One of the huge mistakes, he argues,  
is that the West accepts the Russian version of reality in which there  
was a Russian nation from which Ukrainians and Byelorussians split.  
Ethnically they were established at about the same time, although  
Russia has had a state longer.

Ukraine wants to be part of the West. Although it will not be easy,  
Goble says, he thinks it will come about over time.  And he predicts  
that Belarus will also move away from Russia because it is unlikely to  
be satisfied in the long run with the status of having six oblasts in  
the Russian Federation.


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