BACKGROUND: Their concern goes beyond anxiety that the respective minorities inside their countries might continue to agitate for independence or begin to do so. As the experience of Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan tell us, not only is there a danger that minorities might secede or rise up violently, it is very likely that behind all of these existing movements stands the Russian Federation. Many Russians cannot accept the dissolution of the Soviet Union that they (rightly or wrongly) conceived of as a Russian state. Unfortunately among them is Vladimir Putin who has publicly said that the Soviet Union was just another name for Russia. Hence the lack of acceptance in Russia of Ukraine or of its culture, and the resonance of Putin’s view of Ukrainians as misguided younger brothers who must be forced back into the fold.
The “imperial” Russian nationalism has been a prime factor in Moldova’s “frozen conflict” as well as the continuing war in Ukraine. Putin has also said that Kazakhstan was not a state before President Nursultan Nazarbayev took the helm of the newly independent country in 1991. Given that this statement came immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is no surprise that Nazarbayev sharply criticized this view and has vigilantly moved to restrict integration with Russia through the Eurasian Economic Union to purely economic areas and to Latinize the Kazakh alphabet.
The inherent danger of indigenous ethno-religious movements seeking independence exists from the Baltic States to Central Asia. In this context it is clear that Moscow continues to support Russian speakers throughout this expanse and to use that support to delegitimize or threaten to delegitimize these states. Indeed, Foreign Minister Lavrov on October 31 invoked the concept of the Russian world, Russkii Mir, attacked foreign governments for discriminating against Russians and reiterated Russian governmental support for compatriots abroad.
IMPLICATIONS: Lavrov’s remarks, like Putin’s, should come as no surprise. The belief that Russia has the duty and right to intervene on behalf of “Russians abroad” goes back to the Tsars and was also utilized by Stalin, notably in his takeover of Poland and the Baltic States in 1939-40 and then again in the post-World War II border revisions after 1945. Aside from these historical precedents, from Putin on down Russian officials have repeatedly made clear that they do not accept either the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the post-Soviet states, as well as the former members of the Warsaw Pact. Therefore, Russian trolls and media are supporting the Catalan independence movement and Putin sent Dmitri Medoyev, the “foreign minister” of South Ossetia to Barcelona, ostensibly to explore business possibilities. Moscow is playing the same game with regard to Bosnia’s Serbs, the Gagauz in Moldova, the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, while inciting Hungary to defend its minorities in Ukraine.
Thus for Russia, nationalism abroad is a weapon with which to unhinge the status quo even as it ruthlessly represses its expression within the Russian Federation itself. Indeed, Moscow views all claims on behalf of self-determination and sovereignty outside its borders as purely contingent ones, support for which is judged on the basis of the expediency of these movements for Russia.
It is against this backdrop that Moscow is arming both Armenia and Azerbaijan, has all but incorporated Abkhazia and South Ossetia while steadily encroaching into Georgian territory, occasionally raises the issue of the Russian minority in Kazakhstan, supports the Transnistrian movement of Russians against Moldova, and invaded Ukraine. Indeed, Russian media have on occasion even raised the issue of the alleged oppression of the Karakalpak minority in Uzbekistan.
Yet, as has historically been the case, nationalism is a double-edged sword for Russia. At home, the Russian state has since the time of the Tsars repressed expressions of alternative nationality and/or religion, often setting minorities against each other. Abroad, Russia has frequently encouraged fissiparous tendencies among aggrieved minorities to furnish it with a pretext for intervening in its neighbors’ affairs whether they be Poland or the Ottoman Empire. All too often these exploitations of ethnic and religious animosities either ended as or were deliberately exploited to engender wars. As Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Georgia show us; that is still the case.
It is in the light of this history and current situations that Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia quickly supported Madrid against the Catalan independence movement. For these states, disintegration is a real possibility, particularly when backed up by Russian agitation and military support. They all clearly recognize that the global phenomenon of populism frequently manifests itself as ethnic, racial, or inter-confessional confrontation against minorities or majorities. Therefore, these movements offer Moscow abundant opportunities for interference and exploitation. The revelations that Russian cyber war in the 2016 U.S. election often aimed to exacerbate existing ethnic, racial, and religious polarities serves as a cautionary example of what might well occur in any of these or other post-Soviet states if Moscow decides to apply itself in this fashion against them.
This constant apprehension that an ethnically disunited state invites both domestic discord and foreign intervention (even if not in the form of combat forces) has underlain much of the domestic policies of the post-Soviet states. With varying degrees of success, governments have striven to create a national consciousness and narrative (whether it is historically accurate or not) and a solid linguistic and cultural basis for the awareness of a state and/or nation where often none previously existed. This policy, whatever other merits or pitfalls it implies, can also be seen as a prudent and even proactive response to a threat that was always regarded as latent but easily able to become manifest, especially if Moscow so wanted that to happen.
Acquiescence of phenomena such as Catalonia’s claim to independence as legitimate precedents offers revisionist governments like Putin’s ample opportunities for using nationalism to destroy foreign states while also playing both sides against the middle in world politics. Therefore, to the extent that foreign governments care (and they should) about the stability of these relatively new states, they need to help them find enlightened means of resolving ethnic or religious tensions in ways that strengthen the state and domestic peace, as well as the legitimacy of these governments. The alternative is almost certainly going to be one of protracted violence.
Lavrov’s speech, among many other Russian policy statements and formulations, suggests that Russia will continue to promote destabilization of its neighbors as long as it sees profit in doing so. Moscow’s engines of information warfare, a major instrument of ethno-religious incitement, are running at full tilt. And since they are relatively cheap to maintain they can be turned up or down, like a rheostat, as determined by Putin and his entourage. As all states in what used to be the “Soviet space” try harder to consolidate their independence and as Russia itself stagnates, it is very likely that Moscow will resort to playing the “nationalist” or religious card abroad more frequently. These states can reasonably expect more incitement at home and abroad against their territorial and political claims to integrity and sovereignty.
Moreover, if the domestic situation inside Russia continues to stagnate, as many observers expect it to do, it is equally likely that we will see both a deliberate and unplanned ratcheting up of ethno-religious tensions within Russia as aggrieved minorities struggle against the state and Putin’s government calculate that inciting Russians against them or minorities against each other is essential to the perpetuation of their power.
CONCLUSIONS: It is clear that the populist phenomenon of which nationalist strife is clearly a part flourishes when liberalism and/or globalization runs aground because they cannot offer genuine economic advancement to minorities. In such cases, economic stratification reinforces and aggravates political stratification, creating opportunities for “ethnic” or religious “entrepreneurs” to canalize such feelings for the purpose of violently exploiting them. The Russian state has a long history of doing just that. Thus under the present circumstances, and given the many signs of reversion to Tsarist, Soviet, and Stalinist precedents, such political outcomes cannot be excluded. And it is to avoid just such grim scenarios that Almaty, Tbilisi, and Baku have taken and will continue to take proactive actions like the refusal to offer homage to Catalonia.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.
Image source: By Liz Castro [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons accessed on 12.13. 2017