David O'Byrne in Istanbul -
The 28 member states of the EU went to the polls on May 25 in the eighth Union-wide elections for the European Parliament. However arguably the most important election on that day was further east, the presidential election in Ukraine – the first poll in the troubled state since overthrow of president Viktor Yanukovych, the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea and the declaration of independence by the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of East Ukraine following internationally unrecognised referenda.
The Ukrainian poll is not only expected to indicate whether the country has returned to democracy, but also whether it can continue to exist as a single, united state in the face of Russian aggression. "Presumably Russia's strategy is.... to work to ensure that the vote come May 25 shows the country divided enough to then force negotiations to forge some form of federal structure," wrote Timothy Ash of Standard Bank in a note in mid-May, adding that many dispute whether Russian plans end with the federalisation of Ukraine.
The claimed pullback of Russian troops from the Ukrainian border may indicate that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has realised the limits of formal military intervention, but not necessarily that his territorial ambitions have been sated, or that successful completion of the Ukrainian poll will see the breakaway regions returned to Kyiv's control.
Rather, it appears that the self-styled "Donetsk People's Republic" and "Lugansk People's Republic" – perhaps together forming a "pseudo-state" called "Novorossiya" – are set to become for the foreseeable internationally unrecognised features on the map of Europe and Eurasia. Whatever the formation, it certainly won't want for company.
Europe and Eurasia already boast an impressive array of similar "pseudo-states" – de-facto functioning countries recognised only by themselves, a powerful "sponsor state" and, more curiously, other similar "pseudo-states", many of them formerly part of Soviet Union.
Even before the collapse of central Soviet authority in 1991, those ethnic tensions were already boiling to the surface with Armenian groups in the majority Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh enclave declaring the region independent of the then still Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, this was soon followed by conflicts in Georgia and Moldova, resulting in the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and Transnistria (or Trans-Dniester – even its inhabitants don't appear to be certain).
These are territories whose legality is recognised still only by each other, Russia and a small handful of Russia's more faithful allies. Even so, they boast a national flag, national anthem and a range of at least superficially functioning administrative institutions, if not the presence of the European Commission, representation in the UN, membership of Europe's football authority Uefa and admission to the World Cup qualifying rounds – not to mention the chance to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest.
To this list was added the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, following the 2008 intervention of Russian troops and Russian trained irregulars – a common factor, as is the subsequent stationing of Russian troops.
Whether or not this extends to a Russian plan to attempt to rebuild the former Soviet Union, or at least annexing those parts between itself and the expanding EU, is moot, but the impression is difficult to dispel.
While early secessions clearly stem from the failure of Soviet-era administrations to overcome ethnic tensions, just as clearly the more recent secessions, including those in Ukraine, are symptomatic of Russian disapproval of accession to the EU/Nato and, more broadly, "European values", as exemplified by the recent furious criticism of that most benign of European institutions, the Eurovision Song Contest, which was won by Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst.
For the pseudo-states that have emerged, the major challenge though is not one of recognition, so much as developing their own functioning administrative institutions. "Because these entities have generally been born out of armed conflict, there tends also to be a massive displacement of persons on an ethnic basis," says Sabine Freizer, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, explaining that in the rare instances where communities have subsequently returned, they have faced challenges obtaining their political, social and economic rights.
"It's a tremendous challenge for these unrecognised entities to build up their own state institutions, as they are unrecognised by international partners," she says, pointing out that despite this it is important for international donors to engage with the de-facto authorities and encourage them to develop as many democratic institutions as possible.
40 years is a long time
Ultimately, the greatest risk in the creation of "pseudo-states" is that the conflicts that create them remain frozen and unresolved.
A case in point is the "Turkish Republic of North Cyprus" (TRNC), created in the northern 37% of the island of Cyprus following the invasion of Turkish troops in 1974. That invasion came in response to a military coup which threatened to unite the island with Greece, then ruled by a military junta, though the TRNC was only formally declared in 1983, nine years later following another coup, this time in Turkey.
Events there appear to confirm the idea that whatever the initial motivation for the creation of the "pseudo-state", ultimately it's the internal politics of the "sponsor" state or states that define whether or not the conflict can be unfrozen. "Because of the way conflicts go, you can't always say how long it's going to take," says Hugh Pope, director of the Turkey-Cyprus project at International Crisis Group, explaining that in their memoirs the Turkish generals who occupied 37% of the island in 1974 did so with the expectation that it would be handed back straight away in return for a durable settlement.
"It doesn't matter whose fault it is, things just get stuck and the cost of going through international procedures and laws can be very great for both sides," Pope argues, pointing out that high cost has been borne by the Turkish and Greek sides of the island as well as by Turkey itself, in terms of delays to its own EU accession process.
With the best chance yet of a resolution, the 2004 Annan Plan, having been accepted in a referendum by 65% of the island's Turkish population but rejected by 75% of the Greek population, the chance of reuniting the two halves of the island had appeared unlikely until the discovery in 2011 of the giant Aphrodite gasfield. The confirmation of 200bn cubic metres of gas reserves and the possibility of much more – for which the main market would be Europe and the most logical export route via Turkey – may yet prove sufficient incentive for a settlement to Cyprus.
Energy is also key to another long-running frozen conflict, that of the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq, which has been a de-facto self-governing state since the international intervention of 1991 following the uprising against the Iraqi central government of Saddam Hussein. The subsequent 23 years of self-rule has resulted in an efficiently functioning democratic administration and a booming economy, thanks in no small part to the discovery of enormous reserves of both crude oil and gas.
As with Cyprus, regional politics is the main barrier to a settlement. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) thus far continues to agree with Baghdad that it is part of a federal Iraqi state, albeit with the right to arrange its own hydrocarbon exports – something which Baghdad continues to deny.
However, the seriousness of KRG's commitment to a federal Iraq is moot given that the only commercially viable export route for its oil and gas is through neighbouring Turkey which, thanks to its own fractious Kurdish population, is unlikely to look favourably on the emergence of an internationally recognised Kurdish state. The more so given the possible emergence of a second such state in war-torn Syria.
Not that "pseudo-statehood" appears to have done the region any harm. Its enormous energy reserves and the presence of many major oil companies has ensured also a diplomatic presence by more than 20 states, including Turkey. But then, the extent to which a "pseudo-state" remains "pseudo" appears to depend largely on who its friends are.
Kosovo, for example, has been de-facto independent of Serbia since being taken under UN administration in 1999 following the end of the Kosovo War that year. And following the former Serbian province's declaration of independence in 2008, Kosovo has been recognised by 107 UN member states, including most major EU members, and accorded membership of a host of international institutions including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – although crucially not the International Telecommunications Union, which would allow it to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Serbia, somewhat understandably, does not recognise Kosovo's independence and equally understandably nor does Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Iraq or Syria – and less understandably Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia or the TRNC. Nor indeed do EU states Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, Romania or Spain – the latter the only major European power not to have done so, presumably fearful of secession by its own Basque and Catalan regions.
This apparent demonstration of double standards is particularly odd given that it is now 20 years since the creation of the EU's much-vaunted "Committee of the Regions." This was intended to devolve a degree of decision-making away from national governments and create a "Europe of the Regions" – a policy which looked fine on paper, but which seems to have had little effect on the secessionist tendencies of many of the regions it was intended to serve.
This September will see Scotland vote on possible secession from the UK and equally possible exclusion from automatic EU membership. This is a referendum being eyed intently by nationalist groups in Spain, Belgium, France and numerous other EU states with large regional ethnic minorities who might fancy a stab at flying their own flag, singing their own national anthem and singing along with their own Eurovision entry.
Hardly good news for an EU emerging from Europe-wide elections, in which the major issues were continuing questions over just how many former Soviet bloc states the EU can comfortably admit, as well as criticism from parties that would like to see their respective countries exit a union they no longer have any faith in. Nor is it good news for an entity that has yet to even address just what constitutes a "state" and how many new breakaway "states" it could accommodate without collapsing under the weight of its own bureaucracy – a subject it will conceivably have to address in the coming months and years.
As with the Eurovision Song Contest perhaps: it's not over until the bearded lady sings.
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