Europe as one of the smallest continents has due to a complicated history of dynasties and different evolved ethnicities many different countries. Especially the First World War shaped Europe and added more countries to the map. Huge realms like the German Empire, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire collapsed, broke or were divided. Between Germany and Russia several cultures, peoples and societies felt their chance and established independent states. Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia were founded shortly after the First World War. Some of them had to fight for their independence in a brutal war in which even more or less private actors like the Bermondt-Army were involved. Other states that we know today like Moldova, Ukraine or Belarus have tried to achieve their independence but were unable to defend their claims against stronger neighbors. And even nowadays there are several states that claim their independence, but can’t be found on any map because they are generally not counted as sovereign states.
According to political science a state according to the Westphalian treaty system requires three components to be counted as a state.
- State government: A state requires a sovereign government that is able to make decisions. The government should have the monopoly of violence to provide peace within the state and to provide for its citizen/people. Usually the government should have the power to rule and reign on its territory over its citizens.
- State citizens: The government has the task to provide for its citizens, protect it from dangers from inside and outside. In opposition the citizens have to follow the rules and obey to the government. The citizens live usually on the territory on which the government is ruling.
- State territory: Defines the boundaries in which a government reigns and in which the citizens live in.
Recognition and Legitimation
Nevertheless there are more rule to define a state. A good example is the story of the independent Principality of Sealand. The story of Sealand began already in the Second World War when the United Kingdom built several radio stations into the sea. These radio stations which looked like small oil drilling islands had to warn London and other cities from German bombing attacks. Soon after the end of the war these radio stations were abandoned by the military and used as Pirate Radio Stations.
In 1967 the former Colonel Paddy Roy Bates occupied one of these Stations and claimed that it was in international sea and was therefore without government. He declared himself as Prince of Sealand. And with the declaration the quest for international recognition of the Principality of Sealand began. Soon the new Prince realised that there is a fourth condition: The recognition by other states. Several times the British Navy tried to scare of the Bates family, but he defended it with gasoline bombs and gun shots. Several courts in the United Kingdom pleaded that as Sealand lies within international waters it does not belong to the United Kingdom and is therefore independent, but nevertheless still no state was ready to recognize Sealand. In 1975 the german citizen Alexander Gottfried Achenbach and some Dutch friends suggested the Prince to open a casino on Sealand as it would not be restricted to any law on gambling.
Bates agreed and appoint Achenbach to the prime minister. Some months later when Bates was on a business trip to find investors in Vienna , Achenbach revolted and proclaimed himself as the new prince. Now it was Bates who hired some mercenaries, attacked Sealand and took Achenbach and his dutch friends as prisoners. As a result Germany and Netherlands asked the United Kingdom to intervene and free their citizens, and now it was the United Kingdom who said they are not responsible for Sealand. Therefore Germany and the Netherlands negotiated with the Principality of Sealand. Bates understood the start of diplomatic relation as recognition by the United Kingdom, Germany and Netherland. Sealand offers a good example in which all three conditions are fulfilled, which doesn’t make Sealand straight a state. Most countries see Sealand not as a state as it doesn’t have the abilities to produce a proper government, a proper territory and a proper population. Nevertheless some scientists and courts claim that Sealand is a functioning state (every person is allowed to apply for citizenship), there is no country that is accepting Sealand, which leads to an interesting question: If all countries would deny the existence of a country, does it not exist then? And what if the country has indeed a true ethnicity and culture that differs from the neighboring countries?
Nowadays in Europe there is a long list of not-recognized states that actually offer again all three conditions: Kosovo, Transnistria, South-Ossetia, Abkhazia, the Republic of Artsakh and the two People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine Luhansk and Donetsk. From all these mentioned states that claim their independence, only Kosovo is acknowledged by most of the UN-states (111 of 193 UN-member states). What they have in common again is that the independence of these states is not accepted by the state they belonged to earlier. The People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine are not accepted by any country like South-Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria are not recognized as sovereign states, with the exception of Russia who grants international recognition, administrational and economical help. In all cases Russia was ready to distribute Russian passports, as the passports from mentioned countries are not legitimate for travel. A short look into the history of these regions could give an easy answer from where the demands come from, as it is very eye-catching that with the exception of Kosovo all states have been part of the Soviet Union and are today in the periphery of Russia.
Soviet Union as a multiethnic state
After the collapse of the Soviet Union several states had the historical chance to become independent states. For some ethnicities and cultures it was more or less the first time since centuries. Nevertheless only states emerged that were already known as Socialist Republics within the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. The constitutions of Ukraine and Russia try to cope with the danger of secession movements. While the Ukrainian constitution gives the Crimea a special status as an Autonomous Republic, the case in Russia is even more complicated. Russia is organized in 46 oblasts (= region), 22 republics, 9 krais (=territory), 4 autonomous okrugs (=area), 3 federal cities (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sevastopol), 1 autonomous oblast. All of these certain subjects have different powers, tasks and differ in size and population. Nevertheless Russia was not able to contain some of the secession movements, which partially resulted in wars like the war in Chechnya, which left the main city of the region, Grosny, in ruins. In a brutal war with artillery, bombardments and thousands of civil casualties the Chechen spirit for independence was crushed. However, the Russian foreign policy was more gracious to independence when it came to regions that are not within the borders of Russia itself.
Transnistria as a special example
The closeness to the European Union and the wish to become a part of Russia makes Transnistria to a special example. While in other supposedly independent regions Russia has supported these movements, Transnistria opposed the idea of an independent Moldova as soon as the idea came up. While the rest of Moldova accepted the Latin alphabet and tried to identify itself because of shared language, history and culture more with Romania, the population in Transnistria considered themselves closer to Russians. And therefore were the russian, ukrainian and belarussian minorities in Moldova afraid of a nationalistic state that would discriminate them.
Especially Ukrainians and Russians who lived in this region were afraid of law changes that would lower the status of the Russian language, which was used already for centuries as an interethnic language. The administration in Transnistria proclaimed their independence by 1990 and started to build governmental institutions. From this moment on it saw itself as a new socialist republic – the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) – within the realms of the Soviet Union; and although Gorbachev himself denied this claim, the government in Transnistria saw themselves as a new Socialist Republic. The freshly elected government in Moldova had to act and several military clashes resulted in a war from March to June in 1992.
As the situation has proceeded there was no Soviet Union in 1992 and volunteers from Ukraine and Russia supported the fight for independence on the side of Transnistria. Romania on the other hand helped the Moldovan side with logistics, training and volunteers as well. During the Transnistria War the Red Army had the orders to evacuate from Moldova with weapons, soldiers, ammunition and vehicles. Nevertheless during this evacuation the General Major Alexander Lebed received the order to end the conflict by all means. As Moldovan artillery shot (accidentally) at the Russian Army (not Red Army anymore), Lebed used his power to destroy the unexperienced and small Moldovan army within days which stopped the conflict as Moldova didn’t have the resources and the equipment to enter a prolonged war. By July 1992 the President of Moldova agreed with the Russian President Boris Yeltsin a truce that is still active. The OSCE agreed with the Russian Federation to evacuate all foreign soldiers by 2002 and solve the issue of Transnistria. Nevertheless even 2017 nothing has changed. Russian troops are still in Transnistria and guard the border together with soldiers from Transnistria. After the annexation of Crimea the government of Transnistria asked to join the Russian Federation finally. Although the Republic of Moldova views Transnistria still as a part of Moldova and border crossing via Transnistria are officially forbidden, it has no control over the territory of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic at all.
Minorities become Majorities
The case of Transnistria is exactly the case that frightens most post-soviet countries the most. A minority group decides for independence and these claims are highly supported by the Russian politics and army, seemed to be unstoppable. Now Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and almost any other post-soviet state can find itself in the same situation as all of these states have a fairly huge Russian diaspora. The fear of smaller states like the Baltic States of losing their language and their culture due to population shift has changed in latest years by the fear of uprising of local groups that are financially, militarily and politically supported by Russia. Although the government of the Soviet Union was able to settle down people in all Soviet Republics, Russia found itself in a hard situation straight after the fall of the Soviet Union, as some regions lack ethnic Russians at all, like Chechnya, Kazan or Dagestan, which on the other side strengthen local independence thoughts. Russia has found a middle course to cope with these ideas by granting special rights or fighting a brutal war against these secession movements/fighters. It’s eye-catching that the secession movements have not succeeded in Russia, but always in neighboring countries, and therefore it seems that these groups require support in any way, which was not granted to Chechnya. The question is how the states in the periphery should respond to their Russian minorities? Should special laws support Russian minorities or should the Russian language be forbidden? The states should do everything to integrate the minorities and to respect their culture. Only following this way the states and societies can give as little room as possible for a lack of satisfaction and nationalism. It is important to fight disinformation and prejudices to overcome the cleavages and prevent identity crisis. But this might frighten again the majority, which might again result in fear and prejudices by the society – and it is not just the government, but the society and the individuals who have to overcome the cleavages and therefore the question remains the same: How should states with large Russian minorities respond to this minority?