The Associated Press
Aug 31 2008

Russia support for separatists could have ripples

LONDON (AP) - Russia's conflict with Georgia and recognition of its
small breakaway territories as independent states may have broad
repercussions for separatist movements in the former Soviet sphere and
around the world.

The crisis could give a jolt of energy to other breakaway regions,
especially those with links to Russia, or embolden China to pursue a
tougher line in Tibet and Taiwan in the absence of tough Western

"Any country that has a potential separatist movement will view the
events in Georgia through its own unique prism," Richard Holbrooke,
the former U.S. envoy who mediated peace in Bosnia in the mid-1990s,
told The Associated Press.

"But the greatest cause for concern lies in the Ukraine, Azerbaijan
and Moldova - all states that border Russia."

With the exception of the Balkans, post-Soviet era Europe has grown
accustomed to the notion of territorial integrity as stable - if not

Russian's push into Georgia and its recognition of the territories of
South Ossetia and Abkhazia have undermined this status quo - and may
start to warm up so-called "frozen conflicts" in Moldova's
Trans-Dniester region and Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh, where Moscow
backs separatist movements.

Azerbaijan and Armenia are locked in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh,
which is encircled by Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenian
forces. Russia has close historical and economic ties to Armenia,
which surrendered control of key sectors of its economy to Russia in
exchange for debt forgiveness.

For the Kremlin, the stakes in oil-rich Azerbaijan have been raised by
Washington's plan to build a military base there - a project that has
incensed the Russians, who have a large military installation in
Armenia with hundreds of personnel, fighter jets and air defense

Russia also continues to back the breakaway Russian-speaking province
of Trans-Dniester, that has split from Moldova over its feared
reunification with Romania.

Russian troops remain stationed in the province to guard a huge
stockpile of Soviet-era military equipment. It's a situation with
eerie echoes to South Ossetia - the flashpoint of the Russia-Georgia
conflict - where Russia kept "peacekeepers" before the eruption of
this month's war.

"By illegally recognizing the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia, Dmitry Medvedev - Russia's president - made clear that
Moscow's goal is to redraw the map of Europe using force," Georgian
President Mikhail Saakashvili wrote in an editorial that appeared in
the Financial Times on Friday.

Perhaps nowhere are concerns about Russian designs in its
"near-abroad" so acute as in Ukraine.

The country the size of France with a population of 46 million has
long held a special place in Russian hearts and Moscow has been
humiliated by its drive to join the European Union and NATO.

Many now fear Moscow has its sights on the strategic Crimea peninsula
on the Black Sea - once one of the glories of the Russian empire.

Russia has not explicitly declared it wants to regain control of
Crimea but nearly 1.2 million of the region's 2 million residents are
ethnic Russians, many of whom believe Crimea should be Russian.

Russia has a lease that gives it control of the Sevastopol military
base until 2017 and has hinted that it does not want to leave when the
lease runs out.

The events in the Caucasus have been watched closely by a resurgent
China, which has tried to extinguish separatist movements in Tibet and
its far western province of Xinjiang, where Beijing says radicals are
trying to set up an Islamic state.

For Beijing, the Russia-Georgia conflict may be double-edged.

On one hand, the spectacle of South Ossetia and Abkhazia making a big
leap toward independence with Moscow's backing may send chills through
the Chinese ruling elite as it struggles with its own separatist

On the other, the Kremlin's use of military might to reassert
dominance in a region it considers own backyard could set a valuable
precedent for Beijing as it maneuvers to assert its will in places
like Taiwan - which China has vowed to take back by force if

That may account for Beijing's ambivalent response to Russia's request
for support at a meeting last week in Tajikistan.

China, along with four Central Asian nations, refused to endorse the
invasion or recognize the breakaway provinces - but also criticized
the West and signed a statement praising the "active role of Russia in
promoting peace and cooperation" in the region.

"We have our Western friends and those in Central Asia who are not in
agreement with Russian actions. But we also have a strong relationship
with Russia," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations
at People's University in Beijing.

"So China just needs to take a middle road."

The Georgian conflict is unlikely to have a direct effect on
separatist movements elsewhere but may provide a strong psychological
boost - and teach irredentists the value of cultivating powerful

In Spain, the Basque separatist group ETA's fight for an independent
homeland has steadily lost support after a long and deadly battle that
has killed hundreds in terror attacks. Any sign of separatists
triumphing elsewhere in Europe may help revive morale among Spain's

"The Georgian conflict isn't likely to have a direct effect on the
emergence of new separatist or secessionist movements but it has the
potential to create a long-term precedent," said Nicu Popescu with the
European Council on Foreign Relations.