Monday, December 29, 2008

Getting Real about the Threat of Rusyn Separatism in Ukraine

On 1 December RT the Russian 24 news network gave backhand recognition to the seventeenth anniversary of the Ukrainian independence referendum by announcing the unilateral establishment of an autonomous Rusyn state in Transcarpathia, the western-most region of Ukraine. The story was not really that new.  On 25 October the "Second World Rusyn Congress" had announced its intentions to proclaim an autonomous government on 1 December if the Ukrainian state did not bow to their demands for the creation of an autonomous Republic in Transcarpathia.   Three weeks later on 22 December STRATFOR, the private intelligence firm, issued a report following up on the announcement suggesting that Rusyn (Ruthenian in the text) separatism provided a perfect wedge through which Russia could undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.  The well respected expert on Soviet nationalities, Paul Goble, has also chimed in noting that the main Druzhba gas pipeline, flows through Transcarpathia, although he also notes that Russian support of Rusyn separatists is not universally supported within the Russian foreign policy elite. (Hat tip Taras Kuzio) 

For anyone not familiar with the ins and outs of Europe's smaller ethnic groups, STRATFOR's report is alarming, especially coming on the heals of this summer's crisis in South Ossetia. Moreover, in a world where Putin has shown a strong desire to reassert control over other former Soviet republics,  it can seem entirely plausible that yet another ethnic group one has never heard of before will provide similar leverage in Ukraine to that offered by the Ossetians and the Abkhazians in Georgia.   Despite Russian attempts to make Rusyn separatism seem a serious threat to Ukraine, people would be well advised to be skeptical about the level of support for separatism among the Rusyns of Transcarpathia as well as Russia's ability to manipulate the situation, however strategically advantageous it might seem.  

The first problem with such analogies, is that unlike the Ossetians and Abkhazians, the Rusyns never had the advantage of being declared a distinct nationality in the Soviet Union and have their territory granted any nominal autonomous status.  In fact, from the moment of annexation at the end of World War II  Soviet policy towards the Rusyns of Transcarpathia was to classify them as Ukrainians. a decision that is generally understood to have been widely accepted by the Rusyns in the area.  Indeed, the American scholar Paul Magocsi, who is the main expert on and advocate for the Rusyns, maintained in his first major book that Rusyns had accepted Ukrainian identity.   Beyond that, unlike South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or even Eastern Ukraine Transcarpathia is not territorially contiguous with Russia so the prospect of sending in Russian troops into the region is highly unlikely, especially since doing so would involve violating Ukrainian airspace, or alternatively gaining assistance from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or Romania, none of which have a particularly friendly attitude towards the Russian military.

That said, there are just enough inconsistencies within the situation in Transcarpathia to give the threat of Rusyn separatism some plausibility.  Glastnost and perestroika created conditions where interest in Rusyn distinctiveness in Transcarpathia has revived, something that coincided with Paul Magocsi's efforts to promote Rusyn pride among its immigrant population in America and Canada.  Yet, exactly what that means politically remains unclear because no one has been concerned enough to investigate it empirically which has left something of a half full glass for people to analyze according to their own preferences.  Even so estimates based on what little empirical data is available suggests that only about 10% of Transcarpathia's million inhabitants identify strongly as Rusyns.  So the Rusyn separatists that Russia has been calling attention have a long way to go to convince their compatriots to take their cause as something worthy of their support.  As it stands, the main body of the World Congress of Rusyns has condemned the separatists.

If anything Russian support for the Rusyn separatists comes off as a farcical replay of events prior to World War I when the circumstances of living under Hungarian assimilationist policies and tensions between immigrant communities from Transcarpathia and Greek Catholic priests from Galicia created a degree of sympathy for Russia -- Some communities in the United States even went so far as to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, a decision some sought to encourage with modest success back in the homeland.  Soon Russian nationalists, were seeking to make use of that opening.  Russian scholars began taking an interest in the region and just before World War I Russian agents did their best to promoting pro-Russian sentiment.  Their success, however, was marginal, and there is little to suggest that this time Russian nationalists will be any more successful this time.  Indeed, rather than setting the stage for the collapse of Ukraine at the hands of Russia as STRATFOR suggests, these events may finally put the issue of Rusyn loyalty to Ukraine to rest.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Why Did Georgia Attack South Ossetia? Redux

As always Thanksgiving and Advent have stressed my organizational skills, but I can now return to some issues that have been wanting to address.

 The first of them is the still murky origin of the Georgia's attack on South Georgia.  Reports that have come out since my original post on this subject have not yet fully disabused me of my original hypothesis that Georgia had acted as they did based on information leaked to them that suggested Russia would acquiesce.  Still, it does seem clear that the Georgians expected more concrete support from NATO than they got.  Moreover, the Pentagon's assessment of the Georgian military, which the New York Times reported on in its 18 December edition, casts doubt on its ability to assess and act deliberatively:
Georgia's armed forces, the report said are highly centralized, prone to impulsive rather than deliberative decision making, undermined by unclear lines of command and led by senior officials selected for personal relationships rather than professional qualifications. 
That does not come as a surprise, as I suggested originally a more deliberative command would have sought to avoid war at all costs.  Moreover it suggests a command that could easily fall into the trap of group think, whether that was assuming the rest of the world would come to Georgia's aid or the wishful thinking that Putin was secretly prepared to let Georgia reassert control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.