Wednesday, March 26, 2014

After Crimea, Transnistria, Then Donetsk ... and Alaska? and Sardinia?? Annexation Fever Sweeps Globe

With a stroke of the pen, Crimea becomes Russian.
First, Crimea.  Next, many fear, Transnistria, or Abkhazia or South Ossetia, or eastern Ukraine ... except Donetsk, which might want to join ... the United Kingdom?  And, after that, the Kremlin lunges for ... Alaska??

Russia’s annexation of Crimea this month has proven to be a game-changer in international relations on a vast scale.  More immediately, the proliferation of independence movements, as typically chronicled in this blog, now seems to be overshadowed for the moment by a flurry of interest in annexation.  Last year, this blog examined a desire by some indigenous people on Easter Island to leave Chile and join French Polynesia.  Orcadians and Shetlanders (as also chronicled in this blog) are reminding their more separatist Scots compatriots that there may be a legal basis for reexamining if the Orkneys and Shetlands might really be part of the Kingdom of Denmark, not Scotland or the U.K.  And, as just reported recently in this blog, Albanian-speakers in Serbia are reviving the idea of Albania annexing their little valley.  Not at all frivolously, the international community worries that many heretofore independentist movements along Russia’s outer rim may be turning annexationist instead.  Some of these new developments (Transnistria) can be taken more seriously than others (Alaska), but it is definitely a trend.  Read on ...

Crimea’s awkward resonances: Austrian girls celebrating Germany’s annexation
of Austria in 1938, which used the same rationales as Putin uses today
Transnistria
The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, also known as Pridnestrovia or, in English, Transdniestria or Transnistria, is a sliver of the Republic of Moldova just over the Dniester River alongside Ukraine which in 1990 seceded from Moldova but as yet has not been recognized by any other state.  This Russian puppet state’s half-million people are roughly one-third ethnic Russian, one-third ethnic Ukrainian, and one-third ethnic Moldovan (i.e. Romanian-speakers).  Last week, for the first time, Transnistria formally requested the Russian Federation to annex the territory, and the Russian government was at last report officially considering the idea.

Is Transnistria next?
The territory’s foreign minister, Nina Shtanski, formerly known mostly for her flamboyantly fashionable garb and fashion-model looks, said this week, “We are pleased to say that the outcome of the Crimean referendum almost fully coincides with the results of the Transdniestrian referendum of 17 September 2006, when over 97 per cent of voters chose independence and the prospect of voluntary unification with Russia.  The obvious match of the will expressed by people in Crimea and Transdniestria demonstrates that the Russian World is uniting and the people’s wish for unity cannot be stopped.”  (Last week in this blog, I examined the possibility of annexation of Transnistria, along with, possibly, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.)

Tiraspol or ... um ... bust: Transnistria’s foreign minister
shoots Russian troops a “come hither and annex us” look.
Philip Breedlove, a United States Air Force general who is supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), on March 23rd identified Transnistria as the next possible trouble spot. He said Russia has “absolutely sufficient force”—a “very, very sizeable and very, very ready” force—“postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome.”

Posters in Transnistria assert, “We are not Moldova!” and remind citizens
of the date of the 2006 referendum on joining Russia.
Meanwhile, according to Russian “peacekeepers” in Transnistria, the Ukrainian government has sealed off the Ukrainian–Moldovan (i.e. de facto Ukrainian–Transnistrian) border, specifically blocking males with Russian passports from crossing into the separatist enclave.  And Russia has augmented its 500-some “peacekeepers” with a totally unconnected and coincidental military exercise in Transnistria featuring more than 8,000 Russian soldiers.  As with Crimea and Ukraine, a Transnistrian annexation would have the advantage for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, of making sure that Moldova, with a disputed territory on its eastern rim, would stay out of the European Union (E.U.) and NATO for the foreseeable future, let alone reunifying, as most ethnic Moldovans and Romanians would like, with Romania, which is an E.U. and NATO member.  Watch this space for Transnistrian developments (and, probably, lots more photos of Nina Shtanski).

Nina Shtanski, Transnistria’s minister for foreign affairs,
vamps for the cameras at a cabinet photo-op
Southern and eastern Ukraine
Though Transnistria does not border either Crimea or any part of Russia proper, it does border Ukraine’s primarily Russian-speaking Odessa Oblast; in between Odessa and Crimea is Ukraine’s Novorossiya (“New Russia”) region dominated by Russian-speakers.  Even the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has said that Novorossiya and Crimea are essentially part of Russia, not Ukraine.  (Gorbachev, though he is a Nobel laureate and ranked somewhere between Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi by adoring Westerners for allowing the Soviet satellites of Central Europe and the Balkans to break free, he is regarded by nervous non-Russians still under the Kremlin’s thumb as the brute who sent tanks into Lithuania and by Russian nationalists as the Neville Chamberlain–esque buffoon who naïvely capitulated to the enemy.)

The future?
It seems likely that Russian forces could at least establish a supply corridor along the Black Sea coast to supply the semi-landlocked Transnistria, via the desirable warm-water harbor at Odessa, and possible that they could widen that corridor into more territory to annex.  For that, Russia would need the support of the Russian-speaking population.  Unlike in Crimea, mainland Ukraine’s Russian-speakers often identify themselves as nationally or ethnically Ukrainian, not Russian.  But Ukrainian as a national identity completely distinct from Russian is a relatively recent development.  Russophones’ sense that they are “Russian-speaking Ukrainians” could quickly give way to a reidentification with Russia—as is already true of an unknown but surely large number of them.


Meanwhile, Sergey “Goblin” Aksyonov, the unelected Russian-installed president of Crimea, a former boxer with organized-crime links, is asking Russian-speakers in Ukraine’s south and east to do just that: rise up.  “Today,” he said on March 23rd, “I appeal to you with a call to fight,” adding that he was “deeply convinced” that the destiny of southeastern Ukraine “rested in a close union with the Russian Federation—a political, economic and cultural union.”

Russian ultranationalist annexationists demonstrate in Donetsk.
The black and orange emblem is the Soviet-era “St. George’s Ribbon” for military valor
—here jauntily adapted to the armband format for that Gestapo feel.
Donetsk
Last week (March 19th) in Donetsk, capital of the home oblast of Ukraine’s recently toppled ethnically-Russian pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych, it was reported that pro-Kremlin activists were passing out “referendum ballots” on the street, with a single question as to whether Donetsk Oblast should be part of Russia or Ukraine.  (This follows a dramatic aborted coup d’état last month, reported at the time in this blog here and here, in which a former neo-Nazi named Pavel Gubarev declared an independent Donetsk Republic and invited Russian troops in, before being arrested himself.)  Annexation petitions continue to circulate, and annexationists have been demonstrating daily under the city’s statue of Vladimir Lenin.  Counterdemonstrations by Ukrainian unionists have also been prominent.  The city seems to be fairly evenly divided.


But some pranksters are using satire to make their point about flimsy irredentist pretexts.  An unknown group is circulating on social media a petition to make the city of Donetsk part of the United Kingdom. The reasoning is that Donetsk was founded as a factory town in 1869 by a businessman from Wales named John Hughes.  The town was originally called Yuzovka, which to Russian ears sounds close enough to Hughes’s name.  Though the petition gathered over 7,000 signatures in the first few days, there was almost certainly no hope behind it.  The prank can also be seen as a dark commentary on how different things would be if Ukraine, or any part of it, were in NATO.

John Hughes’ statue in downtown Donetsk—almost as heroic-looking as Lenin’s
Russia’s “far abroad”: Alaska
Much of the concern over where Putin might seek to march his soldiers next has focused on what Russian nationalists call their “near abroad,” i.e. the parts of the former Soviet Union outside the Russian Federation.  But these are not the only formerly Russian-ruled parts of the world, if Moscow wants to get truly ambitious in their irredentism.  There is also Russian America, i.e. Alaska, which Czar Alexander II sold to the United States in 1867.  Now there is a new petition on the White House’s “We the People” online petition page titled “Alaska Back to Russia.”  Placed there on March 21st, the petition gathered over 10,000 signatures in three days.  At this writing (March 25th), it has 24,129, almost a quarter of the way to the 100,000 required for an obligatory response from the White House.  As reported in this blog at the time, this petition site was the forum for a raft of declarations of independence from the U.S. following the reelection of Barack Obama in 2012.  Not surprisingly, most of those were from the former Confederate States of America, but all states were represented (plus the Republic of Molossia and the State of Jefferson), and only Texas’s petition reached 100,000.  (Obama’s answer: fuhgeddaboudit.)

The good old days—at least according to 24,129 Alaskans
It is hard to know what to make of the “back to Russia” petition.  The petitions are posted anonymously, as are the signatures, but the location of the originating computer is recorded, and this one was posted by someone in Anchorage.  That doesn’t mean he or she is an American citizen.  In fact, this petition’s tortured syntax can well be imagined as that of a Russian with partial knowledge of English.  It reads: “Groups Siberian russians crossed the Isthmus (now the Bering Strait) 16-10 thousand years ago.  Russian began to settle on the Arctic coast, Aleuts inhabited the Aleutian Archipelago.  First visited Alaska August 21, 1732, members of the team boat St. Gabriel under the surveyor Gvozdev and assistant navigator I. Fedorov during the expedition Shestakov and DI Pavlutski 1729-1735 years.  Vote for secession of Alaska from the United States and joining Russia.”  Although it is approximately as coherent and sound as Putin’s rationale for invading Crimea, it is difficult to know if this is a Russian or American attempting a parody of the Crimean situation or if it is the work of a Russian provocateur trying to stir up separatism in Alaska.  The latter sounds unlikely until one considers the off-kilter understanding that even powerful Russian officials seem to have of the West.  The Russian media are full of stories about all the separatist movements in Europe and America—as though the existence of a few drooling hillbillies with “Republic of Texas” bumper stickers on their bricked-up pick-ups somehow are evidence that Obama is a rank hypocrite for objecting to Crimean separatism.  Perhaps the petition is the work of a bored and slightly unhinged Russian agent’s idea of “stirring the pot.”

In 1826, Russian settlers and Tlingit Indians traded goods—and sometimes
gunfire—at Novo-Arkhangelsk, today called Sitka.  Could it happen again?
The frigid border area between Russia and America has been the focus of Russian nationalist nervousness before.  In 2011, as reported at the time in this blog, the online Pravda—which everyone but John McCain knows is not the Communist Party mouthpiece but a low-brow tabloid, a sort of Russian Weekly World News—ran a story reacting with alarm to little more than a possibly tongue-in-cheek Facebook campaign to turn Siberia over to the U.S.  (This idea had been advocated as long ago as 1861 by the Russian anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakhunin, who thought Siberia should be independent and should eventually ally itself with America so that revolutionary leftist ideas—in this case ideas so far left that they are practically far-right, and thus potentially appealing to modern Alaskans—can spread from Russia to North America.)  And in 2000, the Russian Orthodox archbishop for Siberia’s eastern tip sounded the alarm, claiming that Protestant missionaries among the local indigenous Chukchi people were an advance force for a planned American takeover of the vast Chukotka Autonomous Okrug.

Mikhail Bakunin, who was way more anarchist than Sarah Palin or Ron Paul,
had the opposite idea: absorb Siberia into the U.S.
Sardinia, the “Maritime Canton”?
Perhaps slightly more serious is a new proposal by separatists in the Autonomous Region of Sardinia to secede from the Italian Republic and join the Swiss Confederation as something called Canton Marittimo, i.e. “the Maritime Canton.”  The movement’s co-founder, Andrea Caruso, says, “People laugh when we say we should go to become part of Switzerland.  That’s to be expected.  But the madness does not lie in putting forward this kind of suggestion.  The madness lies in how things are now.”  This can be seen as a riposte to Sardinian separatists, who want to leave Italy but have, some say, unrealistic ideas about the costs of full independence.


A new separatist coalition in Sardinia called Sardinia Possible (Sardegna Possibile, or S.P.) made a disappointingly low showing in last month’s regional elections—instead of the projected 25%, they fell far short of the 10% threshold for keeping any seats at all in the regional parliament.  But why Switzerland?  Well, for one thing, Italian is already one of Switzerland’s official languages—though the Sardinian dialect of Italian is really a separate language, and is in some ways closer to Spanish than to the Italian spoken on the mainland.  For another, Switzerland is not in the E.U., which for many Sardinians nowadays is a plus, even if their anti-Brussels feeling does not stem from libertarianism or xenophobia as does that of separatists in northern Italy.


Additionally, there is possibly a sly joking reference in the idea to the fact that Swiss tourists are enamored of beaches, and a feeling during the summers that German-speakers already treat Mediterranean beaches as though they owned them.  A similar subtext underlay a tongue-in-cheek proposal two years ago by the island of Ikaria, in Greece, to be annexed by the Republic of Austria (as reported at the time in this blog).  Possibly not catching the joke, 83% of Austrians in a poll at the time thought annexing Ikaria was a good idea.  Similarly, a recent online poll of 4,000 German-speaking Swiss found 93% favored annexing Sardinia.  But it won’t happen.  Swiss are not only fiercely xenophobic—so xenophobic that even Italian-speaking Swiss are treated like dirty foreigners in Zurich and Bern—but enamored enough of their prosperity and stability that they would be loath to take on a dirt-poor territory, nearly as large as Switzerland itself, which is racked by organized crime and blood feuds.

Would she really trade that flag in for a square one?
Pipe dreams about Ikaria, Sardinia, and Alaska aside, there is nothing parodic or tongue-in-cheek about Putin’s imperialist ambitions.  Transnistria may very well be next.  Watch this space for developments.

Where will it end?



[You can read more about Transnistria, Alaska, Sardinia, the Donetsk People’s Republic, and other separatist movements both famous and obscure in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]




Transnistria’s foreign minister, Nina Shtanski, catches a Black Sea breeze.
Related articles from this blog:
“Serbia’s Albanians Turn Kosovo–Crimea Parallels on Their Head, Ask Tirana to Annex Preševo Valley” (March 2014)
“What Next after Crimea’s ‘Referendum’?” (March 2014)

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