Thursday, July 31, 2014

Will Transcarpathia Be the Next Donetsk—or Crimea?

Even as the actual territory controlled by the pro-Russian puppet states of the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the People’s Republic of Lugansk in eastern Ukraine shrinks under pressure from the advancing national Ukrainian military, the fictive super-state of which these rebel provinces are a part is sounding cocky and thinking of expanding.

Pro-Kremlin separatists call the light-blue-colored oblasts in this map a federated Novorossiya.
Transcarpathia (Zakarpattia) is at the far west.
The foreign ministry of the Union of People’s Republics of Novorossiya (that term meaning “New Russia”) (formerly the Federal State of Novorossiya)—the federation that includes the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (provinces) as well as six other Ukrainian oblasts where rebel republics exist only in name or not at all—agreed in a meeting in Yalta, Crimea, on July 6th and 7th, to accept as a member the so-called Republic of Podkarpatskaya Rus’.  A new pro-Russian organization called the People’s Front for the Liberation of Ukraine, Novorossiya, and Transcarpathian Rus’ released a manifesto at that conference.

Pyotr Getsko (left), “Chairman of Government Minister” (sic) of the Podkarpatskaya Rus’
“republic,” with Vladimir Rogov, chairman of the foreign-affairs committee
in the Novorossiya “parliament.”  At left is the current Transcarpathia oblast flag, also used by
separatists and nationalists, while the flag on the right is that of the Donetsk People’s Republic,
though the center blue stripe is so washed out that I first mistook it for the black, white, and red
tricolor of the former German Reich (and, briefly, the Third one).  Thanks to a reader who pointed
this out to me on the “Flags of the World (FOTW)” Facebook group.
Transcarpathian Rus’ the Ukrainian government calls Zakarpattia oblast, in its far west.  Rus’ refers to Kievan Rus’, the Medieval state based in Kyiv (Kiev, for Russians) which both Russian and Ukrainian nationalists (and Ruthenian ones; see below) regard as their ancestral state.  The Carpathia part refers to the mountain range that separates the province from the rest of Ukraine to the east.  Variously known as Podkarpatskaya, Subcarpathia, or Transcarpathia, the territory’s Pod- (meaning below) and Sub- prefixes refer to the territory’s position on the Carpathians’ foothills (as in the name of the adjacent voivodeship (province) of Poland, Podkarpacie), while Trans- refers to its position “across” or “on the other side of” the Carpathians—a point of view that implies (as with Transnistria) the perspective of Moscow or Kyiv, rather than Vienna or Budapest.  And indeed, Transcarpathia used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Kingdom of Hungary’s administration.  Slavic-speaking locals called Ruthenians, Ruthenes, or Rusyns tried to establish their own state when the Hapsburg empire was being dismantled at the end of the First World War, but had to settle for becoming the eastern tail of the new-born oblong composite state of Czechoslovakia.  When the Czech portion of Czechoslovakia succumbed to annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938, Slovakia and Ruthenia declared independence but were soon consumed by the Third Reich as well.  After the Second World War, the Yalta conference (not the one referred to above, but the other one, the big one) awarded Transcarpathia, as it was then known, to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.  Josef Stalin proceeded to stamp out Ruthenian cultural identity, declaring Rusyn a mere dialect of Ukrainian.  Ruthenians demanded an autonomous region like Crimea’s when Ukraine became independent in 1991 but did not get one.  A declaration of independence in 1993 as the Republic of Subcarpathian Rus’ got nowhere, nor did a similar declaration in 2008 as the Republic of Carpathian Ruthenia.  That second one was strongly suspected by the westward-leaning Ukrainian government of the time to be a result of Kremlin pot-stirring; this, of course, was around the time of Russia’s expansionist South Ossetia War in Georgia.

How today’s Ukraine was divvied up before the First World War.
Transcarpathia has not been a particular hotbed of anti-Kyiv feeling, not does it have particularly many ethnic Russians, compared to all the other oblasts Novorossiya claims.  But this blog did suggest the tiny  province, as long ago as early March, as a future point of conflict between pro-Kyiv and pro-Moscow forces, a point I reiterated in another article, in early April.  (See also an article in which I report on Russian analysts’ predictions for an independent Transcarpathia by 2035.)  In particular, two factors make this enclave an inviting morsel for omnivorous Novorossiyan map-drawers, and indirectly perhaps for the Kremlin itself.  The two factors are demographics and geography.

A Transcarpathian flag (current oblast flag) at this year’s Novorossiya summit in Yalta.
First, demography.  Transcarpathia is more than 80% ethnically Ukrainian and less than 3% ethnically Russian, with Rusyns (Ruthenians) making up less than 1%—only about 10,000 people.  But this belies a possibly larger number of families of Rusyn descent who assimilated to Ukrainian and Russian culture and language in the Stalin era and may only now be dusting off their old ethnic identities.  Russia may be intending to use supposed oppression of Rusyns as a pretext for intervention, much as it did to “protect” Abkhaz and Ossete “victims” in Georgia in 2008 and ethnic-Russians in Crimea earlier this year.  (Compare also the Russian-speaking political forces in Latvia which have piggybacked their cause onto the question of autonomy for the traditional Latgalian people who live in the ethnic-Russian-dominated areas of Latvia.)

Are Transcarpathian Ruthenians ready for their ethnic revitalization?
Or does Moscow just wish they were?
More to the point, 12% of Transcarpathia’s 1.25 million or so people are ethnic Magyars (Hungarians), making them the largest non-Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine in any single oblast.  (Ukraine has more ethnic Belarussians and Moldovans (Romanians) than Magyars when taken as a whole nationally—but these other groups are more dispersed (though 20% of the less populous and smaller Chernivtsy oblast nearby call themselves Moldovan or Romanian).)  Concern for the Transcarpathian Magyars’ “plight” has become an obsession of Jobbik, the militant far-right party of xenophobes and anti-Semites that took more than a fifth of the vote in Hungary’s elections this April, making it the second most powerful party in that country.  Jobbik bloviators have been pushing Budapest to annex Transcarpathia if necessary to “protect” ethnic kindred there.  A lot of the rhetoric focuses on the Ukrainian government’s revocation of minority languages’ official status after Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, was impeached in April.  Even though the successor government quickly reinstated those rights, the original revocation is still Exhibit A of those, like the Donetsk and Lugansk rebels, who claim the current Ukrainian government oppresses minorities.  The fact that the armband-wearing, goose-stepping thugs of Jobbik and the southeastern “people’s republics” are working from the same playbook helps put the lie to Moscow’s lunatic assertion that it is the “junta” in Kyiv who are the right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis.

The far-right group Jobbik is the second-largest political party in Hungary.
Now to the geographic factor, which concerns central and western Europe’s dependence on Russia’s natural gas (hence the European Union’s toothless and half-hearted sanctions against Russia since the Ukrainian troubles began).  Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, would like to keep the gas flowing to Europe, but he would also like to be able to cut off the supply to Ukraine if necessary to bring it into line.  The trouble is the oil pipelines to western Europe for the most part run straight through Ukraine, and most of these go through tiny Transcarpathia in particular.  And Transcarpathia’s border with the Slovak Republic—an E.U. member-state friendly to Kyiv—is one of the few places where the pipelines could be used to send gas back into Ukraine as a way of making an end run around any plans by Putin to choke off Ukraine’s supply.

Could Putin or the Russian-speaking thugs in Ukraine make an actual grab for Transcarpathia?  Not likely.  They weren’t even able to turn independence declarations into “facts on the ground” in two other oblasts—Kharkiv and Odessa—where the demographics tilt toward Russians.  (The so-called Odessa Republic of Novorossiya declared with little effect in late April granted diplomatic recognition not only to the Kharkov, Lugansk, and Donetsk people’s republics but, a little mysteriously, to what its “foreign ministry” called the Carpathian Ruthenian People’s Republicas reported at the time in this blog.)  Those areas are firmly under Kyiv’s administration.  But many observers feel that Putin may not really want to annex any other chunks of Ukraine, that he would be happy to destabilize it and weaken its central government through agitation for federalism.  And an invasion and annexation of Transcarpathia is not entirely impossible either.  After all, a mere year ago anyone who predicting a Russian invasion of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk would have been laughed out of the room.  Ukraine’s war with Russia has not yet been won.  Not by a long shot.

The scene in Donetsk.  Could conflict spread to Transcarpathia as well?

[You can read more about these and many other separatist and new-nation 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 interview for more information on the book.]

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