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Divisions of Nationality and Ethnicity Complicate Russia's Recent Claim to a Sphere of Influence



For the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia intervened in one of its former republics when it sent its troops in August 2008 across its borders to crush the Georgian offensive against South Ossetia. Regardless of Western demands, Russians occupied large parts of Georgia and set a buffer zone around South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev justified those actions because of Moscow’s “privileged interests” in areas formerly in its domain. He said Russian foreign policy would be guided by this principle of special rights within its perceived “sphere of influence.”

So what exactly is Russia’s self-proclaimed “sphere of influence”? And what forces of ethnic separatism in the post-Soviet world abut that claim?

Paul Goble, an American analyst and writer with expertise on Russia, Eurasia, public diplomacy, and international broadcasting, is the editor of five volumes on ethnicity and religion in the former Soviet Union. Currently director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku, Goble has published more than 150 articles on ethnic and nationality problems, and he reads 15 of the separate languages used in the post-Soviet region.

Important Distinctions Regarding “Nationality”

Appearing on VOA’s Press Conference USA with co-hosts Judith Latham and Elez Biberaj, Goble presented some details about the Russian population. He notes that in 2002, the Russian Federation officially listed about 400 national and ethnic groups. Of those, ethnic Russians represented about 70 percent of the total population. Four years earlier, in the last Soviet census (which included all 15 former Soviet republics), Goble says the list of national and ethnic groups was nearly twice as large. The point, says Goble, is that the Russian word for “nationality” has several meanings – and uses. To ethnographers, nationality refers to an ethnic group with “some degree of self-consciousness.” Legally speaking, one is thought to be a member of a group because one’s parents were. But Goble says the Soviet definition of nationality was almost entirely driven by language.

Russia’s Perceived “Sphere” of Influence

Regarding President Medvedev’s concept of “sphere of influence,” Goble says the concept can be interpreted in different ways. In the view of the Russian president, he says, the first dimension is “territorial” and it includes the former Soviet republics, especially the 12 members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. But beyond that, Goble suggests that Mr. Medvedev wants to restore a 19th century concept of Russia’s “sphere of influence” – something that includes the former “Eastern bloc” of Europe as well as those countries that “neighbor the former Soviet space,” such as Afghanistan and Turkey. It would be a claim that no longer exists in the international legal system. It is also an assertion of power that U.S. foreign policy has rejected for some time.


A second meaning for what Medvedev calls a “privileged” sphere of influence refers to what Paul Goble defines as a “functional division” of the world – that is, those economic and military questions in which Russia believes it should be a full participant.

The Impact of Ethnicity on Russia’s Claim

…in Ukraine

Goble says there are several reasons why Russia’s move into Georgia is not likely to be repeated in Ukraine. First, he explains, Georgia is a small country with 5-6 million people whereas Ukraine is a state of nearly 50 million people. Second, Goble says the divisions within Ukraine are not nearly so deep as Moscow claims or as U.S. journalists based in Moscow report. He says while many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine are proud of their heritage, they do not want to be citizens of Russia because they feel they are “far better off in a Ukraine that is on its way to becoming a member of the EU.” A third reason, Goble says, is that Ukraine has a very clear constitutional prohibition against dual citizenship – something that would preclude a repetition in Ukraine of Russia’s ploy to insert itself on behalf of “Russian” citizens in Georgia’s breakaway regions who had just a month earlier been issued Russian passports.


By supporting separatism in Georgia, Goble says Moscow runs the risk of encouraging separatism within the Russian Federation itself. Goble says it could lead to two possible results – either a decay of central authority and an exodus of people in the Middle Volga region and in the Caucasus similar to the situation at the end of the Soviet Union, or a Russian government that becomes so repressive of its minorities that it produces explosions. Goble says Moscow risks not only losing the non-Russian population of the Caucasus, but also the predominantly ethnic Russian populations of Siberia and the far eastern region.

…in the Caucasus

In the south Caucasus, there are three very different countries in terms of their ethnic mix. Due to the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Azerbaijan is almost all Azerbaijani, although it is one-third Sunni Muslim and two-thirds Shi’a. Armenia, which had a significant Azeri minority, also has Assyrians and Kurds, but it is overwhelmingly a mono-ethnic state now. The real question for those two countries, Goble says, is the number of people who live abroad in “diaspora” communities. Georgia has five major ethnic minorities, two of which (Ossetians and Abkhaz) had autonomous republic status until Russia’s recent invasion -- Ajars in Ajaria (on the Black Sea), Azerbaijanis in the east, and Armenians in the south. Since independence in 1991, perhaps a million Georgians have been living in the Russian Federation.


Paul Goble says the north Caucasus is among the most ethnically complicated places on earth. In Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia, and other areas of the north Caucasus, there are at least 100 small ethnic groups that speak languages that are not mutually intelligible. And Goble says they have only three things in common – geographic isolation, their Islamic identity, and a historical pattern in which Moscow has “never controlled the north Caucasus until it controlled the south Caucasus.”

…in the Baltic States

Goble says as part of the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were occupied countries, but from the perspective of international law, not union republics. During the recent conflict in Georgia, the presidents of all three Baltic states– along with the presidents of Poland and Ukraine – flew to Tbilisi to express their support for the Georgians. They have also called for rapid NATO membership for Georgia.

Lithuania is overwhelmingly ethnic Lithuanian, and the second minority is not Russian but Polish. In Estonia, 68 percent is ethnically Estonian, and about 30 percent is ethnic Russian. In Latvia, about 50 percent is ethnic Latvian, 30 percent is ethnic Russian, and 15 percent is made up of Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and others. Goble says that over the years Moscow has tried to exploit the ethnic Russian minority in these countries because the Baltic republics did not offer citizenship to people who had been moved in by the occupying power, and consequently many of these people are without passports.

…in Central Asia

In Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, there is a quite different mix – Turkic peoples, Persians, other non-Russians, and ethnic Russians. In the 1920’s, when borders were drawn, most of these peoples spoke more than one language. Today, more important than the ethnic conflicts in Central Asia, are fights over water and food. To illustrate, within 12 to 15 months the Aral Sea will no longer exist, which Goble says, will lead to a health crisis in Central Asia that “we cannot imagine.”

…in Moldova

Moldova has ethnic ties to Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. Paul Goble suggests that the separatist region of Trans-Dniestria, on the Ukrainian border, may be the only place where the 1991 coup succeeded; that is, it is still Soviet. Furthermore, he says Moscow has used this “frozen conflict” primarily against Ukraine to gain leverage.

Another ethnic issue in Moldova involves the Gagauz, a people who speak a Turkic language, but are the “only group on earth” that ever voluntarily converted from Christianity to Islam – and then back to Orthodox Christianity. In addition, the Gagauz are a heavily armed population (thanks to Turkey) and have a constitutional right to choose independence.

…in the Slavic States

Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have their own ethnic tensions. Most important, Paul Goble says, is that Ukrainians are not Russians, and Byelorussians are not Russians. One of the huge mistakes, he argues, is that the West accepts the Russian version of reality in which there was a Russian nation from which Ukrainians and Byelorussians split. Ethnically they were established at about the same time, although Russia has had a state longer.

Ukraine wants to be part of the West. Although it will not be easy, Goble says, he thinks it will come about over time. And he predicts that Belarus will also move away from Russia because it is unlikely to be satisfied in the long run with the status of having six oblasts in the Russian Federation.

To listen to the full program click here

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