Staunton, April 4 – Organizers have collected some 1500 signatures on an Internet petition calling for a referendum on the transfer of part of Russia’s Smolensk Region to neighboring Belarus, a step they say would correct an “historic injustice” because that area belonged to Belarus before World War II and one that echoes what Vladimir Putin did in Crimea.
The effort has attracted some media attention in the area and in Europe, but it is unlikely to go very far. (For a survey of this coverage, see news.ru.) Nonetheless, it is important because it highlights three underlying realities of the current situation that bear watching.
First, Russia is not the only country on the territory of the former Soviet Union with co-ethnics living abroad or which has people who remember when the borders were different and territories now included in one country were part of another republic. Between 1921 and 1981, republic borders were changed some 200 times.
Belarus, which Stalin moved westward at the end of World War II, is only the clearest case, but all the borders among the former Soviet republics are problematic in terms of ethnicity and history. Until Putin’s Crimean Anschluss, all sides had more or less agreed that calling for the transfer of territory from one to another would open a Pandora’s box and therefore restrained themselves.
(Even the events in Georgia in August 2008 reflect that fact. Moscow helped Abkhazia and South Ossetia to move out of Georgia, but the Russian government did not take the next step of annexing them, even though that is what the South Ossetians wanted, although most Abkhazians did not.)
Second, in the Internet age, these issues can be inflamed quickly. People who have never thought much about co-ethnics abroad or about territories that used to be part of their republics can be prompted to think about them amazingly quickly, and their new sensibilities about these groups and lands can become a political force.
Three months ago, few Russians in the Russian Federation talked much about Crimea or about their co-ethnics there. But an intense propaganda barrage caused many to come to believe that ethnic Russians in Crimea were being oppressed and that the transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 was a crime requiring correction.
No other country in the region has the capacity to mobilize its population in this way as quickly, and none at present appears interested in doing so. But individuals and groups using the resources of the Internet can exacerbate the feelings of many and create challenges both for the country of which they are residents and for the one they wish to join.
Related to this, some governments may be only too happy to see such independent efforts take off. On the one hand, campaigns of this type are a reminder to other governments of the dangers of moving borders about. And on the other, governments can shut such things down and perhaps even get a certain amount of credit from those who oppose a change.
And third, any questioning of the borders of the former Soviet republics can quite possibly be used by those who argue as do many in the Putin regime that some of the post-Soviet countries are not effective states, that their borders can and quite possibly should be changed, but that this will only be possible if all these states are part of a single country centered on Moscow.
That is an argument which few would seem likely to accept, but it is one that the Putin regime quite possibly will exploit because it would distract attention from Moscow’s openly imperialistic policies by redirecting attention to what Vladimir Putin has called “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century,” the disintegration of the USSR.