Russia's Fictional Sovereignties

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A year ago, tiny Georgia tried to regain control over its breakaway enclave of South Ossetia. The Russians quickly expelled the Georgian army, to almost universal opprobrium from the West. South Ossetia (with a pre-war population of 70,000) and Abkhazia (about 180,000 people) promptly declared their "independence." They created two new fictional sovereignties and acquired in the process all the official trappings of statehood: national heroes, colorful uniforms, anthems, flags, frontier posts, military forces, presidents, parliaments and, most important, new opportunities for smuggling and corruption.

So far, only Russia and Nicaragua recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian recognition was widely seen as retaliation for Western recognition of Kosovo (population 2 million), the breakaway province of Serbia, earlier last year.

About 1,500 kilometers to the west of Georgia is Moldova (population 3.5 million), which lies between Romania and Ukraine. Annexed by tsarist Russia in 1812, joined to Romania in 1918 and re-annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, it seized its independence from Moscow in 1991. It is a member of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the World Trade Organization, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and various other prestigious international bodies.

Moldova's main claim to fame is King Stephen the Great, who defeated the Ottomans in a great 15th-century battle. It also produces rather good wine. To get to Moldova from Odessa, Ukraine, you must drive through the self-proclaimed "republic" of Transdnestr (population 700,000), a sliver of land on the north shore of the Dnestr River. A clump of peeling buildings, rusting wire and a filthy lavatory mark the start of Transdnestr sovereignty.

Progress through this squalid but well-manned frontier post involved the stamping of lots of documents and a liberal scattering of bribes, a process repeated on leaving the republic. A shadowy mafia-style company called Sheriff owns most of the economy. It is said to have close links to the president and his family. It has built a giant football stadium in the capital, Tiraspol, which seems to be some kind of symbol of Transdnestr virility. Unrecognized by the rest of the world, Transdnestr "independence" is secured by a Russian garrison.

The world's population is about 6 billion. Suppose that it was divided into independent political units of 2 million people each. That would mean 3,000 microstates, each refusing to accept any sovereignty superior to its own. Of course, this would be a recipe for global anarchy.

Yet the trend over the past century has been toward a continuous increase in the number of small states, mainly owing to nationalist revolts against multinational empires. The latest bout of state creation followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Even long-established states like Britain now have strong separatist movements. In its political life, the world has been regressing to a form of tribalism, even as its economic life has become increasingly globalized.

The equation of state with nation is the arch-heresy of our time. A "nation" is, at root, an ethnic and linguistic - occasionally religious - entity. Since it is through language and liturgy that culture is transmitted, each nation will have its own distinctive cultural history, available for use and misuse, invention and discovery.

The state, however, is a political construction designed to keep the peace in an economically viable territory. There are simply too many "nations" - actual or potential - to form the basis of a world system of states, not least because so many of them, having been jumbled up for centuries, cannot now be disentangled.

Microstates can never be made small enough to satisfy their advocates' exalted standards of cultural integrity. So the unraveling of multinational states is a false path. The way forward lies in democratic forms of federalism, which can preserve sufficient central authority for the purposes of statehood, while respecting local and regional cultures.

Today's upsurge of micronationalism is not just a consequence of the revolt against empires, it is also a revolt against globalization. There is widespread resistance to the idea that the chief function of modern states is to slot their peoples into a global market dominated by the imperatives of efficiency and cheapness, heedless of the damage to noneconomic activities. This feeling is strengthened when the global economy turns out to be a global casino. National assertion is a way of combating impersonal forces and remote authorities.

Globalization promises too much in terms of welfare gains, particularly to developing countries, to be abandoned. But the lesson from the current crisis is that we will have to develop styles of global economic governance to manage, regulate and mitigate the creative but often disruptive forces unleashed by the global market. In the absence of an actual world government, this can be done only through cooperation among states. The fewer "sovereigns" there are, the easier it will be to secure the necessary cooperation.

The Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944, which laid the institutional foundation for the post-World War II economy, was made possible because the United States and Britain called the shots. When objections were raised to Cuba being put on the drafting committee, Harry Dexter White, the U.S. representative, remarked that Cuba's function was to provide cigars.

Such a cavalier attitude to the demands of lesser powers to be heard is no longer possible. But all this means is that the facades will have to be more subtle and the fictions more elaborate. Provided we do not deceive ourselves about where real power lies, let presidents and parliaments be three a penny if that is what makes people feel good about themselves.

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