Although 15 years have passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian, European and, to a degree, international public are still undecided over the future of its most forlorn remnants - the breakaway republics of Nagorny Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transdnestr.
When the former Soviet republics proclaimed independence and joined the United Nations, nobody in that organization and outside it wondered whether the rights of the new members of international law were legitimate. It was at that time that Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan appeared on the political map as independent entities.
Those autonomous republics incorporated in the former Soviet republics that were dissatisfied with the process spoke up against it. The result was wars, which they won, but only de facto. Officially, they are breakaway, unrecognized states, a status they are desperately trying to shed.
The outcome of the Transdnestr referendum was predictable for the republic's population, Moldova, Russia, and many countries in Europe and America. More than 90% of the population confirmed their desire to continue building an independent state with a view to joining Russia. Unfortunately, little will change for them in practical terms.
Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, the European Union and the United States have tried, separately and jointly, to settle relations between the recognized Moldova and unrecognized Transdnestr. The latest idea provided for maximum autonomy of Transdnestr as part of Moldova, with its own parliament, interior offices and a kind of national guard. These Transdnestr institutions are to be preserved if Moldova joins the EU (hypothetically) and NATO (probably), or proclaims neutrality.
The possibility did not materialize, because of the actions of either Transdnestr or Moldova or Russia. It does not matter now who was to blame, because everyone is now waiting to see what will happen after the referendum.
It is much easier to predict what will not happen. The military conflict will not escalate, because Moldova will hardly want, or be able, to fight anyone now. No decision will be made to incorporate Transdnestr into Russia, because they do not have a common border, and neighboring Ukraine does not need additional pockets of instability on its border.
So why was the referendum held? The Transdnestr authorities want to create a powerful internal impetus for a new stage of their unrecognized existence. Besides, the referendum was expected to remind the world about the Transdnestr and other similar problems within the former Soviet borders, notably South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
These former autonomous republics of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic want to resolve their age-old problems. South Ossetians want to reunite formally and culturally with North Ossetians. Abkhazians are proclaiming to Russia and the rest of the world their unwillingness to be part of Georgia. The bloody clashes of 1991-1993 actually resulted in independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but the international community continues to consider them parts of Georgia, although belligerent and separatist ones.
South Ossetia has scheduled a referendum on its status for November 12. It can be marred by bloodshed, which is an unacceptable price for independence. The unstable Georgian government might proclaim the referendum illegitimate and plan a powerful lightning military strike to resolve the problem.
Meanwhile initiators of referendums hope that the population's will expressed in them will be respected by international organizations. The recent referendum in Montenegro resulted in a new state that became a UN member. A referendum in Kosovo is approaching, which may create another recognized state in the Balkans. The United States and the European Union, leading sponsors of the Kosovo peace process, do not conceal their interest in this outcome. At the same time, they refuse to support similar referendums in Transdnestr and South Ossetia.
Nagorny Karabakh somehow stands out among self-proclaimed republics. Unlike Abkhazia, Transdnestr, and South Ossetia, it has long been a separate issue on the international agenda due to active involvement of a UN member state, Armenia. But the Nagorny Karabakh issue strengthens the position of those who believe that we are witnessing another escalation of a very important problem in global politics, and theoretical and practical international law. When shall we be guided by the UN Charter's fundamental principle on a nation's right to self-identification and when do we abide by the 1975 Helsinki Declaration, which guarantees European borders from changing?
Since the UN was established in 1945, over 70 new countries have appeared in the world, or one sovereign member a year on average. Each time a candidate needed an influential sponsor to achieve international recognition. The Soviet Union used to be one during the de-colonization era. When its influence faded, the United States continued in this role. In fact, the Helsinki agreements have been violated many times since 1989, first in Yugoslavia, then in East Germany, and later in the Soviet Union. But the UN still recognized them as legitimate. Does it mean that the Montenegro and Kosovo scenario is in line with today's mainstream global policy and that Transdnestr, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and, perhaps, Nagorny Karabakh will be recognized?
This outcome is not at all certain. In the 1990s, national and territorial changes were accompanied by the collapse of the world's bipolar structure and supported the emerging unipolar world with America's hegemony. The reforms in the Balkans do not so much follow a scenario of the U.S., which fully dominated the world just five years ago, as they abide by the interests of the new international power center represented by the stronger EU. With Washington's consent, of course. So...
So the fate of true independence and recognition of Transdnestr and other territories around Russia will not be decided through referendums. It will depend on whether Russia becomes a real partner for the EU and the U.S., at least in Greater Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, in the near future. So far we have seen Moscow's powerful advance towards the heights of global politics. But there is still a long way to go. Russia has recovered a consultative vote with the right of veto. Neither the European Union nor the U.S. can settle the Kosovo issue or any other national and territorial problem without taking Moscow's opinion into account. But they are still unable to fully accept its views. So the best decision is not to make any unequivocal decisions.
The most important goal is to prevent a bloodshed. Moscow, Washington and Brussels agree on this. Will they be heard in Chisinau, Tiraspol, Tbilisi and Tskhinvali?