Structuring Ukraine’s phantom republics

Structuring Ukraine’s phantom republics

We must find ways of dealing creatively with the new States born from the break up of the Soviet Union: Abkazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Transnistra, Donetsk and Lugansk.

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By Rene Wadlow

11th May marks the anniversary of the referendum of the citizens in Eastern Ukraine to create the Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in 2014. For the government of Ukraine these are not republics but “occupied territories” – the occupant being Russia. The term “Phantom Republic” was coined to designate Abkhazia and South Ossetia once part of Georgia and Transnistria once part of Moldova. Some would add Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh, torn between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria are officially linked in the Community for Democracy and Human Rights of which one hears little. All these Phantom Republics are the result of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the failure of Georgia, Moldova and now Ukraine to develop adequate constitutional structures of decentralization or con-federalism which take into consideration cultural, ethnic and economic realities.

The phantom republics are places that field military forces, hold occasional elections, try to develop a local economy but inhabit a netherworld of de facto existence without international legitimacy. There is a tendency among many governments to discourage “separatist” movements since many States have areas that might wish to create independent States – thus the reluctance of many European governments – led by Spain – to recognize Kosovo (or Kosova depending on who is writing).

I had been involved in August 1992 at the United Nations in Geneva in giving some advice on how U.N. bodies operate to official representatives of Abkhazia, the Chechen Republic and the Northern Caucasus Confederation (also known as the Federation of Little Mountain Peoples) just as Georgian troops were starting to occupy Abkhazia. At the time, I had no idea of where Abkhazia or Chechenia were. Fortunately, I was quickly put in contact with B.G. Hewitt, Reader in Caucasian Languages at London University and later author of the useful Discordant Neighbors. [1]

Since then, I have been advocating (without success) forms of con-federation that allow for large local autonomy while not creating separate States. Given the lack of progress of official negotiations, I have also pushed for Track II efforts to try to find common interests on which official progress could be later made. Track II efforts to be effective have to ensure that “bottom-up” initiatives reach the “top” – those decision-makers who may be able to reduce tensions and conflicts. However, it is not always clear who is the real “top” and what their ability to act is in reality.

Leaders of phantom republics stress the right to national self-determination which the States from which they claim independence highlight the need for stable borders. Both the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are more favorable to “reintegration” of the separatist areas than of strengthening or even recognizing Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnestria. Yet reintegration is most unlikely, though forms of cooperation seem possible.

The case of Donetsk and Lugansk is made even more complex by the Russian annexation of what had been the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, then part of Ukraine. The European Union and the United States did not recognize the validity of the referendum of 16 March 2014 in Crimea favorable to its union (or reunion) with Russia. The EU and the USA have put into place a set of economic sanctions on Russia which are still in place. The sanctions have weakened the Russian economy without visibly modifying policy.

The Donetsk and Lugansk Republics are also unlikely to be reintegrated into Ukraine. They are increasingly structuring themselves as “independent States” although heavily dependent on Russian economic, cultural and political support. Some 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting, at least twice that number wounded. Many people have been displaced, many going to Ukraine, others to Russia. The economy, mostly based on coal mines, and some heavy industry from Soviet times, is fragile. The industrial base is outdated, and there are no funds to modernize. There are few appropriate jobs for the educated youth, many of whom leave the area. Many experienced civil servants have also left.

Given the heat of the political passions and the degree of continuing violence, it is difficult to see how to move from the current increasingly structured phantom republics to a reunified but highly decentralized Ukraine. Our time will be remembered as the strange epoch during which the economic, ecological and scientific interdependence of our planet burst into the open at the precise moment when the political divisions of the world into States was being completed. The world, therefore, finds itself in the throes of two contradictory currents: a deep-seated tidal wave toward the unity of humanity and the final carving out of the planet into new States such as South Sudan. Thus we must find ways of dealing creatively with the new States born from the break up of the Soviet Union: Abkazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Transnistra, Donetsk and Lugansk.

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.


  1. George Hewitt. Discordant Neighbours: A Reassessment of the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-South Ossetian Conflicts (Leiden: Brill, 2013, 389pp.)

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