Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Monday, 8 September 2008 12:53 UK

Russia: Potential flashpoints

GeorgiaChechnyaCrimeaNagorno KarabakhTrans-DniesterBaltic StatesKuril Islands

By Steven Eke
BBC Russian affairs analyst

The Russia-Georgia conflict has focused attention on other potential flashpoints that have their origin in the Soviet era, which ended in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In origin and cause, the disputes are all very different. But the recognition of Kosovo's independence by many western nations earlier this year has had - or will now have - a major impact on them.

If Moscow has decided, contrary to its previous policy, that the right of national self-determination is to take precedence over maintaining the post-Cold War world's borders, Serbia and Georgia might not be the only two countries to see their borders forcibly redrawn.

Often overlooked abroad, the Soviet collapse left many millions of ethnic Russians living as ethnic minorities in foreign states. By conferring upon them Russian citizenship, simply by handing out Russian passports, Moscow has in recent years discovered that it has a powerful tool to use in its arguments against territorial concessions.

Click on the map above to find out more about each flashpoint.

Mikhail Saakashvili
Mikhail Saakashvili was elected Georgian president in January 2004

The recent events in South Ossetia and Abkhazia have led to the most serious crisis in Russia's relationship with the West since the Cold War. Many western leaders have accused Russia of aggression in its response to the Georgian bombardment of South Ossetia. Russia angrily denies this, insisting it was using the West's own notion of humanitarian intervention.

Even before the recent conflict, relations between Russia and Georgia's strongly pro-western leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, were strongly antagonistic. Effectively, Russia's recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence means the forced redrawing of Georgia's international borders. Moscow insists this is no different from how many western nations recognised Kosovo's independence.

Amid the controversy, the background to the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflicts is often overlooked.

South Ossetia - A strong movement in favour of autonomy developed in 1988. Conflict itself was provoked by the decision of the first democratically elected Georgian president, the radical nationalist, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, to re-impose central control by force. Serious inter-ethnic clashes, including the looting and burning of settlements ensued.

Russia forced a ceasefire in 1992, with Georgia and South Ossetia pledging not to attack each other. Importantly, Georgia remained in control of significant parts of the territory. While Georgia re-armed and re-trained its armed forces in recent years with western assistance, Russia reinforced its presence in South Ossetia at the level of administrators, as well as military and intelligence services. Moscow says South Ossetia will become part of Russia.

Abkhazia - Tensions grew during the Soviet period, as Abkhazia's ethnic Georgian minority rapidly grew. In March 1989, the Abkhaz demanded autonomy. The Georgian nationalists in power in Tbilisi were not willing to countenance this, and the first clashes broke out - between Abkhaz and Georgian students. They escalated into much larger inter-ethnic clashes by summer of the same year.

Full-scale war began only some three years later, after the Soviet Union's collapse. Separatist Abkhaz fighters, aided by Russian regular troops and volunteers from across the North Caucasus, captured the capital, Sukhumi, in September 1993. While ethnic cleansing was committed by both sides, the scale of expulsions of ethnic Georgians was enormous: an estimated 250,000 of them fled or were driven out of Abkhazia.

In both conflicts, separatists were aided by Russian regular forces and volunteers.

Russian troops attack Chechen positions, 1.12.99
Russian troops attack Chechen positions near Grozny, 1999.

Secessionist movements developed in this region of Russia from 1991. They were strongly resisted by Moscow, where officials warned that Chechen independence would spark off a domino effect across other regions inhabited by non-Russian peoples. Moscow's implacable opposition to Chechen independence was also based on the region's importance as a centre of the oil industry.

The first Chechen war, fought between 1994-1996, was disastrous. It left Chechnya's capital, Grozny, and its other major cities, in ruins. Many tens of thousands of people died in a war that ultimately ended in defeat for Russia. Furthermore, Russia's conduct drew widespread international condemnation.

The region enjoyed a period of lawless quasi-independence between 1996 and 1999. During this time, an unknown but - it is thought - significant, number of Islamist fighters from Afghanistan and the Middle East arrived in the territory. What began as a campaign for national independence partly metamorphosed in character, becoming associated closely with global jihad.

In explaining his decision to crush the region by force once and for all, Vladimir Putin used the same vocabulary and notions later heard in the West's "war on terror". The immediate justification was the series of apartment bombings in Russian cities; debate still rages over just who - Chechens, or rogue elements in the Russian security service - was behind them.

The second war, which Vladimir Putin launched in December 1999, was fought in a different way, mainly by professional troops. Their behaviour was predictably ruthless. Grozny was re-taken within months; the rebel movement was decapitated and splintered. The second war underpinned Vladimir Putin's reputation, and his enduring popularity in Russia.

Russian policy since the end of the second Chechen war has been to invest large sums of reconstruction money, and to hand over control of the territory to one, chosen clan - the Kadyrov. The current undisputed ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, is the son of the first president Moscow installed - Akhmad Kadyrov, assassinated in a stadium bombing in 2004. Kadyrov Junior runs Chechnya as a personal fiefdom, using a large armed militia accused by human rights groups of serious abuses. Reconstruction of the major Chechen towns is proceeding successfully, although the wider North Caucasus (especially Dagestan and Ingushetia) remains plagued by poverty and instability.

Many western observers continue to condemn the brutality that characterised the two wars. However, from the Russian perspective, a gangster-ridden, armed rebel movement, wrapped up in the twisted, violent mindset of extremist Islam, threatening the whole of the south of Russia (and beyond), has been crushed forever.

Azeri planes in formation
Azeri forces take part in a military parade in 2008 - their first since 1992

This verdant mountain territory, known in Armenian as "Artsakh", lies well inside the internationally recognised borders of Azerbaijan. At the end of 1991, its majority Armenian population voted for an independent state in a referendum boycotted by the minority Azeris. Various Soviet proposals, which would have provided wide autonomy, but kept Karabakh inside the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan, had been rejected.

A full-scale war ensued, in which the Karabakh Armenian fighters received support from both Armenia itself and Russia. Again, a vicious conflict ensued, involving ethnic cleansing, massacres of civilians, and the destruction of historical monuments and property on a vast scale. It led to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeri refugees fleeing, or being forced out of Karabakh, into Azerbaijan proper.

Armenian forces took control of not only the capital, Stepanakert, but also a significant part of the surrounding territory. To this day, approximately one-seventh of Azeri territory remains illegally occupied by Karabakh- Armenian forces. Access to Karabakh is now physically possible only via Armenia and the Lachin Corridor, part of Azeri territory captured during the war. A new highway linking Karabakh with Armenia has been built using donations from the large Armenian diaspora in the West.

Peace talks between Armenian and Azeri leaders have been mediated for a number of years by the OSCE's Minsk Group. Non-governmental groups, also, have been closely involved in trying to build links between the two countries' peoples - especially the young on both sides. A Russian-mediated ceasefire was negotiated in 1994, but there is still no sign of an enduring political solution.

While not directly party to the inter-state negotiations, Karabakh's leadership insists the region must become an internationally-recognised republic. It maintains that it is not seeking incorporation of the territory into a "greater Armenia".

The region's self-declared independence remains unrecognised by any other state, including Armenia. However, economically, Karabakh is now closely integrated into Armenia. Moreover, the region's political elite has forged considerable inroads into Armenian politics, with both the current president, Serge Sargskyan, as well as his predecessor, Robert Kocharyan, hailing from Karabakh.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have built up their armed forces in the years since the conflict. There are frequent calls in Azerbaijan for Karabakh and the occupied territories to be retaken by force. The issue is exceptionally emotive: no Azeri leader has so far dared propose territorial concessions to his country.

Independence demonstration in 1991
Lithuanians march for independence in Vilnius in 1991

The roots of the current tensions between Russia and the Baltic States go back to the years immediately before the Second World War, particularly the signing of the 1939 non-aggression pact by the Soviet and Nazi foreign ministers, Molotov and Ribbentrop respectively. This pact carved Europe up into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence. It effectively surrendered Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, to the Soviet Union.

They were incorporated into the USSR by force in 1940, with Moscow installing puppet, communist rulers in each. The incorporation saw repression and mass expulsions of the native people. This was the major reason why some chose to side with Nazi Germany. This factor remains a severe irritant in Moscow's relations with the Baltic republics. In recent years, Russian officials have attempted to resurrect a near-Soviet historiography of WWII; they have described alternative interpretations of history, or attempts to question their own version, as "blasphemous".

Russification of the Baltic States began when Stalin was still alive. While the pace of Russification varied throughout the three states, by the end of the Soviet period, ethnic Russians constituted a third of Estonia's population and half of Latvia's (these proportions have declined slightly since then). Lithuania's Russian population was much smaller, around 10%.

Following independence, Latvia and Estonia imposed tough conditions on granting citizenship, especially with regard to competence in the national languages. Russia has consistently criticised these requirements as discriminatory; at times, the Council of Europe has supported Russia's complaints. In both countries, a large number of ethnic Russians remain without citizenship.

Lithuania adopted a very different policy, automatically conferring citizenship upon all its residents, irrespective of ethnicity or language, at the moment of independence. Many Lithuanians consider the present-day Russian inhabitants of the Baltic States to be the offspring of illegal occupiers.

Tensions in Estonia boiled over in April 2007, when the decision of the city authorities in the capital, Tallinn, to relocate a monument to Second World War-era Soviet soldiers sparked angry protests by young Russians. Estonia asserts that the protests were choreographed by extremist nationalist groups from Russia. It was also accompanied by a "cyber attack" on the crucial Estonian IT sector; Estonian officials said the attack originated in Russian state organisations.

Despite the allegations by Moscow of continuing anti-Russian discrimination, few ethnic Russians in the Baltic States have availed themselves of the generous benefits Moscow now offers to those wishing to relocate to Russia.

Flag-waving demonstrators in Tiraspol, 2006
Demonstrators march in favour of independence in Trans-Dniester

Trans-Dniester is a narrow strip of territory within the internationally recognized borders of the Republic of Moldova, along its eastern border with Ukraine. It is home to a large part of Moldova's heavy industry, including the country's largest steel plant. It fought a war for independence between March and July 1992 (the declaration of independence came considerably earlier, in September 1990). The development of secessionist movements in Trans-Dniester was the direct result of the rise of Moldovan nationalism at the end of the 1980s. Key events were the decision to make Moldovan the sole state language, and to swap from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, as well as occasional calls from the most radical Moldovan nationalist groups to expel the Russian and Ukrainian minorities.

What makes the situation in Trans-Dniester more complicated is that there is no clear-cut dispute between ethnic groups. The territory's population is in virtually equal measure (one-third) Moldovan, Ukrainian and Russian. The Russians are now the fastest growing section of the population.

As in Georgia, there is a large contingent of Russian "peacekeepers"; they have been in place since the 1992 ceasefire agreement. In October 1994, Russia and Moldova signed an agreement on the withdrawal of the peacekeepers within three years; the agreement was never implemented because the State Duma (Russia's parliament) refused to ratify it. Later, Moldova attempted to force a Russian withdrawal by having a clause inserted into a 1999 revision of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. It took nearly five years before Russia ratified the amendments.

Since then, Moscow has withdrawn the very minimum amount of weaponry required under the terms of the amendments. The Moldovan government continues to describe the presence of the Russian peacekeepers as "a foreign military occupation".

A recent referendum held in Trans-Dniester asked the population whether they wanted to remain "independent and in free association" with Russia - or become part of Moldova. More than 97% voted for the former. The territory is ruled by a strong-man leader (and ethnic Russian) Igor Smirnov, much criticised by human rights groups for his treatment of political opponents and the media.

Black Sea fleet based in Crimea
The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based in Crimea

Crimea is an autonomous republic of Ukraine, located in the south of the country on the Black Sea. The territory has changed hands many times over the centuries, most significantly in recent times in 1954, when the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, transferred it from the jurisdiction of the Russian republics (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

When Ukraine gained independence at the end of 1991, Crimea was essentially Russian - culturally, linguistically, and in terms of its majority population. The current population is roughly 60% Russian, 25% Ukrainian (Crimean Tartars, who were expelled to Central Asia by Stalin, have returned en masse since Ukrainian independence. There are severe tensions over property restitution rights and issues.) Complicating the picture even more was the status of the port of Sevastopol - this was, and remains, the home of Russia's Black Sea naval fleet.

An inter-state agreement between Ukraine and Russia, signed in 1997, provided Ukraine with Russian recognition of its post-Soviet borders, as well as sovereignty over Crimea. It helped end separatism among the ethnic Russian population - until recent apparent attempts by Russia to reinvigorate it. A separate agreement guaranteed Russia a 20-year lease on the Sevastopol facilities.

Amid recent tensions over the policies of Ukraine's pro-western leaders, Moscow has suggested it might go as far as to unilaterally abrogate this treaty. The arrival of Nato warships for naval exercises last year caused anti-western protests (staged mainly by the Communist Party); the exercises were quietly abandoned as a result.

Regular calls are now heard from Russian nationalist politicians, to the effect that Moscow should "seize Crimea". Some have publicly expressed doubts about the legality of Nikita Khrushchev's decision to transfer the region to Kiev's control. Furthermore, there is growing anecdotal evidence that Russian officials have been quietly distributing Russian passports to Crimea's ethnic Russians. This is the same method Moscow used to proclaim the populations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as its "own" - they carry Russian passports, ergo they are Russian citizens entitled to Moscow's protection.

Ukraine says Russia must ensure its navy is removed from Crimea by the 2017 deadline, and has suggested it should pay more for use of the port in the meantime. During the recent crisis in South Ossetia, the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yushchenko, imposed controls on the arrival and departure of Russian naval vessels.

Map of Kuril Islands

This Pacific Ocean archipelago is the site of Russia's longest-running territorial dispute with another state (Japan). Stretching more than 700 miles from the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido to the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula, there are more than 50 islands in total.

Beautiful, largely unspoiled, and home to an astounding array of unusual animals, birds and plants, the archipelago's climate is often severe. Fishing remains the mainstay of the local economy, while living conditions, even on the largest, inhabited islands, are wretched for many, despite recent projects to modernise local infrastructure (especially airports and energy generation).

Russian expansionism into the Kuril Islands began in the early 18th century. Control switched between the Russian and Japanese Empires several times, until the Soviet Union finally asserted dominance by force at the end of the Second World War. Japan maintains a territorial claim to four of the southernmost islands (Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and the Khabomai Rocks). Collectively, these four sites in Japan are known as the "northernmost territories".

To this day, Russia and Japan have been unable to conclude a peace treaty, formally ending the hostilities of the Second World War, due to the dispute over sovereignty over the Kuril Islands.

In the early post-Soviet years, Russia indicated that it might be willing to negotiate away Shikotan and Khabomai (but not the other two islands claimed by Japan). This position has since hardened, and negotiations over recent years have shown no sign of progress.

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