From Baltics to Balkans, question of belonging looms large

Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, has to navigate difficult diplomatic waters with Russia, the European Union, the United States, at the same time that he deals with separatists and militias in the eastern provinces of the country.

The world’s attention and ire remain directed, rightly so, at Vladimir Putin, his illegitimate annexation of Crimea and his efforts to de-stabilize two Eastern districts of Ukraine. It remains to be seen whether Putin will relent to Western pressure, the degree to which EU-mediated talks will work, and how the pressure for more sanctions builds over the next month.

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There is little question that Putin has sent shock waves through a system of European security based for over 50 years on the preservation of territorial integrity in a highly diverse, multi-ethnic region.

President Obama’s announcement of additional military aid to NATO nations represents an essential if not fully sufficient response. Reinforcing the security of states bordering Russia by strengthening the deterrent effect of NATO and its Article 5 (an attack on one is an attack on all) signals the potential cost of further aggression.

Yet, as we have seen in Ukraine, internal strife caused by Russian minorities can undermine fragile societies. Our response has to take into account the internal situation related to minorities throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union.

After the dissolution of the USSR in 1989 Russian-speaking civil servants and military personnel were spread throughout the newly independent republics. In the early days, USAID built thousands of housing units in Russia to lure back the military. This and other incentives succeeded in bringing back Russian troops, but nothing similar was offered to Russian civilians. Today ethnic Russians struggle to be fully assimilated in countries where their parents and grandparents came decades ago. They have lived in these independent states for at least two generations. Yet, they do not feel like full citizens and their passports often stamped “alien.”   

Two years ago Estonia, where over 1/5th of the population is Russian, experienced mass demonstrations by the Russian population. They were demanding full citizenship, additional resources for their community and a change to their second-class status. The Estonian government responded up to a point and more budgetary resources were devoted to the Russian community. The laws are changing slowly to recognize non-citizens but organizations like Amnesty International continue to report each year on the poor treatment of ethnic Russians including discrimination and denial of employment in the public sector.

International rules exist to address minority rights. The Organization of European Security and Cooperation (OSCE) agreement is based on a broad definition of security. It requires all signatories to respect the rights of its citizens. The fact that Russia fails to fulfill this global obligation should not be an excuse for others to discriminate against their Russian populations.  

Poroshenko has promised to reach out to the Russian minority and to give them and their language full status under Ukrainian law. A proposed but still-to-be-defined decentralized governance system presumably will give more autonomy to the regional governments. Ukraine is suffering from Russian aggression and an implosion of a political system that thrived on conspicuous corruption. Now, forced by circumstance to reform its system, it has been forced not only to end corruption but also to acknowledge the diversity of its citizenry.

Waiting for a crisis to address ethnic divides is a losing proposition. There is never an easy time to tackle the political challenge of eliminating discriminatory practices and the wounds become deep as we’ve seen in places like the former Yugoslavia where people were classified according to language and nationality—relegating some to second class status. In Bosnia and Herzegovina recent protests are a reminder that ethnic divides still plague the country 20-plus years after The Dayton Accords. Thousands of Croat, Muslim, Bosniak and Serbs have demonstrated and occupied government buildings to express rage over unemployment, political paralysis and the issue of “citizenship” including how the government issues  ID numbers.  Bosnia-Herzegovina still has many segregated public schools. In some cases two schools operate under one roof with separate entrances for Catholic and Muslim students.

We now understand better the tactics Putin is prepared to use: intense nationalistic propaganda, infiltrations of agents and even annexation of territory. Ethnic Balkanization in the countries near Russia--even NATO countries-- could make a tense situation more volatile if the Russian government decides to exploit differences. We need to strongly, and publicly, urge all the regional governments to treat minorities fairly.

If we want borders respected, we need comprehensive strategies that include domestic policies that fully comply with human rights principles.  That means funding more cultural exchanges within regions, international programs that bridge divides, and political mediation if necessary between ethnic Russians and other groups.  Non-governmental organizations should help fund independent media and local messaging campaigns for traditional and social media around the theme of protecting minority rights.

Conflict 101 suggests that cultural dis-engagement breeds distrust. If Europe moves further away from being a peaceful and undivided continent, it will not be just because of Russia aggression, it will be because the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity have been ignored.

Atwood is chair of Global Policy at the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota and former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID.)  Sonenshine is former undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

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