Which breakaway state will be the next South Ossetia?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 21 2008 6:55 AM

Breaking Away

Looking for the next South Ossetia.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Late one Saturday night last month, I found myself in a Greenland bar conversing with an extremely drunken member of the Royal Danish Navy. When he found out I was American, he lurched over and shared his belief that the United States was preparing to invade and annex Greenland, which currently belongs to Denmark, though it is peacefully moving toward independence. Washington, he explained, was worried about its key missile-defense radar site in far northern Greenland and didn't trust politicians in Denmark or Greenland to guarantee continued American access.

"Of course, we know that the Danish military is a lot weaker than the U.S. So you know who we'll have to call? Russia. They're the only military that can stand up to the U.S. Think about it," he said leaning into me, his breath reeking of Tuborg. "Think about it." I thought about it, and it seemed like a pretty improbable scenario. But back then, so did the return of the Cold War over South Ossetia, a tiny separatist enclave in Georgia that almost no one had heard of. After the events of the last two weeks, it behooves us to take another look at those obscure regions around the world that could also explode into global conflicts. Here's a list—in no particular order—of some of the most dicey:

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Nagorno-Karabakh: The former Soviet republics of the South Caucasus—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—lead the world in separatist enclaves per square mile. Georgia has South Ossetia and Abkhazia and only regained control of Adjara, on the Turkish border, in 2004.

Nagorno-Karabakh (population 192,000, capital Stepanakaert) is legally part of Azerbaijan, but in the early 1990s, ethnic Armenians wrested control of the territory in a bloody war and now retain de facto power, propped up by funds from Armenia. No one recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as a country, and Azerbaijan—which has been getting rich on oil and natural gas and now has a military budget three times the size of Armenia's—sees the loss of its territory as a national humiliation and often acts like it's spoiling for a fight. In March 2008, after a skirmish between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, Azerbaijan's president said, "We are buying military equipment, aircraft, ammunition, to be ready to liberate our territories. Our military budget has reached $1.3 billion and will continue to grow. Force is the decisive factor."

A resumption of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh could draw in the United States and Europe, which have significant petroleum interests in Azerbaijan: A Western consortium led by British Petroleum developed the rich oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Azerbaijan. The presence of Western oil companies rankles Russia, which sees the Caspian as its sphere of influence. Further, the gas and oil are shipped through Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe via pipelines that were built—with strong backing from the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations—for the exclusive purpose of bypassing Russia.

Armenia, on the other hand, has been an ally of Russia for centuries, and today the Armenian military relies heavily on aid from Moscow. Russia—rightly—sees the U.S.-backed pipeline as an attempt to weaken its thriving oil and gas business and would certainly have an interest in disrupting it.

Transdniestria: This thin slice of Moldova (population 550,000 out of a total of 4.1 million, capital Tiraspol) broke away during the chaotic last days of the Soviet Union and is home to a majority of ethnic Russians. Moldovans, who are closely related to neighboring Romanians, form a majority in Moldova proper. As in South Ossetia, Russia uses Transdniestria to retain a little bit of its empire as an outpost of authoritarianism and anti-Western politics. Transdniestria is home, for example, to the Che Guevara School of Political Leadership, which the Economist calls "a youth movement that aims to funnel Transdniestria's young people into constructive activities such as NATO-baiting." The territory hosts about 1,200 Russian troops.

Meanwhile, Moldova has been inching closer to the West, expressing an interest in joining NATO and sending a handful of troops to Iraq. The International Crisis Group sniffs that "Moldova's relatively new commitment to a Western-oriented policy is opportunistic rather than deep-rooted," but you can make the same argument for Georgia, and that didn't stop it from becoming Washington's best friend in the former Soviet Union. The conflict in Transdniestria has been frozen for some time, and there's not much at stake in Moldova, but if the situation heated up, the United States and Russia would definitely take opposing sides, and in the post-South Ossetia world, who knows?

Xinjiang and Tibet: Both these provinces on China's western border (population 19.6 million and 2.6 million, capitals Urumqi and Lhasa, respectively) are home to ethnic minorities who are becoming increasingly resentful of Beijing's attempts to "develop" them by moving in ethnic Han Chinese and suppressing separatist political activity.

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