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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When Borders Are Disputed

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Even those horrified by the carnage in the North Caucasus generally have accepted Moscow's argument that it has the right to use force in Chechnya to defend Russia's territorial integrity.

Indeed, many world leaders have prefaced criticism of what Russian forces are doing there by repeating that they recognize the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and thereby disclaiming any willingness to accept any change of its borders.

Sometimes they have done so because of Russia's nuclear status; sometimes, because they believe the Chechens have failed to qualify for a claim of self-determination; and sometimes, because they are convinced that Chechen independence could fragment Russia or other states.

But all these statements about the defense of territorial integrity and the inviolability of state borders fail to obscure a fundamental fact of international life: many borders around the world are in dispute, and in the past, many borders have been changed.

In the current issue of the U.S. journal "Foreign Policy," Paul Huth, a boundaries expert at the University of Michigan, is cited as having concluded that 52 of the 309 land borders between countries -- more than one in six -- are currently in dispute.

Of these, he says, some 40 -- or almost 80 percent of all those in dispute -- are among the countries which emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a pattern making this an especially key concern in that region.

According to Huth, the situation concerning national borders on the high seas is even worse. Of 425 maritime boundaries now extant, some 160 are in dispute. Many of these concern competing claims for islands, but others involve the delimitation of the sea itself.

But as Huth points out, the current number of disputes, while high, is not especially large by the standards of the past. If some new disputes have arisen because of the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, more than 80 others have been resolved since 1945.

And that finding in turn immediately calls attention to the various ways in which territorial disputes between countries have been resolved in the past, accords which might serve as models for the resolution of still-ongoing disputes.

First of all, many territorial disputes have been resolved by diplomatic measures with the countries involved concluding that making mutually agreed-upon adjustments is the best way to eliminate a problem among them.

Among the most notable recent examples of this type of resolution are those between Russia and the Central Asian countries, on the one hand, and China, on the other, as well as the one between the Russian Federation and Lithuania.

A second group of territorial disputes have moved toward resolution when a new country has emerged. That is what happened when Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, but it is important to note that the two countries have not yet been able to agree on their borders.

That situation is especially common in the post-Soviet states, where even eight years of independence has not resolved such claims -- be they over water areas as in the Caspian or the Baltic seas or about territory, as is the case among several pairs of countries in the region.

And yet a third category of territorial disputes has been resolved when the two sides decide, for reasons they deem broader and more important, not to continue to advance their respective claims in an active way.

The classical example of this kind of "resolution," if that is in fact the right word, concerns the dispute between the United States and Canada over the small Machias Seal Island. Both countries have long claimed that territory, but neither has pressed its case.

As long as the world is divided into nation states, border disputes among them are likely to be a fact of life. That pattern makes the management of such disputes a central task for the international community.

And for at least the same length of time, the governments of existing states are likely going to speak about territorial integrity and the inviolability of national borders -- even when many of them are engaged in territorial disputes with one another.