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Former U.S.S.R.: Analysis From Washington--'Aggressive Secessionism' As A Threat

Washington, 8 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh Foreign Minister Kazymzhomart Tokayev warned the United Nations General Assembly on Friday that "aggressive secessionism" represents a growing threat to many countries in the former Soviet space and to others around the world.

While Tokayev did not name names, recent developments in the Russian Federation, Georgia, Ukraine, Central Asia and his native Kazakhstan as well as events in Afghanistan and Bosnia suggest that his warning, however disturbing, is a timely one.

In the Russian Federation, the Chechens continue to seek independence. Although there is now a fragile ceasefire, last week's Duma attacks on Russian national security chief Aleksandr Lebed for signing that accord suggest that the war, which has already claimed 100,000 lives, may resume sometime in the future.

In Georgia, President Eduard Shevardnadze on Monday demanded that Moscow either help bring his country's breakaway region of Abkhazia under Tbilisi's control or pull its troops out of the entire republic. Abkhazia sought to secede from Georgia in 1993 after more than a year of bloody fighting with the assistance of Russian forces.

The Russian government describes its presence in Abkhazia today as a peacekeeping mission, but Shevardnadze's words show that few Georgians see the Russian troops there in that way. Indeed, in his weekly radio address, the Georgian president pointedly noted that "some people in Moscow" still cannot accept the fact that Georgia is an independent country.

In Ukraine, a congress of ethnic Russians living in Crimea adopted a resolution on Saturday calling for a union of the Russian Federation, Belarus and Ukraine. Ostensibly a call for a single, larger country, this demand is in fact only the latest form of secessionism by that Ukrainian region's Russians. And as such, it reopens a secessionist drive that had been on hold during most of the Chechen war.

And in Central Asia, there are now two very different secessionist threats. On the one hand, the victory of the Taliban militia in Afghanistan has sent shockwaves through the ethnically-divided countries of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, each of which has significant numbers of the other's co-ethnics.

On the other, as Tokayev's speech suggests, Kazakhstan is clearly worried about the possibility that the country's ethnic Russians, who constitute more than one-third of the population and who are concentrated in the country's northern regions, may try to secede. Indeed, a number of Russians both in Kazakhstan and in Moscow have suggested such a possibility in recent months.

And further afield are the obvious cases of Afghanistan and Bosnia, both of which remain juridically united but practically divided among warring ethnic groups.

Taken together, these cases make Tokayev's warning convincing, especially to the many weak states threatened by internal ethnic divisions and by larger neighbors interested in exploiting their ethnic divisions.

And the international community of states by definition has an interest in maintaining existing states.

But one aspect of the Kazakh foreign minister's current argument now may not persuade everyone or even reduce the challenges that he has pointed to.

That is because when Tokayev suggests that the right of self-determination has been fully "realized" and that any additional efforts by still submerged communities will only "create new trouble spots and lead to more bloodshed," he is perhaps unwittingly repeating the very arguments that Moscow used against his own people when they sought independence only five years ago.