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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Stamps And Statehood

Washington, 10 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Several territorial entities in the post-Soviet region have issued stamps to acquire one of the attributes of sovereignty and to earn money for their governments. But with a single exception, other governments have been unwilling to accept these stamps as legitimate.

Writing in the current issue of the "Collections" supplement of Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Russian philatelist Sergei Novikov reports that Russian postal officials, despite an official declaration to the contrary, have in fact accepted stamps issued by South Ossetia by allowing letters posted from there to be carried through the Russian postal system.

South Ossetia, which is part of Georgia, began issuing its own stamps in May 1994, following similar releases of stamps by Abkhazia, which is also part of Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, which is part of Azerbaijan, in June 1993, and preceding issues by Transdniestria, which is part of Moldova, Novikov notes. Chechnya has also issued its own stamps and postal letters at least since January 1997.

Except for the Chechen stamps, which were printed in Lithuania, those of these other entities were produced by Limpex, a Russian-Ukrainian printing firm in the United States and sold for a profit to collectors around the world. Indeed, one stamp printed by this firm for Abkhazia has become a minor classic in philatelists' circles.

It shows not Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, but rather American humorist Groucho Marx and Beatles' legend John Lennon.

Initially and in the absence of guidance from Moscow, Novikov said, the Russian postal authorities routinely processed letters bearing such stamps. But in 1995, the Russian Post Ministry announced that "in correspondence with the provisions of Paragraph Ten of the 1989 World Postal Convention, only postal administrations can issue postage stamps."

And Moscow thus directed its postal officials not to accept stamps from any of these entities because they are not internationally recognized as independent states. But interest in these stamps continues to grow among stamp collectors, and Novikov describes his efforts to find out about the stamps of South Ossetia and to test out whether Moscow's official prohibition is in fact being enforced.

During a visit to South Ossetia in August 1999, Novikov found that local postmasters at Tsinkvali's post office on Stalin Street did not have any Georgian stamps and offered to sell him Soviet postal envelopes issued in 1966.

Apparently, Novikov said, they had an excess supply of these and were only too willing to sell them. But he said that "the mix of styles and epochs on the envelopes from South Ossetia remind [him] of a mini-parody of Glazunov's 'Mystery of the 20th Century." Here, he said, were "revolutionary soldiers, workers and sailors" under the date 1917 combined with the double-headed eagle of tsarist times stamped on the top.

When Novikov asked for South Ossetian stamps, he was shown whole sheets of commemorative issues on the 100th anniversary of the Olympics and the 35th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's space flight and other stamps featuring pictures of poisonous mushrooms found in the area.

But he was told not to try to use these stamps for sending mail beyond the border of South Ossetia. Nonetheless, Novikov put them on his letter and dispatched it. And official decrees not withstanding, the letter with its stamps of an unrecognized state reached its addressee in Moscow.

"And so," Novikov noted, "the phantom-stamps passed through the post. And against my will it now occupies an honored place" in his collection.

Such a history has a more serious side, however, as Novikov himself concluded. Postal workers in South Ossetia, with its "pro-Russian orientation" have taken what he describes as "a justified decision" given the fact that "the postal authorities of Georgia, in whose borders the region is located de juri, are not providing its population with services."

And said Novikov, "I shall risk predicting that after the introduction of a Russia-Georgia visa regime (which as is well-known 'made special allowances' for the residents of the Republic of South Ossetia), this situation will remain as it has been for a long time to come."