(This article is one part of the dossier 'Collective Memory in Europe'.)
In emulating conventional inter-state practices, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic regularly sends notes diplomatiques to its fellow governments in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and other contested territories of the post-Soviet space. Their communication reveals the historical events they cherish as their own version of collective memory – and their misguided interpretation thereof.
Quasi-professional statehood in the post-Soviet contested entities
Abkhazia, Donetsk, Lugansk, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Transnistria are often depicted as dysfunctional entities ridden by perennial conflicts and chaotic poverty. However, research by political scientists, sometimes based on direct fieldwork, call us to re-think such notions. They prefer to call these regions ‘contested states’ or ‘de facto states’, with an emphasis on the word state. This accentuation highlights that these territories (and most importantly, their inhabitants) do strive to obtain normalized political lives, sometimes even successfully, albeit the aim of internationally accepted statehood remains unfulfilled. In other words, separatist leaders and their administrations build ‘internal legitimacy’, i.e. domestic approval, in the absence of ‘external legitimacy’, i.e. international recognition (Caspersen, 2015; von Steinsdorff & Fruhstorfer, 2012).
Some of these entities have pursued sustained nation- and state-building efforts for many years. All of them have their own Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MFAs), and they communicate to each other professionally via diplomatic notes, a practice which emulates usual inter-state conventions. Their governments’ public diplomacy has set up official websites containing accessible archives of laws, state-sponsored news, or presidential speeches. One may note that while most of them use the neutral domain of .org, South Ossetia and Donetsk harbour their websites on a .su-domain – it may not be too hard to guess which political entity .su refers to.
These officially sanctioned online archives offer a treasury which is yet to be tapped by political scientists, lest the misleading notion of uncontrolled breakaway-territories prevails. A look at the published notes diplomatiques of the various MFAs can be indicative of their political mood. All around the world, diplomatic notes are used to congratulate to each other’s Independence Days, to send messages of condolence when a state leader passed away, or to generally issue a statement of political togetherness and respect on solemn occasions.
To whom does Donetsk send diplomatic notes?
The diplomatic notes dispatched by the post-Soviet contested states generate interesting insights about their cherished commemoration days and national events. A look, for instance, at the Donetsk People’s Republic’s Foreign Ministry telegrams can disclose the historical policy pursued. Given that “[h]istory as scholarly facts or remembered ones has always been used to legitimate or de-legitimate” (Mink 2008, 473), they reveal a pattern relating the commemorated events with legitimacy-building strategies.
From January 2016 to November 2017, one finds 41 diplomatic notes sent by Donetsk’s MFA, of which nine (22%) were sent to Russia, and the rest (74%) to fellow contested states or to a general public without a clear addressee. Among them, South Ossetia was the most preferred communication partner (36%), followed by Abkhazia (22%). Transnistria received two notes, while Nagorno-Karabakh and Lugansk People’s Republic only received one each.
The fact that Russia does not occupy the first place may seem stunning; many foreign policy analyses portray the post-Soviet contested states as solely reliant on Russia as their patron state (e.g. Kolstø, 2006). The numbers, however, show that they invest the majority of their foreign ministry capacities into external communication among themselves. Contrary to popular belief, only less than a fourth of their foreign policy resources are channelled into their relational bonds with Russia.
The content of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s diplomatic notes
More than half of Donetsk’s diplomatic notes (22 out of 41) contain birthday congratulations addressed at the other countries’ Foreign Ministers or Heads of states or governments. It is an exercise of pure relationship-management which indicates the perceived value of bilateral relations. Leaving the birthday notes aside, there remains a heap of diplomatic notes that explicitly deal with salient events of historic state-building efforts:
For instance, Donetsk cordially congratulated the Crimean people on the “Day of Reunification with Russia” on 18 March 2016.
In August 2017, Donetsk shared its joy with Abkhazia and South Ossetia on their “Day of Recognition by Russia”, respectively, noting that the republics have since proven “day after day” that they have become “full subject of international relations”.
And at another instance, Donetsk uttered “words of sincere participation” to South Ossetia on the “Day of Sorrow and Memory”, i.e. on 8 August 2017, to commemorate the “full-scale act of Georgian aggression” from the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. It adds that since the expulsion of the “aggressor from the territory of the Republic of South Ossetia, a new road to a bright future opened” towards “freedom and independence”. As Donetsk’s MFA passionately exclaims, “The memory of innocent victims among the South Ossetian people resulting from a brutal military conflict will never be forgotten”. – It is a memory, a collective one, common to all post-Soviet breakaway territories in their joint, solidary togetherness.
In almost each instance, the sacred rhetoric of “freedom”, “independence” and “self-determination” dominates the discursive regime of the diplomatic notes. When praising its own constitution, Donetsk asserts that the legal document aims “at providing welfare and equality based on the common principles of democracy and self-determination of the peoples”.
Each “Independence Day” or “Day of Recognition” is used as an occasion to greet the other unrecognized polity with solemn words of illusionary statehood. This practice creates a phantasma of professionalization, luring all unrecognized governments into a language oozing with sentimental patriotism that willfully asserts a secured position in international politics. This is not confined to Donetsk – the archives of diplomatic notes of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria demonstrate that the mutual enticement into collective political daydreaming has become a paramount foreign policy norm in their brotherly ties.
The loss of credibility – a risky path for contested states
By rhetorically distorting their perceived international status, by asserting an illusionary full-fledged normalization, and by routinely nourishing a political consciousness based on “myths and mis-memories”, the self-deceiving insistence on professional statehood bequeaths to themselves “an identity that [is] fundamentally false” (Judt 157-158).
Political science scholars have caught a glimpse of what this may lead to. As a field survey has shown, inhabitants of Abkhazia have grown cautious about political illusions while noting such topics’ sensitivity (Berg & Mölder, 2012; see also Blakkisrud & Kolstø, 2011, p. 205; Kopeček, Hoch, & Baar, 2016, p. 97). Respondents do notice that the rhetorics of freedom and self-determination are incongruous to the political reality.
The continuous nourishing of an alleged collective memory revolving around “freedom” and “self-determination” proves to be a political road whose end is unclear – but it does not seem to result in increased acceptability. As they lack external legitimacy, the post-Soviet contested state should not risk the erosion of internal legitimacy (i.e. domestic approval) by blatantly mistaking their overblown political rhetoric with international reality.
Aller plus loin
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Blakkisrud, H., & Kolstø, P. (2011). From Secessionist Conflict Toward a Functioning State: Processes of State- and Nation-Building in Transnistria. Post-Soviet Affairs, 27(2), 178–210. https://doi.org/10.2747/1060-586X.27.2.178
Caspersen, N. (2015). Degrees of legitimacy: Ensuring internal and external support in the absence of recognition. Geoforum, 66, 184–192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.10.003
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Kolstø, P. (2006). The Sustainability and Future of Unrecognized Quasi-States. Journal of Peace Research, 43(6), 723–740. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022343306068102
Kopeček, V., Hoch, T., & Baar, V. (2016). De Facto States and Democracy: The Case of Abkhazia. Bulletin of Geography. Socio–economic Series, 32, 85–104.
Mink, G. (2008). Between Reconciliation and the Reactivation of Past Conflicts in Europe: Rethinking Social Memory Paradigms. Czech Sociological Review, 44(3), 469-491.
Pacher, A. (2017) Abkhazia's Diplomacy: Foreign Relations Beyond Russia. The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13474-...
von Steinsdorff, S., & Fruhstorfer, A. (2012). Post-Soviet de facto states in search of internal and external legitimacy. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 45, 117–121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.postcomstud.2012.03.009