Today’s New York Times has an overview of Russia’s power politics towards its “near abroad,” countries that used to be part of the USSR. Some of these countries, such as Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine, have been debating internally whether to become more integrated with the EU or to rebuild close ties with Russia. Armenia made the news recently for setting aside years of negotiations with the EU and, under considerable pressure from Moscow, announcing that it would join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. While the New York Times article focuses on the foreign policy and economic issues involved, these situations also exemplify the importance of law (both domestic and international) in international relations, because high politics in the “near abroad” is not about the formal acquisition of territory, but the adoption of norms. (For more on this theme see, also, this.)
The New York Times article uses the case of Moldova as an example of how Russia pressures its neighbors: threatening energy cut offs, banning key exports from Moldova, even bringing religion into play. In the case of Moldova, Russia also supports a separatist group that has seized control of Transnistria, the eastern-most section of the country. (As readers of this blog may know, I was part of a group of lawyers from the NY City Bar who wrote a report on the legal issues related to the Transnistrian conflict and, last year, part of an Open Society Foundations supported study comparing the conflicts in Moldova and Cyprus.)
But the heart of the matter is whether Moldova will become more fully integrated into “European” institutions (the EU, first and foremost) or reintegrate with revamped “Russian” institutions (the Eurasia Customs Union, for example). At times a state can be on one side or another of a normative border: Poland is part of the European normative order, Belarus is in Russia’s. In such cases, when normative boundaries coincide with national boundaries the situation is relatively clear. But the issue of which way Moldova will face is still being contested, somewhat within Moldova (particularly by the Transnistrian separatists) and more so by Russia. Thus, Moldova and certain other states in Russia’s near abroad (such as Ukraine) are borderlands between two normative systems, each state containing aspects of both.
When normative systems overlap and jostle within a country, the result can be normative friction. This can relate to domestic laws, such as whether a particular conception of property rights or of human rights will be adopted. It can also concern international legal norms, such as to which treaties a state will become a signatory, which international organizations a state may join, the recognition of national borders, and issues of non-intervention. Any issue that seems to favor one set of normative system over another can become symbolic of a larger struggle. Even when you put up and take down Christmas decorations can turn into a political crisis.
Although this has been the case in Moldova, Armenia, and Ukraine for years, Russia is increasing its pressure now because… (Continue Reading)