It’s an open secret that the current Kremlin coterie has an obsession with “sovereignty.” Moscow may push the oddest version of sovereignty in the international arena. Not only was the country the progenitor of the notion of “sovereign democracy”—the ability to entrench autocracy, disguised as democracy, without foreign interference or pushback—but Moscow’s also lobbed recognitions of sovereignty far more frequently than any of its nearest competitors.
Are you a Georgian seaside region tired of Tbilisi’s demands? Are you a forested stretch of eastern Moldova, grating under Chisinau’s Western approach? Are you a landlocked Caucasian enclave, heaving with an independent streak? Then here you are, Abkhazia, Transdnistria, South Ossetia—here’s the recognition you wanted, courtesy of your patrons in Moscow. Here’s the independence, here’s the special status, you desired. Don’t worry about Western opposition, about the Westphalian order propping the decades-long streak of peace. If you want recognition, Moscow can provide it in droves.
Of course, there’s a double standard to Moscow’s call to break away. While these enclaves wishing recognition find a Kremlin ready to help, the sovereignty card becomes unplayable the moment they appear within Russia’s borders.
On Sunday, the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia hosted the first “Dialog of Nations” conference in Moscow. Seeking to represent the “many small nations that have historical experience of political independence” and who “think about their revival”—and including a shot of shredding the U.S. flag — the conference was helmed by Alexander Ionov, a supporter of Western secession with ties to both a fundamentalist Orthodox party, Rodina, and Russia’s Anti-Maidan movement, a wellspring of pro-Moscow voices seeking to combat anti-Putinist ferment in Russia.
The conference hosted separatists from multiple Western nations—Ireland, Italy, Spain—in addition to a Western Sahara contingent. The greatest plurality of representatives, however, came from the United States. Russia has prior cultivated relations with separatists in Texas—who are attempting to land the question of secession on Texas’s GOP ballot—but Ionov and his organization have since expanded their reach among American separatists. (Ionov also lists the U.K.’s Stop the War Coalition, linked to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as one of his group’s foremost partners; a representative from Stop the War denied the partnership, saying they have “never had any dealings with it.”)
While the Texas contingent slotted for the conference did not arrive, and while no Native American representatives originally planned ended up showing—although Ionov met with a Native American representative this summer—the meeting saw leaders of independence movements from Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the “Uhuru” black nationalist movements in attendance.
Out of Hawaii, Lanny Sinkin, representing the “Independent and Sovereign Nation State of Hawaii,” lobbied for the return of the erstwhile Hawaiian monarchy. (The proposed king, as it is, happens to be a felon with some 13 years behind bars.) Out of Puerto Rico, Ramon Nenadich, who had prior threatened to investigate the United States for “crimes of war and genocide … in its occupation of Puerto Rico,” staked his case. (Nenadich has his work cut out for him—in 2012, 61 percent of Puerto Rico’s populace opted for statehood, and only 5 percent sided with independence.) And representing the Uhuru movement, Chairman Omali Yeshitela called on Russia to push the claim before the United Nations that the United States had committed genocide against African Americans. “We’ve come to Moscow because it gives us an opportunity to break out of the encirclement that has been imposed on the struggle of African people in the United States,” Yeshitela said, before busting out Moscow-inspired rhetoric about U.S. bases “encircl[ing]” Russia and a “U.S. coup in Ukraine.”
Suffice it to say, the conference has thus far failed to galvanize any overwhelming separatist sentiment out of Honolulu, San Juan, or Austin. But outright secession isn’t Moscow’s immediate goal.
“The separatist conference in Moscow is part of the wider Kremlin strategy to undermine the West through supporting movements and organizations that aim at destabilizing state structures,” Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher on Moscow’s links to far-right movements, told The Daily Beast. “This strategy is anything but new—the Soviet Union adopted the same tactics during the Cold War.”
Further, when Yeshitela, nominally representing the U.S.’s African-American population, says that “Russia is under assault right now by the U.S. and imperialist powers,” Moscow’s domestic propaganda engine has further fodder to push its message.
Still, while the conference pushed nominal support for international secession movements, its crass geopoliticking shone through. You can tell the conference was a farce not simply because of who attended, but because of who wasn’t even invited. No representatives from East Turkestan or Tibet. None from West Papua or Baluchistan. This dearth helps highlight the second parameter for Russia’s willingness to recognize claims to sovereignty: Such secession movement, if it wants Russia’s support, exist in the West, or in those nations—say, Morocco—that remain firmly ensconced in the West’s camp. There’s no sense, from Moscow’s perspective, in supporting movements under the thumb of nations Russia could theoretically woo. In its lack of support for Karakalpak (an Uzbek ethnic group prone to restiveness) or Kashmiri movements, in its avoidance of touching the topics of Cabindan or Anjouan separatists, we can witness the fallacies—further hangover from Soviet declamations—within these claims of supporting sovereignty and secession.
And, of course, there’s no sense in looking for any Russian representatives in the conference. None from Tatarstan or Siberia. None from the Crimean Tatar population the Russian government so readily represses. None from Chechnya—odd, considering the pair of wars fought within recent memory to combat Chechen secession. The conference hosted none who would, in any way, call into question the territorial integrity of Russia. Such call would find any individual liable for a prompt, years-long prison sentence.
As such, if you’re a secession movement in the West, you’ll find a ready, willing audience in Moscow—but if you expect to find any Chechens, Tatars, or Siberians seeking their own sovereignty, your disappointment will find a transom of hypocrisy too thick to cross.