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The view from Russia: Russia’s neighbours react to annexation of Crimea

‘The View from Russia’ examines news coverage from four major Russian sources: RT is a television network and news website funded by the Russian government; Nezavisimaya Gazeta is a privately owned newspaper that is generally regarded as pro-opposition; Kommersant is an independent daily newspaper; the Moscow Times is an English-language newspaper that provides a foreign perspective.

On 16 March, a reported majority of 96.77% of Crimean voters chose to secede from Ukraine in a referendum with a reported 83.1% turnout. Russian President Vladimir Putin moved quickly to formalise Russia’s annexation of the peninsula on 21 March. However, most of the international community has condemned the referendum as a breach of Ukrainian sovereignty, and refuse to recognise the annexation.

It is not difficult to find coverage in both Western and Russian media of the West’s disapproval of Russia’s latest move, but fewer sources have been examining the reactions of Russia’s immediate neighbours and so-called allies, former Soviet satellites and members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The Moscow Times reported that the CIS countries are reluctant to support Russia, much as they were reluctant to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that broke away from Georgia during its 2008 war with Russia. However, the newspaper reported that, in an uncharacteristically bold move, Kyrgyzstan’s foreign ministry released a statement condemning ‘all acts aimed at destabilising the situation in Ukraine’ and calling for ‘the early settlement of the situation in Ukraine by peaceful means, through negotiations and dialogue, in accordance with international law and the United Nations Charter.’ Kyrgyzstan has also said, contrary to Russia’s official position, that it does not recognise Viktor Yanukovich as the legitimate president of Ukraine. The newspaper also reported that, although Azerbaijan is not concerned for the safety of its small Russian population, ‘Azerbaijani authorities have not adopted a formal position on the Ukrainian crisis, the country is wary of the fate of Crimean Tatars, another Turkic-speaking ethnic group, and is disgruntled about how Crimea was “pushed into” a referendum.’

Kyrgyzstan’s reaction was the exception among the CIS countries, the rest of which, the Moscow Times explains, have taken official positions that ‘have largely been shaped by the need to keep their various strategic partnerships afloat.’ Even so, the Moscow Times said that Belarus, likely Russia’s most loyal ally in the region, was ‘ambiguous’ on its stance regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea. According to an article in the newspaper which quoted Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as saying that, although Crimea was now ‘de facto’ a part of Russia, the annexation had created a ‘bad precedent’. While the Moscow Times focussed more on the latter part of Lukashenko’s statement, RT focussed more on the former part, perhaps touting Lukashenko’s statement that Crimea is de facto part of Russia as lending some international legitimacy to the annexation, while the Moscow Times focussed more on the part of his statement that condemned it. RT included more quotes from Lukashenko’s press conference than the Moscow Times did, quotes that eliminated any ambiguity regarding Minsk’s loyalty to Moscow: ‘I am asked where my country is in this situation. Taking into account historical processes, in the framework of the CIS, we’re linked with agreements, and we’ll be with the Russian Federation.’

Nezavisimaya Gazeta had more coverage than most other news sources on Moldova’s reaction to Russia’s latest moves and the possibility of Russia perhaps setting its sights next on Transdniestria, an independent but unrecognised breakaway republic on Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine. Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that Moldova caused a stir by backing the EU’s sanctions on Russia, reporting that ‘Chisinau’s attempts to be in lockstep with Kiev may cause it to lose Transdniestria.’  The newspaper explained that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had announced that several non-EU countries, including Moldova, had joined in the sanctions on both Russian and Ukrainian officials; however, the press secretary of Moldova’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration has claimed that  ‘Moldova supports the EU’s limited sanctions only with regard to Ukrainian [officials].’ Nezavisimaya Gazeta explained that, with elections coming up in Moldova in autumn, the country’s EU aspirations are clashing with some of the country’s political parties who would rather see Moldova join Russia’s Customs Union – a similar political divide as had been observed in Ukraine in the lead up to the revolution. The newspaper concludes: ‘This explains the attempt by Moldova’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration to downplay information coming from Brussels and why it told citizens that Chisinau supports EU sanctions only against Ukrainian, and not Russian, officials. How Kiev will react to this caveat remains to be seen.’

Meanwhile, RT reported that a letter has surfaced from Mikhail Burla, a member of Transdniestria’s parliament, to Sergei Naryshkin, chairman of Russia’s state duma (lower house of parliament), which reportedly reads: ‘Transdniestria hopes to follow Crimea by becoming part of the Russian Federation and is requesting [the Russian parliament] to expand the justification for Russia to acquire new territory.’ RT said that the bill has also included the possibility of ‘Russia acquiring parts of foreign states without their consent if they lack effective and legitimate authority.’ Information about this letter was not found in any of the other media sources examined, and so cannot be corroborated.

Kommersant’s coverage of the Transdniestria issue was much less sensational than most other sources. The newspaper reported that Poland, along with NATO officials, were concerned about Russia’s troop movements near Ukraine’s eastern border, but its reporting was dismissive of these concerns. The newspaper quoted a source from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, a leading Russian university, as saying, ‘These loud proclamations from Western leaders are intended to offset their defeat in the Ukrainian crisis…NATO wants to show that it didn’t lose, that it is still worth something, and so people are spreading these rumours [about an invasion of Transdniestria].’ Another source from the same university agreed that NATO’s concerns that Russia would next try to annex Transdniestria were an overreaction and that it was unlikely the Alliance would take any significant measures other than loudly condemning Russia’s moves: ‘[NATO] should react to what Russia is doing – and so they’re reacting.’