Neutrality for the Black Sea Region Countries: Abstraction, Unattainable Goal or Effective Model?

Authors: Sergey Markedonov and Alexander Dubowy

Since 2019, the Institute for Security Policy (Vienna) has held several expert seminars on Black Sea issues, where representatives of the European Union, the United States, Russia and the former Soviet countries in the Black Sea Region have already identified existing contradictions between the sides, as well as areas of common interest. The seminars provide an atmosphere for experts to openly discuss a broad range of ideas and development scenarios. In this regard, we would like to summarize the positions for further discussion both within the Vienna format and outside it.

The Black Sea Borders

Any discussion about the Black Sea should be prefaced with the fact that the region’s borders are not clearly fixed. Generally speaking, when discussing the situation in the region, politicians and experts tend to refer not only to the six countries that have a coastline on the Black Sea (Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine) but also to neighbouring states. It is, thus, no coincidence that the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) founded 28 years ago (if we consider the Bosphorus Statement its constituent declaration) includes Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Greece, Moldova and Serbia among its ranks. It is difficult to imagine Georgia’s politics not being influenced by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Similarly, the Transnistrian Settlement Process, and the development of Moldova as a whole, are inextricably linked to Romania and Ukraine. Turkey is a strategic ally of Azerbaijan and the primary geopolitical opponent of Armenia. Meanwhile, Russia is looking for ways to build up its positions in the Balkans. The self-determination of the former Serbian Autonomous Province of Kosovo is of vital importance to the Black Sea Region as a whole. Some see it as an example of “humanitarian intervention” and so-called “remedial secession” to prevent genocide [1]. Others insist that it has set a dangerous example that provokes separatism and instability. Still, others see it as a consequence of external interference aimed at redrawing borders or setting a precedent for disputed territories to secede sooner or later from their “mother countries.”

As the Austrian political commentator and lawyer Benedikt Harzl quite rightly points out, “The International Court of Justice failed to provide clear guidance concerning the effects of successful secession in its advisory opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Particularly its main legal finding, according to which ‘general international law contains no applicable prohibition of declarations of independence’ was correspondingly acclaimed by the authorities of a couple of de facto states including Abkhazia […]. This legal nebulousness, combined with the perceived one-sidedness of Western states in the case of Kosovo, will strengthen the position of de facto authorities to opt for nothing other than maximal demands such as independence and state sovereignty” [2]. This is precisely the meaning of the so-called “Kosovo independence precedent,” no matter the extent to which it differs from the case of the South Caucasus or that of Transnistria. Recognizing its legal uniqueness, we should bear in mind that the case of Kosovo has gone far beyond the scope of exclusively legal discussions and has to some extent taken on a life of its own.

Conflicts and Foreign Policy Competition

Today, the Black Sea Region is quite literally overflowing with unresolved ethnopolitical conflicts. It is here where the interests of world powers and various integration associations intersect. Almost all the unrecognized and partially recognized entities of the former Soviet space are located in the Black Sea Region. It was here that the Belovezha Accords were, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, called into question as the last word in the delineation of the borders between the former member states. The establishment of Russian jurisdiction over a strategically significant part of the Black Sea (the Crimean Peninsula) brought about the biggest confrontation between Russian and the West since the end of the Cold War.

Leading international players have always viewed the Black Sea Region as being “up for grabs.” From the Siege of Ochakov to the “Battle for the Straits” there are countless examples of states competing for the region. Today, we are witnessing fierce rivalry between Russia and the West for influence over the geopolitical space stretching from the South Caucasus to the Balkans. However, this familiar picture requires a certain touch-up.

In recent years, one of the dominant features of the rivalry on the Black Sea – namely Russia–Turkey relations – has changed significantly. In the past, the Russian and Ottoman empires found themselves on opposite sides in no fewer than 12 wars (if you count the Turkish front in the First World War). And today, relations between Moscow and Ankara, although pragmatic in nature, can hardly be called ideal. The sides differ on a multitude of issues, from the status of Crimea and the prospects for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to the territorial integrity of Georgia. At the same time, Turkey (which has the second-largest army in NATO in terms of manpower) does not blindly follow Washington’s lead on all matters. Especially when it comes to the “internationalization” of the Black Sea, which the United States, of course, sees as the strengthening of its positions. Moscow and Ankara are also both interested in establishing pragmatic economic relations, while Sofia and Bucharest (officially allies of Turkey) are concerned about Russia and Turkey forming a kind of “Eurasian Alliance.”

The case of Kosovo described above is not so simple. Paradoxically, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Romania and Moldova all share the same position when it comes to not recognizing the independence of the former Serbian Autonomous Province. Yet, their views on ethnopolitical conflicts in the former Soviet countries are diametrically opposed. And herein lies the second fundamental problem of the Black Sea Region, an issue that is usually obscured by the shadow of “big geopolitics,” namely, the plurality of the Black Sea countries and the complicated national construction processes that take place inside them. And it is precisely these processes that which give rise to conflicts.

This is especially true of the post-Soviet contingent of this most turbulent of regions. The famous Georgetown University Professor of International Affairs and Government Charles King rightly noted that the post-Soviet order in the Caucasus (and this formula can quite easily be transposed onto Ukraine’s relations with Moldova) was not the natural result of the desire of individual nations for independence, but rather a reflection of the ability of the global community to accept one kind of secession but reject another. As a result, the secession of former republics from the USSR became legitimate by means of international recognition and membership in multilateral organizations. At the same time, the subsequent disagreement with this choice in the de facto entities that appeared during the collapse of a single country was seen as nothing but futile attempts to rationalize the whims of the separatists [3].

How Do We Maintain the “Blossoming Complexity”?

Those who have kept a close eye on security developments in the Black Sea Region generally agree that acceding to NATO was a good idea. For example, the Turkish political scientist Mitat Çelikpala and his Greek colleague Dimitrios Triantaphyllou state that “three of the six littoral states are NATO members (Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria) and two others (Ukraine and Georgia) seek to enhance their relationship with NATO.” At the same time, we would like to note that if Çelikpala and Triantaphyllou support the territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine (which is certainly true), then they must at the very least recognize that opinions are split on the matter. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea and the “people’s republics” of Donbass do not see Washington or Brussels as guarantors of their security, but rather Moscow. Like it or lump it, it is a fact that must be taken into consideration.

Meanwhile, a recent sociological study conducted by Rating Group Ukraine (published on December 19, 2019) revealed that 52 per cent of respondents said that they would vote in favour of joining NATO in a referendum, while 30 per cent would not. Rating Group has carried out the survey every year for the past five years, and only once before has the number of people in favour of joining NATO exceeded 50 per cent, in November 2014 (51 per cent “for” and 25 per cent against). We should note that the study was carried out in all regions of the country, with the exception of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics and, of course, Crimea. Even with these regions excluded, we can still see a definite political divide in the country (people living in the western and central regions are more in favour of joining NATO than their compatriots in the east).

This leads to an extremely important point: people in Russia are troubled by NATO’s march towards its borders and are looking for checks and balances when it comes to the sides’ Euro-Atlantic aspirations. And they are not the only ones, as various groups in the Black Sea countries (including residents of unrecognized republics as well as those living in individual regions of legitimate states such as Gagauzia in Moldova and the eastern regions of Ukraine) share these sentiments. And it is extremely dangerous when internal differences are supplemented with geopolitical rivalry and attempts to use the confrontation between external players in their own fight for power. Ignoring the “blossoming complexity” of the Black Sea and attempting to reduce its diversity to a single denominator hamstring the region in terms of the progress it could make. Before any substantive agenda (be it the economy or the environment) can be drawn up, the problem of regional security has to be resolved because no initiative can be effective without a level of mutual trust.

In this respect, the number one task right now is to work together to ensure the security of the Black Sea. This can be achieved through comprehensive dialogue that is based not on the supposed superiority of “Western civilization,” but instead on multilateral interests. The stabilization of Eurasia, if it happens, will start on the coast of the Black Sea.

Since there are no simple solutions for such a complicated geopolitical space as the Black Sea, it could make sense to turn to the almost forgotten concept of permanent neutrality to achieve positive results. At the very least, it could be introduced into the discussion on the expansion of NATO and the ramifications of joining the organization (nothing but good, as far as the West is concerned, but a challenge in the eyes of Russia). Permanent neutrality may become an interesting option for maintaining geopolitical and geo-economic balance in the Black Sea countries. It could also be beneficial to both Russia and the West as a whole. Moreover, the Austrian concept of neutrality could serve as an example in this situation. By this, we do not mean copying wholesale or transposing the unique experience of one country onto another.

Neutrality as a Way out?

Austria declared neutrality in 1955. In doing so, it also committed to never joining military alliances or allowing foreign forces to enter its territory. While the country had never intended to become a neutral state, over time, the authorities began to realize that neutrality can be an instrument for uniting society and creating a national identity. In the early years of the Second Austrian Republic, neutrality became synonymous with independence and helped Austria form a strong identity for the first time since the collapse of Austria-Hungary.

When talking about neutrality – and the Austrian concept of neutrality in particular – we must remember that there is no one true concept of what neutrality actually means. Just like Austria built its understanding of neutrality based on the Swiss model, the Black Sea countries can learn from others to develop their own flavour of neutrality. Neutrality is a complex and multifaceted process, not a dogma or “bargaining chip.” Rather, it is a way of life. Similarly, neutrality is not a cure-all but is a long-term public policy process. We should add that a country cannot declare neutrality without the great powers having first defined the rules of the game. Switzerland adopted neutrality as a result of the Concert of Europe that took shape following the Napoleonic Wars and the ensuing Congress of Vienna. The Austrian model of neutrality was precipitated by the U.S.–Soviet consensus on the future of the country following the Second World War.

The Law of Neutrality alone is not enough. A broad discussion with the involvement of civil society is needed. And this discussion, along with the relevant state and political activities, should touch upon all facets of the matter at hand. This is the most important thing. But it is also important that neutrality not be an end in itself, because neutrality is not a replacement for a robust state strategy. A discussion can serve as a starting point and a kind of catalyst for a conversation on the future of statehood, national interests of multi-ethnic communities, the role of the countries in the region and relations with key actors on the international stage.

What is more, neutrality does not preclude bilateral and multilateral cooperation, including with Russia or NATO. The changing world order and the lack of trust between the collective West, Russia and certain Black Sea countries mean that neutrality could and should be rewarded with multi-vectored economic cooperation. As such, it will help the Black Sea countries diversify their foreign policies and develop partnerships with other centres of power that are involved in the region’s politics.

*Alexander Dubowy, Scientific Coordinator at the Center for Eurasian Studies, University of Vienna

From our partner RIAC

[1]Vidmar J. Remedial Secession in International Law: Theory and (Lack of) Practice // St Antony’s International Review. 2010. Vol. 6. No. 1, pp. 37–56.

[2]For more, see the author’s argument in: Nationalism and Politics of the Past: Harzl B. The Cases of Kosovo and Abkhazia // Review of Central and East European Law. 2011. No. 36 (2). pp. 53–77.

[3]King C. The Ghost of Freedom. A History of the Caucasus. Oxford and NY. Oxford University Press. 2008, p. 315.

Sergey Markedonov
Sergey Markedonov
PhD in History, Associate Professor, Department of Regional Studies and Foreign Policy, Russian State University for the Humanities, RIAC Expert