As Russian troops surround Ukraine’s semi-autonomous region of Crimea, the world’s media spotlight has turned on a peninsula that encapsulates many of the ethnic and religious tensions common across the former USSR.
But there are many more ‘breakaway states’ on the continent. And despite significant online hurdles, some are making headway with the Internet and social media in a push for global recognition.
Take, for example, Transnistria. The slither of land between the Dniester River and Ukraine, home to just over 500,000 people, is officially a part of Moldova, Europe’s poorest nation. But since a short war in 1992 Transnistria has effectively been a separate nation in all but name, with considerable economic support from Russia.
Igor Smirnov, a Communist Party veteran, had ruled Transnistria for 20 years when his fourth election rolled along in 2011. Many expected another easy victory. But Yevgeny Shevchuk a 45-year-old lawyer and independent candidate, blasted him away, winning 75% of votes in a second round. Shevchuk’s secret weapon? Social media. Messages disseminated virtually overtook Smirnov’s traditional rally cries. Young people were enamored.
Since his win, Shevchuk has gone on a web-based charm offensive, taking to countless platforms to espouse Transnistria’s status as a peaceful, worthy state. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – as well as popular Russian outlets VK and Odnoklassniki – have all got the Shevchuk treatment. “Accounts belong to officials or institutions: their activity and presence on mentioned platforms are different. All these mean that Transnistria takes its activity on social media very seriously,” says Marcin Kosienkowski, assistant professor of international relations at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin in Poland.
Transnistria has a slick ‘national’ website containing news, views and information from the quasi-state. Its foreign ministry page “presents the entity as independent and democratic and proceeds to list its many attributes of statehood, including its own constitution, controlled territory, legislation, market economy, developed financial and tax systems, modern communications infrastructure, army, militia, security service, national flag, coat-of-arms, and anthem,” writes University of York politics professor Nina Caspersen.
However there are considerable boundaries to online progress for countries that don’t officially exist. Top-level domains are one. While Germans may use the suffix .de, or Britons .co.uk, Transnistrians – or Abkhazians (Georgia), or Northern Cypriots (Cyprus) – must use the suffixes of their ‘parent’ nations, providing both an electronic and societal barrier to recognition. Similarly, drop-down menus required by platforms such as Skype or Amazon, do not include stateless regions. And almost all breakaway regions lack the talent pool or financial clout of their parent, meaning that their government sites and/or social media accounts can appear unprofessional and lackluster.
Another hurdle to progress is the autocratic mindset of many stateless governments, which many attribute to their residual fondness for the Soviet Union. Social media, and free speech, are often viewed with caution as any dissent could undermine a fragile push for recognition, or simply routes toward foreign trade.
“The strategies used by the unrecognised territories can…be described as “competitive democratization” or ‘competitive state-building,'” says Caspersen. “They are trying to convince the world that they are more democratic and more stable than their parent states. Since most of these entities emerged from violent conflicts, they are also keen to demonstrate their peaceful intentions.”
However in Transnistria Mr Shevchuk is rarely the most visible political face, preferring to remain distant like his predecessor Smirnov. That accolade belongs to Nina Shtanski, a smart-dressing, 35-year-old lawyer who is the region’s foreign minister. Ms Shtanski has an active Facebook profile with 1,293 photos and over 1,800 friends. She often responds to personal messages, which has garnered much praise with her electorate.
“Shtanski doesn’t part with her account, even while on holiday,” says Kosienkowski. “Speed of information is an important factor, given the contentious nature of the conflict between Transnistria and its parent state, Moldova, and the internet could be used, for example, to ease tensions quickly.”
The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is a spot of landlocked greenery within Azerbaijain, but whose ethnic and linguistic ties are with nearby Armenia. The tiny state of under 150,000 people was subject to several conflicts in the midst of the Soviet breakup, but has not managed to win its own independence. Journalist and social media expert Arzu Geybulla sees potential in the region’s social media output, but thinks it has a long way to go.
“The president has a Twitter account and allegedly holds the largest followers base on Twitter but thats arguable (the account of Bako Sahakyan, @NKR_President, has since been blocked),” says Geybulla. “And while there are sometimes online statements emphasizing independence of the country when it comes to relations with its neighbor, social media tools are often used only to dehumanize the neighbor, showing the inhumanity.
Internet coverage is still sparse in Nagorno-Karabakh, and pro-independence blogs and forums are still limited to a few thousand people. But while the region’s political rulers are behind the times, a younger generation is taking to social media to spread the word for recognition. “These young men and women (mostly men) are better equipped with the knowledge and also have more time on their hands. These people often push for political messages, calling for “territorial integrity”, recognition of Azerbaijan’s pain and the suffering its people had to go through fighting the war, recognizing Armenians as aggressors and occupiers, etc. So far, social media proved to be very effective in the hands of these young people.”
Nagorno-Karabakh, however, remains a part of Azerbaijan, as Transnistria continues as a Moldovan region. Recognition for these nonexistent nations will likely be a long time coming. But if it ever does, the Internet will play a huge role.