Toal to study secessionist regions in Eurasia; research critical to future of relations between United States and Russia

NATIONAL CAPITAL REGION, Oct. 22, 2008 – When political geographer Gerard Toal, professor of Government and International Affairs, School of Public and International Affairs, applied to the Human and Social Dynamics program of the National Science Foundation for a research grant this past spring, he had no idea that the topic would suddenly become the center of a worldwide crisis.

Toal and fellow researchers, John O’Loughlin from the University of Colorado and Michael Ward from the University of Washington, have been awarded $749,970 to examine the impact of the independence of Kosovo upon three quasi-state regions in Eurasia. The research will support graduate students at all three universities.

The research is not only timely, but critical to the future of United States and Russia relations, said Toal, who recently discussed the various geopolitical entanglements of North Ossetia before a full house at the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C.

In their application, the team argued that granting independence to a secessionist region of Yugoslavia set a precedent that was likely to ripple across Eurasia and would particularly affect three secessionist regions with aspirations to formal state status: Trans-Dinestria in Moldova, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions within the internationally recognized borders of the state of Georgia.

According to Toal, the research proposal had already been evaluated and selected for full funding before war broke out over South Ossetia in August. The war gave Toal and his colleagues a new set of realities to study. It precipitated the defeat of the Georgian state and the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states by the Russian Federation.

“Recent events have only underscored the relevance of our research project,” said Toal. “Now that South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been recognized, it is more important than ever to understand these regions and whether they are similar and different from Kosovo, the region many states in the West recognized after it declared independence in February of this year. The Russian government used the same arguments NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) made in 1999 to wrest Kosovo from Serbia to legitimate its recent actions in Georgia. We want to develop a full social scientific portrait of these regions so their particularity can be understood.”

Toal and O’Loughlin will travel to the regions to conduct elite interviews, focus groups, and social survey research. The team has worked together in the past; this is the second Human and Social Dynamics grant for the team and the fourth National Science Foundation award for Toal.