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Defining the Nation in Russia’s Buffer Zone: The Politics of Birthright Citizenship in Azerbaijan, Moldova and Georgia


Civic, rather than ethnic, definition of the nation is typically associated with Western liberal democracies. Yet post-Soviet states Azerbaijan and Moldova have used laws bestowing citizenship on anyone born on their territories. Such policies, known as unconditional jus soli, are found mostly in the Americas. No such law exists in Georgia, the third “buffer zone” country between Russia and the West. Unresolved, or “frozen”, separatist conflicts, perpetuated by Russia, prevent the buffer zone states from forging stronger links to the West and place them at the epicenter of a potentially explosive tension between Russia and the West.

A theoretical proposition separating “territorial” from “civic” nationalism and almost 100 interviews reveal that nationalism in these brand-new states was conditioned by centuries-old history, namely a historical context that had thwarted or exacerbated ethnic collective identity. The resulting territorial (but not civic) concept of national identity was used by both authoritarian (Azerbaijan) and liberal (Moldova) regimes to combat ethnic separatism and interethnic strife. The resulting ethnic concept of national identity (Georgia) negatively influenced integration of national minorities and refugees. Moreover, when geopolitical fears of foreign interference via dual citizen “double agents” arose (Azerbaijan) in the post-Crimean panic, territorial nationalism was undermined breaking the sense of historical continuity and threatening to rekindle interethnic strife.

The tension between ethnic and territorial definitions of the nation in Russia’s “buffer zone” downplays the role of liberal development in defining the nation by placing it in a larger historical context. At the same time, it demonstrates the importance of geopolitics and thus provides another insight into Russia’s own struggle to define its nation, which may help explain its actions in Ukraine and its ideological differences with Western-style civic nationalism. Beyond the post-Soviet space, the ethnic/territorial tension is also behind many other political developments in the globalized world, where millennia-old, but little-noticed, struggle to define collective identity by blood or territory continues.

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