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"Audience Costs, Domino Effects, and Regional Cohesion in State Expansion: Russia’s Absorption of Abkhazia and South Ossetia"


What explains the variation in the territorial expansion of states? Based on the similarity between state expansion and state contraction, this study applies theories of secession to understand state expansion. The findings indicate that the state's successful expansion depends on the properties of the region. The greater the economic strength of the region, the higher its cultural differential, the more it resists and stalls the absorption by the expansionist state. In the context of state expansion, the domino theories of secession suggest that the state will strive to absorb target regions in decreasing order of strength — from stronger to weaker. Asymmetrically weak regions tend to invoke audience costs to improve their bargaining positions vis-à-vis the expansionist state. This study focuses on the Russian–Abkhaz and Russian–South Ossetian relations, as a rare example of territorial expansion in contemporary times. To assess the intentions and actions of the expansionist state and the target regions, this talk explores the corpora of bilateral interstate treaties that were concluded by Russia and the two Georgian breakaway territories as well as process tracing. The case of Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia elucidates the complexity of measurement of cultural differential and its effects on political behavior.


Valery Dzutsati is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Arizona State University, a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a BA in History from North Ossetian State University, Vladikavkaz, Russia. His research interests include civil conflict, state-making processes, religion and politics, and research methods with an empirical focus on the countries of the former Soviet Union, Central Europe, and the Balkans. His co-authored book on civilian support for insurgents in Dagestan, Russia Defection Denied was published with Cambridge University Press in 2022. 

  • Julia Radley
  • Mark J Maher

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