Regional Conflicts Reloaded

16 november 2008

© "Russia in Global Affairs". № 4, October - December 2008

Sergei Markedonov is Director of the Department for Problems of Ethnic Relations at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis. He has a Ph.D. in History.

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Regional Conflicts Reloaded
The territory of the former Soviet Union changed on August 26, 2008 with the creation of a precedent in redrawing the borders of former Soviet republics. The groundwork of the post-Soviet world, functional since 1991, has collapsed.
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Resume: The territory of the former Soviet Union changed on August 26, 2008 with the creation of a precedent in redrawing the borders of former Soviet republics. The groundwork of the post-Soviet world, functional since 1991, has collapsed.

The long-simmering conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia escalated to a five-day war in August to become the third armed confrontation between Georgia and South Ossetia in the past 17 years. South Ossetia is legally a part of Georgia, a fact Russia had acknowledged until August 26. However, the latest fighting differed markedly from the two previous conflicts because it directly involved Russian armed forces.

Unlike individual Russian servicemen who acted spontaneously in the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-1993, Moscow did not merely support the Russian army’s operation. The Kremlin called it “an operation to compel Georgia toward peace,” aimed at saving the Ossetian people from a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe. Unlike previous Georgian-Ossetian confrontations (in 1991-1992, 1992-1993 and 2004), the United States and the European Union took an active part in the conflict. Ukraine played a role as well: its tough stance on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – which participated in the operation – was an impediment to its movements.

For the first time Tbilisi was simultaneously fighting its two separatist provinces – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – on two fronts. The events in and around South Ossetia made international headlines. At the onset of the five-day war the UN Security Council met three times to discuss the situation in the Caucasus. For the first time since the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991-1994, the mass media published alarming forecasts regarding the possibility of the Caucasus becoming a launch pad for a new large war.

But the most important consequence of the five-day war was Moscow’s official recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now the two autonomous republics of Georgia have joined the group of partially recognized states, such as Taiwan, Kosovo and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. They have not become countries recognized by the UN, but have achieved full-fledged relations with a country that is a member of the nuclear club with veto power at the UN Security Council.

FROM LOCAL SKIRMISHES TO A CONFLICT OF GLOBAL SIGNIFICANCE

The Georgian-Ossetian conflict was the first ethnic confrontation in post-Soviet Georgia that escalated into a full-scale clash. The South Ossetian Autonomous Region within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic – the precursor of the unrecognized state the Republic of South Ossetia – was established on April 20, 1922. The territory of this nation-state made up 6.5 percent of the total territory of Georgia (3,840 square kilometers). According to the Soviet census of 1989, there were 98,500 people living in South Ossetia at that time (63,200 Ossetians; 28,500 Georgians; 2,100 Russians; and 900 representatives of Jewish ethnic groups). The number of Ossetians in Georgia totaled 165,000 as of 1989, or 3 percent of the population. Some 100,000 Ossetians lived in inland Georgia, with the largest communities living in Tbilisi, Gori and Rustavi. The legal status of South Ossetia in the pre-crisis period was regulated by the law on the South Ossetian Autonomous Region, adopted in 1980.

The conflict passed through several stages: from a local confrontation that was little known and of little interest to the world community, to an event of international significance.

The first stage (1988-1989) might be called ideological. During this period, the conflicting parties identified their claims against each other and composed plausible ethno-political guidelines of a future conflict.

The second was a political-legal stage (1989-1991) that marked two years of a law-making (“status”) war between Georgia and South Ossetia.

On September 20, 1989, the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic published draft laws infringing upon the rights of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region. Two months later, on November 10, 1989, a session of People’s Deputies of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region promoted the region’s status to an Autonomous Republic within Georgia. Tbilisi was furious at the move which unilaterally gave South Ossetia a higher status. On November 16, 1989, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic annulled the decision of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region Council. A week later, thousands of Georgian nationalists marched to Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, in a reprisal that claimed the first casualties.

The event that followed next played a key role in the escalation of the conflict. On December 11, 1990, Georgia’s Supreme Soviet declared the South Ossetian Autonomy null and void. Simultaneously, the Soviet authorities declared a state of emergency in the South Ossetian Autonomy, while the Georgian leadership launched a blockade of South Ossetia.

During the third stage, armed fighting broke out between Georgia and South Ossetia (January 1991–July 1992). On January 6, 1991, Soviet Interior Ministry troops left Tskhinvali for their barracks and a six-thousand-strong unit of Georgian militants entered the city, causing destruction and killing civilians.

The capital of South Ossetia saw three assaults in the course of the hostilities (in February and March of 1991, and in June 1992). North Ossetia, a Russian region in the North Caucasus, was dragged into the conflict. It was flooded with 43,000 refugees from South Ossetian and Georgian districts. The Kremlin could not directly control North Ossetia’s actions. Moreover, Vladikavkaz insisted it would sign a federal treaty on the condition that Moscow supported South Ossetia (in one form or another). In late May 1992, North Ossetia blocked the pipeline running to Georgia.
On June 24, 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze signed the Dagomys (Sochi) accords on the principles of settling the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict. A peacekeeping operation began on July 14, as Russia, Georgia and North Ossetia deployed their peacekeeping contingents in the area, and the Joint Control Commission was set up to monitor the ceasefire arrangements. One hundred villages were burned and more than 1,000 people were killed in the fighting.

The armed conflict was thus “frozen” and this signified the beginning of the fourth stage, which continued until May 2004.

Unlike Abkhazia, South Ossetia never saw large-scale ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population. Georgians and Ossetians lived peacefully side by side until August 2008. The Constitution of the self-proclaimed Autonomous Republic of South Ossetia recognized Georgian as a minority language. Exchanges of fire, blockades and provocations stopped, and a relative peace set in. There was a direct bus link between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali until 2004; there were markets where Georgians and Ossetians traded together, such as Ergneti; and Georgia and South Ossetia mutually recognized license plates on cars from both countries.

It should be noted that in the post-war conditions smuggling made up the backbone of the economy of the territory with a “deferred status,” and both ethnic groups were involved in smuggling. This shadow economy strongly attached South Ossetia to Georgia, and was also a major – albeit informal – confidence-building measure for the two conflicting communities.

North Ossetia’s President Alexander Dzasokhov, who was elected in 1998, can be credited with playing a key role in easing tensions, often through direct informal contacts with Eduard Shevardnadze, who was a colleague of his from the former Politburo and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Moreover, a considerable positive potential in the settlement process was amassed during 12 years.

First, the peacekeeping mission was jointly performed by Russian and Georgian battalions.

Second, important documents were signed providing for the rehabilitation of the conflict territory. Of special note is the Memorandum on the Security and Confidence-Building Measures Between the Parties to the Georgian-Ossetian Conflict dated May 16, 1996, and a Russian-Georgian intergovernmental agreement dated December 3, 2000, On Interaction to Rebuild the Economy in the Zone of the Georgian-Ossetian Conflict, and On the Return of Refugees.

The fifth stage can be described as “unfreezing” the conflict. It began with attempts by Tbilisi to revise the balance of forces in South Ossetia and the political-legal format of the settlement. The Rose Revolution in Georgia in October-November 2003 and Mikheil Saakashvili’s stunning victory in the presidential election in January 2004 (he got a landslide 97 percent of the votes) were all mobilized by a “patriotic resource,” as was the case in the 1990s. In their speeches, Saakashvili and his associates called for rebuilding one Georgia and taking revenge for “national humiliation” in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

On May 31, 2004, Georgia sent 300 special task force fighters to South Ossetia under the pretext of combating smuggling, but without consulting the Joint Control Commission (JCC). JCC participants branded the move as a breach of the Dagomys accords of 1992. Georgia then accused the Russian peacekeepers of ethnic bias and crimes. On July 20, 2004, the Georgian president publicly stated that he did not rule out a denunciation of the Dagomys accords: “If the Georgian flag cannot be hoisted in the territory of the Tskhinvali district within the framework of the agreements, I’m prepared to walk out on them.”

Saakashvili’s statement indicated three goals he was striving to achieve:

  • internationalize the Georgian-Ossetian conflict by involving the United States and European countries in its settlement;
  • reformat the conflict from Georgian-Ossetian to Georgian-Russian, and present it as a manifestation of Russian neo-imperialism;
  • reject Russia’s exclusive role as the guarantor of peace in the region.

It is the realization of these goals that became the quintessence of the fifth stage of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. A second war began in South Ossetia from August 8-19, 2004. The parties did not only use small arms in this confrontation, but also artillery. Although the warring sides had stopped fighting briefly by the end of the month, August (a fateful period in the conflict) 2004 marked the beginning of a new wave of shellings, attacks, provocations and blockades of vital lines of communications. From this time on, the tactics of “small incidents of overreaction involving the military” became daily routine in South Ossetia.

This brief war (which has been forgotten and eclipsed by “the hot August” of 2008) was a turning point in Russian policy in the region. Until 2004, Moscow had been anxious to stay unbiased and neutral, and keep the status-quo as the best way out. After 2004, Russia, realizing that the security of the whole North Caucasus depended on the situation in South Ossetia, de facto took the side of the self-proclaimed republic.

First, Moscow began to view Tskhinvali as an instrument to influence Tbilisi (which had started out by then not just on a very pro-American, but also on an anti-Russian path).

Second, the loss of South Ossetia was seen as a threat to Russia itself. The still unresolved Ossetian-Ingush conflict was closely linked to the situation around the self-proclaimed republic.
In 2004-2006, the Georgian parliament adopted a range of resolutions calling the Russian peacekeeping mission “negative,” and Russia’s actions as “an undisguised annexation.” In the autumn of 2006, Tbilisi launched the project of “an alternative South Ossetia” by putting the Georgian flag into the hands of Dmitry Sanakoyev, a former prime minister and defense minister of South Ossetia. The purpose of the project was to reformat the negotiating process (by actually giving up direct dialog with Tskhinvali).

In March 2007, Tbilisi created a provisional administration in the territory of South Ossetia, a move which effectively ditched the talks with Tskhinvali. Tbilisi tried to secure the international legitimization of Sanakoyev (he took part in forums in Strasbourg and Brussels, and was viewed as a “constructive” representative of the Ossetian side, unlike Eduard Kokoity).

The policy of “unfreezing” culminated in the transfer of the Georgian peacekeeping battalion under control of the Georgian Defense Ministry (it was earlier subordinate to the joint command of peacekeeping forces), and repeated calls by Georgia’s Reintegration Minister Temuri Yakobashvili to withdraw from the existing formats of peaceful settlement. In addition, in July 2006, Georgia, in violation of the basic Moscow agreement on the ceasefire and disengagement dated May 14, 1994, deployed army and police units in the upper part of the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. The Moscow agreement declared it to be a demilitarized zone. The status quo therefore was breached there as well. The conflicting parties stopped negotiating.

Georgia’s tough (and not always adequate) actions in 2004-2008 can hardly be explained without taking into account an external factor, though it was not decisive. In 2003, a frustrated Georgian society of the Shevardnadze era came up with a bid for a stronger country which was understood as territorially integral. But support of Tbilisi, first of all from the United States (military-technical assistance, diplomatic patronage and rapprochement with NATO) led the Georgian leadership to believe that the West would approve of any of their actions.

Tbilisi was feeling increasingly confident as the United States and its allies turned a blind eye to the violations of peace accords with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and reacted half-heartedly to backtracking from democratic standards inside the country: such as a crackdown on the opposition on November 7, 2007, and the use of administrative resource to fight the opposition during elections in Adzharia in 2004 and at municipal elections in 2006.

In 2008, Moscow also contributed to the “unfreezing” of conflicts in Georgia. On March 21, the State Duma adopted a statement which outlined two conditions for a possible recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia’s accession to NATO and use of force against the two self-proclaimed republics). In April, Vladimir Putin, as the outgoing Russian president, instructed the federal government to provide “substantive assistance” to the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The instruction envisioned, among other things, the establishment of direct contacts between Moscow and Tskhinvali and Sukhumi. The West, whose response was immediate and tough, said that Georgia’s territorial integrity was its priority.

Nevertheless, the status quo was disrupted in South Ossetia before August 7, 2008, and, to a lesser extent, in Abkhazia as well. During the armed clashes four years ago, some 70 people died (today these casualties have simply been forgotten), while in subsequent years the number of deaths on each side (according to different estimates) totaled 100. Quantity evolved into quality in August 2008. The tactics of the escalation of violence led to an assault on Tskhinvali and a tough response from Russia (which apparently was unexpected for both Tbilisi and the West). Therefore, Saakashvili’s military-political adventurism and Russia’s direct intervention in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict stemmed from the preceding “conflict unfreezing” stage.

FAREWELL TO THE NINETIES

The new spiral of confrontation in South Ossetia not just reconfigured, politically and legally, two hot spots in the Commonwealth of Independent States and changed the setup of forces, it seriously affected the entire ethnic-political situation in Eurasia. According to Ukrainian researcher Vitaly Kulik, “the system of regional security, which formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union, is unable to effectively respond to new challenges. Therefore, the territory of the former Soviet Union acutely felt a lack of security.”

From this time on, the Caucasus (and possibly the entire Black Sea region and even the CIS in general) saw the old rules of the game cease to function. References to agreements and legal standards, reached in the early 1990s, are absolutely unavailing. Of course, these can and will be referred to, but they no longer will have the legitimacy acknowledged by various players both inside and outside the CIS.

Using the terminology of programmers, we can claim that August 2008 saw a final reloading of conflicts in Eurasia. A very important precedent was created when legal and political agreements that maintained the status quo and an unchanging situation no longer apply. Neither Georgia (which fully rejected the Dagomys and Moscow agreements on Abkhazia and South Ossetia), nor Russia, whose leadership now takes a broader view of peacekeeping operations, abide by them. A simple addition of naval crews in Abkhazia’s Black Sea zone, involved in the operation to push Georgia to peace, clearly shows that the quota of peacekeepers has been exceeded.

One cannot fail to notice the use of special task forces in the conflict zones, who by definition are no peacekeepers; or the advance of Russian troops beyond the geographic borders of the security zones stipulated by the agreements of 1992 and 1994 (Gori, Poti and Senaki). Of course, many Russian actions were a reaction to the “unfreezing of the conflict” started by Georgia and, moreover, to the escalation of the conflict. Anyway, they objectively work against the earlier rules of the game.

In 2008, confrontations within the CIS attained a qualitatively new level. Although they were primarily caused in the early 1990s by the breakup of the Soviet Union, today they are motivated not by past inertia, but by the current dynamics of the development and construction of new nation-states. While clashes in the early 1990s were “deferred payments” on the debts of the “evil empire,” the present-day clashes are new claims of payment. “Frozen conflicts” are a thing of the past decade, which disappeared together with Yeltsin’s generation. Now conflicts are conceived and resolved by the post-Soviet generation of politicians, who work out new rules as the game progresses. We are going to see quite soon what kind of configuration will develop.

In 2008, not only states in the South Caucasus, but also Ukraine signaled their wish to walk out of earlier agreements. Kyiv’s attempt to not allow Russian Black Sea Fleet warships access to their base in the Crimea is a blow to the whole range of Russian-Ukrainian accords. Obviously, the agreement on Russia’s naval presence in Ukraine implied a dedicated use of Russia’s task force, and in Russian national interests.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union the first revision of borders of a once common state occurred. This was not necessarily viewed as legitimate. The breakup of the Soviet Union along the borders of the Soviet republics (which appeared logical) evoked a controversial response within former autonomous areas, which never viewed the independence of former Soviet republics as their ideal. Thus, the ethnic conflicts with winners and losers.

A number of states, displeased with the “first revision” results, were looking for a rematch, and so they attempted “a second revision” with the help of various external forces. The losers hated the status quo after the “freeze-up of the conflict,” and changing it by any means necessary was seen as priority. The political-legal groundwork guaranteeing this status quo was of little concern.

Today, politicians and experts do not know the precise number of casualties in South Ossetia from the five-day war. These figures are political math for the interested parties. The war effectively destroyed the infrastructure of “unrecognized citizens” rather than “Kokoity’s regime.” Without Russian intervention, the former autonomy within Georgia would have suffered the same fate as the Republic of Serbian Krajina, which was smitten by Croatia (since it was fighting for territorial integrity) together with the Serbs who lived there in 1995. Southern Russia saw an influx of thousands of Ossetian refugees (their numbers are estimated at 20,000 to 30,000). This makes up half of the population of the self-proclaimed republic.

The five days in August became a veritable catastrophe for Tbilisi as well. The “One Georgia” project ended up in complete failure. The new spiral of violence (in South Ossetia in particular) made a peaceful reintegration of the breakaway republics impossible. After the war – the third in the past 17 years – “the unrecognized citizens” will not likely listen to any of Tbilisi’s proposals. Moreover, Georgia got a new portion of some 20,000 refugees, this time from South Ossetia where, unlike Abkhazia, even after the first war of 1991-1992, Georgians lived side by side with Ossetians. Now the Georgian community of South Ossetia suddenly found themselves the outcasts.

At the same time, one cannot fail to see that in 2004-2008 the villages of the so-called Liakhvi corridor (four Georgian villages: Tamarasheni, Kekhvi, Achabeti and Kurta, located on a 30-kilometer stretch of the highway between Tskhinvali and Dzhava) were equipped with stationary concrete fortifications and armed. Georgia also installed radar equipment there. It is these villages that blocked Tskhinvali, cutting it off from supplies, and the Trans-Caucasian highway.

In 2008, the Georgian population of these villages had to pay for Tbilisi’s adventurism. Alas, as it often happens, not only those who attacked South Ossetia had to pay, but innocents as well. The Georgian population of the former autonomy suffered the same fate as Abkhazia’s Georgians. As one of Georgia’s opposition politicians aptly noted, “it’s a misfortune that the life and health of thousands of people were sacrificed to the adolescent complex of the commander-in-chief.”

According to formal criteria, Russia looks like the winning side. Its actions, taking into account the interrelation between the security of the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia, were justified in many ways. Russia succeeded in preventing the total destruction of the military-political infrastructure of South Ossetia. Furthermore, it blasted during the military operation such strongholds of the Georgian threat to the self-proclaimed republic as the villages of the so-called Liakhvi corridor.

Russia briefly controlled the town of Gori, the outpost for the Georgian onslaught in the past two years. Tbilisi had built in Gori a military hospital, a morgue with a capacity far beyond the needs of the town in peaceful times, and logistics facilities. The Georgian units were driven out from the upper part of the Kodori Gorge, which they entered two years ago.

Moscow’s actions therefore also contributed to the “defrosting of the conflict,” and the dismantling of the status quo. The advantages from the confrontation with the West are not yet obvious, while the losses are all too clear. International attempts to interfere will step up as security collapses in the Caucasus. The success of the military campaign may create an illusion in Moscow that complex problems can be resolved in stride, without protracted negotiations or complicated procedures. (Was it difficult to convene the Federation Council to legalize the actions of Russian troops?)

Recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will create a precedent that can be used against Russia. U.S. Republican presidential hopeful John McCain has suggested revising the approaches of Washington and its allies toward the self-determination of Chechnya and republics of the North Caucasus.

SILENT NEIGHBORS

Russia took military actions beyond its territory for the first time in years. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian military and borderguards took part in containing two civil wars in Tajikistan (1992-1997) and Georgia (1993). Later, the Russian army only fought on its own territory. In 2008, the format of the Russian army’s operations abroad differed dramatically from the experience of both the imperial and Soviet periods.

Russian troops did not want to resolve ideological tasks (as was the case with the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1849; and during the events in Budapest in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968). The purpose of the operation was not to expand territory, which Tbilisi keeps insisting was Moscow’s objective. The action “to compel Georgia toward peace” was meant to ensure in the first place the safety of the North Caucasus. Had Russia kept silent during the attack on South Ossetia, some forces in the North Caucasus might have tried to replay, for example, “the conflict over North Ossetia’s Prigorodny district.”

The Kremlin’s ineptitude and unwillingness to spell out its national interests (for fear of looking weak and vulnerable) is another matter. In any case, Moscow staked out its role in the post-Soviet terrain in a similar way to the U.S. role in Latin America, the Israeli role in the Middle East, Australia’s in Oceania, and France’s in the former colonies of “Black Africa.” It was an entirely new designation of a zone where Moscow had vital and legitimate interests.

The CIS project apparently failed, which was also one of the most important results of the five-day war. It is not just a matter of Georgia’s withdrawal from the CIS and Ukraine’s readiness to follow suit. It is a matter of how CIS members feel about this alliance.

Even Kazakhstan, which has a reputation of being Russia’s main Eurasian partner, “refrained” from any clear opinion on this issue. Armenia, Russia’s other ally, also took a break. Representatives of the Armenian Defense Ministry hastened to state on August 10, 2008 that air raids against Georgian air bases had not been launched from the Russian base in Armenia. Uzbekistan did not say much despite Russia’s support during the events in Andijan in 2005, nor did Tajikistan, whose territorial integrity Russia defended in 1992-1997. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said that “conflicts such as the one that happened between Russia and Georgia should be resolved solely on the basis of international law and only through political and diplomatic means.”

The Council of Defense Ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Yerevan on August 21, 2008 was unable to come up with a consolidated view of the situation in the South Caucasus. A majority of CIS members have their own “separatist skeletons in the closet,” and so fear Russia’s excessive strengthening, seeing in it a hypothetic threat to their unity. It follows that the CSTO is no good as an instrument for working out common approaches and common methods of settling conflicts.

Admittedly, GUAM – an alternative to the CIS made up of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova – also failed to show effectiveness and unity in their positions.

Ukraine, through its president, took a pro-Georgian position although opinions within the country differed greatly. A statement by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry on August 8, 2008 in support of Georgia’s territorial integrity was hailed by Georgian diplomats. It contained general phrases on the conformity of the Georgian operation to “international law,” but did not have a follow-up. Baku, unlike Tbilisi, has not built its foreign policy on a tough confrontational basis: rather it views Russia as counterweight to the West, with which Azerbaijan’s relations are not as unequivocal as Tbilisi’s.

Baku is also afraid of being dragged into the Iranian game, in which it would play the role of a runway, or a territory used to accommodate a retaliatory strike by Iran. Hence the drive to appreciate relations with Russia, which are mostly friendly, albeit complicated. The same caution underlies the position of Moldova, which is ready to accept important Russian conditions for the sake of establishing control over the self-proclaimed Dniester Moldovan Republic, such as refusing to join NATO, neutrality and recognition of Russian property in its territory.

A special issue raised by the five-day war is self-determination of the self-proclaimed republics. In the early 1990s, they were viewed as an annoying burden for Russia. But, seeing a correlation between these breakaway regions with security in the North Caucasus, the Kremlin adjusted its positions. Having frozen conflicts in the early 1990s, Russia gave its consent to the existence of these regions as the main result of these conflicts. The “frozen status” envisioned delaying a solution to the conflict until things got better; such as a more advantageous political situation or a compromise between the parties.

In such a situation it would have been unwise to talk about the status of disputed territories. Therefore, the tentative status of the de-facto states reflected the political reality of the previous decade. The reality implied keeping the status quo and the lack of active military action (however, such attempts were made in Abkhazia in 1998 and 2001, though their scope never matched Tskhinvali-2008). It gave hope that the parties might reach an accord in one form or another.

Mikheil Saakashivili dramatically upped the ante in the “land collecting” game, having forgotten that the cause of Georgia’s “territorial castration” was not the territories per se, but the people living there. Self-determination of the unrecognized states henceforth became another instrument of Russian influence, which cannot fail to evoke apprehension in its neighbors.

The territory of the former Soviet Union changed on August 26, 2008 with the creation of a precedent in redrawing the borders of former Soviet republics. The groundwork of the post-Soviet world, functional since December 1991, has collapsed. Two new states have appeared on the map of the former Soviet Union. The argument that only Russia has recognized them essentially does not change anything. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was only recognized by Turkey back in 1983, yet for 25 years it has been a factor in Black Sea-Mediterranean policy. This de-facto state recognized the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and it was a much tougher opponent than Turkey in 2003 to the U.S. decision to begin its military operation in Iraq.

One might say Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia was too emotional. Admittedly, he might have waited until he had found at least a couple of allies before making his statement. Perhaps Moscow should have taken into account the possible repercussions, such as attempts to turn the Abkhazian-Ossetian precedent against Russia. But Medvedev had little room to maneuver after the “hot August of 2008.” He could either show weakness – and provoke political instability in the North Caucasus – or legally fix the new reality and Russia’s legitimate interest. The Russian president chose the second option.

Finally, the United States, the countries of Old Europe and the European Union’s new members have no consolidated position: the limits of the West’s resources to adequately influence the situation are too obvious. They have shown many emotions, and still more ideological and old stereotypes, but not enough pragmatism.

As Russian political scientist Andrei Ryabov rightly said about the different political potentials of the West in the Balkans and the Caucasus: unlike the Balkan policies, “the Western community has ideas regarding the South Caucasus, and these ideas are increasing in number, but their resources – diplomatic, political and economic – are apparently insufficient to influence the opinion of the parties to the conflict and to make them agree with the West’s view of the problem.” Instead, they have excessive ambitions and inadequate ideas about how we should handle the Caucasus.
In any case, we got an entirely new South Caucasus with a totally new agenda in August 2008. The work to realize this agenda is just beginning.

Last updated 16 november 2008, 17:04

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