Georgia Propelling Its Disintegration

9 november 2004

Andranik Migranyan is Director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York.

Resume: There are no legal or international barriers to recognizing the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in consideration of the practices that the Western countries demonstrated toward the republics of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the notion of territorial integrity lost its import.


The recent developments in Adzharia, Ossetia and Abkhazia, followed by an aggravation of tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow, call for an in-depth analysis of the events that took place during the last years of the Soviet Union and on the post-Soviet space in the early 1990s. This analysis can provide clues to understanding the nature of the current developments and ways to handle them. It cannot be entirely ruled out that the resolve of the Georgian authorities to prop up the country’s territorial integrity through the use of force and the support from foreign powers may entail a reconsideration of Russia’s – and the international community’s – position toward the problem. Eventually, the breakaway parts of Georgia may receive recognition of their sovereign status, while the patchy Georgian mini-empire may vanish.

But let us consider all of it in due order.


It is generally believed that international law operates by two equitable and complementary principles – the right of nations to self-determination and the territorial integrity of sovereign countries. All of the existing states, including the U.S., became independent through self-determination. However, in practice, deciding on which right to give preference to may be problematic. The past decade, and especially the period that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, demonstrated in bold relief that the international community does not have any general rules; the great powers make decisions with regard to their own interests, and support an action depending on the situation. During the events in Yugoslavia and Iraq, for example, the U.S. made it clear that those principles could be ignored and decisions could be implemented through the rule of force. Thus, it appears that decisions can be taken in defiance of the international community, the UN, the Security Council, etc., and references to international principles are rather conventional. Russian diplomats should bear in mind this circumstance while formulating ways to tackling issues concerning the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, the deterioration of Georgian-Abkhazian relations, and the forthcoming presidential election in Abkhazia.




When the Soviet Union was falling apart, the idea of keeping it together did not occur to anyone in the West. Nor did anyone draw attention to the fact that the former Soviet republics had opted out of the country, and this move entailed an encroachment on the Constitution as regards specially established procedures. Moreover, the Western countries failed to maintain the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, a sovereign nation and a member of the UN. Germany recognized the national independence of Slovenia and Croatia, and thus accelerated Yugoslavia’s collapse, while stripping the Yugoslav Armed Forces and the Belgrade government of the legitimate actions necessary to keep the country united.


A natural question arises: Why, in a similar situation, when the Soviet Union was disintegrating, did some of the territories that had been appended to the former Soviet republic by the whims of the arbitrary Stalin face a strong rejection of their legitimate right to acquire independence? Why do they still have the status of “self-proclaimed” ethnic entities, while their former parent states claim to have the right to bring them back under their sway, peacefully or militarily?


I believe the explanation can be found in the circumstances under which the disintegration of the Soviet Union occurred. The explanation also lies in the kind of forces that sped up this process. These factors determine the line of conduct adopted by the Russian government and, consequently, the international community.


Admittedly, the authorities of the Russian Federation hurried to remove the powers of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev – or the “yoke of imperial Moscow” as they called it. This also explains why they recognized the independence of the Baltic republics with unprecedented rapidity – immediately following the abortive coup d’etat of August 1991. They did not bother to address several vital issues that arose right after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, such as the problem of the Russian ethnic population in the newly emerged states, the remaining communication lines and military installations, or the withdrawal of army units and armaments from those territories. All of those factors were simply ignored. Thus, in the 1990s, Western experts had every reason to argue that for Russia to accuse the West of its unwillingness to take account of Russian interests in those regions was totally groundless, given the fact that Russia had unequivocally recognized the sovereignty of those countries without conditioning them by any agreements or terms. The situation was pretty much the same with Ukraine and the former republics of Transcaucasia.


When Yeltsin relieved himself of the reins of Gorbachev’s “imperial” center, he was not at all interested in creating new problems for his rule for several reasons. First, Yeltsin’s Russia was extremely weak. The risk that his presidential powers would collapse was looming large during the initial phase of the reform. The Supreme Soviet, which was the name of the parliament at the time, had numerous opportunities for legitimately ousting Yeltsin and blocking his reforms. The state found itself in a deep economic and political abyss. Consider the testimony that Strobe Talbot offers in his book entitled The Russia Hand. He makes it plain that in those days the agenda of Russian-U.S. relations was mapped out exclusively by Washington. Moscow had to fulfill American requirements and could only proclaim concessions in order to keep its distressed ship of state afloat. Russia was not in a position to set forth and/or resolve strategic issues that would determine the nation’s future development.


Had Russia followed Germany’s example and recognized the independence of the territories that had ceded from Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia (respectively, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniestria, the Republic of the Crimea, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia), it would have stimulated secession processes throughout the Baltic region, northern Kazakhstan, and eastern Ukraine. And this, in turn, might have stopped the collapse of the Soviet Union.


However, such actions ran counter to Boris Yeltsin’s interests and threatened to bury his hopes to reign peacefully within the boundaries of the Russian Federation after Gorbachev had been removed, and to manage the resources slated for privatization within its administrative borders.

 To sum up, the impossibility of the Russian leadership to recognize the self-proclaimed territories was rooted in the very method of Russia’s own secession from the Soviet Union, the role that Yeltsin played in it, and Russia’s weakness at the time.




This does not mean, however, that Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine or Georgia had a legitimate right to govern their secessionist territories. As was stated on numerous occasions back in the late 1980s and the early 1990s when the Soviet Union still existed, those territories had been annexed to the master republics by Stalin’s personal wish and obstinacy. Their creation ignored economic, political and many other factors, nor did it conform to democratic norms or procedures. Although all of the Constitutions of the Soviet Union stipulated that the ethnic territories were incorporated on the terms of their self-determination, no one had ever asked the opinion of their populations on that issue. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state where decisions were made by top bodies of the Communist party.


And yet times change, and the flow of time changes international relations. The character of the Russian regime and the ethnic state formations that have emerged on the wreckage of the Soviet Union have become different, as well. Kazakhstan and Ukraine, for example, have attained a consolidation of power and governability, and this progress has, to a certain degree, removed the potential threat of ethnic separatism and independence-driven secessions on their territories in the immediate future. Georgia, on the contrary, has turned into a ’failed state’ in the full sense of this phrase. It has failed to build efficient and consolidated economic, political and military institutions. It continues to depend to a great degree on the financial support of the Western countries, international financial institutions and other organizations. Abkhazia and South Ossetia had positioned themselves outside the Georgian state even before the breakup of the Soviet Union. To a lesser or greater degree, Tbilisi lost control of other ethnic territories, as well – or rather, it retained symbolic control over them. Georgia has experienced several armed revolts, revolutions and counterrevolutions. Its internal political life was rife with encroachments on generally accepted democratic norms, regulations and procedures. The oppositional political parties, as well as the majority of the population, continuously questioned the legitimacy of the government in Tbilisi. Therefore, it is no accident that the ’velvet’ and not-so-velvet coups were accomplished with a striking easiness there.


Against this background, Abkhazia and South Ossetia resembled islands of stability, relative affluence, legitimate existence, and consolidated power. They developed the institutions that ensure the steady development of the regions, albeit on a limited scale. Their populations were spared the unending chain of imbroglios and shocks that ripped across Georgia. From this viewpoint, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have more right to be considered successful states than Georgia, not to mention official Tbilisi, which makes claims to all of the areas within the administrative borders of the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.


Moreover, the legitimacy of including Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Georgia and, consequently, of the references to territorial integrity, is highly questionable. From the viewpoint of international law, Georgia did not have a legitimate title to those territories; in different periods of time they were parts of the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union. By the time the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, Tbilisi had lost practical control over those territories. Incidentally, Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Dniester region made declarations of their independence in full compliance with Soviet legislation when the Soviet Union still existed. Consequently, they believed that they had genuine freedom from the jurisdiction of the metropolitan republics after the Soviet Union had collapsed. Quite naturally, the political and legal relations between Tbilisi, Baku, and Chisinau and their former autonomies shifted to the sphere of international law.




Generally speaking, I do not see any legal or international barriers to recognizing the independence of those self-proclaimed republics in consideration of the practices that the Western countries demonstrated toward the republics of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. That is the reason why all references to the principle of territorial integrity are irrelevant. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the notion of territorial integrity lost its import, since the territorial integrities appeared there and then, where and when the local authorities succeeded in building their own statehoods, creating efficient political institutions and tightening control over the territories within Soviet-era administrative borders.


The geopolitical situation is different now. Russia has fully restored its international status, subjective factors have vanished from Russian-U.S. relations,

and the very agenda of that relationship is no longer formulated in Washington. This opens up an opportunity to look from a different perspective at the history of Soviet disintegration, the rise of the new republics, and the secession of ethnic state-like entities. If Russia develops an interest in recognizing the legitimacy of those states on the basis of international law, there are no barriers that prevent it from doing so.


Certainly, the U.S. and some European countries may produce an unfavorable reaction to such recognition, but their reactions will be purely political and will have nothing to do with the norms and principles of international law. All the more so – the Americans determine their position on these issues in a very subjective manner, stemming from their specific current interests. U.S. national interests come first, while the interests of other countries have secondary importance.


A good lesson in this respect can be drawn from the history of the Transcaucasian countries that came out of the ruins of the Russian Empire and from the position that the international community took on them at the time. The League of Nations that was set up in the wake of World War I postulated a principle that prohibited the extension of membership to countries with an undefined territorial status. For this reason, the League denied admission to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, since those newly emerged countries had territorial claims to each other. This proves that the League’s founding fathers had more foresight in making such decisions. They refused to legitimize those states that could not control some or other parts of their territories, or to states that incessantly conflicted with each other. Problem countries were supposed to settle their disputes first – either on their own or with the aid of the international community.


One more consideration is worth mentioning. Quite possibly, these problems are not limited to the relations between Russia and Georgia, Ossetia and Georgia, or Abkhazia and Georgia. They can be discerned in the relationship between Moscow and Washington. Changes are sweeping the world today, and the postulation that there can be no permanent allies or foes has proven to be unquestionably true. Who could have  imagined that Russia would be much closer to the U.S. on many issues than France or Germany, the closest allies of the Americans within NATO and the Western bloc in general, and long-time allies of the U.S. in fighting the Soviet Union? Russia is cooperating extensively with the U.S. and Western nations on a number of issues today. These include curbing terrorism and WMD proliferation, drugs trafficking, etc. Given the situation as it is, Russia and the U.S. share not only many areas of competition, but also many areas of cooperation. Their geographical influence covers the post-Soviet countries, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Furthermore, against the background of rising oil prices and the intensifying conflict between the Western and Islamic worlds, Russia’s role may grow considerably. Therefore, it would be unwise of the West to put up insurmountable obstacles against Russia’s efforts to solve the problems of Abkhazia or North Ossetia, as well as other problems presently burdening Russian-Georgian relations. The Western community will hardly overdramatize the standoff between Moscow and Tbilisi and gather tangible forces to squeeze Russia out of the region. It appears that the time has come for Russian diplomats to toughen their stance on these problems and show that others must take account of Russia’s interests in Transcaucasia. It should be made clear that Moscow may take unilateral steps, either with the outright support or silent consent from the West.


Finally, there is a graphic example of Turkey organizing a 30,000-troop landfall in Cyprus in 1974 and occupying almost half of the island, ostensibly to protect 17 percent of the Turkic islanders who were not even Turkish nationals. The action was undertaken to avert the threat of a surge of Greek influence and its reunification with Cyprus. The majority of people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have Russian citizenship now, and the protection of their interests also provides legitimacy to the recognition of sovereignty of those self-proclaimed republics. Once they receive recognition of their independence, they will have an opportunity to decide whether or not to unite with Honduras, Burundi, or maybe even Georgia.


Perhaps we must thank President Mikhail Saakashvili whose hysteria and bellicose statements draw these territorial issues to the attention of Russian politicians and the international community. As a result, Russia may have to reconsider and radically change its position on the problem and take resolute steps that it could not afford in the past for a number of the aforementioned reasons.


Facts indicate that Mr. Saakashvili has apparently decided to continue the cause of Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia who, by proclaiming “Georgia for Georgians,” actually had his home set on fire. Today, Saakashvili seems to be propelling a de jure formalization of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence. Georgia will thus lose the quality of a mini-empire as defined by Dr. Andrei Sakharov, a democrat and liberal and a man whom no one would dare call a chauvinist or proponent of totalitarianism. If some people say that the age of empires is gone, it is then gone for all empires, large or small, and Mr. Saakashvili definitely has to take this into account and reconcile himself with this reality.

Last updated 9 november 2004, 20:18

} Page 1 of 5