09.11.2004
Georgia Propelling Its Disintegration
№4 2004 October/December
Andranik Migranyan

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

   

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.

 

THE
RULERS’ WHIMS

 

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.

 

WHIMS OF
HISTORY

 

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.

 

IRRELEVANT
REFERENCES

 

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.