The Georgian parliament has voted to recognize the 1864 genocide against the Circassian people in the Russian Empire. Givi Targamadze, head of the parliamentary committee on security and defense, has proposed discussing acts of genocide against other North Caucasus peoples. The political calculus behind Georgia’s actions is obvious. But the Georgian government seems to be underestimating the risks.
Georgia broke off relations with Russia following the August 2008 five-day war in South Ossetia, but the situation is quite stable now. Even European observers have had to admit, albeit off-the-record, that the presence of Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia has increased regional security and put an end to provocations on the border. All parties have de facto recognized the new status quo, but de jure recognition is still far off.
Russian expectations of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s imminent downfall after the war proved unfounded; in fact, his defeat in the five-day war has done him good. Georgia’s Western sponsors gave the country generous political and, most importantly, financial support, although they have cooled toward its president. Saakashvili weathered the period of relative isolation, restoring most contacts by 2010.
Now his government is facing a new problem: fading international interest in Georgia. The United States and Europe have had to reassess their priorities in light of events in other regions as well as their own internal problems. Western attention is Georgia’s key economic and foreign policy asset, and fighting for it would be the natural course of action. Provoking a conflict with Moscow is the only fail-safe way to win back that attention.
One tool Georgia has at its disposal to pressure Russia is Russia’s ambition to join the World Trade Organization. This gives Georgia some leverage, but only with respect to minor issues. For example, Russia would not do anything to cast doubt on its recognition of the two former Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent states.
If Georgia were to press the issue, Russia would sooner abandon its WTO aspirations than make any meaningful concession. And Georgia’s stubborn refusal to compromise on the WTO issue is not going to win it any Western attention. In fact, both America and Europe have been persuading Georgia to relent, as Russia’s entry in the WTO would benefit them as well.
The issue of genocide was a popular political tool in the period immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, until recently, it was the responsibility of the ethnic group alleging to be the victim of genocide to win international recognition of the crime. This was the case with the Armenians, the Ukrainians (over Holodomor), the Poles (the Katyn massacre), the Ossetians after the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali, and the Georgian claim regarding Abkhazia. Please note that I am not expressing an opinion on whether these claims are justified.
But the Circassian genocide is different because the claim originated from a third party, Georgia, even though the idea has been rather popular with the Circassian diaspora. The Russian government has long brushed the problem aside for some reason, apparently failing to appreciate its significance.
The North Caucasus is the most volatile region in Russia and Moscow’s biggest headache. The Georgian government was certainly aware of that when it aimed its latest blow. Any mention of genocide generates a huge international reaction and guarantees much attention given the nature of today’s information environment and how widespread the humanitarian ideology is.
The proximity of the region in question to the site of the next Winter Olympics gives the claim even more publicity. Tibet employed a similar tactic shortly before the Beijing Olympics.
Surprisingly, Georgia does not seem to expect this move to boomerang. Although destabilization of the North Caucasus might give Georgian politicians some satisfaction, the country itself is not immune to what happens on its borders. The Chechen war was a massive inconvenience to Georgia, which had no means of controlling the militants infiltrating the country. Any other conflict in the region will have the same effect; worse still, the consequences will be even less predictable because the international situation has grown more complex since then.
Moscow is unlikely to stand idly by as Georgia destabilizes the region. Some in Georgia believe Russia can’t hurt Georgia anymore after having stripped it of one-third of its territory. But that is not true. Georgia is not an ethnically homogenous country. There are Armenian and Azeri enclaves that can retaliate. Even though Russia does not control these populations, any complex and unstable society is prone to external influence. In Georgia, interethnic relations are stable but not ideal.
Assuming that Georgia’s move is a gambit to attract international attention, any response from Moscow would play into Georgia’s hands, giving it a reason to appeal to its Western patrons. But this is a dangerous game with unpredictable consequences.
Even if the United States (we can ignore Europe due to its ongoing political decline) is more willing to take a risk for Georgia’s sake than it was three years ago. Georgia may need its support most when the West is busy with something else. Today’s world is fraught with surprises.