Fifteen years after the implosion of the Soviet Union and its
republics gaining independence, Russia and its former dominions
have been unable to find a modus vivendi. The best example of this
inability is witnessed by the ongoing crisis between Georgia and
Russia, which continued through 2006 and has spilt over to 2007;
despite some easing of tensions, there have been no prospects for
normalization so far.
Georgia is not the only example: similar tensions have erupted
between Russia and Ukraine (despite Victor Yanukovich’s return to
power) and between Russia and Belarus (despite Alexander
Lukashenko’s efforts to maintain a relationship with Moscow).
Judging by Vladimir Putin’s comment that the dissolution of the
Soviet Union was one of the biggest tragedies in modern history,
and the fact that he won’t change anything to meet the challenges
of the new realities in this part of the world, the Russian
president seems to be still entertaining some nostalgia for the old
system. Yet what has passed should remain in the past. Either the
new neighboring states will find a way to deal with each other or
they will all lose; instability and unpredictability cannot serve
anyone’s long-term interests. The current facts underscore the
depth of the losses.
THE BITTER FRUIT OF THE OLD POLICY
Moscow’s reiterated attempts to revert to the elements and
instruments of its ‘from the position of strength’ policy have only
resulted in its further alienation from the newly independent
republics. Today, Russia does not have a single ally that it could
fully trust: Belarus is no longer its best friend, while Armenia
feels it was not given friendly treatment when Russia decided to
close the Georgian-Russian Lars checkpoint in 2006. This move
actually disrupted Armenian trade, especially since the Azeri
boycott and the closed Turkish border had made Armenia totally
dependent on the north-south transit route through Georgia.
Furthermore, Moscow’s desire to hurt Georgia was so great that it
prevailed over commonsense reasoning to spare Armenia as it
announced the closure of this checkpoint – “for reconstruction
work” – until the end of 2008.
As a result of such policy, the Kremlin is not only losing
power, it is losing the most crucial factor in the contemporary
world – influence. The Russian language is no longer lingua franca
among the former Soviet republics, while going to Russia is no
longer a dream for periphery residents or eligible students. In the
energy sector, Moscow only encourages its neighbors to seek
alternative gas transportation routes and new partners by cutting
gas supplies haphazardly while pushing prices higher everywhere. It
should be no surprise that one fundamental feature in the
post-Soviet space today is the warming up of relations between
Ukraine and Georgia on the one hand, and Georgia, Azerbaijan and
Turkey on the other. Meanwhile, in the western part of the
post-Soviet space, the Baltic States are displaying steady support
for their “small ex-Soviet brothers” by promoting their interests
in the EU.
In the east, the Central Asian republics are showing more and
more of a propensity for self-assertive policies. They are
realizing that there is no point in getting stuck in long-term
contracts with Russia and selling cheap gas only to have Gazprom
draw big benefits by reselling it to its European consumers. The
first signs of self-assertiveness became apparent when Turkmenistan
attempted to renegotiate its contract with Russia, and there are
reasons to believe that this trend will persist in the coming
decade. Thus, horizontal solidarity – that the Soviet Union failed
to create – seems to be flourishing on the new grounds.
A DRAG ON DEVELOPMENT
Meanwhile, none of the newly independent post-Soviet states –
including Russia – have fully benefited from the new status quo, or
been able to use all of their potentials. And there is only one
major reason for this state of affairs: conflicts – once hot and
active and now frozen – continue to impede the internal and
external development of these countries, particularly Georgia,
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova.
First and foremost, these conflicts block the economic
development of each affected country. One can only imagine what the
Caucasian region – possessing huge energy, transit and water
resources – would be like if it were ridden of these conflicts and
free to develop a regionally integrated transit policy that would
fully exploit the opportunities of all transit routes – east-west
Secondly, these simmering conflicts are hindering democracy, which
is a peculiar type of government that cannot be divided or torn
apart: its success depends on sharing. If democracy is not fully
enjoyed by the entire population across the region, with some
territories continuing to escape law and order, these lawless
regions will work like leeches, eventually destroying democracy in
the entire region the way cancer cells damage an otherwise healthy
This is particularly true of Georgia with its two conflict
zones, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unfortunately, time is running
against Tbilisi. Displaced people from these regions, who for 15
years have been living without decent shelter, compensation or any
real hope, now feel that they have been victimized twice. They can
neither go back to their homes without risking their lives, nor can
they share the relative prosperity of their fellow Georgians.
The conflict also affects Abkhazia’s development. What future
awaits Abkhazians when the rules of demography are running against
them? Today, as a result of past policies, Armenians and Russians
are growing in number in Abkhazia, and are presumably overshadowing
native Abkhazians and Georgians in their own land. (For an
objective analysis of this sensitive and commonly politicized
issue, see: International Crisis Group Report No. 176, Abkhazia
Today, September 15, 2006, Brussels.)
So, the question remains: Who has gained from these policies?
Certainly, not Abkhazians; they cannot feel much confidence about
their future if this future means a “closer relationship with
Russia,” especially given the latter’s record in dealing with
Nor have the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in any way
served Russia’s interest. Russia’s holding to these regions, as if
they were valuable instruments for keeping a grip on Georgia, can
only give it a false sense of security.
Has Moscow ever asked itself what Russia has lost by playing
this irrational game? Because of these lingering conflicts it must
finance and maintain an army, which is utterly corrupt and mostly
occupied with arms sales and drug trafficking, in the southern part
of its territory. Military action on Georgian territory has not
only made a solution in Chechnya impossible: it has negatively
affected the stability in Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia.
The French philosopher’s saying that “truth on this side of the
Pyrenees cannot be a lie on the other side,” definitely applies to
the Caucasus. Stability will have to be found by all or there will
be stability for nobody.
Finally, Russia’s toying with conflicts has deeply affected its
international credibility. Its capacity to lead and be listened to
beyond its borders has plummeted.
IS KOSOVO A PRECEDENT?
The ‘Kosovo precedent’ remains a blackmailing issue for Moscow:
“If you move down the road of independence in Kosovo, we will have
to recognize the independence of the separatist regimes in the
Caucasus.” This position, although right in essence, is wrong in
form, because it sounds like the childish plea: “Hold me back or I
will be forced to take action!”
It is noteworthy that in this context the Kremlin does not evoke
Karabakh’s independence, nor Chechnya’s. These regions would
naturally follow in the footsteps if the Kosovo precedent, to quote
Russian leaders, “is to become a precedent for the whole of the
Caucasus and for all frozen conflicts.”
Russia knows it cannot afford to play with fire in this region.
Recognizing the independence of South Ossetia or Abkhazia would
instantly spread instability to Chechnya and prove very dangerous
for friendly Armenia, not to mention Georgia’s military reaction.
It would mean taking the risk of igniting new wars in the Caucasus
in a new situation; such a strategy would be plain madness.
Russia cannot ignore that the balance of forces has drastically
changed in the region. After more than a decade of intensive U.S.
training and financing, the Georgian army is no longer the
disoriented, underpaid and poorly trained army of the 1993
conflict. Azerbaijan has been actively using its oil money to
rebuild and enhance its military power. Armenia can no longer
receive Russian support via Georgia as the ongoing dismantlement of
Russian military bases in Georgia has limited their operational
capacity. Today, Russia delivers its support to Armenia directly by
air. Moreover, Russia cannot be sure what the American reaction
would be in the future, especially if it continues to regard
Georgia as an ever more strategic region.
At the same time, Russia’s reaction toward the Kosovo issue is
understandable. While Europe and America talk much about promoting
Russia as a normal European power, no one listens to Russia when
taking decisions that are crucial for Europe. Russia may in fact
hold a reasonable position, if only it were expressed in a positive
manner and not as a threat. Opting for threats instead of offering
constructive proposals is the tragedy of contemporary Russia.
But let us consider the underlying argument of Russia’s position
on Kosovo. Why do we accept organization of European territories in
the 21st century along ethnic lines as an uncontested value and
goal? Have we considered what will happen next when the Serbian
minority in Kosovo demands the same rules to be applied? Are we
ready to defend and support the idea of an autonomous or
independent Mitrovica region? And if not, why? It is one thing to
restore the independence of nation-states that once existed and
were suppressed, but it is quite another thing to create ex nihilo
ethnic states, following the “Russian stacking doll” model.
The Ahtisaari plan talks a lot about multi-ethnicity and
stresses that the new authorities should not only respect this
principle but also enshrine it in a new Constitution. However, it
is apparent to everyone that these are just words. The reality is
that Kosovo’s Albanian and Serbian population will see Kosovo’s
independence as the triumph of ethnicity over statehood. Such a new
model, if applied, will raise the statehood threshold both
vertically (with the possibility of endless deconstruction of any
state) and horizontally (What country in Europe, Africa or Asia
would not feel unchallenged by the new rule of the game?).
The ethnical approach, previously known as the ‘minorities
policy,’ has already been applied in the past but with no happy
results: the democratic ‘Woodrow Wilson model’ caused wars and
tragedy in Western and Central Europe, while the totalitarian
Stalinist ‘minorities policy’ paved the way to frozen conflicts
that erupted immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Unless my memory fails me, the ethnical approach has never yielded
benefits for any of us. So we have to admit that Russia has a
point: Kosovo is a precedent.
But Russia is wrong in the conclusion it draws, namely, that
Kosovo is a bad precedent. We must recognize that there is a real
issue there, and we must try to think how we could make it a good
precedent – one that offers a viable solution, an answer to the
basic claims of all protagonists.
UNIVERSAL RULES REQUIRED
First, Kosovo should become a precedent for involving all
interested parties in drafting a solution to this crisis.
Personally, I believe that Moscow should be one such party.
Involving Russia in working out an acceptable solution would serve
as recognition of its European status and place. Moscow would have
an opportunity to have its say as regards the future of Kosovo,
instead of just using its veto power in the Security Council, or
threatening from the outside that everyone will lose.
Kosovo should become a precedent for creating a set of generally
agreed principles to solve similar conflicts elsewhere. In other
words, if a peace settlement is to be eventually monitored by an
international peacekeeping force, this force should have a truly
international composition (and not just be composed of soldiers
from one country, as is the case in Georgia where Russian soldiers
are disguised as CIS blue berets).
If we agree that the “widest autonomy possible” includes limited
diplomatic capacities, those should be granted to all, including
Chechnya. If we agree on the necessity to repatriate displaced
persons to their homes, we should devise universal rules for
property restitution or compensation.
Whatever decisions we make about the use of minority languages,
cultural rights and religious freedoms, they should be applicable
to all. If the same rights and constraints were applied to
Abkhazians, Ossetians, Karabakhians, Transdnestrians and Kosovars,
none would feel discriminated. It would have been easier for
them to accept that they would be denied full independence, at
least in the immediate future; the sense of sharing an equal fate
could lessen any sense of injustice.
At the same time, an increasingly heavy burden of commitments
and obligations – that would ensure the autonomies’ secure
functioning – will fall on the shoulders of the authorities of
Georgia, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Moldova and Russia. None of them could
then feel victimized or singled out. Feelings of justice and
injustice, which underlie all unsolvable conflicts, would be
This approach will provide a chance to involve outside powers as
well, and thereby put an end – pragmatically and once and for all –
to the thrust of big powers gaining exclusive positions in
particular regions. Thus, the EU and the U.S. would no longer enjoy
exclusive rights in solving the Kosovo issue, while Russia would
have to equally accept that the era of its exclusivity in the
post-Soviet space is over.
A peace conference – and that is what we should eventually get
to as a result of the aforementioned process – should involve the
European Union, which cannot endlessly contemplate its navel and
reflect about its “enlargement fatigue” while doing nothing to
solve nearby conflicts. The EU must start taking responsibility for
peace and stability in the neighboring newly independent states,
regardless of whether they will one day become part of an enlarged
Union or not.
It is obvious that this process should involve Russia, thus
recognizing once and for all that it is a European power, as well
as a global power, with the rights and duties that are bestowed
upon every European state. But it also means that will Russia be
henceforth accountable for its new responsibilities to the European
and international community. What price Russia will have to pay for
being recognized as a full-fledged European power? It will have to
accept the essential rule about Europe: nobody can claim
exclusivity on any “backyard.” That is the key to an increased
international presence and global role that has been escaping
Russia since it ceased to be the Soviet Union.
It is no less evident that this process should involve America.
Whether Russia – or any other state – likes it or not, the U.S. has
become a power in its own right in the Caucasus, and it will remain
Such a process should, most importantly, involve all states that
have separatist conflicts on their soil: Georgia, Armenia,
Azerbaijan, Moldova, Serbia, and Russia. These states should be
involved not as mere objects of negotiations, but as direct
It should also involve interested neighboring countries, such as
Turkey, Romania, Ukraine and possibly Iran, that is, if the latter
decides that a regional role is more important than playing
breakmanship. Furthermore, it must show that it is willing to
resume its positive role in a region that still remembers how
civilized, tolerant and influential the ancient Persian Empire
Finally, in a move that might be the key to success, the process
should involve the separatist leaders in order to hear their
arguments and take their views on board. That is an absolute
necessity if any proposal is to be acceptable by all sides.
Thus, instead of pre-eminence, exclusivity and new “ethnic
ghettos” – like the one that is now being created in Kosovo – we
propose universality and conformity to truly European values of
tolerance, coexistence and power sharing. It is time we look beyond
bureaucratic schemes and think wider, see farther and dare invent
new approaches to addressing problems because the old approaches
have brought us nowhere. And this time we should listen to Russia,
not to her empty threats, but to the right intuition that stands
Remarkably, as I was preparing this piece, I came across an
article by Vladislav Inozemtsev entitled, A Uniform Approach Is
Possible (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 6, 2007– Russ. Ed.), which
echoes some of the ideas presented, albeit with slightly different
emphasis. “Both Brussels and Moscow are doubtful about the Kosovo
precedent,” the author writes. “Russia is in no hurry to use the
Kosovo precedent and announce the independence of post-Soviet
autonomies… It would be more reasonable to find a common principle
[italics added – S.Z.] for solving the problem of all territories
with unclear status that fall under the EU’s and Russia’s ‘zone of
responsibility’… and to postpone the final solution for 20-30
years… This would create a precedent of solving an essentially
European problem within the boundaries of Greater Europe… Europe
could then lay a claim to a role in the global political game,
without which its political identity will remain unclear…” What
the author fails to mention is that the proposal would also allow
Russia to benefit in the same way by asserting its global role.
AN OUTLINE FOR A WIN-WIN SOLUTION
If all of us, that is, in Russia and among Russia’s new
neighbors, recognize that nobody will benefit from the present
stalemate, we should also agree that we have no alternative but to
actively search for new approaches.
Now that the European Union has become a Black Sea power (after
Bulgaria and Romania entered the Union), and has to share an
insecure maritime border with Abkhazia and its “black holes,” it
should also share new approaches toward the territories lying
beyond its eastern borders. What we all need today is imagination,
flexibility and adherence to one fundamental principle: nobody
should lose from a new deal. Looking for a “win-win solution” is
indeed the only answer to the dead end in which we have all found
Both the EU and Russia will benefit by proving that they can
introduce peace and stability without resorting to their favorite
strategies – that of enlargement (the EU) or the use of force,
domination and pressure (Russia). Brussels and Moscow will then
discover that they do have a real and legitimate subject for
The United States will get recognition for its legitimate and
stabilizing presence in the Caucasian region. However, Washington
will be forced into collective negotiation and not allowed to
jeopardize reached agreements by making additional requirements, or
putting strains on the relationship with new projects such as
antimissile shields. Instead of acting on its own, it would be
obliged to seek solutions through negotiations with all actors
This does not mean that NATO will be outcast from the region.
Russia’s renouncing its exclusivity in the region will also mean
that it will have to renounce using threats to counter other
countries’ aspirations to join NATO – the only security
organization in Europe. Both the EU and NATO could and should be
involved in peacekeeping operations, together with regional forces
(Russian and Ukrainian, for example).
Finally, old partnership formats that have never been really
enacted (NATO-Russia Cooperation, NATO-Russia Council and
ESDP-Russia) could be put into practice and given a new impetus.
Such partnerships, based on the joint and equal involvement of the
parties in the decision-making process, could represent a markedly
new model of cooperation. This will help dispel superfluous fears
about NATO’s presence in the Caucasus.
This approach could also revive such ideas as a
NATO-Russia-Georgia joint antiterrorist trilateral axis, or a
NATO-Russia joint force in the Black Sea, or EU-Russia joint
operations. The EU will then get a real chance to prove that its
defense policy can be put to use to consolidate stability in
territories lying in the immediate proximity to Europe.
The countries concerned with the conflicts will benefit by
achieving national reconciliation before reunification, as it will
open the path to full-fledged democratic and economic
The population of separatist ethnic regions will at last get
what they have been long striving for: peace, development,
guaranteed rights to survival, and preservation of their national,
linguistic and cultural identities. They will have the opportunity
to enjoy their share of prosperity which they have been denied due
to the exorbitant ambitions of their leaders. The separatist
leaders will receive insurance of a peaceful transition of power
and of their own physical – and may be even political –
This might sound like a very distant goal since there are many
obstacles and long negotiations on the way. Yet, we have no
alternatives; this is the only way to build normal relations
between newly independent states. Russia has to understand and
accept that the independence of its neighbors is irreversible and
cannot be a matter of bargaining.
Unless we put an end to frozen conflicts and find a solution
that would be acceptable to all interested parties, there will
never be normal relations between Russia and its neighbors.
Georgians will always regard every Russian move as one aimed at
reinforcing disruptive processes and weakening our independence and
territorial integrity. Even if there is no such intention, Georgia
might be tempted to invent one, in order to use fear of the enemy
as an instrument of internal or external consolidation.
Finding a win-win solution to frozen conflicts is critical for
normalizing Russian-Georgian bilateral relations. But it is also
critical for Russia to be able to become a “normal,” modern power
that feels ambitious about its enhanced development and status in
the world, but seeks to achieve these goals through constructive
influence without the help of threats, disruptive actions and
destabilization. As long as Russia’s neighbors view it as a
disruptive force causing mistrust, it will fail to gain real
influence, attraction and respect among the Caucasian nations.
Furthermore, within Russia there will be a growing feeling of
isolation – a feeling of being surrounded by hostile forces – that
has always afflicted the Russian mind and never put it at rest.
Modern challenges (terrorism, China’s unprecedented economic
growth and influence, climate change) require that we put an end to
anachronistic conflicts, devote our energy to major issues and
substitute disruption with cooperation.
of Global Politics