There has been much talk over the past few years that Russia is losing the Caucasus by making one political mistake after another. However, if one takes a broader look at this sort of criticism, it turns out that the very same move or action may evoke conflicting comments – what some consider as failures others see as achievements. This topic deserves special attention, but before one starts to analyze it in greater detail, some important qualifications need to be made.
INFLATED EXPECTATIONS AND AN UNATTRACTIVE MODEL
Russia’s actions in the Caucasus are often interpreted as mistakes due to unreasonably high expectations. Many political actors in the Caucasus still regard Russia as the old Tsarist or Soviet empire, which really owned the region and enjoyed almost unlimited influence. But Moscow today is both unwilling and unable to use colonial or Soviet methods, which, naturally, is a boon for the region.
The 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet system caused considerable damage to Russia, depriving the country of its former status. Furthermore, the region saw the emergence of several states hostile to each other and with limited resources, territorial disputes and conflicting interests. None of these states has become truly independent or managed to resolve problems on their own. All this contributed to the desire of the newly-founded states in the Caucasus to find strong allies influential enough to help them address geopolitical issues. Given the extreme hostility of the new states to each other, the future allies to be lured into the region were to be rivals too. Georgia has gone to great lengths to pull the United States – the former Soviet Union’s “bosom foe” – into the Caucasus. Azerbaijan has been doing the same with respect to Turkey, a historical rival of Russia, which had concluded a strategic alliance with Armenia.
At a time when Moscow was growing weaker and the political likes and dislikes of the Transcaucasian states turned out to be multi-directional and internationalized, Russia’s influence in the region objectively began to wane. Amid sharp differences among the Transcaucasian states and some of their territories, Moscow found it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to play the role of an independent arbitrator. It would be wrong to say that the Kremlin has made a mistake, since staying neutral in a situation like this is extremely difficult in principle. In similar circumstances other countries either leave the troubled region, the way the old colonial powers preferred to act many times, or shift to a policy of strategic partnership with one of the countries, trying at the same time to maintain good relations with its regional rival. The strategic partnership between the United States and Pakistan, along with friendly relations between Washington and New Delhi, is an example of this.
Russia made the only right decision – to stay and, whenever possible, to pursue a balanced policy. However, in the first post-Soviet decade Moscow had to retreat on all fronts. By focusing too much on internal affairs, Russia could not pay enough attention to the problems of the region, which suffered from a variety of conflicts and crises. Russian leaders cut off assistance for many friends and supporters, which should not have been done under any circumstances. This happened in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia. In the Caucasus, this policy resulted in the Kremlin’s betrayal of the “Ajarian Lion,” Aslan Abashidze, in the 2000s.
It was then that the rules of the game took shape in the regions which have survived to this day. Many military and political blocs, energy networks, and inter-state unions were conceived and created with the hope that Moscow has left never to return, that it has lost its grip on the Caucasus and will now focus its remaining strength solely on Russian territory. Such predictions have turned out to be very wrong, but regaining what has been lost is extremely difficult.
Russia’s internal political situation and everything connected with it is a completely separate cluster of issues that influence Russian policy in the Caucasus. Unfortunately, this is a perfect example of how our internal problems and weaknesses come to the fore and manifest themselves in the foreign policy of the state. This may be an unconscious process, when the chain of events caused by domestic political reasons prompts the wrong actions in the international arena, or when a certain group within the ruling elite, proceeding from its selfish or partisan preferences, deliberately dictates a foreign policy that runs counter to state interests.
It goes without saying that modern Russia is unattractive to the former Soviet republics, which are building independent states. Moreover, according to a number of internal parameters the example of Russia does not look very encouraging, and for this reason the former republics are very cautious about closer cooperation and try to diversify all types of relationships. It is an open secret that the Russian chain of command is based on support from only one class – the bureaucracy. Such a model inevitably breeds the innate disorders of the modern government system that sprawl across the country: corruption at all levels of management and government, secretiveness, authoritarianism, lack of democracy, government arrogance and unaccountability, bureaucratic stagnation, contempt for the law, economic inefficiency, etc.
Because of its natural resources and vast territory, the presence of nuclear weapons, and the passivity of its people, Russia still has a certain safety margin, and Russians can afford the “luxury” of being what they are. The Caucasus states are deprived of this opportunity. Many of Russia’s problems, if extrapolated to the realities of the Caucasus, would spell disaster and the collapse of statehood. This dilemma was crudely, but accurately, expressed by the Abkhazian journalist and blogger Akhra Smyr: “Abkhazia’s co-existence with Russia looks like sexual intercourse with an infected partner.”
There is a fairly widespread view that closer engagement with Transcaucasian diasporas in Russia will help resolve Russia’s political problems in the South Caucasus. I am afraid that this is another fashionable illusion. Firstly, all diasporas without exception are primarily agents of interest for their native countries, and not for the countries in which they currently reside, so Russia will be not the source of influence, but its target. Secondly, the engagement of diasporas is a feature of an advanced democracy, where there is demand for a social contract, implying popular support for the authorities in exchange for a policy consensus. This cooperation has the most momentum on the eve of elections, when these social contracts are concluded. In Russia, there are no elections in the classic sense of the term, the opinion of voters in the election process is basically not taken into account, and dialogue between the government and the people is virtually non-existent. In these circumstances the state feels no need to cooperate with diasporas, and the diasporas are unable to fully organize themselves to become a real force to influence the situation.
All of the above is characteristic, to varying degrees, of Russia’s relations with all countries of Transcaucasia, but in each country there are certain specific traits.
ARMENIA: THE ILLUSION OF A PROBLEM-FREE COUNTRY
Yerevan is Moscow’s most consistent and loyal friend in Transcaucasia. The two countries are strategic allies and, the current realities being what they are, Russia can have no closer friend than Armenia in that region. Likewise, Yerevan cannot find another ally as large and reliable as Moscow, at least for now.
At first glance relations look quite good: economic cooperation is developing, the Russian base in Gyumri will remain for a long time, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has been arranging for direct meetings between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, if one leaves protocol matters aside to focus on the realities, then it becomes clear that after several years both public opinion and comments by Armenian experts in relation to Russia have changed for the worse. Armenian society is becoming increasingly annoyed with Moscow and is showing signs of apathy and fatigue. There is a desire for change and some people are already beginning to demand those changes.
There are several things in relations with Russia that the Armenians may not like. In the economic sphere it is worth mentioning the consequences of the Armenian-Russian “property-for-debt” swap. Armenia handed over to Russia a number of businesses, thereby paying off its debt to Moscow. That swap was very ill-timed. Russia at the time was generously writing off the debts of “third world” countries, whose importance is insignificant next to Armenia. However, Russia not only decided against forgiving the debt of its closest ally, but also took some state property in payment, and, as some Armenian experts claim, at grossly understated prices. The question of whether the prices were really understated is debatable: Russian experts have repeatedly presented their arguments in favor of fair (and sometimes exaggerated) estimates. Whatever the case, Russia took over a hefty chunk of the Armenian economy (according to some estimates, up to 70 percent).
One of the main arguments on the Armenian side in favor of the transfer of businesses was that Armenia was unable to get all of the assets going amid difficult conditions. These assets remained idle, were aging and depreciating, and were non-profitable. The transfer of these industries to Russia implied their return to production, tax revenues, creation of new jobs, etc. However, most of the industries have remained idle. The Russian businessmen concerned argue that, in the context of an economic blockade, relaunching those plants would result in losses. Furthermore, supplying raw materials, marketing, and transporting finished products is difficult, costly and risky. From the economic point of view it would be wiser to build plants in Russia, where there are no such problems. This logic is clear, but the industries remain idle, causing understandable nervousness in Armenian society.
Another aspect that determines the weakness of Russian policy in Armenia is also geopolitical. The Russia-Armenia tandem, overburdened by either country’s litany of problems, in fact pushes Yerevan into geopolitical isolation, cutting it off from transport and communication routes and projects.
The geographical aspect is simple: Azerbaijan and Turkey imposed a blockade against Armenia, but there is also Georgia. Traffic across that country had always been difficult due to Tbilisi’s reluctance to help a Russian ally, and tensions soared overnight after the events of 2008. The Transcaucasian railway link was disrupted, customs checkpoints on highways were closed for a long time, and just recently the Russian military base in Gyumri stopped receiving supplies through Georgia. The transportation corridors under construction now, such as the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi railway, are also politically motivated and may put Armenia farther beyond the economic and transport infrastructure in Transcaucasia.
The blockade’s grip on Armenia is tightening, the country is falling behind its hard-to-deal-with problem neighbors, and living standards are deteriorating. A part of Armenian society is confident that the country is suffering from Russia’s inability to resolve its problems with Georgia. As a result, the Armenian public is beginning to question the correctness of the geopolitical choice.
Armenia’s increasing isolation is very dangerous. First, it plunges Yerevan into economic stagnation, which sooner or later will make the military potentials of Armenia and Azerbaijan so disparate that Baku will be able to hope for a Blitzkrieg in Karabakh. Secondly, one cannot exclude the possibility that in such conditions, in search of greater economic and military security, Yerevan may try to drift away from Russia, which has failed to secure its interests in the region. It may turn to the West, and, perhaps, even try to join NATO. Then, in order to maintain its influence in the region, it would be logical for Russia to seek a rapprochement with Azerbaijan. All this would radically change the balance of power in the Caucasus, with a final result that is impossible to predict.
It is difficult to say what Russia has at its disposal to counter the existing circumstances. The sole absolutely correct and long-term answer would be, of course, to find a settlement with Tbilisi and provide assistance to Yerevan to normalize relations with Baku and Ankara, although right now no one has the slightest idea of how to go about this. All other measures will not lead to an effective resolution, and that means (whether we like it or not) problems will certainly emerge for Moscow in the Caucasus, and for Yerevan in its strategic alliance with the Moscow.
Another factor behind the weakness of Russia’s policy in Armenia is the chronic inability and, probably, unwillingness to build relations with the opposition and with society as a whole. In recent years, the economic, social and internal political situation in Armenia has been a target for very severe criticism by a large segment of Armenian society. People are unhappy with the lack of reforms, economic stagnation, and low living standards, along with the polarization of incomes, lack of ideology, corruption, etc. In these circumstances Moscow has taken a traditional position: full and outspoken support for the authorities and an equally conspicuous reluctance to contact the opposition. This is a “birthmark” of Russian diplomacy. From the standpoint of a diplomatic functionary such an approach is fully justified and quite simple, but certainly not from the perspective of a representative of a state that protects national interests and seeks to strengthen relations between Russia and Armenia.
The tensions in Armenian society and discontent with the policies of Serzh Sargsyan have been growing. A conscious or intuitive vision of Russia as a party that unconditionally supports an increasingly unpopular leader is counter-productive and dangerous. One Armenian expert told me that “our authorities can afford to treat the people the way they do just because they have the support of your authorities.” Sargsyan’s visit to Moscow in March 2008 is often pointed to as a reason for anger. At the time, many people in Armenia were literally boiling with indignation over the crackdown on demonstrators who were protesting against what, in their view, were rigged elections. The fact that Sargsyan then publicly thanked Russia for its full support greatly damaged Armenian attitudes towards Moscow.
Such a biased approach forces the Armenian opposition, and just about everyone else who is unhappy with the current state of affairs, to seek support from the other side – the Europeans and the Americans, which further weakens Russia’s position and leads to the Westernization of Armenian society. If regime change does take place, it will look to a large part of society like the ousting of an unwanted president who had enjoyed Moscow’s support, and, perhaps, as a victory over his patron, Russia.
Naturally, the above should not be regarded as a proposal to stop supporting Serzh Sargsyan. But in Armenia and elsewhere, Russian diplomatic practice should be complemented with what the Americans and the Europeans take for granted – a dialogue with the opposition and direct diplomacy at the level of society. Nothing is being done to establish relationships with the public or to explain to the people Russia’s position on the most difficult issues of relations. Such attempts are embryonic, which often leads to deplorable results.
The row over an attempt to introduce foreign language schools in Armenia in 2010 is a vivid example of this policy. This project, the way it was proposed by Armenia’s Ministry of Education, met with strong objections from the people. Moreover, for some unknown reason society began to suspect that Russia was behind this idea, and that its real aim was to weaken the status of the Armenian language, almost replacing it with Russian. Tensions soared, but Russia kept quiet, instead of explaining the absurdity of this assumption to Armenian intellectuals, opinion leaders, journalists, political scientists, etc. The first official and public explanation came from Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko only when the newspapers were already writing about an upsurge in anti-Russian sentiment. Of course, the Russian Foreign Ministry is not the only one to blame. The Foreign Ministry merely projects outside the rules and customs that are common inside the country, where bureaucracy thinks it is unnecessary to conduct a dialogue with society.
Such errors weaken the position of Russia in Armenia and enhance the fairly widespread view that Moscow tends to talk down to its strategic partners and not treat them as equitable parties. I do not think this is so. It is more likely that Yerevan’s position is a side effect of the younger brother mentality, who thinks he must prove from time to time that he has grown up. Nevertheless, the overall trend is not very good.
AZERBAIJAN: TERRITORIAL SQUANDERING
By preserving close relations with Azerbaijan alongside strategic partnership with Armenia, Russia has chosen the right way of handling the fundamental question of positioning itself in the South Caucasus. The importance of Baku and Yerevan for Russia is beyond doubt. This includes issues such as the energy factor, the Karabakh conflict, the possibility of jointly confronting radical and extremist elements in the North Caucasus, and much more. Armenia is jealous of the close relations between Moscow and Baku, but Russia should explain to the people that by virtue of its diverse interests it cannot afford to make an unequivocal choice, and that it will strive by all means to steer clear of situations where it might have to make such a choice.
Russia’s foothold in Azerbaijan is much weaker than in Armenia. In the 1990s, when Russia was obsessed with its own problems, Baku had to look for an ally, and the vacuum that formed following Russia’s withdrawal was quickly filled by Turkey and, to an extent, by the United States. It will be extremely difficult or, perhaps, impossible, for Russia to regain its lost positions. The Russians do not have much leverage of influence over Baku. All-round assistance in securing the return of Nagorno-Karabakh would probably be the most effective. Azerbaijan expects this from Moscow more than anything else, but this should not be done by any means, otherwise the entire delicate balance will be ruined.
Moscow is in the process of finding such leverage, but, unfortunately, it seems to have opted for the “appeasement” of Azerbaijan with material privileges and benefits, as well as territorial concessions. First, there were rumors of an abortive deal to sell several S-300 launchers to Baku, frozen after strong objections from Armenia. Then the Russian authorities tried other methods of “appeasement.” In 2010, two agreements were signed according to which Azerbaijan received half of the Samur River’s watershed, which previously belonged entirely to Russia. Just recently two Lezgian villages – Uryanoba and Khrakhoba – changed hands along with 500 local Lezgian residents. The easy distribution of territory is a generally unacceptable mode of behavior for a great power. Moreover, it also lays the groundwork for new ethnic conflicts, because the local Lezgian people have found themselves in an extremely difficult situation and they are angry.
There are at least two ways that Russian can influence Azerbaijan without hurting its interests: providing counter-measures to radical Islamic extremism and assisting in humanitarian cooperation.
In Russia, not many people know that Azerbaijan is experiencing the same difficulties arising from the spread of Wahhabism as Russia is. Jamaats are being created, acts of terrorism are being committed, and law enforcement officials are being killed there as well. The spread of Wahhabism is disastrous for the Russian and Azerbaijani authorities. There is evidence that the extremist organizations of both countries coordinated their activities on several occasions. It is this coincidence of interests that may encourage the two countries to establish cooperation.
However, one should be aware that the growth of religious extremism in Russia and in Azerbaijan is largely a result of public protest against injustice and the arbitrariness of the authorities. The systems of the two countries look alike: the ruling elites fully control political life and maintain their open-ended rule, inequality is growing, and ethnic contradictions are getting sharper. Amid a lack of opportunities in life and no chances of changing the existing order, a significant section of Azerbaijani society, as well as some of the people living in Russia’s North Caucasus, see a way out in radical Wahhabi Islam.
Humanitarian cooperation can be another method of influence on Azerbaijan. The United States, driven by political pursuits, has traditionally employed such values as democracy and human rights, albeit in the way Washington understands them. Although the United States tolerates non-democratic processes in Azerbaijan, it never misses a chance to criticize Baku. Ilham Aliyev is well aware that Washington may demand more democracy at any moment, and depict him as a tyrant and an enemy of progress. Failure to match the ideals of American democracy will always be a weakness of the Azerbaijani regime. Aware of the danger, Baku will never shut the door in Moscow’s face, which represents an alternative pole of attraction. Unlike the West, Russia offers Aliyev an agenda free from such criticism.
According to some reputable experts, in particular, Felix Stanevsky, a former Russian ambassador and head of the Caucasus section at the Institute of CIS Studies, Moscow is capable of outplaying Washington in humanitarian cooperation. While the U.S. boasts its democracy, Russia has established long-standing historical ties with the Azerbaijani people and has a vast Azerbaijani diaspora, i.e. the two countries have common cultural requirements, etc. In this respect Moscow has a huge competitive edge over Washington and Ankara. It should dramatically intensify cultural ties and try to bring the countries closer together on this basis. If efforts along these lines are exerted properly, the goal will prove achievable and far more tangible than any gains the distribution of land can yield.
NAGORNO-KARABAKH: A PAUSE IN THE PEACE PROCESS
At a meeting on Nagorno-Karabakh late last June in Kazan between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and attended by the Russian president, Russia probably suffered its biggest diplomatic failure ever, in spite of the expectations pinned on it within the Minsk Group. The meeting had been doomed from the start. At present, no diplomatic solution to the Karabakh conflict is in sight, all the possible options were presented and rejected over the course of many years, and nobody will ever be able to think up something new.
A solution will be possible only on the basis of a profound compromise by both sides, but neither Armenian nor Azerbaijani society is ready for this. It is the people who are unprepared, not their leaders. Neither Aliyev nor Sargsyan have the mandate to agree to an option other than victory. In such circumstances continuing negotiations would be useless; it would simply be a simulation of the settlement process.
At this point I see two scenarios of possible change in the region:
Development of a unified and more rigid position by the international community as represented by the Minsk Group, supported by the UN, to compel the parties to implement the proposed options. This may be a way out, though Russia’s participation in such a decision would most likely be negatively perceived by Armenia.
An end to further negotiations, coupled with a firm declaration that no one will resort to military means to deal with the issue. It will take measures to influence the Armenian and Azerbaijani people in order to explain the need for finding a compromise and abandoning a hard-line stance. Talks can resume after several years of this kind of propaganda if there are signs of a change in the public mood.
GEORGIA: A TIME FOR RETORSION
Relations between Russia and Georgia are the most confusing and dangerous. After 2008, Russia postulated that morality and truth are on its side, Georgia has lost, and Mikheil Saakashvili is the one responsible for the war. As long as Saakashvili is in power, Russia will not do business with Georgia, and angry Georgians, in all likelihood, will overthrow him. But until that happens, Russia will not pay any attention to Tbilisi.
This position perhaps made sense for awhile, but the situation has changed, while Russia’s stance has not. In the three years since the war with Georgia ended, Moscow has pursued a completely passive policy and pretended that that country does not exist at all. In contrast, Tbilisi has been incredibly active. This lack of reaction to change has cost Moscow its accumulated potential.
Whenever they talk about the conflict with Georgia, the Russian authorities constantly mention Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In recent years, this link has lost relevance (the situations in those two countries are very different), while the stakes have increased. The cost of Russian political mistakes in relations with Georgia will now be equivalent to the entire North Caucasus. It is common knowledge that after the five-day war, Tbilisi, unable to achieve the return of its breakaway territories through military force, set a course towards destabilizing the North Caucasus and breaking it away from Russia. Georgia did this hoping that a worsening situation in that region would force Moscow to “return” Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is the traditional policy of an independent Georgia, demonstrated in 1918-1921 during the Georgian Democratic Republic.
Tbilisi made a series of steps in this direction that have complicated the situation in that critical and volatile region. One can talk about internal negative consequences associated with an upsurge in nationalist, separatist and radical sentiments, as well as external factors, specifically those emerging from the internationalization of the Circassian “genocide” theme. This may eventually put Russia in a position identical to Turkey. Ankara has had to bear significant costs after the problem of the Armenian genocide was brought to the international level.
Georgia has become a major source for destabilization in the Caucasus and the greatest threat to Moscow in the region. Experience shows that whenever Russia turned a blind eye to Georgia’s aggressive behavior and pretended that nothing was happening, it still had to deal with these issues in the end, but in a much more complicated, costly and sanguinary way. This was the case in 1918-1920, when high-level Georgian Bolshevik Sergo Ordzhonikidze begged Lenin for over a year to let him take over Georgia. Ordzhonikidze said that Tiflis’s [former name of Tbilisi] anti-Russian policies were so strong that “the Sovietization of the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus cannot be considered reliable” without establishing control over Georgia. This was also the case in the 1990s, when General Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of the peacekeeping force in South Ossetia, stubbornly ignored Georgia’s repeated violations of common agreements. There is no reason to believe that anything will be different now.
Tbilisi is the source of many problems that Russia has to handle in Nalchik, Makhachkala and Maikop, and it would be most efficient to fix these problems at their source. Prince Alexander Baryatinsky, governor of the Caucasus (1856-1862) and victor in the war with Caucasian resistance leader Shamil, said “victory always costs less than an outstanding issue.” In 2008, Russia left the Georgian issue unresolved, and after that its shortsighted policy of haughty disengagement only exacerbated it.
There is a need to be more active in retaliating against Tbilisi. However, I am not calling for sending tanks into Georgia. In international law there is a term that is quite suitable to use in relation to Georgia called “retorsion,” or retaliatory legitimate action by a state in response to an unfriendly act of another state. Tbilisi, with its challenging policy in the North Caucasus, looks like someone who lives in a house of glass and yet keeps throwing stones.
There are quite a few sensitive issues involving modern Georgia, and they can and must be highlighted. Tbilisi has defied a number of conventions on the rights of ethnic minorities and their languages, including actual discrimination against the Megrelians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Georgia has eliminated the autonomy of Ajaria, in violation of the terms of the Treaty of Kars. Moreover, Russia believes there is a non-democratic regime in Georgia, the country’s economy is performing very poorly, and Georgia has a $118 million debt to Russia, which may have to be paid in 2013-2014.
Moscow should start making a distinction between Saakashvili and the Georgians, and speak directly to the Georgian people. There is a great demand for the Russian language, Russian books and Russian culture in Georgia. Russia’s failure to communicate with the Georgian people allows the Georgian authorities to score ever more political points whenever they tell the Georgians that Russia has abandoned them. One of the most important lessons Moscow has learned from 2008 was that it has lost the media war and should become more active in this direction. What has been done since then in relation to Georgia? Nothing.
Internal Russian problems are one of the obstacles to a more active policy towards Georgia; namely, the fact that Russia’s top leaders find it convenient to remain in a cozy alcove of injured pride. While Russia simulated modernization and development, Saakashvili actively and drastically reformed society. Against the background of Russian stagnation, Georgia is a country that has experienced the most dramatic and profound transformation anywhere in the former Soviet Union. In essence, the Georgian reforms are controversial and even dangerous, but some look incredibly attractive and are very popular. This primarily refers to the elimination of low-level corruption, a drastic reform of the Interior Ministry, the elimination of criminal godfathers, a crackdown on the unlimited power of bureaucracy, the liberalization of administrative procedures, etc. This is exactly what Russian society needs today and what it will never get from the current authorities, for that would mean committing suicide.
Lifting the media veil even slightly would entail a spontaneous comparison of the situation in Russia and Georgia. In many cases Saakashvili, whose moral inferiority, as Russian supreme rulers have thought all along, is more than guaranteed, will look much more attractive than their own images. Compare, for instance, the Interior Ministry reforms. While reform in Russia is confined to the replacement of signs on a door, the changes in the Georgian police are fantastic. The Georgian leadership has gone far beyond what General MacArthur did to the Japanese police after World War II.
ABKHAZIA: NO MORE WINDOW DRESSING
It is no secret that after Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia, Abkhazian policy priorities changed and the government started to drift away from Moscow. This refers to politics, the economy, and even to official ideological postulates that present Russia in Abkhazian history mainly as an aggressor and invader, which brought immeasurable suffering to the Abkhazian people.
This policy of alienation has produced a situation where Abkhazian policy runs counter to Russian interests in several respects. We can identify three of them, which, in my opinion, are the most pernicious:
- The creation of a classical ethnocracy (and not a democratic state) – a country where the ethnic issue is resolved in favor of one, titular ethnic group – the Abkhazians, while other ethnic groups are discriminated against in constitutional, legal, proprietary, criminal and other respects.
- The mass deprivation of non-Abkhazians (mostly Russians) of their property, which is taking place under discriminatory laws.
- The continuing attempts to drag Turkey into the region. Russia has historically had a very difficult relationship with Turkey, which is Russia’s biggest rival in the region.
However strongly someone might wish to see the situation differently, it is a hard fact that in any field – military, financial, economic, international – Abkhazia is entirely dependent on Russia. This dependence is so great that if we imagine the impossible – Russia suddenly refuses to take any part in the affairs of Abkhazia and leaves Sukhum on its own – the Abkhazian state would not last more than several months.
However, the Abkhazians will not agree to anything less than complete real sovereignty and a fully independent domestic and foreign policy. Sukhum interprets any attempt to show that there are other states and ethnic groups in the region, also with their own interests, as an attempt to strangle the young republic, or at best hug it to death.
The actual delegation of economic, financial and military sovereignty to another country, along with the deification of its own political sovereignty, is no easy task. History knows many examples of similar state structures, but each appeared as a result of very specific, abnormal and unhealthy reasons. Moreover, these examples were limited in time, and eventually sought a political balance, logic and a place in the global order of things.
This task becomes doubly difficult if one imagines that a certain recipient state conducts policies contrary to the interests of the donor country. Subsequently, the state moves away from the donor country, discriminates against and drives out citizens of the latter’s titular nationality, and refuses defiantly to take its interests into account.
The anomaly that makes the existence of the Abkhazian government possible in its present form and with its present policy is the difference in the interests of Russia’s ruling elite and Russia itself. The aim of the elite is to maintain its grip on power in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia. The degree of tension and resentment in society is great, and any loss in the elections will cost dearly. In these circumstances, the only “correct” policy in the Caucasus would be window dressing reality. Some competent observers say that crisis-like phenomena have been increasing and even that Abkhazia may eventually become Russia’s second Georgia. But for short-term, time-serving reasons, Russian-Abkhazian relations should look impeccable and be used as an example of the great victories and achievements of politicians.
In this situation the policy of Abkhazia will continue to diverge from the interests of Russia, and the Russian elite, by contrast, will become increasingly dependent on the Abkhazians. Russian political leaders will make one concession after another for the sake of creating the impression that there is no conflict and ostensible tranquility.
From the standpoint of Russia’s state interests, it seems necessary to begin to apply to Abkhazia the common practice of linking support with the observance of certain conditions that are beneficial to the donor country, and, conversely, to apply countermeasures, if the recipient’s policy harms the interests of the donor. This is normal practice around the world and it is particularly well-developed in the European Union. In applying this practice, one should realize in advance that rejecting the traditional policy of ceding interests in the short and medium term would bring about a chain of mini-crises in relations between Moscow and Sukhum.
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Abkhazia gives us a rare opportunity to have a glimpse of the future. After the recent death of Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh, the United Abkhazia party, created as an exact replica of United Russia and which relies on the same administrative resource, collapsed in virtually no time. Abkhazian politician and historian Stanislav Lakoba writes: “Tell me where that party of bureaucrats called United Abkhazia is? It turned out to be the least united one. The moment the president was gone, they rushed to where the administrative resource was. There is no party, there is a sense of proximity to the resource…”
Russia’s policy in the South Caucasus, whether we like this or not, will always be closely linked to the situation within Russia itself. Firstly, because the entire set of challenges in the Caucasus region is an integral whole. The course of events in the Caucasus cannot be separated from what is happening in the neighboring territories of the Russian Federation. Secondly, whenever it makes any foreign policy moves, especially in that part of the world, Russia projects its own point of view, which is a reflection of today’s non-democratic and inefficient socio-political model. It is through this prism that Russian interests are formulated and Moscow is evaluated by its neighbors and partners. As long as Russia itself has not found a way of fixing its internal flaws, the chances of success in its policy in the Caucasus – not just the South Caucasus, but the North Caucasus as well – look rather bleak.