Two sides of the Georgia-Russia conflict
By Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh for Prague Watchdog
Russia’s conflict with Georgia shows no sign of abating and has led to unprecedented purges of Georgians, and even of Russian citizens, in Russia. Hundreds, if not thousands, have been arrested and sentenced to deportation. Prominent Russian citizens, ethnic Georgians such as the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli and the writer Boris Akunin, have been harassed.
Moreover, the campaign is not limited to Georgians but has implications for all those whom Russians call people of “Caucasian nationality,” that is, those who come from the Caucasus, including Chechens. And mistreating them, authorities often make no difference between citizens of the Russian Federation and those who are legally foreigners.
This pressure on Georgians and other ethnic groups from the Caucasus has two roots: Russia’s conflict with Georgia and internal developments in Russia proper.
Georgia as American Puppet and Imperial Predator
Russian displeasure with Georgia can clearly be traced back to the 2003 “rose" revolution that put Mikheil Saakashvili in power and made him a firm American ally. At that point, the Russian elite speeded up plans to snatch Abkhazia and South Ossetia—two ethnic religious enclaves—in Georgia, which had been de facto independent after the collapse of the USSR. The anti-Georgian campaign reached its peak by the middle of the summer of 2006, and Russian TV and radio commentators provided an explanation for why neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia should be controlled by Georgia.
In most Russian TV shows, the image of Georgia is directly connected with a quite negative image of the USA. Whereas America is blasted as the aggressor, Russian mass media are especially vitriolic in dealing with those republics of the former USSR that, in the Russian view, have become American puppets. This has especially been the case with Georgia. On a TV program Georgia was presented as a U.S. satellite, a cruel and aggressive American puppet ready to start a big Caucasian war.
In a public radio broadcast Sergei Markov, a leading Russian political analyst, did not spare words in blasting Georgia. According to Markov, Georgia has been corrupted by nationalism, and it is not accidental that even such a fair-minded person as celebrated physicist and human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov saw a dangerous aspect to Georgian statehood. Georgian nationalists charged the USSR with imperial propensities, but they themselves were ferocious imperialists and immediately showed their real colors when Georgia became independent. Indeed, Georgia today is nothing but a small empire. Obsessed with nationalistic imperialism, the Georgian elite do not believe that Abkhazia is a separate ethnic entity that deserves considerable autonomy. The Georgian elite are seen by Markov as obsessive nationalistic imperialists and the very embodiment of duplicity and sly evil.
Logically, Markov implied, the Georgian president’s peaceful gesture should not be taken seriously. President Saakashviliwanted a meeting with Putin, not because he really wanted to find a peaceful solution to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian problem, but to show the USA that no one could deal with Putin. Saakashvili might be even more of an extremist than his masters and, Markov implied, could start a war in the Caucasus even without a direct order from Washington. This policy would hardly bring stability to Georgia. Saakashvili would be overthrown, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be finally liberated from the Georgian yoke.
Other TV commentators follow a similar line. Georgia is presented in the news as a small but aggressive state that subjugates its minorities, so that it is not surprising that South Ossetia and Abkhazia want to be part of Russia.
While Georgian oppressiveness is seen as the major reason why Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be separated from Georgia, it is not the only reason. The other rationale, in the view of Russian commentators, is that separatist movements are a global trend.
Disintegration of States a Global Trend
The assumption that a number of European states will disintegrate in the future was expressed in a Russian TV summer 2006 show, intermingled with news broadcasting.
The news quoted the angry statement of the Georgian president that Georgia would not give up Abkhazia or South Ossetia, indeed, not one meter of Georgian territory. The commentators discarded the statement and implied that Saakashvili plainly did not understand the global trend. The point, at least in Europe, one commentator asserted, is not integration but disintegration of existing states. The disintegration of Yugoslavia and independence of Kosovo from Serbia could lead to the disintegration of other European countries. The UK and Italy could follow their example, and Georgia would hardly be an exception.
Indeed, the commentator argued, if Kosovo can be independent, why cannot South Ossetia and Abkhazia follow the same model? The general public, at least the individuals in a public TV discussion of what Russia should do with ethnic enclaves in Georgia, seem to share the same feeling. One participant proclaimed that Russia should support the independence of minorities that want to be separate from their neighbors. Others agreed that, in the case of Abkhazia, both Russia and Georgia should rule it.
Russia’s complicated relationship with Georgia can be seen as one reason why Georgians in Russia have been harassed, but it cannot explain everything. As a matter of fact, it cannot explain why not just Georgians but other “people of Caucasian nationality" have become subjects of harassment. This can be explained only if the Russian conflict with Georgia is related to the broader subject of rising Russian nationalism.
From “Rossiyane” to Russians: Absorption of “Red to Brown” Ideology
One of the essential elements of Putin’s regime is the attempt to absorb the ideological shibboleth of the “Red to Brown” opposition to Yeltsin’s regime, that is, the motley groups of nationalistic-minded Communists and out-and-out nationalists who constituted the major opposition to Yeltsin.
The fact that the authorities have accepted many ideological elements but generally restrained the political activities of “Red to Brown” has led to considerable decline in its public visibility, as I found during my recent trip to Russia. Only a couple of men near the former Lenin Museum in Moscow sold nationalistic and National Bolshevik materials. Radical (Communist or nationalist) newspapers are not easily accessible; no one sells them in the subway or on the streets as was done during the Yeltsin era. But this fact does not mean the end of “Red to Brown” ideology, the elements of which have been incorporated in the ideology of the present regime.
This influence can be easily seen in the way the Putin regime has tried to construct a new Russian identity. Present residents of the Russian Federation are called “Rossiyane,” which, at first glance, can be understood as formally specifying those who have Russian citizenship. But this definition is not much like the appellation “American,” which in a way refers to citizenship; it is more similar to the indigenous Russian/Soviet definition of “Soviet,” or, more fashionable now, “Eurasian” people. It implies that various ethnic groups of the Russian Federation, as in the USSR and Imperial Russia, constitute a separate unity of a sort because they have lived together for centuries.
This model implies a strong, autocratic power and emphasis on Russia’s idiosyncratic way of development. These elements were quite prominent in Soviet ideology and later were incorporated in the ideology of “Red to Brown.” But this “Eurasian” model, which provides some ideological justification for Russia’s existence as a multi-ethnic state, has increasingly been challenged by Russian nationalism, which sees “Russiyanness” in the context of the “blood and soil” paradigm. This is actually a biological/racist definition of Russians, which has become a sort of sublimation of the true gamut of social grievances, from increasing social polarization to pervasive corruption. And it has led to growing tension between ethnic Russians and "people of Caucasian nationality,” regardless of their citizenship.
The September 2006 event in Kondopoga in the north was especially worrisome for authorities. Several hundred people participated in pogrom-type violence against “people of Caucasian nationality,” mostly Chechens. The pogroms were accompanied by a large meeting, and there was even an attempt to create a parallel power structure. Those who participated stated in their e-mail exchanges that Putin does not care about Russians; he cannot even trust the Russian army and militia and looks at Chechens as his major support, a sort of janissaries. This event certainly alarmed Putin, who used the excuse of complications with Georgia to start harassment not only of Georgians but of all "people of Caucasian nationality,” and by doing so to channel the nationalistic animus into a safe direction.
At the same time, Russian authorities promulgated that Russians and Georgians have nothing in common. But Putin’s actions are an exact copy of what was done by the most infamous Georgian—Stalin––who routinely made his multi-ethnic subjects responsible for all the complications of Soviet foreign policy.
Before World War II, Stalin exiled Koreans from the Soviet Far East because they were subjects of the Japanese empire. During the war, ethnic Germans were given the same treatment, as were Soviet Jews later when Russia’s relationship with Israel soured. Only Stalin’s death saved the Jews from the fate of many ethnic groups of the empire.
Russian cynics might argue that Stalin’s brutality did not affect his relationship with the West when he became a wartime ally and was transformed into amicable “Uncle Joe.” Still, in sharp contrast to Putin, Stalin never intended to be a permanent part of the Western order.
It is true that Europe needs Russian gas and oil, but blunt disrespect for law—including Georgian Russians’ own laws—hardly encourages Europeans to give Russian companies access to distribution networks inside Europe. Russia’s actions do not encourage European investment or ease visa requirements. In short, such actions are certainly not the way to become permanently and closely connected with Europe.
There are other even more important differences between Stalin and Putin. Stalin raged against minorities, and the corresponding rise of Russian nationalism was well managed, helping to solidify his power and the strength of his empire. The situation is different with Putin; with all his penchant for authoritarianism, he hardly enjoys Stalin’s power. And Putin cannot manage the tide of Russian nationalism, as witnessed by pogroms against “people of Caucasian nationality” in Kondopoga. The nationalistic feeling encapsulated in the slogan “Russia for Russians” has endangered the very stability of the still multi-ethnic Russian Federation.
Putin does not like to be compared with Stalin, but he does like to be compared with Napoleon (at least he made such a statement in an early interview); therefore, an episode from Napoleon’s rule would be appropriate to characterize Putin’s actions. In 1807 Napoleon had his potential political rival kidnapped and shot. Commenting on this, one of Napoleon’s courtiers whispered to Talleyrand, “Sir, this is a crime.” Talleyrand snapped back, “This is worse than a crime—it is a mistake.” The same could be said about Putin’s mistreatment of Georgians in Russia. It is a definite mistake in the context of Putin’s plans to make Russia a permanent part of the West.
November 9, 2006
Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University South Bend, USA. His recent book is "East Against West" (Publish America, 2005).
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