August 29th 2008 · Prague Watchdog / Sergei Markedonov · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Don't write Russia off yet!

Don't write Russia off yet!

A response to Sergei Gligashvili‘s polemical article “An empire on the verge of collapse”.


By Sergei Markedonov, special to Prague Watchdog

Even a superficial acquaintance with the West’s behaviour during the second half of the twentieth century is sufficient to stop one harbouring any illusions. The West has always noticed Russia (and formerly the USSR) when its interests are directly affected, and is ready to ignore or even indulge Russia if that is consistent with the national interest of the United States and the countries of Europe.

Thus it was in 1941-1945 (as though America didn’t know about the Stalin-era deportations). Thus it was in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, when the Soviet Union imposed order on its zone of influence and responsibility. Thus it was in 1991 in Riga and Vilnius. It was almost the same in 1996, when the election of Boris Yeltsin as president turned out to be of strategic importance for the United States and the countries of Europe. Who remembered Chechnya then? And after September 11 it was hard to find many supporters of "free Ichkeria" in Washington. The issue of Chechnya was only seriously raised in the West in 1999-2000, and then only because of the fact that Moscow's position on Kosovo was incompatible with the line adopted by the US and the EU – remember Yevgeny Primakov’s famous U-turn over the Atlantic.

It was for somersaults like this that efforts were made to teach Moscow a few lessons. But when it turned out that Moscow and Washington had more strategic interests in common than they had differences, "struggling Ichkeria" was simply forgotten.

Meanwhile, one suspects that the fuss surrounding the Russian action in Georgia will soon die down – especially after the US presidential elections have been held. Today it is important to the US administration (and its heir-in-waiting John McCain) to convince ordinary Americans that Washington will support the "democratic little Georgia" about which they have been hearing from their television sets for the past four years. And so they need to create an atmosphere of fear and hysteria in order to show people that the United States and its faithful allies have foiled the Kremlin’s plan to revive the Soviet Union. All that needed to be done was to sacrifice a couple of places called Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which are not even not visible on the map). As for the plans to reunify the Evil Empire, they fell through.

It is strange that the "watchdogs of democracy" stubbornly refuse to notice that without Russia’s participation it would today be physically impossible to resolve a large number of the most critical issues of world politics. There is Afghanistan (to which the transit route lies through Russia and Central Asia, where Russian influence is extremely strong and consistent with American interests). There is Iran, with which negotiations are sometimes simply impossible without Russia’s involvement (otherwise Iran simply will not talk). There are the problems of North Korea and the Middle East, terrorism, and the full range of nuclear issues. Closer to the South Caucasus, there is above all Karabakh, where the positions of the US, Russia and France, the three mediating countries, are absolutely identical.

And it can quite safely be asserted that the disintegration of a nuclear power into separate pieces has no part in the plans of the United States, any more than the U.S. intended to bring about the break-up of the Soviet Union. While there are plans to weaken Russia, complete collapse is not on the agenda.

Regarding the question of standards and international law, any decision on recognition (or non-recognition) is taken – and not just by Russia – on the basis of national interest rather than abstract standards. The European Union and the United States opted for the right of nations to self-determination when they recognized the independence of Croatia, Slovenia and Kosovo, and did their utmost to defend the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Russia has fought separatism in Chechnya and regional particularism in the North Caucasus and the Volga region, but has recognized the independence of Georgia’s two separatist republics. Turkey emphasizes that the principle of the territorial integrity of the states in the region is the aim of its Caucasus policy, and also does its best to fight Kurdish separatism. At the same time, Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo and is still alone in recognizing the de facto Turkish Cypriot state.

And here there is no contradiction, because this apparently illogical policy is built around one idea – the ensuring of Turkey’s national interests and security. On the other hand, among experts in polite expert society it is considered simply indecent to talk about international law after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and the Yalta-Potsdam system. International law is always related to history – it is produced in specific contexts, and not on the basis of abstract altruism. The Yalta-Potsdam system reflected the reality that developed after 1945. And as soon as it ceased to reflect them, it passed into history.

Now to turn to the argument about the "Abkhaz boomerang," which is supposedly going to rebound against Russia (in Chechnya, Tatarstan or elsewhere). Mr. Gligashvili writes: "The Kremlin has given an impetus to processes that no one is capable of controlling. And it looks as though Russia may turn out to be the principal victim of a new world order, or – more precisely – disorder. At some point events will evolve spontaneously, since Moscow’s recognition of Georgia’s autonomous regions is setting in motion a mechanism that revises the basic principle of territorial integrity in the post-war world."

It’s a great pity that the expert has ignored numerous examples of the revision of the principle of "territorial integrity" in the world since 1945. Cyprus, Bangladesh, Eritrea, East Timor, fifteen republics of the former USSR, Slovakia, six republics and one autonomous province of the former Yugoslavia. And these are only the successful examples. There were also Biafra, Katanga, and three unrecognized republics of Yugoslavia. So it all began long before Kosovo. The Yalta-Potsdam system was built on the basis of two irreconcilable principles (territorial integrity and the right of nations to self-determination). These principles undermined the system from within, and finally toppled it. As for the process of recognition as an alleged factor in influencing a country’s integrity, here too one should not try to create myths out of nowhere. Quebec did not break away from Canada just because Canada recognized Kosovo. When it recognized the ex-autonomy of Serbia, France did not automatically experience a Basque uprising or a Corsican secession. And so the main problem for a multi-ethnic society is not the recognition or non-recognition of separatist territories, but the creation of a competent domestic policy and the building of national status.

If the dissident Georgian nationalist movement began its struggle for power with the slogan "Georgia for the Georgians", the demand for the abolition of national autonomous regions and a ban on participation in elections by the Georgian regional parties (Adamon Nykhas and Aydgylara), then one should have had no illusions about how the Abkhazians and Ossetians would feel about the "Georgian State" project. None of Russia’s presidents (for all their failures, stupidities and crimes) has ever called the Chechen people “trash that has to be swept out through a tunnel”. For that is what Georgia’s first President Zviad Gamsakhurdia said about the Ossetian people at a rally in the village of Eredvi in 1989.

One can argue about whether what happened in South Ossetia was genocide or not. The claim is probably an exaggeration founded on propaganda. But the fact that the city of Tskhinvali was stormed four times in seventeen years (twice in 1991, once in 1992 and most recently in 2008) – is an obvious fact. During the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-1993 3,000 Abkhazians out of a pre-war population of 93,000 died in the fighting. The failure of the creation of a Georgian nation state became the spur to separatism in the former autonomous regions.

I am not going to remain silent about the Russian excesses in Chechnya. But the conflict in that republic is very different from anything that has taken place in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Chechnya, military clashes began long before the entry of Russian troops into its territory in 1994. In 1992 Grozny fought with the forces of Nadterechny district, and then the republican government began another confrontation (using heavy armour) with the Grozny city authorities. There were several conflicts in Chechnya throughout the whole of the 1990s.

The conflict between Moscow and Grozny was only one of those. There were also conflicts between nationalists, supporters of secular democracy and Islamists, between Sufis and Salafists, between supporters of secession and their opponents (the Avturkhanovites, for example). Russia has always had its allies in Chechnya. In 1996, Alu Alkhanov defended Grozny’s railway station from the guerrillas and in 1999 Beslan Gantamirov and Said-Magomed Kakkiyev stormed it together with Russian troops. And behind these leaders there were always armies and a certain degree of strength. Georgia has not faced “its Abkhazians" for sixteen years.

There is much else that could be said about Chechnya. About Chechen business activity in Moscow, which continued even during the two military campaigns, about the migration of Chechens to Russian regions (for some reason there is no Abkhazian business activity in Tbilisi, and in August 2008 the Ossetian refugees fled to Vladikavkaz rather than the Georgian capital). Thus Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is unlikely in itself to become a challenge to the country's unity. If the Russian state is able to conduct an effective campaign against corruption and the privatization of power, which is happening in Kadyrov's Chechnya, it will not collapse like a house of cards. But if the Kremlin is not able to alter those negative domestic tendencies, then that is what will be fatal for Russia, and not the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Andrei Dmitriyevich Sakharov was right when he referred to Georgia as a "little empire". It is precisely the inadequacy of its own ideas concerning its role and place in world politics that has led Georgia to a natural collapse. Georgia should have been more realistic and cut its cloth to suit its cloak, rather than trying on suits made in Washington. Then it would not have had to go looking external causes for the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and bring political storms against its the northern neighbour, the country from which only recently "the sun rose on Georgia." But nota bene: it wasn’t Moscow’s politicians who talked such nonsense!


Sergei Markedonov is a senior researcher at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, Moscow.


Picture source:

(Translation by DM)


 · An empire on the verge of collapse (PW, 27.8.2008)



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