The West's approach to the Caucasus
By Valery Dzutsev, special to Prague Watchdog
(Note: this article was written in 2008, before the August War in Georgia)
In yet another attempt to get rid of the Russian peacekeepers, Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdzhanadze stated on 31 October that the country would demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia and their replacement with international peacekeepers. Georgians like to point to Russia as the main obstructer of the reintegration of its breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russians respond with criticism of the Georgians’ conduct in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, arguing that only Russia can sustain peace in the region.
All major engaged parties from outside the South Caucasus seem to be interested in retaining the Soviet borders in the region. Paradoxically the declared consensus of the West, Russia and other important neighbors about not changing the borders does nothing to change the situation on the ground. Talks over the status of Abkhazia, South Ossetia have repeatedly been stalled.
Western governments and officials are often perplexed by the absence of prospects for a peaceful settlement in the region, while the situation especially in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is regularly brought to the brink of conflict. It is probably worth trying to perform an inventory of this state of affairs and see if new approaches may help to avoid another possible war in a region that is already riven by conflict and poverty.
The West is opposed to recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia and changing the Soviet borders of Georgia because Georgia is considered to be a faithful Western ally and because there is a widespread belief that it is the Russians who are fueling separatism in the former Georgian provinces.
The Georgians are opposed to letting their former provinces secede, apart from everything else because in the late 1980s and early 1990s the struggle to keep them became intimately linked to their statehood-building process.
What is somewhat less discussed is the fact that the Russians are also opposed to any change of borders in Georgia, not only declaratively, but also practically. The Russians understand very well that once the post-Soviet borders start to change, especially in the adjacent areas of the Caucasus, this will inevitably affect the Russian Federation too, because in the North Caucasus there are indigenous peoples who persistently harbor (or possibly cherish) separatist sentiments. Although Nikolay Zlobin of the Center for Defense Information recently said that this would not affect Russia, because Russia is wealthy, and so only an “inadequate” people would secede from her, it is obvious that not all the secessionist movements are necessarily directly dependent on the hope of a richer life. Not to speak of the fact that Russia’s wealth has the potential to evaporate along with high oil prices.
So in fact the Russians are just as interested in keeping the borders intact as are Georgia and the West. However, while supporting the old Soviet frontiers, the Russians also want to stay in the region because they still regard Georgia and the South Caucasus as their own domain. Another important consideration for the Russians is that if they were to leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia, this would send a certain message around the Caucasus – Russia is growing weak – and potentially create another wave of insurgency in the North Caucasus. Also, the Russians cannot be sure that if they leave the Georgian regions, the Georgians will not turn to waging another war in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This would again certainly affect the Russian North Caucasus because of the influx of refugees, and would cause general instability in an already volatile region.
The Russians are therefore in a limbo that does not really allow them freely to choose their course of action. The only positive outcome for the Russians would be to replace Saakashvili’s government pro-Western government in Georgia with a pro-Russian one, which is probably a feasible but currently implausible outcome. Regardless of the personalities of the Russian leadership – i.e. either Putin will remain as head of state, which is a very probable scenario, or someone else will succeed him – Russian policy in the region is unlikely to change. So the stalemate will hinder Georgia’s development and will undermine the overall stability in the South Caucasus for quite a long time if nothing is done.
A creative resolution of the border issues in the South Caucasus may harm Russia, because Russia has regions of its own which are prone to breaking away. The countries of the South Caucasus would be affected much less, because they do not exercise power over their breakaway provinces and in any case there is no viable prospect for them to do so in the visible future. A redrawing of the borders would certainly not harm the West, and there is possibly no other way of dealing with South Caucasian territorial disputes as the legitimizing results of bloody wars. After all, a similar postwar settlement took place Europe after World War II, so why not also apply this technique in the Caucasus? While it is true that more people died in Europe back then, the human progress that has been made over the past 50 years may allow us not to wait for more victims to arrive before making some decisive moves.
Realpolitik maintains that the Russians could afford to defeat the Chechens in a bloody war while ignoring the worldwide public outcry, but that the Georgians cannot afford to do the same thing in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Some Georgians may take offence at this idea, but they should probably be glad that they do not have the capacity to inflict such the horrors on their provinces as the Russians inflicted on Chechnya. And instead of calling in yet another round of hostilities now, the world should probably be happy to find a peaceful settlement.
A solution to the Georgian conflicts will not be found until the Russians gain a monopoly of control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, because the Russians have an interest in staying in the region as long as they possibly can, and they can do this only by constantly warming up the conflicts. At the same time, the breakaway regions cannot be left alone with Georgia either, as the conflicts will very naturally ignite again, either on their own or with the prompt assistance of the Russians. So the only way of dealing with those conflicts is to impose an international administration under the auspices of the UN or another international organization.
However, both the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians have been opposed to exchanging the Russian peacekeepers for any other force, and they will continue to do so unless they are offered tangible and reliable incentives, which may arguably be lower than potential or conditional independent statehood. It should be borne in mind that the breakaway regions are also among those parties that, unlike Russia, want to change the status quo, and there the opportunity would arise for the interested powers to step in.
By taking a more active and indeed creative approach in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the West could give a start to the establishment of a more democratic, stable and inclusive political order in the Caucasus. It could also have an calming effect on Russian activities in the region, by setting a good example to Moscow in dealing with its own national minorities and autonomies.
© 2010 Prague Watchdog (see Reprint info).
(DM) RELATED ARTICLES:
· Caucasus 2012 - part 2
· Caucasus 2012 - part 1