Vienna, December 11 -- Many observers have suggested that Moscow, repeated threats notwithstanding, is unlikely to respond to Western recognition of Kosovo by recognizing Abkhazia and South Osetia lest it permanently poison relations with Tbilisi and more immediately guarantee the re-election of Mihkiel Saakashvili as Georgia’s president.
But one analyst is now suggesting that there may be an even weightier element in the Kremlin's calculations -- a real fear that an independent Abkhazia could threaten the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation itself by attracting into its orbit the Adygei, Cherkess, Kabards, and Shapsugs into what would then become a Greater Circassia.
With a population of upwards of half a million and control over a significant section of the shoreline of the Black Sea, such a state would pose as much or more a threat to Russian interests in the region as to those of Georgia -- even if it did not have exert a domino effect on other ethnic groups across the North Caucasus.
Moreover, were such a stage to emerge, it would not only likely include Sochi where the 2014 Olympics are scheduled to take place but also enjoy the support of the five to seven million-strong and in some cases well-connected Circassian diasporas in Turkey, Jordan, Europe and the United States.
Given those possibilities, it is understandable why some in the Russian capital might be nervous about any move on Abkhazia, and in an essay entitled "The Hydra of Separatism," Dmitriy Nersesov argues that despite posturing by Duma, the Russian government understands these risks ( http://www.globalrus.ru/opinions/784559/).
Until very recently, Moscow officials had argued that the West would be creating a precedent for Russian recognition of the four so-called "unrecognized states" -- Abkhazia, South Osetia, Transdniestria, and Nagorno-Karabakh -- if it went ahead with its plans to recognize the independence of Kosovo.
But then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed out that Washington continues to view Kosovo as unique and promised that the U.S. would not welcome its application to separatist groups within the Russian Federation -- an implicit warning, Nersesov says, that in the game of precedents, more than one could play.
And after that, the Moscow analyst continues, both President Vladimir Putin at the European Summit in Portugal and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov changed the language in which they talked about Kosovo, dropping any reference to precedents and coming out in favor of the territorial integrity of states.
That shift, Nersesov argues, reflects Moscow's concern that its constant discussion of Kosovo in terms of precedent could work against the Russian Federation, a threat the Russian government must defend against even to the point of being willing to support under certain conditions the reintegration of Abkhazia and South Osetia into Georgia.
At the present time, of course, the idea that the Circassian peoples would seek to join an independent Abkhazia is "a purely hypothetical threat," but it is one, Nersesov continues, that Moscow must fear since "the probability of its realization is much higher than that of the outbreak of a nuclear war."
This change in vocabulary concerning the relationship between Western action on Kosovo and Moscow's policy toward the "unrecognized states" suggests that the Russian authorities are more worried about secessionist challenges to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation than Putin has let on in recent months.
Indeed, another indication of this concern came last week in a hysterical Russian Foreign Ministry statement denouncing a November 28th conference on Ingushetia at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., and statements there by representatives from the region ( http://www.rosbaltsouth.ru/2007/12/07/438417.html).
But Nersesov concludes his article with what may prove to be a more intriguing idea: He suggests that in order to protect its own territorial integrity, Moscow may be ready to force the reintegration of Abkhazia and South Osetia into Georgia, if for example Tbilisi would agree to better relations with Moscow and end its plans to join NATO.
And that possibility, one reflecting Moscow’s fears about its own borders, would make the West’s recognition of Kosovo less of a problem, but at the same time, such a turnabout by Moscow would further anger Russian nationalists who believe the Putin regime has sold out not only their “brother Serbs” but Russian interests as well.