Saturday, July 5, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Seen Overplaying its Hand Along Its Borders in the Caucasus

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 4 – Even as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev completes his visit to Azerbaijan, Moscow is overplaying its hand in several places along the border between the Russian Federation and the countries of the southern Caucasus, sacrificing its long-standing advantages and creating new problems for itself in pursuit of ephemeral political interests.
By ratcheting up pressure in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow analyst Sergey Mikheyev argues, Moscow is weakening its own position, not only by helping Georgia gain outside support for the territorial integrity of that country but also by destroying the “quiet” that had allowed these two republics to strengthen their de facto independence.
No one in Sukhumi or Tskhinvali expects recognition de jure from Russia let alone any other country anytime soon, and consequently, Mikheyev suggests, “provoking an armed clash in this situation [as some in the Russian Federation appear interested in doing] is extremely dangerous” (
That is especially true in the case of South Ossetia, whose capital is located right on the border with Georgia proper, and “if the Georgians do not have sufficient forces to seize Abkhazia, they could take Tskhinvali if they wanted to,” something that would weaken Russia’s position in the region.
“Unfortunately,” Mikheyev says, the situation concerning Abkhazia and South Ossetia has reached “a dead end,” one in which the incompatible positions of Moscow and Tbilisi can be resolved only by force, something that could have unpredictable consequences, or by Georgia transforming itself into a federal state, a step it won’t take.
But South Ossetia, if Moscow continues on its current course, could generate an even bigger problem for the Russian state: demands by some Ossetians north and south of the Russian border for independence. In a Rosbalt commentary yesterday, Ana Amelina discusses what such demands, however “naïve,” could mean (
According to the Moscow journalist, Ossetians began talking about the possibility of seeking independence only after Beslan, “when Moscow demonstrated to the Ossetians and the entire world its weakness and insincerity.” Since that time, she says, the idea that only independence will save the Ossetians “has begun to take on political weight.”
Amelina, who professes her skepticism about this idea at every step, analyzes the writings of two of its advocates, Vissarion Aseyev, the local leader of Gari Kasparov’s United Civic Front, and Valery Dzutsev, who reported on developments in North Ossetia for IWPR and Caucasus Knot and now studies at the University of Maryland.
At the end of 2007, Aseyev published a manifesto on Ossetian independence in which he argued that “the contemporary construction of the state system in Russia does not allow for the development of border regions and national territories.” Instead, “Russia is being reborn as an imperial state.”
“Within that empire, not a single ethnos has a future; its future is complete degradation and [ultimately] a withering away.” Consequently, he said, the Ossetians must ask themselves whether they want to survive as a people; and if they do, then, they must seek independence from Russia. “There is no other way.”
But if Aseyev is very clear about the goal he believes his people should seek, his specific recommendations seem minimalist indeed. As a first step, he said, Ossetians must secure elected status for the republic’s president, ensure an open and honest investigation of Beslan, and link north and south Ossetia by public transport.
“Just how all this will make possible ‘the creation of a sovereign, flourishing and democratic Ossetian state,” Amelina suggests, is something that Aseyev and those who support his ideas nowhere make clear.
Dzutsev, Amelina says, provides a kind of road map for that, but again it is one that she clearly has doubts about. He suggests that “Georgia could propose that South Ossetia has the right to unite with North Ossetia if Russia were to recognize the same right for North Ossetia” – the right to exit the Russian Federation and form a single, independent, neutral Ossetian state.
If Moscow refused – as Amelina argues is certain – then Tbilisi could offer South Ossetia broad autonomy – something Georgia is loathe to do –“with the provision that if and when North Ossetia becomes an independent state, Georgia will allow South Ossetia to join it” and thus form a single Ossetia.
Even if one agrees with Amelina that this project is “naïve and utopian in all parameters,” Dzutsev’s argument like that of Aseyev is significant in a double sense. On the one hand, it demonstrates that even in Ossetia, long one of the most loyal parts of the North Caucasus, people are beginning to think seriously about independence from Russia.
And on the other – and this is the more immediately important lesson from their writings – Moscow cannot act here without constraints and without recognizing that other players including the Georgian and Ossetian governments have their own options that they may play if the Russian government continues to behave incautiously.
Obviously, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the two big issues on the Russian-South Caucasus border, but there are other smaller issues which some in Moscow appear interested in turning up the heat, including most prominently one involving two villages in Azerbaijan whose residents retain Russian passports.
So far, the situation around them remains relatively obscure. Among the most useful recent discussions are, and
But it is perhaps indicative that this week Sergei Markedonov, one of Moscow’s most thoughtful commentators on ethnic issues in the Caucasus, published an article about these villages, an apparent indication that some in the Russian capital may be preparing to put them in play – or at least positioning Moscow to threat to do so (

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