Vienna, August 19 – If Moscow’s use of Russia’s 58th Army in Georgia was an example of its employment of a blunt instrument to make its point, the Russian government’s announcement today that it was partially closing its borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan represents a carefully calibrated action designed to make a point at minimal cost.
Today’s “Rossiiskaya Gazeta” carried a Russian government decree dated Augusts 12th temporarily and selectively closing Russia’s borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan, a decision that one Moscow critic argues lacks any obvious logic, although he said there must be one somewhere (http://forum.msk.ru/material/news/518136.html).
In fact, the carefully crafted decree advances a number of Russian national interests without entailing the costs that some more sweeping Moscow moves have had in the past, an indication that this decision almost certainly was prepared not on the spur of the moment but had been prepared well in advance of Russia’s moves against Georgia.
The decree specifies that the FSB, together with the transportation and interior ministries and the Federal Customs Service, will temporarily close off transit across the Russian state borders with the Republic of Azerbaijan and Georgia, with several significant and clearly specified exceptions.
First, this border closure will not affect “the Abkhaz sector” of the Russian-Georgian border, “citizens and transport of member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and also the rolling stock of the Latvian Republic, the Lithuanian Republic and the Estonian Republic.”
Both the closure of the borders to all others and the exceptions are intended to send some very clear messages and to advance Moscow’s interests while minimizing any harm to them. With regard to the general message, the Russian government is obviously interested in showing that it has the power to do so and wants to deploy it against all of those it views as outsiders.
But the specific exceptions are where the real implications of this decree lie. First, the Moscow decree specifies that it does not apply to “the Abkhaz sector” of the Russian-Georgian border, an indication that Russia plans to continue to integrate that portion of Georgia into the Russian Federation.
(It is interesting that the decree makes no mention of the border between the Russian Federation and South Ossetia. One possible explanation, especially if this decree was prepared well in advance, is that Moscow expected its conflict with Georgia to be triggered by events in Abkhazia rather than South Ossetia and thus focused on that region rather than the other.)
Second, the decree makes an exception for citizens and transportation of CIS countries, an obvious attempt by Moscow to punish Georgia if it continues its drive to leave that Russian-dominated entity and an effort by the Russian government to suggest to other CIS countries, such as Ukraine, which may be thinking about leaving, that doing so would have certain downsides.
And third – and this almost certainly is what struck the Moscow commentator mentioned above as odd – the decree exempts the rolling stock of the three Baltic countries, all of whom are members of NATO and the European Union and all of whom have taken a tough pro-Georgian position in the current crisis.
Why would Moscow be making an exception in their case? The answer lies in one of the lesser know continuities from Soviet times to the present. Unlike most other Soviet-era organizations, the body that oversees railways for this region includes not only the 12 former Soviet republics but also the three formerly occupied Baltic states.
Continued Baltic participation in that body is important to Moscow: it has prevented the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians from changing the gage of the tracks they use, an arrangement that benefits both sides by allowing Russia to export via the Baltics without having to transfer their cargo to European-gage tracks.
Just when this decree will go into effect remains unclear. Today, an official in the Azerbaijan State Border Service told Trend News in Baku that “there are no changes in the regulations of passing borders between Azerbaijan and Russia” as of yet (news.trendaz.com/index.shtml?show=news&newsid=1274049&lang=EN).