Thursday, August 21, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia Will Share the USSR’s Fate if It Recognizes Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Yabloko Leader Warns

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 21 – If Moscow goes ahead and recognizes the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and even more if it incorporates South Ossetia into the Russian Federation, the Russian Federation is likely to share the fate of the Soviet Union and fall apart sometime in the future, according to the leader of Yabloko.
At a Moscow press conference earlier today, Sergei Mitrokhin said that in all cases, “Russia must start from the principle of territorial integrity. And here,” he continued, Moscow “must think not only about the participants of the current conflict but also about its very own future” (
That is because, he pointed out, “in Russia there are an enormous number of such territories which after a certain time could theoretically follow the path of South Ossetia and Abkhazia” to independence. “We do not know what will take place 10, 15 or 20 years from now.”
And consequently, he argued, “it is very dangerous to set a precedent” that others may use, even when in Mitrokhin’s opinion “at the present time it is practically impossible to imagine that the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will ever agree to live within the framework of a united Georgia.
Curiously, the liberal Yabloko leader’s warning echoes in part the one nationalist LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky issued last February, albeit without the invocation of conspiracy theories and an attack on democracy and federalism as the source of all Russia’s past, present and future problems (
According to Zhirinovsky, the United States, having dismembered the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, is now seeking to do the same thing to the Russian Federation by “provoking the Kremlin to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia” and thus setting off “a parade of sovereignty declarations by national republics now within Russia.”
“In order to avoid the Kosovo variant” for Russia, the flamboyant LDPR leader said, “Russia needs a unitary state. If it does not set one up, then the country will collapse.” And he added that “if our present regime with a democratic state is preserved, then we will be forced over the course of the next 30 to 40 years to follow the Kosovo variant.”
Should that occur and Russia thus be split into a number of smaller and quite different states, Zhirinovsky said, then “we will have to tell our grandchildren that they will live in a different country, learn a different language and possibly profess a different faith. I do not want this for my children.”
Both Mitrokhin and Zhirinovsky point to some of the reasons why Moscow would be taking a big risk by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states or even more by including one or the other as part of the Russian Federation. But neither of them nor most other commentators are talking about the most serious threat such an action would entail.
And that is a lesson the demise of the Soviet Union taught: The USSR died because it was based on a system of politicized, territorialized, and hierarchically arranged ethnic groups, a system that could be relatively stable only under tough authoritarian rule. But precisely that level of authoritarianism inevitably got in the way of economic growth.
And consequently, Soviet leaders in the last 25 years of the existence of the USSR were forced to make a choice between a repressive system that guaranteed relative stability but precluded any serious modernization of the economy and the relaxation of repression in order to get the economy going again at the risk of the rise of demands by non-Russian groups.
Under Brezhnev, the Soviet leadership chose the first option -- political stability even at the cost of economic decline -- a position that was sustainable only because of the oil shock of 1973. But under Gorbachev, Moscow tried to get the country’s economy by relaxing repression for a time at least, with the result that the Soviet Union is no more.
If the Kremlin recognizes Abkhazia or South Ossetia, absorbs one or both of these territories or forms a new union with Belarus as it has pledged to do or with Kyrgyzstan as a poll suggests that country’s people want (, then it will quickly find itself in much the same position that the Soviet leadership did.
On the one hand, Moscow may be able to limp on for some time given the revenues it is taking in from the sale of oil and gas abroad. But on the other, it will have to become even more repressive than now to prevent not only many non-Russians but also Russian regional groups from demanding independence.
And that repression will just as in Brezhnev’s time make it almost impossible for Russia to modernize its economy, a shortcoming that will leave it further and further behind not only Europe and the United States but also China, India, and other rapidly developing countries elsewhere.
There is, of course, yet another reason why such predictions are likely to come true if Moscow makes the wrong decision: In Soviet times, Communist ideology in many but of course far from all situations placed severe limits on manifestations of Russian nationalism, limits that made it easier to run that multi-national empire.
But as one leader in the region has pointed out, “If the Russians come back this time, they won’t be constrained by communism.” And consequently, such a combination of Russian nationalism and increasing repression will pose a more serious threat to that country’s survival over the coming decades than anything Russia’s current neighbors could possible do.

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