Friday, September 19, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Abkhazia, South Ossetia Presenting Moscow with Unexpected Problems

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 19 – Moscow’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has shaken Russia’s ties to the United States and other Western countries and raised new questions about its relationship to the non-Russian republics and even some predominantly Russian regions inside the Russian Federation.
But the last week has provided evidence that each of these breakaway republics is presenting Moscow with some problems that no one in the Russian government appears to have expected but ones that some Russian commentators are now beginning to discuss more or less openly.
On the one hand, South Ossetia’s Eduard Kokoity can’t seem to remain on message at least from Moscow’s point of view concerning what the final status of his republic should be. And on the other, Abkhazia’s Sergey Bagapsh came to power as head of an “orange” revolution Moscow opposed and is soon likely to behave just as independently as that origin would suggest.
And consequently, in the words of one Moscow writer, the “paradise” Russian leaders thought they had achieved by the signing of friendship treaties two days ago is likely to prove “temporary” indeed, with each of these men and their states seeking to advance their interests by playing off one power off against another rather than simply following the dictates of Russia.
The problems South Ossetia presents are the more obvious. Its leader cannot seem to decide whether he wants his republic to be included in Russia or to be independent. Indeed, twice in the last week, he has insisted on the former and then shortly thereafter reversed course and said the latter.
But if Russian officials are pleased with their ability to bend him to their will in this way, they cannot be pleased by his latest remarks concerning how Kokoity sees the future. Yesterday, he said that South Ossetia does not intend to give up its independence but at the same time will work to unite with North Ossetia, a republic within the Russian Federation.
There are “many forms” for the combination of the two into one, he said, and his government will work “to facilitate the unification of our people … “an integration which is taking place today and creating possibilities for the Ossetian people so that we will unite in everything” (
Kokoity’s words on the future status of the two Ossetia’s, one outside the Russian Federation and the other inside, prompted to survey members of the Russian parliament and the leaders of religious and social communities as to how the two might be combined and what should be done (
Not surprisingly, given that combining the two within Russia would constitute annexation and combining the two outside could provoke a new wave of sovereignty declarations within, those queried calls for a careful examination of “the possible forms” that this unity might take before taking any irrevocable step.
That might appear to push the issue off far into the future, but in fact, such discussions – and the near certainty that Kokoity will continue to speak incautiously about these possibilities – will keep this issue front and center in the Russian media and expert community and undoubtedly attract the interest of ethnic and regional groups within the Russian Federation.
The problems that the situation in Abkhazia presents Moscow with may be less immediately obvious in the Russian capital,’s Sergey Petrunin says, but they almost certainly will prove far more difficult for the Russian authorities to cope with over the longer term (
Most Russians have forgotten, that the first “color” revolution after the “orange” one in Kyiv took place in Abkhazia where “inspite of the clearly expressed ‘wishes’ of Moscow, the presidential election was won not by Raul Khadzhimba but by a leader of the moderate opposition Sergey Bagapsh.”
Moscow used “all the classic instruments of pressure” to prevent that from happening, measures that in the event did not work and surprised “the freedom-loving Abkhaz” who noted that since both Khadzhimba and Bagapsh were for close ties to Russia, it was their “right” and “not Moscow’s” to “choose one or the other.”
Neither Bagapsh nor the Abkhazian people have forgotten that, Petrunin says. And consequently, that history is likely to cast a long shadow. “On the one hand, the Abkhaz are of course grateful to Russia for everything” it did to help them and to ensure that they could gain independence.
“But on the other, the freedom-loving mountaineers are concerned about the march of ‘Moscow money’ on their shores.” And Petrunin continues, “they do not want to turn the independence they have won with such difficulty into an empty formality” in which not they but Moscow will call the shots.
Consequently, the era of good feelings that exists between Sukhumi and Moscow now is unlikely to last forever, the commentator says. Indeed, no one is in a position to “say with 100 percent certainty” that it will be in lace “tomorrow, a month from now, [let alone] a year” or more.
And no one in Moscow or anywhere else, he concludes, is in a position to “guarantee that the Abkhaz leadership will not begin as in recent times the Belarusian leadership has a careful maneuvering among Russia, Georgia and the West in the search of advantage first of all for its small, long-suffering and proud people.”

No comments: