Monday, September 15, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Georgian Moves Undermine Ethnic Relations in Russia’s Non-Russian Republics

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 15 – Speculation that Moscow’s extension of diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia might spark a new wave of sovereignty declarations by the non-Russian republics in the Russian Federation has led many to overlook how Russia’s actions are having an impact short of that at least in the near term among these nations.
In an article posted on the Caucasus Times portal yesterday, an Ingush commentator named S. Sultanov says that people in the republics of the North Caucasus are now talking not so much about declaring their independence as about the ways in which the Georgian events are affecting the situation there (/
He thus implies but does not say that few in the non-Russian republics of the North Caucasus believe that the West or Georgia will really push to recognize them as independent countries, but many there think that Tbilisi and its Western partners could raise issues that would allow the non-Russians to achieve other goals.
In Chechnya and Ingushetia, Sultanov writes, Tbilisi and the West would win many friends if they were to use this occasion to raise the question about the recognition of the Soviet deportation of the Chechens and Ingush in 1944 as a genocide, something for which he says “there are precedents.”
Moreover, he continues, many in the North Caucasus will be in a position to secure greater control over rural regions of their republics, with Moscow left in control of the cities and unable to deploy the kind of force that would guarantee Russia control of the region, especially as ethnic tensions are certain to rise.
That trend, of course, does not necessarily equal or even point toward demands for eventual independence, but it does suggest that relations between ethnic groups in these areas and between the central Russian government and the leaders and peoples of these regions are undergoing a profound change in the wake of Georgia.
As a result of its military moves in Georgia, Sultanov says, “Russia has left the Russian language population in the North Caucasus” in an increasingly uncomfortable position. Ever more of them will either seek to leave or demand that Moscow adopt a more repressive approach to the indigenous populations.
But the application of such repression will have the unintended consequence of leading even more of the local people to demand that the “outsiders” who increasingly will be viewed as “a fifth column” go home, further reducing Moscow’s ability to manage or even control large swaths of territory even if no one declares for independence or recognizes it.
Throughout the history of its presence in the North Caucasus, Sultanov argues, “Russia has based itself not on peoples and on their spiritual, moral and cultural potential but on ‘elites’ assigned by itself.” Increasingly, the isolation of these elites from the population has become greater, and the events in Georgia will only increase this divide further.
As recognition of that reality spreads and intensifies among the peoples of the North Caucasus – and Sultanov indicates that in his republic Ingushetia, such an understanding is already widespread -- there is no reason to think that Moscow will have a “peaceful future” if its forces, military and political, remain in the region.
Finally, the Ingush commentator points out that many in the West are deceiving themselves about what Russia is and consequently about what role any sanctions against Moscow will play. Whatever some in the West think, Russia “has never been genuinely democratic.”
Instead, Russia even now is a mix of “feudalism and serfdom,” a combination that the current masters of the Kremlin like to call “sovereign democracy.” And consequently, the impact of what the West does or does not do on the Russian government is very different than it would be if Russia were a democratic country.
Many in the West and especially in Europe are now saying, Sultanov continues, that imposing sanctions on Russia will accomplish nothing or even make things worse. But in fact, he argues, a failure to impose sanctions will have that result, because the Kremlin will conclude that the West can be pushed around.
And that in turn will set the stage for a more aggressive Russian policy both abroad and at home, threatening the international order directly in the first case and indirectly in the second by increasing repression against the nations in the Russian Federation and setting the stage for more explosions there.
Sultanov’s argument, of course, does not mean that some of the non-Russian republics may not try for independence sometime soon. Today’s news featured a report that the Altai government has refused to comment on the possibility that it might go independent, a position some will see as leaving open that possibility (
The decision of Altai officials not to comment, of course, probably reflects less that than a desire not to attract the kind of attention that came to senior official in the Komi last week when he pointedly rejected any possibility that his republic might ever seek to become an independent country (
But as so often happens in Russia, a new anecdote may provide more insight into what people there are thinking than any other sources: In the wake of Moscow’s moves in Georgia, reports, Russians and non-Russians are noting that “the Russian Federation is the only country in the world which defends its citizens only on foreign territory.”

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