Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: No Russian Leader Will Retreat from Recognition of Abkhazia, South Ossetia

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 22 – However much many in Georgia or the West hope, no conceivable Russian leader is going to be willing to back away from Moscow’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, according to one of Russia’s most thoughtful commentators on the Caucasus.
In an interview posted on Marketing and Consulting portal today, Sergey Markedonov pointedly says that “for Russia it would be completely impossible to back away from recognition [of the two] at least in the foreseeable future” lest in lose face among its own people or internationally (
Whether or not the recognition of these two republics was correct, he continues, “is another question: there are arguments both for and against.” But now that recognition has been extended and the Duma is set to ratify accords between Russia, on the one hand, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the other, that question is really irrelevant.
That is because everyone in the Russian government would view such a backing away from recognition as “an unqualified capitulation,” something none of them is prepared to do. And even if [a pro-Western liberal] like Yegor Gaidar were to become president of Russia,” Moscow would not be prepared to retreat.
Consequently, there is no reason to expect movement at future rounds of the Geneva talks convened by French President Nicolas Sarkozy – neither side is going to change its position – thus creating a stalemate much like the one in North Cyprus where a few countries recognize it but nothing will happen to change the facts on the ground.
“Twenty-five years have passed, and Turkey remains the only state that fully recognizes Northern Cyprus,” Markedonov argues, but that has been enough for Northern Cyprus to continue to exist. And the same outcome can be expected with Abkhazia and South Ossetia now that they have been recognized by the Russian Federation.
In the course of his interview, the Moscow analyst makes three larger points, all of which are likely to play a role in the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the other parts of the former Soviet space, and the relations between Moscow and European capitals, including those that are now most critical of what the Russian government has done in Georgia.
First, Markedonov notes that the lack of all the attributes of separate states in the two breakaway republics is hardly a block to their being treated as independent countries. “An enormous number of countries which have proclaimed themselves to be independent are not so in fact.”
Is is possible to call the countries of Africa independent in the full sense of the word?” he asks rhetorically. “The majority of them? In one way or another, [many of them remain even to this day] politically or economically dependent” on other states, including their former imperial masters.
“Or take the countries of the CIS: Are they in the full sense of the word independent?” he asks rhetorically. “Even those who are officially recognized as such by the United Nations?” According to Markedonov, they clearly are not, and he says, “let us look truth in the face” rather than act as if these countries have become something other than what they are.
Second, he argues that what has happened in Georgia over the last several months must be considered in the context of the collapse of an empire. “The collapse of the Soviet Uinon has not been finally completed. What happened in Belovesh’ye,” he says, “was only a legal pact, and in fact the disintegration of the Soviet Union continues even now.
In that connection, he observes, “all the borders between republics are not completely legitimate.” And consequently, the redrawing of lines, however painful it may be for some or even all of the participants and the international community is precisely “the interesting process we are now experiencing.”
And third, Markedonov argues that what Moscow did in Georgia did not represent a “cardinal” change in Russian foreign policy, only a more forceful application of what the Russian government has been insisting on for a long time – its zone of special interests in the post-Soviet space.
These arguments pose a serious challenge to Georgia and it supporters. Many in Georgia believe to this day that Tbilisi was the victor in the fighting and that it will recover Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the near future. Markedonov’s arguments suggest that this is not the case and will not be so anytime soon.
It is possible for Georgia and its supporters to declare they do not recognize the changes on the world’s political map that Russian military action brought about. Indeed, there is a new non-recognition resolution under consideration in the United States Congress, one that draws on the Stimson Doctrine of 1932 and on US non-recognition policy with respect to the Baltic states.
But those statements of principle, as important they are to those who make them, do not change two fundamental realities. On the one hand, just as the Soviets did not allow the Baltic countries to regain independence until the USSR was falling apart, so too Moscow is unlikely to release its hold on the two breakaway republics until the Russian Federation faces a similar fate.
And on the other, as Markedonov points out, Georgia is not nearly as important a player on the international stage as its current president believes. “In a global context,” he says, Georgia is only “a small ambitious country which attempted to make out of itself a second Russia or a second America. But it did not manage to do so.”
Over time, Markedonov suggests, even those countries in Europe and elsewhere who were horrified by Russia’s military action against Georgia will come to terms with the reality that the Russian Federation is a much more important partner for them than Georgia or any country like them could ever be – and they will act accordingly.
Those are realities few in Tbilisi will like but no one there should deny if Georgia is to make the best of a bad job rather than assuming that somehow or other either alone or with the help of others it will be able to restore the status quo ante and once again have at least nominal rule over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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