Friday, February 13, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia, West Pushed North Caucasus toward Radicalism Islamist and Otherwise, Activist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 13 – As a result of what they have done and what they have failed to do, Russia and the West over the last 20 years have pushed the peoples of the North Caucasus toward Islamist and other forms of radicalism, according to a Georgian émigré who backs the formation of a democratic confederation across the region.
Russian aggression against the peoples of the North Caucasus and Western failure to support the legitimate rights of these nations to self-determination have undermined support for liberal democracy and opened the way for the rise of extremist groups, Vladimir Khmelidze said, because these peoples felt there was nothing they could trust but God and the gun.
Had the West provided “real help” to the Republic of Chechnya-Ichkeria when it was confronted in the last decades by Russian aggression and Muslim extremists within its own borders, the Georgian activist argued, neither Russia nor the West would currently be facing the Islamist violence across the entire region.
In an interview posted online this week, Khmelidze argues that only the formation across the entire Caucasus of “a confederation of tolerant democratic states” which can aspire to inclusion “in all civilized international structures” like the UN, NATO and the European Union can help the region escape to have a better future (
A Georgian who worked closely with Zviad Gamsakhurdia in the late 1980s, Khmelidze helped to create the Assembly of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus in 1989. That organization fell apart in 1992, however, as a result of Russian pressure and a widespread sense of despair in the region that the West would do nothing to help.
But in 2006, Khmelidze, who emigrated to France after Gamsakhurdia was overthrown, helped organize a successor body, the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus, which he said has supporters in all the North Caucasus republics of the Russian Federation except Ingushetia as well as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in the hopes of advancing the same goals.
He told that he had taken that step for two reasons. On the one hand, he said, there was mounting evidence that Moscow planned to hijack “confederal” ideas in order to organize “volunteer detachments of North Caucasus peoples” in order to seize parts of Georgia much as it had done in Abkhazia 15 years earlier.
And on the other, Khmelidze said, it was important to counter “the religious psychosis” that had infected liberation groups in Chechnya and other parts of the region, a psychosis that undercut not only any chance for the democratic development of these nations but also the possibility that they would gain support from Russian democrats and the West.
Unfortunately, the confederal advocate continued, organizing any meeting of those who believe as he does, has so far been impossible not only in Russia but in the North Caucasus and even Georgia where “the democratize of [President] Saakashvili depends on which side of the bed from which he gets up on any given morning.”
In the three years since the organization was re-established, Khmelidze continued, much has changed and many opportunities have been missed, but he insisted that “the consolidation of the forces of Resistance in the Caucasus in the future can take place only on a democratic foundation.”
When and if freedom triumphs in the region, something that “neither Russian ‘democrats’ nor the civilized West” has done enough to promote, then “extreme forms of political and religious organizations will be replaced by moderate democratic forms of the organization of Caucasus society.”
According to Khmelidze, relations between France and its former colonial peoples suggest what is possible. “For decades, Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians fought with the metropolitan country. Now,” he says, “they live more or less comfortably side by side with one another.”
That can happen in the Caucasus as well, and “hatred can easily be replaced by good civil relations when there is no oppression.” Consequently, Khmelidze said, he was “certain that the peoples of the Caucasus will live in peace and accord with Russia when the latter will become genuinely democratic.”
Asked about Saakashvili and his policies, Khmelidze said that the current Georgian president had “correctly” chosen “the vector of rapprochement with the civilized West” but that unfortunately “all the rest of his actions [can be described as a form of] political epilepsy,” that has cost Georgia and the million Georgians living in Russia dearly.
Had Saakashvili been as cautious as Western politicians were and had he cared about the fate of his fellow Georgians in Russia, he would not have conducted the anti-Russian policy that he has and he would not have contributed to a situation Moscow exploited in order to “annex enormous parts of sovereign Georgia.”
Khmelidze acknowledged that he and his group are strong only to the extent that they maintain their principles: “We express the strivings of the absolute majority of the peoples of the region – to live in a democratic and tolerant Caucasus closely connected with the entire civilized world.”

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