Vienna, August 5 – Many commentators speculated that Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the wake of Russia’s military action in geography might prompt non-Russians especially in the North Caucasus to invoke the principle of the right of nations to self-determination and press their case for independence.
In the last 12 months, there has been relatively little evidence that the Georgia war led to any such transformation of opinion among those groups, but a new poll, released in Moscow yesterday, suggests that the events of August 2008 did have a significant impact on the thinking of many Russians about self-determination, at least beyond the borders of their country.
According to the results of a poll conducted by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), an agency with close ties to the Russian government, “the opinion of Russians about the principles by which [Moscow] should be guided in relation to unrecognized republics like Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniestria, changed in a radical way.”
In March 2008, VTsIOM said, “respondents most often considered that every situation requires specific consideration.” Now, the latest poll shows that they “are more inclined to support the principle of the right of nations to self-determination and state independence for the unrecognized republics” (wciom.ru/novosti/press-vypuski/press-vypusk/single/12235.html).
Thirty-six percent of the most recent sample back those principles, with the share supporting the application of the principle of the territorial integrity of states to such conflicts having fallen from 21 percent to 17 percent and those without any opinion on the matter having declined from 25 percent to 15 percent.
On the one hand, this shift in Russian opinion simply reflects widespread Russian popular support for what Moscow did in Georgia – even though another poll released yesterday by the Levada Center found that many Russians say Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not “useful” for Russia (www.gazeta.ru/politics/2009/08/04_a_3231615.shtml).
But on the other, it represents popular support for a more revisionist stance toward the borders of the former Soviet republics, at least other than those of the Russian Federation. (Another Levada Center poll today showed that Russians are prepared to use force to defend their country’s borders in the Caucasus (www.levada.ru/press/2009080501.html).)
Such popular attitudes, of course, will not determine the Russian government’s approach – which as Moscow analyst Aleksey Makarkin pointed out in an interview published today in Baku will in most cases reflect larger calculations (www.day.az/news/politics/167310.html) – but they do represent a potential resource that some in Moscow or elsewhere may invoke.
That could change the dynamics of discussions about these issues even if it does not do more than delay the resolution of any of them, issues that as Makarkin points out with his reference to Cyprus often involve sets of mutually exclusive but tightly held values and that are thus extremely difficult to resolve.
But there is another and more intriguing possible consequence of this shift in Russian public opinion. If the principle of the right of nations to self-determination becomes more acceptable in Russian discussions, then it is entirely possible that non-Russians inside the Russian Federation will pick up on that and play this idea back at Moscow.
If that should happen, and there is up to now no clear-cut evidence that it will, then one of the consequences of Russia’s actions in Georgia in August 2008 that many predicted at that time could in fact be realized, albeit with a significant delay and via a different pattern of influence than anyone expected.