Vienna, August 7 – Most of the enormous number of commentaries on the approaching first anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war have sought either to identify winners and losers or predict the future, but the real lesson of that conflict is that more borders in the post-Soviet space are likely to change in the future, according to a Moscow analyst.
In an essay posted on Politcom.ru today, Sergey Markedonov, one of Russia’s most thoughtful commentators on ethnic relations, suggests that most analysts have adopted too narrow a perspective on last year’s conflict instead of considering what it says about the post-Soviet space as a whole (www.politcom.ru/8620.html).
Many analysts, he points out, have sought to draw up a political balance sheet. Bulgarian expert Ivan Krastyev, for example, has concluded that in the war, “Georgia lost its dreams, the Kremlin lost its complexes, Washington lost its nerves, and the European Union lost its peaceful dreams.”
Others, such as Andrey Illarionov, Pavel Felgengauer and Andrey Piontkovsky, have used devoted less attention to an analysis of what happened a year ago than in considering what will happen next, predictions that Markedonov says are based “less on empirical material than on their acceptance a priori of the thesis of the Russia’s aggressive imperial policy.”
And still a third group of commentators have dispensed with analysis altogether, using this anniversary for purely propagandistic purposes, with some claiming that Russia has “risen from its knees,” others talking about “freedom-loving Georgia” and still others going on about “the aggressive West.”
But almost none of them, Markedonov argues, have taken upon themselves the responsibility to consider more broadly “those processes in the framework of which have developed both the Georgian-Abkhaz and the Georgian-Ossetian conflicts as well as other ethno-political stand-offs in the post-Soviet space.”
If one does so, he continues, then one sees that all too many of these analysts have been seduced by “transitology,” by the insistence of many in the West and in Russia itself that what has been taking place in the post-Soviet space is “a transition from authoritarianism to democracy” like that in Spain, Portugal, Greece or Eastern Europe.
In fact, Markedonov argues, “the transition from ‘real socialism’ on the space of the former USSR was not a transition from authoritarianism to democracy. The core of this transition was the process of the formation of nation states on the ruins of the Soviet empire, a quasi-federalist state.”
“This ‘transition,’” he continues, is something that “the countries of Eastern Europe or of Greece were able to pass through during the first half of the 20th century.” And consequently, “after forming political identities (sometimes at a terrible price…), democratization became the order of the day for these countries.”
But on the territory of the former Soviet space, the Moscow analyst says, the countries still must resolve “where the borders of ‘our state’ begin and end.” Only once that has been achieved, something the East Europeans generally were able to do decades ago, will it be possible to put democratization at the center of the political agenda.
And because that is so, Markedonov says, “the excesses of the ethno-political conflicts on the post-Soviet space, including ‘the five-day war’” must be evaluated not according to the criteria of the ‘Spanish-Greek transit’ of 1974-1981” but rather according to those like the Sudetenland, Danzig or Memel issues of inter-war Europe.
Further, he insists, one should “judge the present post-Soviet elites not according to “the standard of Vaclav Havel or Philippe” but rather in comparison to “Joseph Pilsudski, Miklos Horthy or Ion Antonescu” who were engaged, sometimes brutally, sometimes not, in the building of their states in the 1920s and 1930s.
Because that is so, Markedonov argues, there was and is even now no basis for expecting “the rapid democratization” of the post-Soviet states. They had to take the steps necessary to show that “their borders, which were drawn by Soviet people’s commissars, were not fictional but real.”
And at the same time, like the Eastern Europeans of pre-World War II Europe, they had to demonstrate that their “new statehood (with ‘titular nations,’ defined already during the Soviet period)” could cope with the existence of “numerous ethnic minorities” both within the Soviet-drawn borders and beyond them.
Russian publicist Vitaly Portnikov was right, Markedonov says, when he pointed out that “the Communist system of the division of territories into first-class, second-class and third-class was clever. No one could ever understand why one republic was given union status and thus the right to separation and another was named an autonomous one without that right.”
“Only incurable (and at the same time not very smart) idealists could believe,” Markedonov argues, “that [the disintegration of the Soviet space] would take place exclusively along the lines of the union republics without touching the autonomous formations.” That simply was not going to happen as the conflicts frozen and otherwise have shown.
Obviously, he adds, different countries have different abilities to cope with challenges from these minority groups. And one of the clearest tragedies of last year’s war was that Georgian elites were unable “to conduct an accurate assessment of their own foreign and domestic resources.”
Had they been able to do so, Markedonov continues, the Georgians would have understood that “a nuclear power and member of the UN Security Council can permit itself ‘to drown terrorists in an outhouse’ … but a country with a population of four million (with Russia as an enemy) is condemned to conduct numerous negotiations and use ‘soft power.’”
“It is one thing,” Markedonov points out, for Georgia “to copy the style of Russian leaders in relations to the media and opposition, but quite another to conduct broad geopolitical actions. For this, one simply must understand the differences in scale (and world importance) of the two countries.”
Thus, “the chief result” of the Russian-Georgian conflict, the Moscow specialist concludes, is to highlight the continued lack of resolution of this problem of borders and identities inherited from the Soviet past and to underscore the importance of the resolution of these issues before expecting the kind of progress other “countries in transit” are making.
“Only when all these border arguments are resolved and the sides of the conflict come to compromises (and in the case of an accurate political audit this is possible not now of course but after 15 or 20 years) will it be possible to speak about the end of Soviet history in Eurasia.” And only then will something else be possible, he says.
Once those borders and those statuses are agreed upon, then “Russian and Georgian political analysts together with their Abkhaz and Ossetian colleagues will publish more than one multi-volume monograph or collection of archival documents with a mutual recognition of mistakes” – something the Czechs and Germans and the Greeks and Turks doing now.