Vienna, November 28 – Had Russian forces not supported South Ossetia in August 2008, a former senior Communist Party official in that region says, Moscow might very well have lost control over the entire North Caucasus, an argument that highlights the interconnectedness of the northern and southern portions of the Caucasus.
In a speech to a roundtable earlier this week, Anatoly Chekhoyev, a former secretary of the South Ossetian oblast committee of the CPSU who also served in the USSR Supreme Soviet and Russian Duma, asked his listeners to consider what might have happened if Moscow had not acted as it did (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/162493/).
“In 2008, even in Georgia,” he said, “people understood that Russia too could be dissolved – via the Caucasus. And just imagine if Russia had not defended South Ossetia. Then, the entire North Caucasus would have fallen apart: Because in the Caucasus people very much respect support and assistance at a difficult time.”
“Twice,” Chekhoyev continued, “South Ossetia, in which 99 percent of the population are citizens of the Russian Federation, has held referenda about being included in Russia. If Russia had stayed silent, then one could have shaken loose Daghestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and all the rest with the wave of a hand.”
At one level, of course, Chekhoyev’s comments are part of the continuing campaign of most South Ossetia leaders to have their territory annexed by the Russian Federation. But at another, deeper one, they provide an insight into the way in which at least some view the relationship between developments in the South Caucasus and those in the North.
Not only do his remarks suggest that some in Moscow felt they had no choice but to intervene in Georgia lest they lose the North Caucasus – a view that suggests many such people believe Russia control there is much less than Moscow claims – but Chekhoyev’s comments call attention to a longstanding pattern in the two parts of the Caucasus.
Since Russia began its expansion into the region, that country has never – not in the 18th century, not in the 19th century, not after 1917, and one could argue not since 1991 – been able to control the northern part of the Caucasus until it had first established control over the south, thus allowing Russia to crush resistance in the north.
The re-emergence of independent countries in the South Caucasus complicated Moscow’s problem, but it did not change this geopolitical reality. And Chekhoyev’s observations in this regard suggest that the Russian government both understands that and will continue to act accordingly whatever outsiders may think.
In other comments, Chekhoyev noted that the South Ossetian conflict had its roots in Soviet times. “In order not to give Georgia the chance to break away from the USSR,” he pointed out, two ‘hooks’ – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – were thrown” into the body of that republic.
After Georgia recovered its independence in 1991, the problems of these two places continued, but Boris Yeltsin, who was Russian president from 1991 to 1999, sought to avoid any discussion of border changes. Only with the coming to power of Vladimir Putin, Chekhoyev said, did Moscow come up with “an adequate policy.”
Regrettably, the former obkom secretary said, “even in Russia there are still today politicians who say that the question about the territorial integrity of Georgia is a question still to be resolved.” They apparently believe that “some kind of pro-Russian president of Georgia” will appear and then it will be “possible” to make arrangements.
That may be good diplomatic tactics – after all, at a recent birthday celebration for Yevgeny Primakov, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made a remark which some interpreted as meaning just that – but Chekhoyev’s argument suggests that in his view at least, this is little more than a gesture and that Moscow will not – indeed, cannot – change course.