Saturday, September 25, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Daghestanis Outraged by Moscow’s Decision to Shift Border with Azerbaijan

Paul Goble

Staunton, September 25 – Daghestanis, who as one commentator noted angrily this week “in 1999 stood up in defense of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” when they opposed a Chechen invasion have now been forced to watch “the violation of this [very same] territorial integrity by the government itself.”
In an article published yesterday, Ruslan Kurbanov, a scholar who serves on the working group of the Social Chamber for the Caucasus, said he was specifically referring to the agreement between Moscow and Baku over the flow of the Samur River which forms the border of the two countries (
That accord, which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made the centerpiece of his visit to Baku, shifted the line from the Azerbaijani shore of the river as it had been in Soviet times to the middle of the river, thus “allowing control of the Samur hydro-system to remain in the hands of the Azerbaijani side.”
Since the signing of that accord earlier this month, Kurbanov says, Daghestani journalists and bloggers have advanced numerous arguments as to “why for the peoples of Daghestan this agreement is a misfortune and why Russia’s inability to defend the interests of its own population, even of Caucasus nationality, is a humiliation.”
What makes their arguments particularly compelling, the Makhachkala writer says, is that “this is not a unique case.” Russia has been yielding territory for some time. And this process has involved “small units” of territory “now in the South and now in the East,” inevitably raising the question as to when this might stop.
In 2005, Kurbanov continues, Moscow and Beijing reached agreement on the partial demarcation of the Sino-Russian border. As a result of this accord, Russia handed over a total of 337 square kilometers to China, something that sparked “hot discussions” in Moscow and the Russian Far East about whether this had been the right thing to do.
At that time, he recalls, “opponents of that transfer of territory pointed out that these were strategically important lands for Russia because they were rich in natural resources. But defenders of this decision of the government asserted that the loss in land was not very big for Russia and that the improvement of strategic relations with China was much more important.”
But only three years later, however, Moscow agreed to hand over still more territory to China so that it could “solemnly claim” that territorial issues between the countries, “negotiations about which had lasted more than 40 years,” had all been resolved, something many Russians had assumed had already taken place in 2005.
That is worrisome, Kurbanov says, because “if in this way Moscow will resolve all territorial problems, then nothing will remain from the Great Russia [of today] in the very near future. “ What guarantees does anyone have that Moscow won’t resolve the Kuriles dispute with Japan in Tokyo’s favor to “improve relations” with Tokyo?
Or what about Kaliningrad oblast, Kurbanov asks rhetorically, “which before World War II was [Germany’s] East Prussia and whose capital Kaliningrad was Konigsberg? Or how can one “not recall about Azerbaijani pretensions not only to the Samur but also to the [southern Daghestani] city of Derbent and the land adjoining it?
And all these things raise the larger and potentially far more fateful question, Kurbanov suggests: “Does the current Russian elite have any point at which it is prepared to stop making territorial concessions to its neighbors if the interests of simple people do not agitate anyone [among that elite]?”
The anger Daghestanis now feel is important for two reasons. On the one hand, it suggests that many of them now view Moscow as incapable of defending existing borders, a conclusion that is especially dangerous in a region where any appearance of weakness can lead people to conclude that it is time to shift allegiances.
And on the other, and more immediately, Moscow’s failure to recall the time when Daghestanis stood up and defended the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation only 11 years ago almost certainly means that fewer of them will be prepared to do so again and that more will be prepared to accept border changes that Moscow won’t like at all.

UPDATE on September 27. The anger of Daghestanis about Moscow's concessions to Azerbaijan on the border river is now being echoed by some Russian commentators in Moscow. See, for example,

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