Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Might the US Recognize Abkhazia and Turn Moscow’s Victory into Defeat?

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 6 – The United States and even more likely Turkey might change course, recognize the independence of Abkhazia, move to include both Abkhazia and Georgia into Western institutions like NATO and thus transform Moscow’s victory on the ground in August 2008 into a major geopolitical defeat, according to a Moscow analyst.
In what he acknowledges is a highly speculative article, Andrey Serenko, a political analyst at the Moscow Foundation for the Development of Information, argues that however improbable it may seem at present, the US and Turkey might recognize Abkhazia as part of a broader strategy of ousting Russia from the Caucasus (
And while the Moscow writer may be wrong both overall and in detail, his argument is worth exploring not only because it reflects a habit of mind quite frequently found in the Russian capital at the present time but also because it highlights the fluidity and openness of a situation in the Caucasus that most analysts are inclined to see as far more fixed than in fact is the case.
Despite the fact that much of the fighting between Russia and Georgia took place in South Ossetia rather than in Abkhazia – in fact, there was no fighting there during the recent war -- “the main goal”of both Moscow and Tbilisi was the latter because control of that breakaway republic was seen as controlling so much.
“If Tbilisi had been able to return Abkhazia to its control,” Serenko suggests, “the fate of the Russian Black Sea Fleet would have been fixed” and against Russia, whereas if, as happened, Abkhazia gained its independence as a result of Moscow’s actions, Russia’s ability to project power in the region would remain great.
Given the geopolitical importance of Abkhazia, the Moscow analyst says, it is implausible that the West will simply continue to repeat its declarations of support for the territorial integrity of the Republic Georgia and do nothing to counter the consequences of Russia’s victory there last summer.
One possible scenario, Serenko continues, would involve the following steps: “The United States could conduct shuttle talks between the Georgian and Abkhaz leaderships and on the basis of their outcome declare that Washington, following Moscow, will recognize the independence of Abkhazia.”
Today, “no one expects this from the Americans but precisely such a move could change the situation in the Southern Caucasus in in favor of the US, because following such recognition, American investments, major Western companies and NGOs would flood into Sukhumi,” leading at least some Abkhaz to lobby “for friendship with the US.”
Russia is certainly not prepared for such an American move, nor are the upper reaches of the Abkhazian leadership. President Sergey Bagapsh and his colleagues are “sincerely grateful” to Moscow for its assistance in their republic’s gaining independence and for its recognition of that status. And they believe that they can resist any blandishments from the West.
But Serenko says, “serious politicians inMoscow cannot be such optimists. Besides that, there are in Abkhazia, besides Bagapsh, politicians, bureaucrats, and petty businessmen who are striving to become major players and ‘win out’ some personal profit from independence achieved at long last. … Independence in order not to depend on or to take from all …”
“In the event of a successful American entrance into Abkhazia, Sukhumi could be offered the variant which the US and NATO have already proposed to Serbia and Kosovo – why argue and fight over borders? Both Serbia and Kosovo will be admitted to the European Union in which there are no internal borders and then into NATO.”
That formula will eventually work in the Balkans. Why not try it in the Caucasus? “Why should Georgia and Abkhazia fight and argue among themselves? They both an be admitted … [after a decent interval] … into the European Union and into NATO. And then the problem of borders and independence disappears on its own.”
“Is this a fantastic scenario?” Serenko asks rhetorically. “Nomore fantastic than the disintegration of the USSR, the disintegration of Serbia or the recognition of the independence of Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” events many said would never happened before they did and were proclaimed inevitable.
One of the reasons that Moscow should be concerned about an American rapprochement with Abkhazia is that if it occurred, “the political successes of Russia [in Georgia in particular and in the Caucasus regionmore generally] would instantly be transformed into a political defeat.”
First of all, the Moscow political commentator insists, “having recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia [last summer], Moscow deprived itself of the right to talk about the principle of the inviolability of the territorial integrity of states and weakened its position in European political projects.”
Second, Russia opened itself to more separatist challenges within, if not today “when in Moscow the powers that be are strong and the threats of separatism do not exist,” but in the future because “no one knows [what the situation will be either in Moscow or on Russia’s periphery] several years from now.
And third, “the independence of Abkhazia achieved by Russia can open the way for a new political project which Moscow would hardly like. The Abkhaz, the Cherkess, the Kabardins, the Adyge, and also their co-ethnics living in Turkey, Syria, and Jordan form one super-ethnos,” collectively and by themselves known as the Circassians, Serenko says.
Their existence could lead to greater activism by Turkey in this area even if the US doesn’t move. Many have noted that Ankara did not follow its Western partners in condemning Russia’s military and political moves in Georgia, and “it must not be excluded that Ankara could recognize Abkhazia” as part of its ongoing effort to project power in the Caucasus.
In that event, Serenko concludes ominously, if not entirely convincingly given the restrained language he used in presenting his scenario, “into the orbit of this game could be included three of the North Caucasus republics” – Adygeya, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia – which are included in Russia.”

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