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The debate in Russia in Global Affairs

Mikhail Troitsky – Fyodor Lukyanov (chief editor)

Russia in Global Affairs, founded in November 2002 by the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and the Izvestia daily, is an English-language journal published on a quarterly basis. It is accessible online free of charge. Its editorial board includes the chairman, Sergey Karaganov; Martti Ahtisaari, Nobel Prize Winner and former President of Finland; Carl Bildt, Foreign Minister of Sweden; Helmut Kohl; and Sergey Lavrov and Igor Ivanov, both in personal capacity. The editor-in-Chief is Fyodor Lukyanov.

Russia in Global Affairs has published many contributions to the debate on the South Caucasus. The following are some of the most interesting recent articles on the region:

Mikhail Troitsky, "Accepting the Inevitable?", Russia in Global Affairs. no. 2, April – June 2009

Troitsky discusses the forces behind US policy toward the South Caucasus and Georgia in particular:

"U.S. policy in the South Caucasus has been affected by two powerful domestic interest groups – the Armenian lobby, which prevented Washington from developing relations with Armenia's rival – Azerbaijan – in 1991-1994, and transnational energy corporations that grew increasingly interested in the Azeri and Kazakh oil and natural gas after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Eventually, the latter groups made sure that the United States normalized relations with Azerbaijan and supported the Contract of the Century – the 1994 deal to develop Azeri oil by an international consortium involving – among others – Britain's BP, America's Amoco and Russia's Lukoil.

On the 'ideological front,' starting from 2003 the Bush administration consistently presented Georgia as a showcase of democratic transformation and Washington's important ally in the global fight against terrorism. The U.S. officials made repeated statements that Georgia was a democracy stronghold in the South Caucasus, a society which had successfully removed authoritarian rulers and had firmly allied with the U.S. As a flip side, America's international prestige of a supporter of Georgia's democratic transformation became dependent on the outcome of the domestic reform and external policies pursued by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili."

Analysing the reasons for war in Georgia in 2008, he notes:

"Debate on whether the United States encouraged or acquiesced with Tbilisi's plans to invade South Ossetia in August 2008 continues unabated. There is little evidence that Washington could officially approve of such action if consulted by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Yet it is clear that the April 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration set a timeline for Tbilisi to resolve its internal territorial problems. Under a strong influence by the U.S., which was widely reported in the media, the leaders of NATO countries asserted that Georgia (and Ukraine) 'will become members of NATO' and announced that a further decision on the prospects for Georgia's (and Ukraine's) NATO membership would be made at the December 2008 meeting of NATO foreign ministers. The next step could have been granting a Membership Action Plan to Georgia. In any case, the Bucharest declaration clearly implied that Tbilisi had several remaining months of 2008 to achieve a decisive progress in the reunification as a precondition for joining NATO. Tbilisi took the Bucharest message as a green light for dealing with the breakaway regions as it wished. In their turn, American policymakers, knowing the situation on the ground, could have little doubt that Tbilisi would choose to resort to military force."

And looking forward:

"For all its interest in the South Caucasus, the United States was not prepared to seriously commit itself to the defense of the Transcaucasian republics. Apart from moral support, Georgia did not receive the material backing it expected from Washington during the military confrontation with Russia over South Ossetia in August 2008. As long as U.S. President Barack Obama is intent on pursuing a more pragmatic foreign policy than his predecessor, who considered supporting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to be a matter of principle, American stakes in the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia may decrease. However, even if the ideological component of U.S. policy in the South Caucasus becomes less pronounced, Washington's material interests will persist in America's support of Georgia."[11]

Interview with Troitsky on Russia Today.

Mikhail Delyagin, "A Testing Ground for Modernization and a Showcase of Success", Russia in Global Affairs no. 1, January - March 2009

This is a detailed discussion of the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The author argues that the success or failure of the "normalization" of South Ossetia is an important test for "Russia's ability to promote development," with Abkhazia "an outside testing ground for modernization":

"The greater part of the region's potential can be tapped only with the aid of Russian financing and through access to its markets, which makes Moscow's policy a key factor in Abkhazia's development. The key task is to raise the quality of management in the region, including state administration. Management today combines zeal with the absence of elementary skills. It is enough to mention that Abkhazia does not accumulate data for calculating the inflation index and the authorities have to make judgments about the economy based on cost indicators.

The transfer of trivial knowledge and skills by Russian managers and experts, which was previously blocked because Abkhazia was not officially recognized, will speed up its development and will help Russia train specialists for its own modernization. These people will be unique due to their experience with constructive creative activity in Abkhazia (rather than stealing) and because of their zeal to win (as opposed to the current defeatism of Russian red tape).

Abkhazia needs standard mechanisms for promoting its image, including making its virgin and fervently-protected natural surroundings popular. It should stress the idea that the denial of Abkhazian recognition is fraught with destruction of the environment. The West is usually not prepared to help people, but it quite often supports them together with some nice-looking 'shrubs'. Just a single film about Abkhazia's natural wonders on the National Geographic Channel would do more for the region than any big investor…

Russia needs its own offshore zone, as such zones are not only tools for tax evasion, but also levers of global manipulation of capital. Big business needs such zones, including Russian business … Abkhazia may take on the role of an offshore financial center, along with the Kaliningrad Region. Since most countries have not recognized Abkhazia, the functions of a registration center may be delegated to a Russian town close to the border. Abkhazia would get dividends in the form of salaries of token directors and business activity, while Russia would get an instrument of global business maneuvering not subject to external controls.

Russia needs a seaside resort that is close, but along with assigning that role to Abkhazia it is essential to protect the environment. The region may grow into an analogue of Montenegro for Russians in terms of it being an inexpensive seaside holiday and there could be investment in real estate as early as in the next two years. It is time to drop the Soviet-era mania of erecting concrete edifices, oil refineries and all such things in recreational areas. Poverty dictates that the Abkhazians cannot choose investors, so control over environmental standards of production facilities in the region should become Russia's responsibility."

As for South Ossetia's economic future:

"Russia's goal is to bring South Ossetia's economy and living standards to the average level of Russian regions that make up the South Federal District (all of which are in depression except for the Rostov Region, the Krasnodar and Stavropol Territories) by 2011.

A total of 16 billion rubles will be allocated to restore the first 750 examined facilities under a restoration plan for 2009-2011 and another 9.5 billion rubles will be needed for priority measures. In all, allocations for the restoration of South Ossetia will reach 25.5 billion rubles (10 billion rubles in 2009) and this figure will likely increase. For instance, Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin has requested 40 billion rubles to rebuild roads in North and South Ossetia from 2008-2015. Some of the money will come from the budget of North Ossetia, which means that South Ossetia will be plugged into Russia's budgetary system. One can also surmise that the region could be united with North Ossetia after it reaches the average economic level of the South Federal District."[12]

Russian Ambassador at the United Nations, Vladimir Churkin. Photo:

Sergey Markedonov, "Regional Conflicts Reloaded", Russia in Global Affairs no. 4, October - December 2008.

Markedonov blames successive actions by the government in Tbilisi for 'unfreezing' conflicts in Georgia/ South Ossetia/ Abkhazia. 2004, he argues, was a turning point in Russian-Georgian relations:

"The fifth stage can be described as 'unfreezing' the conflict. It began with attempts by Tbilisi to revise the balance of forces in South Ossetia and the political-legal format of the settlement. The Rose Revolution in Georgia in October-November 2003 and Mikheil Saakashvili's stunning victory in the presidential election in January 2004 (he got a landslide 97 percent of the votes) were all mobilized by a 'patriotic resource,' as was the case in the 1990s. In their speeches, Saakashvili and his associates called for rebuilding one Georgia and taking revenge for 'national humiliation' in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

On May 31, 2004, Georgia sent 300 special task force fighters to South Ossetia under the pretext of combating smuggling, but without consulting the Joint Control Commission (JCC). JCC participants branded the move as a breach of the Dagomys accords of 1992. Georgia then accused the Russian peacekeepers of ethnic bias and crimes. On July 20, 2004, the Georgian president publicly stated that he did not rule out a denunciation of the Dagomys accords: 'If the Georgian flag cannot be hoisted in the territory of the Tskhinvali district within the framework of the agreements, I'm prepared to walk out on them."

Saakashvili's statement indicated three goals he was striving to achieve:

  • internationalize the Georgian-Ossetian conflict by involving the United States and European countries in its settlement;
  • reformat the conflict from Georgian-Ossetian to Georgian-Russian, and present it as a manifestation of Russian neo-imperialism;
  • reject Russia's exclusive role as the guarantor of peace in the region.

It is the realization of these goals that became the quintessence of the fifth stage of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict."

And he continues:

"A second war began in South Ossetia from August 8-19, 2004. The parties did not only use small arms in this confrontation, but also artillery. Although the warring sides had stopped fighting briefly by the end of the month, August (a fateful period in the conflict) 2004 marked the beginning of a new wave of shellings, attacks, provocations and blockades of vital lines of communications. From this time on, the tactics of 'small incidents of overreaction involving the military' became daily routine in South Ossetia.

This brief war (which has been forgotten and eclipsed by 'the hot August' of 2008) was a turning point in Russian policy in the region. Until 2004, Moscow had been anxious to stay unbiased and neutral, and keep the status-quo as the best way out. After 2004, Russia, realizing that the security of the whole North Caucasus depended on the situation in South Ossetia, de facto took the side of the self-proclaimed republic.

First, Moscow began to view Tskhinvali as an instrument to influence Tbilisi (which had started out by then not just on a very pro-American, but also on an anti-Russian path). Second, the loss of South Ossetia was seen as a threat to Russia itself. The still unresolved Ossetian-Ingush conflict was closely linked to the situation around the self-proclaimed republic. In 2004-2006, the Georgian parliament adopted a range of resolutions calling the Russian peacekeeping mission 'negative' and Russia's actions as 'an undisguised annexation.' In the autumn of 2006, Tbilisi launched the project of 'an alternative South Ossetia' by putting the Georgian flag into the hands of Dmitry Sanakoyev, a former prime minister and defense minister of South Ossetia. The purpose of the project was to reformat the negotiating process (by actually giving up direct dialog with Tskhinvali).

Tbilisi was feeling increasingly confident as the United States and its allies turned a blind eye to the violations of peace accords with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and reacted half-heartedly to backtracking from democratic standards inside the country: such as a crackdown on the opposition on November 7, 2007, and the use of administrative resource to fight the opposition during elections in Adzharia in 2004 and at municipal elections in 2006.

In 2008, Moscow also contributed to the 'unfreezing' of conflicts in Georgia. On March 21, the State Duma adopted a statement which outlined two conditions for a possible recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia's accession to NATO and use of force against the two self-proclaimed republics). In April, Vladimir Putin, as the outgoing Russian president, instructed the federal government to provide 'substantive assistance' to the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The instruction envisioned, among other things, the establishment of direct contacts between Moscow and Tskhinvali and Sukhumi. The West, whose response was immediate and tough, said that Georgia's territorial integrity was its priority.

Nevertheless, the status quo was disrupted in South Ossetia before August 7, 2008, and, to a lesser extent, in Abkhazia as well. During the armed clashes four years ago, some 70 people died (today these casualties have simply been forgotten), while in subsequent years the number of deaths on each side (according to different estimates) totaled 100. Quantity evolved into quality in August 2008."

The new situation is viewed as extremely dangerous. Frozen conflicts, warns Markedonov, have by now thawed.

"In 2008, confrontations within the CIS attained a qualitatively new level. Although they were primarily caused in the early 1990s by the break-up of the Soviet Union, today they are motivated not by past inertia, but by the current dynamics of the development and construction of new nation-states. … 'Frozen conflicts' are a thing of the past decade, which disappeared together with Yeltsin's generation. Now conflicts are conceived and resolved by the post-Soviet generation of politicians, who work out new rules as the game progresses."

Looking at the 2008 war in perspective, he takes stock of Russia's fear of instability in the Northern Caucasus:

"Russia took military actions beyond its territory for the first time in years. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian military and borderguards took part in containing two civil wars in Tajikistan (1992-1997) and Georgia (1993). Later, the Russian army only fought on its own territory. In 2008, the format of the Russian army's operations abroad differed dramatically from the experience of both the imperial and Soviet periods.

Russian troops did not want to resolve ideological tasks (as was the case with the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1849; and during the events in Budapest in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968). The purpose of the operation was not to expand territory, which Tbilisi keeps insisting was Moscow's objective. The action 'to compel Georgia toward peace' was meant to ensure in the first place the safety of the North Caucasus. Had Russia kept silent during the attack on South Ossetia, some forces in the North Caucasus might have tried to replay, for example, 'the conflict over North Ossetia's Prigorodny district.'

The Kremlin's ineptitude and unwillingness to spell out its national interests (for fear of looking weak and vulnerable) is another matter. In any case, Moscow staked out its role in the post-Soviet terrain in a similar way to the U.S. role in Latin America, the Israeli role in the Middle East, Australia's in Oceania, and France's in the former colonies of 'Black Africa'. It was an entirely new designation of a zone where Moscow had vital and legitimate interests."

He concludes:

"As Russian political scientist Andrei Ryabov rightly said about the different political potentials of the West in the Balkans and the Caucasus: unlike the Balkan policies, 'the Western community has ideas regarding the South Caucasus, and these ideas are increasing in number, but their resources – diplomatic, political and economic – are apparently insufficient to influence the opinion of the parties to the conflict and to make them agree with the West's view of the problem.' … In any case, we got an entirely new South Caucasus with a totally new agenda in August 2008. The work to realize this agenda is just beginning."[13]

Interview with Markedonov on Russia Today.

Read also:

  • Sergey Markedonov, "The Paradoxes of Russia's Georgia Policy", Russia in Global Affairs no.2, April – June 2007.
  • Sergey Markedonov, "Without Friends and Foes", Russia in Global Affairs no. 3, July-September 2008
    On Azerbaijan's policies.
  • Sergey Markedonov, "Unrecognized Geopolitics", Russia in Global Affairs, no. 1, January- March 2006
    Analyzes the issues related to "unrecognized geopolitical entities" such as Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria


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