Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Russian Prospects in the Caucasus
Even Russia’s enemies do not dispute about the rightfulness of the Russian ruling bodies’ action to contain the Georgian aggression. Vast majority of Russian people perceived understandably the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia. At the same time the move has to be apprehended deeply as overall positive one but it is fraught with drawbacks and its consequences for the further development of the situation in the Caucasus.
1. About positive facts
First: Undoubtedly, this is a purely humane act of recognition for the Ossetian and Abkhazian people and Russia guarantees their security and preservation them as ethnos. At the same time, the recognition of the independence of the two republics means the achievement of their long-standing dream about the revival of their own homeland for Abkhazians and an opportunity for reunification of the artificially divided Ossetian people within the Russian state.
Second: This is a new geo-strategic and geopolitical advantage for Russia that promotes its possibility of exerting influence on world politics.
Clearly, Abkhazia in the Black Sea region and North Ossetia–Alania and South Ossetia through which Russia’s main transit to Transcaucasia passes play a geopolitical and geo-strategic role for Russia. In the 90s Georgia shifted its border 40 kilometers to the north of Cross pass towards Vladikavkaz. The key issue of the Georgian claim was the establishment of full control over Daryal Gorge, which would deny Russia an access to Georgian Military Road.
In view of this it is understandable the US ambition to hold Georgia, consequently, Abkhazia and South Ossetia under its influence. There is a high probability of justification of a suggestion that if these republics were not pro-Russian the US might have tried to act in the Caucasus like in Kosovo. In short, the US would have recognized the independence of the two republics and attracted them to the European Union and NATO together with Georgia or even without it. Consequently the recognition of the Independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia on the 26th of August last year could be considered as timely and correctly made decisions not only for the fates of Abkhazian and Ossetian people but also for the protection of national and state interests of the country, revival of its moral and historical right for establishing control over entire territory of the Caucasus.
Third: This factor, Russia’s attraction for small ethnos, strongly displayed in the example of national liberation struggle of the Abkhazian and Ossetian people who have fastened their eyes towards Russia. Unfortunately, it remains under the shadow of Russia’s information policy. In fact, this is the first sign of regenerating processes on the territory of the former Soviet Union that emphasizes the abnormality of the Chechen conflict and Russia’s great positive potential in ethnic and national policy.
2. About possible drawbacks:
They appear in any case, but especially sharply appear when Russian policy towards the Caucasus is sluggish and has no consistency and offensive and wise approach.
There is a need for having a close look on all possible political transformations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and also the confidence that the leaders of the country will never back track from the decisions adopted under any circumstances concerning the protection of its own Fatherland.
What should be foreseen and taken into account?
1. Clearly, the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be used first and foremost the US to provoke separatist sentiment not only in the North Caucasus but also in other republics of the Russian Federation referring to the created precedent. Why one can, while others cannot? During the US presidential campaign John McCain said that in response to the use of double standards by the West it must return to the Chechen issue. The current Georgian leadership will quite actively act to destabilize the situation in the North Caucasus. Northern, eastern and western borders of Georgia with South Ossetia, Dagestan, Karachaevo-Cherkesia, Chechen Republic (Pankisi Gorge) and Abkhazia will be a volatile zone as long as Georgia is overruled by the idea of revenge.
2. It is impossible not to take into account negative lessons of the past. There have been several attempts to establish a confederative (federative) formation outside Russia in the history of the North Caucasus:
Imamat of Shamil was set up in the middle of the 19th century and it embraced the territory of contemporary Dagestan and Chechnya for some time;
Provisional Tersko-Dagistani government, Mountain Republic (was recognized by Germany and Turkey in 1918), Union of Highlanders of the North Caucasus and Dagestan and the North Caucasian Emirate headed by Gotsinsky (supported by Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia) existed for a short time between 1917 and 1920;
The idea of the formation of a new imamat from the Caspian to Black Seas was under the Wahabbi slogans was nurtured in 1994-1999 and formed military organizations and carried out operations to this end;
The confederation of People of the Caucasus functioned actively between 1990 and 1994 and rendered military and material help to Abkhazia against Georgia and the idea of the establishment of independent state for highlanders in the Caucasus was brought forth.
All these facts show that such trends might be revived with the attempt to attract Abkhazia to this process.
3. The independent republic of South Ossetia may straightly raise the problem of divided people. Among these people are Lezgins who live in Dagestan and Azerbaijan and Avars in Dagestan, Georgia and Azerbaijan. With the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia the idea of “Great Cherkesia” might be brought forth and the ethnic and historical ties of Abkhazians with the people of Adyghe group (Cherkess, Kabardins and Adyghes) scattered in the entire Middle East like Abkhazians might be revived. Lately, the question has been raised but not very actively as in the 90s of creating united republic of Cherkesia as an entity of the Russian Federation that unites Adyghes, Kabardins and Cherkess who are divided into 3 republics.
For Reference: Kabardins, Cherkess and Adyghes together with Abkhazians comprise a common Adyghean-Abkhazian language and cultural community. The end of the Caucasian war and Russian-Turkish wars in the second half of the 19th century was followed by mass exodus of all Abkhazians and about 400 thousand Cherkess and Adyghes to the Ottoman Empire (emigrants). (Refer: Encyclopedic Dictionary by Brokgaus and Efron, vol. 76, page 581). Currently, the number of Adyghean-Abkhazian diaspora in the Middle East varies between 400 thousand and 1.5 million. Estimated 300 thousand descendents of Abkhazians who fled or expelled from Abkhazia by the government of Tsar Russia live in Turkey alone.
The formation of Independent Abkhazia does not exclude the possibility that the republic may express wish to repatriate tens of thousands of compatriots. The question of new state and political configuration in Transcaucasia, including the possibility of declaration of sovereign Svaneti, Adjara and Lazo-Megrelia might stand straight.
Under certain circumstances, Turkey that has a large number of Abkhazo-Adyghean diaspora and historical and religious links with many Caucasian people and enjoys the sympathy of Abkhazians, Cherkess, Adyghes, Kabardins and Adjars might make attempts to create a quite large Adyghean-Abkhazian confederative union with possible unification of Adjara, Lazo-Megrelia and Svaneti with it and the population of the union might exceed that of contemporary Georgia. The US together with Turkey might play this card in case Georgia continues to collapse. Historically, Britain, Germany and Iran have shown keen interest in this region.
4. The recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has already sown sentiment of dissatisfaction among ethnic Ingushis, Chechens and other people of the North Caucasus. Passions run high: “We have a high level of unemployment but people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are getting jobs”. Inevitable rendering significant financial and material aid to the two republics and special attention to them some how or the other arouse jealousy and tough competition for drawing the attention of the federal government in the republics of the North Caucasus.
One should bear in mind another quite serious circumstance. This is the unending tension in relations between Ossetians and Ingushis and is linked with the Prigorod district and an affirmation that has existed since the times of Tsar Rule that Orthodox Ossetians are the main supporter of Russia in the Caucasus is perceived by other people in North Caucasus as a great insult.
3. Conclusions and suggestions
First: World politics is once again focused on the Caucasus like in 18-19 centuries. It is difficult to forecast how long this will be continued. Clearly, the US, NATO and Ukraine (on the condition that Ukraine and Georgia preserve nationalist regimes and at the same time taking into account special sympathy of Ukraine for Georgia) will confront with Russia in the region.
Russia cannot count on open support of the member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States although Armenia sympathizes with the recognition of independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As a whole this is understandable. The international recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a long historical process.
These two conditions set Russia before dilemma: either it should wage a protracted positional geopolitical struggle finding allies to construct new mutual ties in the Caucasian region or slice the “Gordian Knot” constitutionally at the earliest by unifying Abkhazia (with its approval) and South Ossetia with Russia as the entities of the Russian Federation by taking into account international consequences that could be stirred up by the move.
Second: There is a need to take into account the fact that the North Caucasus is divided in assessing the Russian move to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazia is considered as a historical state and is linked with definite favourable expectations, while the statehood of South Ossetia is not so obvious. Especially, Ingushetia perceived this. On the one hand, Great Ossetia is being built, while on the other hand Ingushetia is pressed when taking into account uncertainty of its administrative border and also linked with the presence of several thousand Ingushis who were expelled from the Prigorod district of North Ossetia-Alania in 1992.
In view of this experts insist that there is a need first and foremost to create conditions for the return to South Ossetia those who were forced to leave South Ossetia in 1990-1992 and in August 2008 and provide opportunities for the return of Ingushis to their native places.
Third: The long-term uncertainty of the two republics appears to be dangerous for the integrity of Russia. The optimal solution to the above mentioned dilemma (point 1, Conclusions and Suggestions) is seen as integration of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation without dragging on for a long time and its unification with North Ossetia-Alania after studying all possible consequences linked with various kinds of inevitable accusations against Russia by international bodies of territorial annexation, of course.
Why this has to be done? Firstly, the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia is recognized by the international community. This makes easy the implementation of the will of the people of South Ossetia of reunification with North Ossetia-Alania, moreover, they have never claimed for statehood out side Russia. In this case Russia could give an assent to protection of human rights and people in line with international law and standards. Secondly, understandably, the existence of two Ossetian republics separately is illogical and moreover when they are united there will be fewer problems in the future. On the contrary, such a situation might stir up separatism not only in the North Caucasus. The unification of two republics should inevitably be accompanied by more flexible approach to the issue of the Prigorod district. As for the world opinion, it must be said that this delicate issue could be resolved.
The integration of Abkhazia into Russia as its entity is also a favourable but it’s more problematic and difficult to realize. Firstly, Abkhazia, unlike South Ossetia has never raised the question of integration into Russia clearly and its relations with pre-Soviet Russia had been independent – a state no less ancient and sovereign than Georgia. Consequently, pressing Abkhazia to integrate into the Russian Federation will be a great mistake and it will be quite difficult to refute the accusation of territorial annexation. In this case there is a need to find other solutions.
Fourth: The second part of the dilemma (positional and long-term standoff with the West) demands for taking measures which have already been taken partially (about duel citizenship and the integration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the ruble zone, about common economic area, customs and border guard cooperation, about Russian as the language of inter-ethnic communication, building of military bases and developing them and so forth). But these measures are insufficient.
Speaking literarily, without entering into tough and clearly, unnecessary confrontation with the West, there is a need to make moves that will de-facto link Abkhazia and South Ossetia closely with Russia and also with most integrated bodies of the CIS - Collective Security Treaty Organization, Eurasian Economic Community and Commonwealth Parliamentary Assembly and most likely, initially as observers. In the future question about allied relations might be raised in case of favourable developments in Russian-Belarus relations.
Fifth: As a whole, Russia should formulate new approaches in its policy towards the Caucasus.
Historical documents concerning Russian Caucasian relations, studies by pre-revolutionary Russian scientists and observations by writers and scholars witness that Georgia had not enjoyed special sympathy of the people of both North and South Caucasus for several reasons. Georgia was not the uniting force even within its borders and Soviet people when it was a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Only tough Soviet censorship helped hiding for a long time the process of forcible assimilation of national minorities under the flag of forming up a common Georgian nation had been going on all the time during the Soviet rule. This concerned not only a large number of ethnic groups which preserved significant cultural and habitable peculiarities and language (Megrelis, Lasos and Svans) but also people who had their own autonomies, ancient history and developed culture (Abkhazians and Ossetians). People of the USSR knew nothing about the unfounded deportation of Turk-Meshetins, who followed Islam, from Georgia on the instruction of Beria during the war for a long time. Teaching in the native languages of minorities had long been banned and teaching in schools was conducted in Georgian. The Georgian authorities changed artificially demographical structure of Abkhazia in favour of Georgians. Naturally, this provoked protests, which often turned into anti-Georgian rallies, and the authorities suppressed them. The infamous demand put forward by the supporters of Z. Gamsakhurdia in 1989, “Georgia for Georgians” shocked the people and the world famous philosopher Mamardashvili angrily said: “If Georgia accepts Gamsakhurdia, then I will not accept Georgia”.
Even the Academician Andrei Sakharov who had no sympathy to the Soviet regime described Georgia as a country that claims for a small empire.
All this prompts to make a conclusion that original assent of the Tsar Russia to give priority to Orthodox Christians in Georgia, in fact, the Soviet rule also pursued the same policy, was a mistake. Consequently, the Tsar Russia and the Soviet rule encouraged the expansion of the territory of Georgia (Kartli province) towards the Central Caucasus, western and eastern Ciscaucasia at the cost of the territories of other ethnic groups. This weakened largely the position of Highlanders, and provoked dissatisfaction with the national policy of Russia and the USSR in the Caucasus.
Sixth: Is the above conclusion means that Georgia will remain as Russia’s enemy in the future? Unambiguously, no is the answer. This conclusion says that in politics people should not be divided into good or bad and this especially concerns the Caucasus. No one will forgive such things. Incorrect assent to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was the prologue of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Incorrect assent of Tsar Russia and during the Stalin rule became the breeding ground of Georgian bureaucratic chauvinism and arrogance that exploded Georgia as a sovereign state, which was united with great difficulties with the assistance and sacrifices of the Russian people.
Undoubtedly, unlike the present Georgia, only really democratic Georgia could reconcile with the people in and around the country if its rulers learn lessons from their mistakes and show repentance. This is supported by centuries old humane traditions of the Georgian Orthodox Church, wisdom of Georgian people who are boundlessly talent in all areas of human activity. However, at the same time it will hardly be realized the return of Georgia to the Soviet era borders not only because the borders were unjust but also owing to the fact it will not be required in a different configuration rather than that of today in the Caucasus where Russia should be the active builder and political arbiter.
Seventh: A new strategy is needed for the Caucasus to fulfill this task. On no circumstances Russia should not leave the Caucasus. One of the greatest experts in the Caucasus, V. L. Velichko wrote in 1903: “The Caucasus should not be alien to Russians: all kind of energy has excessively been spent, it is too organically linked with the Great Russian world mission and Russian deed”. (V. L. Velichko, The Caucasus, St. Petersburg. -1904, p.1)
Turkey and Iran have always displayed keen interest in the Caucasus. The fate of Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, Dagestanis, Cherkess and other people of the Caucasus was the reason and cause for several bloody wars of Russia with the two countries, but today the situation is quite different.
The countries of Transcaucasia - Azerbaijan, and Armenia – friendly with Iran; Azerbaijan close to Turkey and Armenia and Turkey make moves to bring them closer, while Georgia cooperates with Turkey and Azerbaijan and has ties with Armenia. Russia is interested in promoting these mutual ties among the above mentioned countries except Georgia at the moment. Consequently, the idea of “Great Caucasus” should presently be the dominant in Russia’s policy towards the Caucasus.
For reference: The idea of “Great Caucasus” has a long history. It was spearheaded by England in the 19th century. Germany gave its own interpretation to the idea. The sense of the idea was to drive out Russia from the Caucasus, unite the Caucasian people, especially Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan into a confederation under western control. This was partially realized in 1918. Presently, the US is ready to realize the idea, but it contradicts the interests of Turkey although it is a NATO member, and naturally, the interests of Iran. When taking into account many factors Russia is a desirable ally in the Caucasus for Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The Nagorno-Karabakh issue is the obstacle in the way to create the so-called “Caucasian Antanta” that embraces Russia, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia (if its regime changes), but at the same time the issue could be one of the key factors for forming such a union. Russia is a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan in talks on the Karabakh issue. It will be important to attract Turkey and Iran to this process (Turkey is interested in Azerbaijan and Iran in Armenia). The Caucasian Commonwealth could be an attractive message for Ukraine (Crimean Tatar issue and Crimea as a whole) and for Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and other countries in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea littoral.
The formation of such a union could be one of the links in the formation of polycentric world. Such a vector in policy is in line with new realities linked with global changes in the system of international relations. On the other hand, such a union could stimulate the creation of a Transcaucasian confederation that embraces Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia as a mechanism for achieving stability in the region with the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia as their parity-based entities that enjoy the right to join the confederation, in case these republics preserve current status when such a confederation is formed.
Eighth: In case it is impossible to realize the given scenario and even under favourable circumstances for this, there is a need to create all preconditions for the integration of all Caucasian people into the spiritual and economic area of Russia, and it cannot be excluded the possibility of creating a new large entity of the Russian Federation that embraces the present republics of the North Caucasus with possible inclusion of Abkhazia and united Ossetia into its structure.
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The Complicated situation in the Caucasus and its multivariant development are proved be almost impossible to make forecasts and there is a demand for consistent monitoring and setting up an united coordinating centre to respond swiftly to the changes and formulate necessary proposals linked with them.
Professor V. A. Mikhailov D. Dc (history)
Chairman of the experts’ council