About Sergei Markedonov
Sergei Markedonov heads the Department of International Relations at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, Moscow. He is now is a visiting fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, USA.
Articles by Sergei Markedonov
The consequences of the ‘flaming August' (as we call the Georgian war) and the ensuing upheavals are still being hotly discussed by experts and politicians in Russia and the West. Unfortunately, though much has been written, this has not led to a significantly improved understanding of what happened in the South Caucasus a year ago.
The reason is obvious. The discussions amount to little more than two monologues. Russian experts and politicians still insist on talking about the ‘state which has risen from its knees', ‘Western double standards', ‘the genocide of the Ossetian people' and ‘defending our compatriots'. Their European and American colleagues inflame fears of a ‘new cold war' and ‘Russian imperialism'. The country is ‘rising from its knees' for them too, but this is has a minus sign next to it. They also talk of the complete transformation of the Russian Federation from status quo power to revisionist, which not even the global crisis can halt in its tracks. What is the outcome of these debates? There is no real debate (if we exclude name-calling and propaganda lynching of one another), which is why there is no understanding of either side's arguments and motives.
It was with these ideas in mind that I took up the article Beware Russia's Three Tinderboxes - a title that leaves no room for doubt. Readers are warned that the West must take account of Russia's aggressive behaviour. From the very first line the authors advise against trying to understand Russia's motives (no question of justifying them), or analysing possible scenarios for accommodating this important (for the West too), if inconvenient, partner. They tell us Russia should be feared. It would probably have been possible to avoid disagreement with the authors, if they had embarked on their article with a ready-made answer, rather than setting out the conditions. But the authorial trio are very influential people who form the Western community's public and expert opinion.
'Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at Kings College London and was European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia'.
The authors of this article have both profound knowledge and serious experience, so instead of an angry rebuke and ready answers 'from our side', it would be more constructive to begin a serious polemic around the arguments and facts they put forward. Especially as the arguments are not new. They are deftly grouped together and well described.
The authors' 'warning' came on the eve of the imminent EU and G20 summits, which had to respond to the 'three-dimensional' security threat emanating from Russia. What are the three areas to which the West must pay special attention? They are: increasing pressure on Georgia and Ukraine and terrorism and repressions in the Russian North Caucasus republics with predominantly Muslim populations. As Nikita Khrushchev, that well-known master of the aphorism, said 'the aims are obvious, the objectives defined - to work, comrades!'
Let us briefly examine the threats defined by the authors as the West's primary concern. The combination of words in the first two - pressure on Georgia and Ukraine - reflect an approach that I call 'the football philosophy'. The decision has already been taken which team we support and the complexities of a bilateral relationship are replaced by black and white analysis. The authors consider that 'the most serious Russian challenges in the near abroad are directed at Georgia and Ukraine, two countries which seek EU and NATO membership and have some form of democracy'. The reader is once more presented with a simple formula. It appears that Georgia and Ukraine's conflict with Russia is because they aspire to join NATO and want democracy. Democracy in these two post-Soviet republics could (and should) be the subject of a large monograph, rather than a small article. I should say immediately that I consider the Russian political regime authoritarian and archaic, but surely this is not a reason for handing out democratic indulgences to the Georgian and Ukrainian governments? I should like to see if an impartial reader could find even two differences between the closing of the Russian TV station NTV and the crackdown on Imedi in Georgia. Between the breaking up of the Georgian opposition in Tbilisi on 7 November 2007 and dispersing the 'Dissidents' March' in Moscow, or the 'United National Movement' in Georgia and 'United Russia'. Between the populism of Putin and that of Saakashvili, the storming of Grozny and of Tskhinvali.
We should also point out that the Georgian attack in August 2008 was not the first, but the fourth in the last 17 years. It's hard to believe that such knowledgeable authors have no idea of the realities of the 2006 local authority election campaign in Georgia, or the violations of the ceasefire in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The authors don't mention that Saakashvili was trying to 'unfreeze' the two conflicts by using force and provocations (the 'small war' in Tliakana in August 2004, deployment of subdivisions in Kodori in defiance of the 1994 Moscow Agreements). It was he who catapulted his country into the terrible catastrophe of August 2008. After all, until last year no one (including Georgia) had revoked either the 1992 Dagomys or the 1994 Moscow Agreements)!
It is difficult not to object to the authors' comments on Ukraine too. According to them, the country is seeking a way into NATO. But do the esteemed authors not know the results of the Ukrainian opinion polls? Or do President Yushchenko and his team (with their maximum 5% support) reflect the will of the Ukrainian people for them? And I mean the whole people: in the Crimea and the Donbass, who speak Russian and want cooperation and rapprochement with their Russian neighbour. They don't want to secede from Ukraine or set up pro-Russian separatist enclaves, I stress, they simply want to communicate in their mother tongue, which is unfortunately Russian, not English. Or should we label them 'misguided' and 'infected with communist phobias'? But can this approach be considered a Western value?
Leonid Kuchma, the second president of Ukraine, wrote a book called 'Ukraine is not Russia' several years ago. Today another book should be written specially for Viktor Yushchenko and his lawyers 'Ukraine is not Galicia'. This would help them to understand that preserving ethnic diversity and developing multilingualism is in Ukrainian national interest, rather than imperial Russia's. This is the best way of preserving the country's unity. Primitive ethnic nationalism and a stand-off between separate parts of the country will have a much more destructive effect on Ukraine than thousands of statements by Yury Luzhkov or Konstantin Zatulin, who are so often quoted in the EU and USA.
Yushchenko's democracy also needs more critical examination. He has violated procedures (the very foundations of democracy) more often than any other leader in the CIS.
But if democracy is not the issue, then what is? It would appear that many people in the USA and EU do not wish to understand a seemingly simple point. The formal legal act (the Belovezhsky Agreement) and the historical process of the disintegration of the USSR are two very different things. After 1991 the former Soviet republics went their own ways: the formation of these nation states was a very complicated process, so it would have been extremely naïve to even think that it could have been painless or fallen out exactly along the borders drawn up by party bosses of the various former Soviet administrative units with no thought for the views of any of the nationalities concerned.
After 1991 all the newly independent states had to prove that their appearance on the scene was not an accident of fate and that the new citizens recognised their borders. Each republic chose different ways of doing this. Some chose the ethnocentric model (Georgia and Armenia), others the model of a civic nation (Kazakhstan and that same Ukraine). Ernest Renan once described a nation as a 'daily plebiscite', so it it hardly surprising that the plebiscite with a slogan 'Georgia for the Georgians' was unwinnable in Abkhazia or South Ossetia. My esteemed opponents assert that no one recognises Abkhazia or South Ossetia even in the near abroad, but surely recognition is not the main point. For them to exist as they are today needs recognition only from their own citizens. This is what the Turks have been doing for more than 20 years in the Republic of Northern Cyprus, and the population in former Spanish Morocco. It is unfortunate, but true, that the interests of small nations play no part in 'great game' discussions.
Or if they do, then only from the practical point of view. From any point of view it would be wrong to extrapolate the situation in Georgia to Ukraine. The Crimea had no previous autonomous regions which were abolished (as South Ossetia did); even at the high point of pro-Russian irredentism in 1994 no troops were deployed and there were no de facto states or conflicts. Who said they were inevitable? We should not forget that almost immediately after the 'five-day war', Moscow extended the 'Great Agreement' with Kiev for another 10 years. An outstanding demonstration of 'revisionism' and nothing to do with democracy or NATO! All this is part of the complicated process of forming new nation states. Today the post-Soviet formations are repeating the Central and Eastern European experience (they are essentially similar processes) some 6 or 7 decades later and with all the excesses typical of those countries. This is not to justify Russian policies. Understanding the characteristics of the political processes is much more important than propaganda.
Our three esteemed authors regard the situation in the Russian North Caucasus as the third challenge. Here again we have the football philosophy, when responsibility is not shared, but focused on Russia alone.
'The brutal subjugation of Chechnya in two separatist wars since the early 1990s has caused widespread alienation. Human rights activists, journalists, and political opponents of Chechen leader Razman Kadyrov are murdered with shocking frequency. Attacks against police forces, known for corruption and torture of prisoners, are steadily mounting. Spreading violence in Dagestan is particularly worrisome. With two-and-one-half million residents from thirty-odd ethnic groups, it is much more populous than Chechnya and lies on Azerbaijan's northern border'.
But how are the two anti-separatist campaigns in Chechnya connected to the situation in Dagestan today? In Chechnya the separatists were fighting for the secular nationalist project outside Russia. In Dagestan today (as in Chechnya after 2004) the main challenge is not separatism, but radical Islam, so to see the current situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as influencing the North Caucasus (as our esteemed authors do) is a big mistake. A separatist agenda is not relevant for the North Caucasus any more. Today's heroes are different. They condemned Akhmed Zakayev (one of the national-separatist leaders) to death and see themselves as part of the global jihad. This is not only the result of errors in Russian policy (although there were many and they also 'assisted' this result), but also of the complex reflex action which is moving through the Islamic world from Afghanistan to the Philippines.
The current Islamist activities in the North Caucasus have to be seen as part of the general evolution of social thought in the Islamic East from the European nationalist discourse to Islamic fundamentalism. But what is interesting is that Islamists in the North Caucasus today regard the West as their enemy, as well as Russia. The credo of the Islamist 'Caucasian Emirate' founder Dokka Umarov states that 'we are an inalienable part of the Islamic Umma. I am angered by the position of Muslims who see as enemies only the kuffar who have directly attacked them, though they seek support and sympathy from other kuffar, forgetting that all unbelievers are one nation. Our brothers are fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Palestine. Anyone who has attacked Muslims, wherever they are, is our enemy and the enemy of one is the enemy of all' (my italics SM).
So perhaps, instead of using Russia as a threat and secretly rejoicing at her trouble spots, it would be better to work on a joint strategy against those who are opposed to the values of the Western world, values that Russians on the whole share. The founders of the 'Emirate' are for the moment only putting forward a minimal programme: 'our primary aim is to make the Caucasus Dar-as-Salam by establishing sharia law there and driving out the unbelievers. Our second aim is then to take back all the lands which historically belong to the Muslims. These borders lie beyond the frontiers of the Caucasus'. The Western world is just over the Black Sea from the Caucasus. Not such a great distance in today's globalised world!
In a few weeks it will be the first anniversary of the war between Russia and Georgia and the subsequent recognition by the Russian Federation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. It was clear from the outset that it would be extremely difficult for the Kremlin to find other countries ready to approve the new reality from the standpoint of international law. Even the Republic of Belarus, one of Russia's closest allies, has so far refused to recognise either of the separatist republics. At first Batka (as Alexander Lukashenko likes to be known) himself apologized for not taking immediate action, insisting that he would have to consult the deputies of the new Belarusian Parliamentary Assembly. The parliament was elected at the end of September 2008, so it might have been expected that the new Belarusian deputies would soon be offering support to their Russian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian friends and brothers. But they did not. For months Russia listened in astonishment to the Belarusian parliamentarians demanding real compensation for recognizing the two breakaway republics, or maintaining that the matter was too complicated to be resolved in the near future.
Moscow is palpably disconcerted by such ambiguous behaviour in Minsk. On 18 May 2009 State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, on a visit to Sukhumi (the first visit of such a high-ranking Russian politician to Abkhazia), announced that Belarus "was taking too much time to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia". Gryzlov maintains that the Kremlin is not putting pressure on its close ally, but "despite the fact that the guidelines and timeframe were stipulated and the month of April mentioned, no recognition has taken place".
It should also be said that Gryzlov is far from being the first high-ranking representative of Russia who has seen his hopes for the recognition of independence of the two former autonomous republics of Georgia dashed. Pavel Borodin, the Secretary General of the Union State of Russia and Belarus was also wrong in his predictions, as were other officials and diplomats of lower rank.
In fact, the Minsk government has postponed the procedure for recognising the two former Georgian autonomous republics several times. The position of the Belarusian leadership during the "five-day war" (and of Lukashenko himself, who likes to make harsh statements designed for external effect) was extremely cautious and this deserves special comment. Neither the President nor his circle said a word about "genocide" or a "humanitarian catastrophe". On 8 September 2008, a month after the start of the war, the President announced: "The issue of the recognition or non-recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not simply a matter of support for Russia... the time will come for us to examine this issue in Belarus".
Two days after the decree of Dmitri Medvedev on the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Lukashenko sent a message to the Russian President. In it he said that "as things stand, Russia had no choice morally but to support the appeal of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for recognition of their rights to self-determination in accordance with the fundamental international documents". Thus Batka preferred to adopt the tone of an expert, rather than a politician, demonstrating his understanding of the narrow range of options for Moscow. The Minsk government preferred not to give a final answer, but to put off discussing the issue of recognition until the Moscow summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) on 5 December 2008.
As a result, 7 member countries of the Organisation (including Belarus) approved the Declaration stating that all Russia's partners were "deeply worried by Georgia's attempt to resolve the conflict by force". The "Tskhinvali Blitzkrieg" was condemned, but there was no formal legal recognition of the two former Georgian autonomous republics by Minsk.
This was followed by a period of waiting for the outcome of the parliamentary elections. The issue was not tabled after 28 September 2008 for procedural reasons (appeals from Sukhumi and Tskhinvali were received too late), according to Vadim Popov, the former chairman of the lower chamber of the National Assembly.
In December 2008 he expressed the hope that a "solution to the problem will be found in the coming year".
On 22 January 2009 at a meeting of the heads of parliamentary delegations from member countries of the CSTO at the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE a new promise was made by Vladimir Ivanov, the deputy chairman of the chamber of representatives of the Belarusian National Assembly.
Finally, on the opening day of the spring session of the national parliament (2 April 2009), the chairman of the Chamber of Representatives Vladimir Andreichenko announced that Belarusian foreign policy had covered a wide geographical range with very active international parliamentary contacts: Chamber deputies had taken part in 50 international events. But no place had been found for Abkhazia and South Ossetia in this multilateral parliamentary foreign policy and there was no place for them on the parliamentary agenda one month later either.
The uses of unilateral action
In this connection, it is extremely important to examine the Kremlin's attitude to the question of recognition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This attitude was not unvarying: it underwent serious evolution. After the conclusion of the "five-day war" and the recognition of two de facto nations, Moscow may have cherished the illusion that it would be joined at the very least by its closest allies (members of the CSTO), but its position was very different later on. Russian politicians and diplomats quite quickly realised that unilateral recognition meant virtually unrestricted freedom of action in localities that had seceded from Georgia.
Without unilateral recognition the energy company Inter RAO UES could scarcely have offered the Abkhazian leaders virtual official control over 51% of Chernomorenergo shares if 10-15 foreign embassies and EU representatives had been working in Sukhumi. If anyone, except Russia (and, well, Nicaragua) had recognized these republics, Moscow could not have ignored South Ossetia's opposition. It could not have failed to take account of the opinion of President Eduard Kokoity's opponents on the eve of the parliamentary campaign. Today the Kremlin is increasing its military and political presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as introducing elements of "sovereign democracy". Unilateral recognition, far from hindering this process, has actually helped it.
The "Union State"
But Belarus is a special case. Its position is extremely important ideologically. For Russia, Minsk is not just a strategic partner, like Azerbaijan, or a strategic ally, like Armenia or Kazakhstan. The Republic of Belarus is part of the Union State. On 2 April 1996 an agreement was signed on the Community of Russia and Belarus. The 13-year-old agreement was the starting point of the "process of unification", which has still not been completed. As political analyst Andrei Suzdaltsev justly remarked, our Union is a "strange formation...which still has no coat of arms, flag, president or government, territory, citizenship, law enforcement or financial departments, borders etc. The Union state is not a subject of international law, member of the UN, and does not figure in international relations".
Be that as it may, on 9 December 1999 (this year will mark the 10th anniversary), the Agreement on the creation of the Union state of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus came into effect. For the Russian elite the "union project" is a way of compensating for the damage done by the "major geopolitical catastrophe". It is also proof of the success of post-Soviet integration and a demonstration of the might of a "country rising from its knees". In this case we are not talking about a real situation, but about spin for domestic and foreign consumption. Disagreements between Minsk and Moscow ruin the happy image. It may be an illusion, but it is a necessary one in order to be able to manage future expectations and disappointments.
The main problem about Russia-Belarus relations, which is the Abkhaz-Ossetian issue points up, is that from the beginning the two countries had quite different motives for the unification process. Since 1996 the "union" has been no more than an ideological project for Moscow. During Yeltsin's presidency the Union was an attempt to steal the communists' ideological thunder. It was a kind of answer to the "Belovezhye complex" [Ed. this refers to the treaty Yeltsin signed that dissolved the USSR]. After that the Russian government demonstrated that it was prepared to appropriate everything it could it get its hands on. Under Putin the Union of the Russian Federation and Belarus simply became a sublimation of Soviet nostalgia.
The attitude of the Belarusian leadership to the "brotherhood of Slavic nations" was initially pragmatic, being based on privileged access to Russian resources in order to be able to finance the redevelopment of the economy and state. Furthermore, Alexander Lukashenko actually used this "rapprochement" to reinforce his distance from Moscow by strengthening the patriotic base of his legitimacy. This was recognized by even moderate opposition figures.
How did this geopolitical dialectic become possible? The fact of the matter is that Minsk has never been seen Moscow as an equal partner and ally. Batka took full advantage of this in order to pursue an independent foreign policy, thereby remove this trump card from the opposition. Under Yeltsin appearances were at least observed, but after 2000, when important strategic decisions were taken, no one consulted Belarus. Did anyone consult Lukashenko when Moscow was forced to react to the Georgian actions in South Ossetia which began in 2004, i.e. after the Union Agreement came into effect? Or in Abkhazia in the autumn of 2001 and then from summer 2006? No one went to consult Batka when Moscow decided to introduce a visa system for Georgia in December 2000 either. Nor was there any consultation with Minsk during the "five-day war", or immediately after it ended, so they can hardly complain now that Batka is intractable and trying to pursue his own foreign policy.
I'll do it my way
All sorts of arguments can be adduced to justify this independent foreign policy: the need to maintain stable relations with the European Union, questions of procedure, and the ostensible legislative autonomy of parliament. Whatever the reasons may be, n the post-Soviet sphere Lukashenko is realizing the "Sinatra doctrine" ("I did it my way"), as the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu once did in Eastern Europe.
Batka has his own reasons for this policy. Firstly, the Belarusian president is the head of an independent nation, which does not act in the spirit of nostalgic toasts about the vanished Soviet Union, but pragmatically, or in its own interests. Lukashenko's rhetoric is pointedly anti-American. But you can't escape geography. The Republic of Belarus is in Europe, so Lukashenko cannot completely break with the West. We should note in passing that neither can Moscow completely cut itself off from the influence of the USA and the EU. But at the same time, Russia's political clout and resources allow it to act far more independently. Minsk simply does not have these resources. This is why in an interview with European media on 23 September 2008, Lukashenko, justifying his balanced position on the Abkhazian-Ossetian question, asked the rhetorical question: "How can you Western Europeans fault us on our policy on Abkhazia and Ossetia? You can't!"
The second reason is domestic. Lukashenko's team regards any concession made by Minsk to Moscow negatively. They fear the establishment of a precedent, which could then be followed by Russian businesses gaining more of a foothold in the Belarusian economy. In Minsk this is seen also as a threat to Batka's personal power.
Cutting your cloth
So the "unification process" has not brought Moscow the expected dividends and, moreover, Belarus' failure to recognize the breakaway republics has been a severe disappointment. It is very important that the Kremlin understand one simple (but fundamentally important) thesis: a union can only be effective if it is based on pragmatic, rational interaction and cooperation, and not on replacing reality with ideological phantoms from the historical past.
It is not actually clear what recognition by the Republic of Belarus of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would give Russia now from the practical point of view. It would obviously not change the attitude of USA, China or European countries towards these two former Georgian autonomous republics. Nor will the "Belarusian silence" have any effect on the evolution of Russian policy. No Russian president is going to annul Dmitry Medvedev's decision of 26 August 2007. Will our Union, even if it is only virtual, become stronger if the EU makes new complaints and perhaps imposes sanctions on Belarus? On the other hand Belarusian politicians may easily transfer the anger at the "treacherous west" on to Russia (as the primary cause for possible sanctions and isolation from Europe). What's more this might appeal to the people of Belarus.
The only conclusion to be drawn from all this is that you have to cut your coat according to your cloth. The Russian Federation may have the resources to revise the nationalist principles laid down by the Belovezhye agreement, but it shouldn't blame Belarus for not having them.
In 2007, the three "buzz" words in Russia were "glamour", "nanotechnology" and "blog". In 2008 they were "crisis", "collider", and "war". This year, in Oleg Reut's opinion, "reset" looks as if it will be one of them. It is hard to disagree.
However, as yet the concept amounts to no more than a successful PR move. Barack Obama's new team has good speechwriters who have come up with a effective word to characterise Russian-American relations now. Only time will show whether this "reset" will come to have real meaning, whether it will become a political-ideological reality, like "détente" or "new thinking".
Real understanding will be required to prevent it becoming just a PR project. Which legacy is it that Moscow and Washington are going to have to put behind them? And can we talk about a "new page" in bilateral relations if it is going to be written by the same old authors? The Russian side, at least, is going to have to demonstrate new "writing gifts". The present American state secretary Hillary Clinton can hardly be seen as a newcomer to politics either. After all, her husband played a considerable role in launching that most sensitive of issues in Russian-American relations, NATO eastward expansion. It was during his two presidential terms that the first attempts were made to include former Soviet satellites in the NATO bloc.
Not the Cold War
First, we have to get rid of some of the misleading terminology that has been used to describe relations between the USA and the Russian Federation today. It has become fashionable among journalists and political analysts in both countries to refer to a revival of the spirit of the "cold war", if not a complete return to it. This has been encouraged by a number of "landmark" speeches by leaders in both countries - Vladimir Putin's Munich speech and Vice-President Cheney's speech in Vilnius. There have also been the geo-political crises in the South Caucasus and Ukraine, and the eastward expansion of NATO.
The very term "cold war" is historical in origin. No one would dream of talking about modern Russian-American and Russian-European relations as a continuation of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Thirty Years War or even the Hundred Years War. The "cold war" belongs just as much to a particular historical period as they do. It defines the reality of the Yalta-Potsdam peace that marked the end of the Second World War. This world no longer exists. It was ceremonially "buried" at the NATO Prague summit in 2002. A new world order is in the making now.
A new world order
There is no way of predicting with any confidence how the outlines of this world order will ultimately be determined. The Yalta-Potsdam peace, unlike the post-Versailles world, was created by friends who were also enemies. This was reflected in the subsequent course of history, which was based on "checks and balances", maintaining the inviolability of borders and territorial integrity, and guaranteeing national self-determination. These "checks and balances" were provided by the "cold war", the confrontation of the two superpowers and the military-political blocs grouped around them. It was not so much a military and political confrontation as an ideological one. One side was fighting for a new society and Soviet communism, while the other was protecting the "free world from the totalitarian monster". The "cold war" ended when the USSR and the Warsaw bloc ceased to exist, and communism was thrown into the severe crisis it is in today. We need more accurate, relevant categories to describe relations between Russia and the West since then.
You can't have a "cold war" without the existence of a second ideological superpower. "Sovereign democracy" and "energy imperialism" hardly fulfill that role. They are no more than PR concepts. What is more, the new Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is not particularly keen on "sovereign democracy". It has not featured in the repertoire of relevant ideas since 2008.
As for the Russian military budget, in absolute figures it is almost 25 times smaller than America's. Even taking into account the different principles of army recruitment in Russia and the USA and the different ways of calculating the value of their military equipment, America's budget is still five times greater.
So Russia is not a rival of the USA either militarily, in terms of wealth or ideology. As the events of last August demonstrated, Russia, for better or worse, no longer constitutes a separate geo-political world power. Russia is indisputably a strong regional power in the post-Soviet space, with the resources to determine the "rules of the game" within it. But beyond that territory, no country is prepared to make a decisive choice between Moscow or Washington. Even Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan or Belarus prefer to pursue a diversified foreign policy.
Furthermore, one can only agree with Oleg Reut, who worked as an employee of the Nixon Center in Washington in 2007, that "recent years have seen an increasing asymmetry between the two powers. America occupies a much larger place in the political consciousness of Russia than vice versa. In Russia the United States is to a significant extent both a rival and an object of emulation. The rivalry may be a natural continuation of a "cold war" way of thinking. But the United States has only relatively recently become a power to be emulated.
This is the background against which Russia will decide on which issues it is prepared to compromise with the USA, and on which it will dig in its heels.
Strategic v regional
After the first meeting between Presidents Barak Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, it was possible to define two groups of problems. The first was strategic. The USA and Russia signed joint statements on the future of Russian-American relations, and on a document to replace START-1 (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). Both sides showed an interest in cooperation in Afghanistan, in controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and also the Iranian nuclear programme.
The second group could be called the "Eurasian" issues. These, unlike the first, are regional. They concern events in South Ossetia in August 2008, the unilateral recognition of independence of the two former autonomous regions of Georgia, the integration of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and Russian policy on the territory of the former USSR in general. The main issue here is whether Washington is prepared to consider the post-Soviet area as primarily a Russian "sphere of influence".
Before the first "reset" meeting, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Washington was prepared to recognize Russia's influence only within the Russian Federation, not beyond its boundaries. The meeting between Medvedev and Obama saw no movement on this. The US President showed no understanding of his Russian colleague's position. Obama made it clear to Medvedev that Washington does not recognize the territory of the CIS to be a "zone of Russian influence", and will not approve of a post-Soviet version of the "Monroe doctrine". In this sense, there is clearly a continuity between the policies of the previous administration and this one.
The problem is that even before the "reset", Moscow had expressed its readiness to work on a wide range of strategic issues, from opposing terrorism to the Iranian or Korean issue, or Afghanistan. The bone of contention was the post-Soviet area. The Americans insist on seeing Russia's instincts as authoritarian and archaic.
Conceding realities in Russia's "near-abroad"
At the same time, the Americans have often ignored Russia's interests, which are real, whatever the domestic politics. The measure of democracy in this or that CIS country cannot be determined by whether there is Russian influence, or a military presence there. Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan can hardly be seen as successful democracies merely because they have no Russian military bases.
Russian military presence in Tajikistan not only prevented civil war, but gave an example, and not a bad one either, of successful post-conflict regulation. It was Russian peacekeepers, not those of NATO or America, who stopped the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Abkhazia, it was thanks to Russian soldiers that some 60,000 Mingrelians returned to the Gali district. In 2004 it was Georgia, not Russia, that began the "thawing" of the conflict in South Ossetia, which ultimately lead to the "five-day war".
If the "reset" is going to work, Washington will have to admit that Russia's role on the territories of the former USSR cannot be the same as its role in Africa or Latin America. The ties are too strong. Many conflict areas in states of the "near abroad" also have a serious impact on internal security both in individual regions of Russia, and in the country as a whole. The Georgian-Ossetian and Ossetian-Ingush conflicts are examples of this, as are the Georgian-Abkhazian confrontation and the situation in the northwest Caucasus.
Russia, for its part, will have to admit that its special role in the CIS is not going to mean the rebirth of communism in Eurasia, or the growth of Moscow's global ambitions. Winning the "five-day war" is not enough. Global ambitions today are unthinkable without attractive values, powerful economic potential and a circle of potential allies, and Russia has serious problems here. Consequently, Russia's interest in Eurasia is more defensive than offensive. Its primary goal is to support stability inside Russia.
Russian diplomacy also needs to recognize difficult but obvious truths. Firstly, we should not extrapolate our disagreements with the USA in the post-Soviet area onto bilateral relations as a whole. Whatever happens in Georgia or Azerbaijan, cooperation on Afghanistan is objectively necessary and beneficial for both Moscow and Washington.
Secondly, the post-Soviet area has ceased to be the geo-political property of the Russian Federation. And the longer the post-Soviet countries are independent, the more internationalized the CIS will become. It will not be possible to stop the westernization of these former Soviet republics by building a "great wall of China", however much some may want to do this. The CIS already has its "losers' club", whose members connect their failures and losses with Russia, and their hopes for the future with the USA. The main thing is that Russia's lawful interest be taken into account, as it was when the Dagomys agreement on South Ossetia were signed in 1992, and the Moscow agreement on Abkhazia in the same year. No one should try to exclude Moscow from this process, as Georgia did in 2004-2008.
A successful outcome to attempts at "resetting" Russian-American relations today will depend ultimately on negotiations over the post-Soviet space.
Sergei Markedonov is head of the Department of International Relations at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, and a candidate of historical science.
Azerbaijan's constitution was passed by national vote on 12 November 1995. In March 2009 its citizens voted for 41 amendments to 20 of its articles. The most important amendment extended the permitted term of presidential powers. Previously, the office was limited to two terms. But from now on the president can stand an unlimited number of times.
18 March marked the beginning of a new stage in the political history of post-Soviet Azerbaijan. The Caucasian state made a symbolic transition. But unlike Novruz, it is a transition from spring (early spring, if we consider the condition of state institutions and their power) to winter. The personal power of the head of state will be practically unlimited.
The powers of the head of state in Azerbaijan were extensive even before the amendments. The president had the right, without the agreement of the national parliament (Milli Mejlis), to appoint individual ministers, issue decrees on appointments to the higher court and create the "vertical" of executive power.
He was supposed to appoint the head of the cabinet of ministers with the agreement of parliament. But the weakness of executive bodies of power in the post-Soviet space meant that this right was de facto in the hands of the president. Articles 111 and 112 gave the president wide powers to declare a state of emergency and martial law.
But this was not enough. The constitution was changed to expand the head of state's power still further. There has been a departure from democracy (if not its complete destruction), commentators in the USA and Europe, as well as in Azerbaijan, have concluded. Expert reports by Freedom House and the American State Department at the beginning of this year classed the situation in Azerbaijan as a "decline of democracy".
The authoritative Baku political scientist Arif Yunusov speaks of the "Uzbekistanization" of Azerbaijan. By this he means that the Azerbaijan elite has adapted the experience of Central Asian republics to its political practice (the extended term of the head of state, the establishment of harsh control over power in the regions and the minimization of the opposition's influence).
Yunusov deems that by the beginning of this century the former Soviet command and administrative system had effectively been restored in Azerbaijan: "All power was in the hands of the president and his office (the former central committee of the Communist Party). The functions of former regional committees of the Communist Party were transferred to bodies of local executive power, the heads of which were appointed directly by the president, answer solely to him and have all the power in the regions." The list of similarities between the Soviet and current system of power in Azerbaijan could probably be continued.
Elements of democracy
At the same time, significant differences must also be acknowledged. The new post-Soviet statehood of Azerbaijan is unthinkable without elements of democracy. These include joining the Council of Europe in 2001, and the existence of political parties and non-governmental structures, including human rights organisations. It also includes a degree of freedom for the media (which is quite considerable compared to Central Asian countries).
Most importantly, it includes electoral procedures. What stopped Ilham Aliev from simply issuing a decree extending his powers? To avoid being classified as an "outcast country", and to develop relations with the USA and the EU, the president of Azerbaijan goes through the motions of an election and legitimises his own power by legal means, rather than on the basis of "tradition" or "charisma".
He took a similar path a few years ago when he tried to legitimise the political influence of his wife, Mekhriban Alieva. There was nothing stopping him from simply using informal influence (which is both understood and accepted in the Islamic East). But in November 2005 the president's wife was elected as a Milli Mejlis deputy i.e. she entered the government formally. It should not be forgotten that it was Mekhriban Alieva who initiated the amnesty project just before the 2009 referendum. This was, of course, not in any way connected with the referendum: it was linked to Novruz and affected over 10% of all prisoners.
While understanding the role of lobbying in the campaigns of both 2009 and 2005, we cannot ignore a fact that is uncomfortable for both local human rights advocates and democrats. Ilham Aliev would have been successful anyway, even without the administrative and bureaucratic pressure. Perhaps the amendment to the constitution would not have received 92.17% of votes, but only 55-65%.
To see the truth of this one only has to see how closely Azerbaijan's human rights advocates and opponents of the regime, many of whom dislike the president, identify with the concept of the state as a patrimonial mechanism. "Another five years lie ahead. If Ilham Aliev can show during this time that he is really president of the people, and not of the corrupt, if he eliminates the abuse of power by officials, and unemployment, ensures freedom of speech, the press and assembly, and releases political prisoners, then I will be the first to campaign for him to be given the right to stand for president again". This statement was made shortly before the referendum, not by a representative of Ilham Aliev's administration, but by the head of the Dilyara Alieva Society for the protection of Women's Rights, Novella Jafaroglu.
So how accurate is it to classify these developments as a ‘decline of democracy?'" How much of an increase in democracy was there in previous years, i.e. during the establishment of independence? It is more relevant to address this question than to lament the "defeat of democracy" the victory of an "authoritarian / totalitarian dictatorship".
The ghost of oriental autocracy
When post-Soviet Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence, it declared itself the legal successor of the first independent national state of the Azerbaijan people, which lasted 23 months.
The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) of 1918-1920 raised the issue of introducing the institution of president. The main claimant to this position was Mamed Emin Rasulzade (the leader of the Musavat party and head of the Azerbaijan national council, which proclaimed the independence of the ADR).
However, Rasulzade believed that his fellow citizens were inclined to idolise their leaders, and that this could affect the nature of the state itself. The leaders of the ruling Musavat party often appealed to democratic values and declared their wish to build the first free state in the East. In reality the "first republic" was far from attaining the declared ideals. This was demonstrated by its inflexible approach to the "national question" and to relations with neighbours (not just Armenia, but Georgia, where the ADR disputed Borchaly and Saingilo).
The Soviet model in Azerbaijan also had its special features: communist autocracy combined with local informal clan connections. There was good reason behind the popular theory, even in the Soviet period, that the natives of the Nakhichivan ASSR were naturally predisposed to hold positions of authority. The political scientist Vagif Huseinov has justly commented that "Heydar Aliev came from the depths of the Azerbaijan countryside; he had a special professional understanding of the real moods in society, the importance of national features, traditions and the nature and lifestyle of social groups, circles and levels. This gave him a unique understanding of the power of the clan communities grouped around important or influential figures". This was how Heydar Aliev built a powerful quasi-state under the formal control of the decrepit politburo while he was first secretary of the central committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, 1969-82.
Furthermore, Vagif Huseinov has rightly commented that "the way the ghost of a neo-monarchy haunted the republic's democratic façade was a direct result of the contradictions inherent in the period before Gorbachev's perestroika, as well as in the difficult period of independence. The last 30 years have seen the development of many of the socio-economic preconditions for an oriental autocracy. The social fabric has been reinforced by structures based on the state-tribal rule built by Heydar Aliev when he was first secretary of the central committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party."
In Azerbaijan, the brief period of "freedom" initiated by Gorbachev's "perestroika" and the collapse of the USSR came to be associated above all with the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Anti-Soviet protest was largely nationalist and populist. It was not democratic, like Solidarity or the political clubs of the "Prague spring" in 1968. Azerbaijan's democracy stopped where the criticism of Soviet evils ended and Karabakh began.
These feelings were harnessed in the late 1980-1990s by politicians like the second president of independent Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey, and his colleagues from the National Front (NFA). In 1990 they suffered a temporary defeat at the hands of the local national communists supported by Moscow. But in 1992 they turned the tables and returned to build a new, non-Soviet Azerbaijan.
Their collective portrait was drawn brilliantly by Dmitry Furman and Ali Abasov: "Clearly the most ‘revolutionary' group has come to power, led by the most ‘idealistic' politician of all the factions and politicians ruling in different countries of the former USSR. The president is surrounded by people who are mainly first-generation members of the intelligentsia, from the countryside, like Elchibey himself. They did not move up the bureaucratic hierarchical ladder and they came to their positions as dedicated revolutionaries."
However, it soon turned out that an ability to win over a crowd and unmask the scheming of Moscow and Armenia was not enough to govern a country, conduct a war, build institutions of power and sort out socio-economic systems. The new leaders quickly lost contact with reality. They started promoting ideas of "Turkic integration" and battling with the Kremlin intrigues and "world Armenism". They openly challenged Iran, demanding the unification of the "two Azerbaijans".
Only a third of Elchibey's protegés had the education and experience required. The consequences were chaos, loss of control and failure on the Karabakh front. For the average Azerbaijani democracy came to be associated with the period of National Front rule. Hence the nostalgia for the "golden age" of Aliev and the much-vaunted stability.
The opinion of one ordinary Azerbaijani voter who came to vote on 18 March 2009 is very telling: "I well remember how the National Front ruled Azerbaijan in 1992-1993. All high-level positions were held by members of the National Front party. What did they think about - the people? No, they thought about stuffing their pockets. I have no illusions about those in power now. They too think only of themselves. But what would happen to the country, to all of us, if Ilham Aliev were to stand down in 2013? There would be a re-division of property, which could lead to civil war. Does Azerbaijan need this? No!"
At the same time, the opposition repeats the National Front rhetoric from the early 1990s (there are obvious parallels here with Russian democrats, who have been unable to offer voters anything new apart from unmasking the "cursed past"). The regime's opponents are unable to come up with new faces, programmes or ideas. After the failure of their idea of "boycotting" the presidential elections, they campaigned for boycotting the referendum. This did not work either. Voters prefer the familiar Soviet model adjusted for national independence. As the independent Milli Mejlis deputy Elmira Akhundova put it: "The main thing is not who is elected president, and how many times. What matters is the stability of Azerbaijan. Today that is associated with one person - Ilham Aliev."
This is the most serious problem for Azerbaijan's stability. Aliev's personal power has increased, thanks less to the scheming of the head of state and his сlosest associates as to public opinion. Whatever the regime's opponents may say, there were no mass protests against the results of the referendum, or the falsification of the results. The regime has received the support of the people.
However, a regime of personal rule only remains sound as long as the president is healthy, confident and has not lost contact with reality or become intoxicated by his own greatness. But it is very difficult to play the part of an "enlightened moderniser" when ruling in an authoritarian style. As soon as the president's strength falters, the entire structure of the regime begins to collapse. Yesterday's unquestioned guarantor of stability then risks falling victim to his own former ardent admirers and supporters.
There is no proof that the collapse of such a regime will result in liberalisation, let alone a stable democracy. The worst elements in society could well triumph. This has been demonstrated by many events in post-Soviet history - not only in Azerbaijan, but in Chechnya too. But these conditions are invariably followed by "stability" and a dictatorship of greater or lesser severity. With elements of democracy or without.
It began on 17 November 2008 when the head of the FRSD, Nazim Apaev, resigned. The position stood vacant for several months. Traditionally, the position of head tax-collector is held by a Lezgin (the dominant ethnic group in the southern part of the republic). However, on 2 February it transpired that the new incumbent would be a Russian called Vladimir Radchenko.He was not a public figure. He had risen through the ranks, from being an ordinary tax inspector to the head of the FTSD office in Karachevo-Cherkesia. After that, he took a break from service and worked as a businessman. The appointment did not prove a happy one.
As soon as word got out that an "outsider" had got the job, mass protests began. Radchenko was warned that his office had been mined. The department building was picketed, and in Makhachkala the city's roads were blocked. On the day of his appointment Radchenko could not even reach his own office.A few days later Radchenko was kidnapped. He was not held hostage for long, as the purpose of the kidnapping was to prove a point. Later, Radchenko himself claimed that the son of the republic president Gadzhimurad Aliev, who is deputy head of the FTSD, was involved. This theory was not officially confirmed. Kasumbek Amirbekov, who heads the department leading the investigation, said that one theory they were examining was that the kidnapping had been staged. It is unclear who could have done this though, as Radchenko lacked the considerable resources required to carry out such a scheme in Dagestan.
Once mooted, theories take on a life of their own. There were those who wanted to believe in the kidnapping, there were others who wanted to believe it was staged. Ten days after Radchenko was appointed, the appointment was annulled (Radchenko himself said that his dismissal had been "backdated").
The president's explanation
The finale of this story (perhaps only a temporary finale) came when Dagestan's president Mukhu Aliev announced on 16 February 2009 that the problems with Dagestan tax service department were the fault of the "irresponsible and unprincipled behavior" of the head of the tax service of the Russian Federation Mikhail Mokretsov.
According to the president, Mr. Mokretsov was a hostage "to certain Dagestani Muscovites lobbying for their interests in the republic". The Radchenko case was part of a larger power battle in Dagestan, he said. Radchenko's lobbyists were "destructive forces who will use any means necessary in their battle for power. They are after money, and they are prepared to use the media, criminal connections and other ties in federal power structures". Aliev refrained from making direct accusations and giving specific names of the leaders of these "destructive forces". Perhaps these names will soon be forthcoming.
However that may be, a representative of the structure that governs the Russian Federation, a structure based on the principles of the "vertical of power", was unable to start work in the position to which he was appointed. "Of course it looks bad when a federal official in Dagestan is not allowed to start work in his post," said Dagestan's president: "But what kind of a federal official was this? Who appointed him? He was actually an imposter. Such appointments have to be made by the Russian Finance Minister in agreement with the head of the republic. This, the minister did not do".
Let us assume that the federal structures did make serious procedural errors; that they overestimated their status; that they did not agree the candidacy in the proper way but took the infamous "vertical of power" for granted, believing that now the "terrible '90s" were over the regional establishment did not need to be handled with kid gloves.
Perhaps the "Lezgian protest" does not offer a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps the theory of a conspiracy of "clans" within Dagestan doesn't either. But nor in fact does the president's theory. It can't have been the deciding factor in the "Radchenko case". For it does not really explain why it happened.Could it just have been a case of lack of professionalism, at the least, on the part of the federal structures, for having tried to impose a "technocratic" solution without any understanding of local sensibilities? Hardly, for if you lack the resources to impose your will, you just have to negotiate.
The Lezgian theory
Let's examine the "Lezgian theory" a little more closely. During the first days, this was the explanation that was being offered for local resistance to the appointment of an outsider. Here we are dealing with a deep-rooted stereotype. Dagestan is a multi-ethnic community, and ensuring harmonious inter-ethnic relations is the basis of stability within the republic. So the key positions are divided between ethnic elites. Violating this balance will lead to serious problems, if not to an explosion.While this is all true, it is also not quite true. Until 2006 no one occupied the presidential post in Dagestan, and the head of the State Council (a body that includes representatives of the republic's 14 major ethnic groups) was Magomedali Magomedov, an ethnic Dargin. In 2006, Mukhu Aliev, an ethnic Avar became the first president of Dagestan. This led to a certain redistribution of powers and the ethnic balance. But the republic did not collapse.
As for the instability we have seen in recent years, there was plenty of that in the years when Dagestan was ruled by the State Council. We may be going through a ninth wave of acts of terrorism and sabotage right now, and the anti-terrorist operation in the famous aul of Gimry is fresh in our minds. But in the 1990s there was the rebellion in Makhachkala, the creation of the "Special Islamic territory" in the "Kadar zone", and a series of ethnic conflicts.
Both then and now, the informal approach to these problems worked much better than the imposition of law and order. In our opinion, Konstantin Kazenin, a serious scholar of Dagestan, is right when he concluded that: "The average Lezgian Dagestani in full control of his mental powers is not remotely interested in the ethnicity of the head tax-collector, not even in his native town or region, let alone on the level of the republic. What is more, there were plenty of influential Lezgins who supported Mr. Radchenko's appointment." It is no accident that the media mentioned possible links between Radchenko and Suleiman Kerimov (an influential entrepreneur, a "Moscow Dagestani" of Lezgian ethnicity).
Nor was the resistance to Radchenko's appointment confined to Lezgians. People of Avar ethnicity also appear to have been involved in expelling Radchenko - he himself implicated the president's son, an ethnic Avar. The president too did not approve of Radchenko's appointment. So the theory about the disruption of the ethnic balance being the basis for "expelling the outsider" is unconvincing.
Non-ethnic dividing lines
In Dagestan ethnic boundaries are not the only "dividing lines". Fidelity to the republic has always been far more important than the "blood principle". For example, the Chechen-Akkins of Dagestan value their Dagestani identity higher than the notion of "solidarity" with the Ichkeria of Dudaev and Maskhadov.
The republic is also riven with confrontations between different schools of Islam. There is the Tariqah school, versus the so-called "renewed" school, which itself can be very approximately divided into the unofficial and the radical (Salafid) which our journalists call "Wahhabi". Within this mosaic, a Lezgin, Avar and Dargin (if they are Tariqah followers) may find themselves pitted against a Lezgin, Avar and Dargin who are Salafid followers.
The Russian Dagestani factor
Even this does not exhaust the complexity of Dagestan's fractured allegiances. In the post-Soviet period many natives of Dagestan settled elsewhere in the Russian Federation. Despite all the difficulties (from the so-called ‘face control' of the Moscow police to administrative barriers), many were able to make a career, receive prestigious education, open their own business, earn money and become successful managers, intellectuals and businessmen. Now some of them would like return home and "pay their debts" to the republic, using their material and moral capital. During their years of self-imposed exile, the identity of "Dagestani" became no less important for many of them than their ethnic origin.
So we also have the rivalry between Russian Dagestanis of different ethnicities and the republic's own multi-ethnic bureaucracy. We might, for instance, find a Lezgin from the FTSD becoming an ally of the Avars in the president's circle to stop the interests of (so far?) unnamed "Moscow Dagestanis" from entering the republic. Their ambitions might have come into conflict with those of Dagestan's power elite of Dagestan at other levels.
Dagestan's power elite
This elite formed during the time of the Communist Party, and it has not changed nearly as much as that of neighbouring republics. It is used to having carte blanche from Moscow to stabilize the situation. It does not expect to have competition. Makhachkala may know how to deal with ethno-nationalists or religious radicals, but it is less clear about how to deal with this new wave of internal emigrants. Some may be easy to co-opt into Dagestan's own power structure, and some not. But few have given much strategic thought as to how to deal with this issue.
Unfortunately, Moscow prefers to observe the situation from afar, without involving itself too much in the local specifics. One need not look far to find examples. For instance, on 10 February, when the "Radchenko case" had already been going on for a week, Russian President Medvedev met with Dagestan's president. And what was the outcome? Were those who violated the principles for selecting the candidate for the head of the republic's tax service punished? Did the president criticize the republic's elites for their treatment of the "outsider from Moscow"? Rather than looking for the culprit of an incident which surely reflects badly on government, Medvedev merely "instructed" Aliev to "pay more attention to issues relating to security and fighting crime. Rather than a substantial discussion of the republic's problems (which are serious enough without Radchenko), our newspapers and television were once again treat to a sort of ceremonial Caucasian toast. Well, that's government for you.
Sergei Markedonov is Head of the Department for the Study of Inter-ethnic Relations at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, and a Candidate of Historical Science.
A trial of Al-Qaida fighters charged with the formation of an armed terrorist group came to court at the end of May. The group, which included 18 people, including a Saudi citizen called Nail Abdul Kerim al-Bedewi, known as Abu-Jafar. In October of last year Azerbaijan's Ministry of National Security reported that action had been taken to prevent a number of terrorist acts planned by Islamic groups against the state, as well as the US embassy in Azerbaijan. The US State Department's representative Sean McCormack, confirming this, also said he considered Azerbaijan-American cooperation on security to be effective. As a result, the US and UK restricted the work of their embassies in Baku. The following month, Azerbaijan's Ministry of National Security reported that a special operation had led to the arrest of religious extremists headed by Abu-Jafar, the Saudi citizen now on trial.