only search

About Ivan Sukhov

Journalist of the independent Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostyey, Caucasus expert. Appears frequently on Radio Liberty, BBC Russian Service and opposition radiostation Ekho of Moscow.

Articles by Ivan Sukhov

This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Kyrgyzstan and Georgia: two very different countries

In the run-up to municipal elections in Georgia, Ivan Sukhov points out that Tbilisi has a lot less in common with Bishkek than the Georgian opposition might like to think

Abkhazia prepares to vote

Presidential elections are looming in the Abkhazia, the breakaway republic which Russia recognised as an independent state after the Georgia war. This time, Russia has backed off from playing a candidate, says Ivan Sukhov. But whatever the outcome closer integration with Russia will continue.

Crunch time in the Southern Caucasus

Two factors have inflamed the situation in the South Caucasus. On the one hand, NATO is carrying out exercises in Georgia at the moment (6 May to 1 June) under the name Cooperative Longbow/Lancer - 2009. On the other hand, Russia has deployed guards on the borders of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Georgia. The hysterical reactions of Moscow and the West  recall the situation a year ago, before the August war. Politicians, diplomats, intelligence services and the military of all interested parties are going to have to exercise great tact and professionalism to avoid destructive and irreversible consequences.

Two closely-linked processes are under way in the South Caucasus.  Georgia is at the centre of one, and Armenia the other. Since autumn 2008 relations between Armenia and Turkey have been improving rapidly. This has resulted in a joint announcement on 22 April 2009 of a "road map" for regulating bilateral relations.  One result will be the opening of borders between the two countries.

Moscow considers that Russia deserves the credit for launching this process of mutual rapprochement. This is true, if it can be regarded as creditable to have engendered fear in neighbouring post-Soviet elites, as Russia's military operations in Georgia did in August 2008.

Turkey's reaction to the August war was not long in coming. You might mock the "football diplomacy" of President Abdullah Gul, who came to Yerevan for the world championship selection match on 6 September 2008.  But had it not been for 8 August, this unprecedented visit would not have happened. The visit ensured that the "platform of stability and cooperation in the Caucasus" proposed by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan might become more than part of the choir deploring Russia's military intervention in Georgia.

Further developments in the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement turned out to be unexpectedly disquieting for both Moscow and the West.  Russia has tried several times (and continues to try) to seize the initiative that has slipped from its hands.  The West clearly has no unified position on the extent of its support for Turkey in these Armenian initiatives. Now more than ever, Turkey needs to consider whether it is primarily an ally of the West, or an independent regional power.

The United States has expressed clear approval of the processes, by way of compensating for the differences between them over the use of the word "genocide".  Meanwhile, the European Union, with its old anxieties about Turkish membership, has been standing back and watching. Yet the success of Turkey's Caucasian initiatives depends to a significant degree on consistent support from Europe. Influential forces within Turkey are unhappy with the policy of rapprochement.  They demand that the government establish contacts with Yerevan to help resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh situation in favour of Azerbaijan, Turkey's traditional ally in the region.

The Armenian government is also under pressure from its nationalist opposition.  Details of the "road map" signed on 22 April are not yet fully known, but a group of Karabakh war veterans  has already dismissed it as a betrayal of Armenia's national interests. The 2008 presidential elections in Armenia saw mass disturbances involving these veterans.  So Yerevan cannot afford to ignore public pressure.  Yerevan and Ankara must both make their positions clear to their foreign policy partners.

However intense the political pressure on the initiators of the Ankara-Yerevan rapprochement, progress is likely to remain good.  If things go well, the Armenian-Turkish border could be opened in a few months. Just a few days ago the Armenian transport ministry reported that it was prepared to open communications with Turkey right away.   Everything is ready. All that remains is to repair the checkpoints. Opening the border will be the more likely if Turkey and Armenia manage to put to one side the issue of Karabakh.

The Karabakh factor

Karabakh may cause a deadlock in the negotiation process. There is no scenario for resolving the conflict that will suit not only Armenia and Karabakh itself in its present form (which cannot be completely ignored), but Azerbaijan and its patron Turkey. Or Moscow, which hopes to maintain its influence on the situation in Karabakh in order to be able to exert influence on both Yerevan and Baku.

Today Moscow is the party which has an interest in any Armenian-Turkish rapprochement being dependent on a settlement of the Karabakh dispute. If Moscow can ensure this, a solution to both issues will effectively be blocked.

Political stability in Armenia depends on the Karabakh negotiations.  Negotiations will be much easier if they can be delayed until there is tangible progress in Armenian-Turkish relations e.g. before the border is opened.  The countless mutual contradictions and concerns of Armenia and Azerbaijan mean that for the first time Armenia will not be negotiating with its back against the wall.

As things stand today, opening the Armenian-Turkish border will mean a very significant reduction of Russian political and economic influence in the region.  At the moment, Russia has to rely on air links with Armenia, which it regards as its main ally in the South Caucasus.  For Armenia's exports and imports, Russia is less important than the EU countries.

At the beginning of May Russia announced completion of repairs to the customs terminal "Verkhny Lars" on the border with Georgia, through which land transport would theoretically pass in and out of Armenia.  But Georgia's agreement is required to start using this as a transit point for Armenian-Russian traffic and cargo. Lars is the only checkpoint on the Russian-Georgian border which falls outside Georgia's conflict zones with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Georgians well remember that the repairs at Lars took many years, far longer than they were supposed to, and they clearly served as an instrument for the economic blockade of Georgia. In any case, even if Lars is re-opened for traffic, the opening of railway, road and air links between Armenia and Turkey will negate the importance of this crossing.  When there is an open border with Turkey, using Lars would be like climbing in through the neighbour's window, rather than using one's one fine, well-placed gates.

A union through clenched teeth

Armenia has a whole litany of complaints against Russia.  They are rarely heard during polite protocol meetings between Sargis Sargsian and Dmitry Medvedev, but anyone with any interest in bilateral relations between the two countries is well aware of them. They are the background against which this new development in Armenian foreign policy makes sense. The major concerns are:

  • gas prices, which Russia has raised almost to market level for Armenia in 2006
  • enterprises which Russia has taken over by way of payment for Armenian debts, which have not developed as promised
  • the Russian military base in Gyumri. This does not pay rent to Armenia, but irritates neighbouring Georgia. At the moment it is effectively Yerevan's only window to the outside world (apart from the narrow corridor to Iran). It is also an irritant to the Armenians themselves, who increasingly wonder if the Russian military really would help them if the war in Karabakh were to get out of control.  Might the Russians be more concerned to maintain relations with Azerbaijan, the richest country in the region and an independent exporter of energy resources?
  • Russian-Azerbaijan relations, which from the Armenian viewpoint do not chime well with Russian rhetoric about a union with Armenia
  • xenophobia in Russia, which police statistics show for some reason most frequently involves citizens of Armenian origin.

Fears of heavy-handed intervention by Russia in the rapprochement process with Turkey clearly prompted Yerevan to back out of NATO tactical exercises in Georgia literally days before they began. The official reason given was the statement by General Secretary de Hoop Scheffer about NATO support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan - essentially a manifestation of above-mentioned European tactlessness.   The exercises provoked a hysterical reaction from Moscow right from the beginning.  That Armenia, which belongs to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, should have considered taking part in them is some indication of its real relationship with the country that claims to be Armenia's main foreign policy patron.

Pressing the "reset button" on 8 August 2008

The more the relationship between Yerevan and Ankara improves, the more Moscow wants to be dealt a new deck of cards for the Caucasus, in the hope of getting a better hand. The  rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey is directly proportionate to Russia's loss of influence in the region.

Moscow probably understands that Armenia's move southward is connected with the freezing of Russian-Georgian relations after the 2008 war.  Any hope Yerevan might have had of re-opening land communications with Russia (only possible through Georgia) has died.  So Moscow has a geostrategic interest in "opening up" Georgia. Moscow strategists have realized that this is not going to be possible without a change in the Georgian regime.  Georgia's democratic opposition would not be able to achieve this, as their relations with Russia are barely different  from those of Mikhail Saakashvili's circle. 

Georgia's internal instability results from the activities of the opposition.  Either way, this suits Moscow. At the very least, it undermines the enemy from the inside. At most, it could serve as an excuse for intervention by force. But paradoxically, any escalation of hostilities could also play into the hands of Saakashvili's administration: some Tbilisi analysts expect that a renewal of the conflict would prompt the opposition to step back from attacking the regime directly.

Russia is strategically interested in gaining control over the Georgian section of pipelines between Central Asia and the Black Sea - Mediterranean basin. This control could come about by provoking regime change in Georgia. Intervention by force to gain this end is still not impossible. Russia could also take control by destroying pipelines - but this would spoil its relations with Azerbaijan, currently the most important source of oil for these pipelines.

Russian overriding priority is the South Caucasian pipelines, rather than the mythical union with Armenia.  Before our very eyes Russia is effecting a pragmatic re-orientation to its foreign policy, from a patriarchal empire into a gas corporation prepared to fight its corner. Control of the Georgian pipelines would end all talk of diversifying the delivery of Central Asian energy to Europe.  It would also allow Gazprom to dictate conditions for the purchase of its raw materials to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Russia looks increasingly prepared to step outside the boundaries of international law as understood in Europe.  Indications include her diplomatic reaction to NATO's exercises in Georgia, the deployment of border troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (once again flouting the Medvedev-Sarkozy peace plan) and border provocations involving pro-Kremlin youth movements. This readiness, and the fact that it did not achieve all of its goals in August 2008, mean that the danger of military engagement in the region is greater than ever.

The European Union and the United States are going to have to do more than merely appeal to Moscow to stop behaving like an old-fashioned colonial power and behave decently. They are going to have to react effectively to the challenges it poses. For in coming months, or even weeks, events in Georgia may force Washington and Brussels into taking strategic decisions on Georgia, if they don't want to lose sight of her for the next few years.

Russia-Georgia rapprochement? Get real

The way things are, Ambassador Kitsmarishvili's proposals on procedural issues for ensuring a rapprochement between Georgia and Russia seem excessively optimistic.

Attempts are being made in both Georgia and Russia. But the very ideology of these countries rules out the possibility of serious rapprochement. Some proposals have been made which address the symptoms, but these do not resolve the issues both sides have with one another. Those proposals which do have solutions to offer are fundamentally unacceptable to the other side.

Among those proposals which address the symptoms is the creation of an international instrument which could prevent a resumption of military operations in the region. It assumes that until 8 August 2008 there was a system operating in the region whose notional goal was to prevent a renewal of conflict. That system did not work, as we know. Any other configuration of instruments and institutions will carry the same risk, until solutions are found to the most painful problems of bilateral relations.

These are the main issues: the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, the stationing of foreign troops on the territories of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and finally issues of transport communications. Only the second of these shows some signs of movement, and you have to look very hard to see them.

An example of the second kind of proposal is the federalisation of Georgia. A number of Russian special advisers on the region are working on such proposals. They are putting a good deal of intellectual effort into constructing scenarios which presuppose the development of separatist areas of Georgia inhabited by Armenians and Azerbaijanis. These would supposedly become "subjects" of a hypothetical Georgian federation - perhaps along with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This proposal is so far removed from reality that it is unworthy of serious consideration.

Through Russian eyes

Let us look at the situation through Russia's eyes. After the war of 2008, Russia was more or less obliged to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If it had not done so Russia would have lost its foothold in the region completely, such was the logic of international relations at the time. This position came about not just as a result of the war in August 2008, but also because of Russia's peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia before that. Russia had also invested considerable sums in the economies of these two regions.

By dint of recognising the republics, Russia secured two footholds where it could station troops in a region part of which may join NATO in the foreseeable future, as Moscow strategists see it. What Moscow somehow forgets is that these borders with NATO countries, including those which run through exotic regions like the Bering Straits, have been a model of stability throughout the NATO's history. There are no grounds for believing that NATO will not be able to ensure the stability of the Georgian border for any reason. What is more, so far Georgia's membership in the alliance is far from certain.

For Russia, the outcome of the August war is rather like someone firing a cannon at a flock of sparrows, with added unpleasant consequences for the perpetrator. If it were not for certain indirect but inevitable consequences, it would arguably be no bad thing to have two military bases in a region whose geopolitical future was unresolved. But so real are these consequences that the outcome as a whole is unsatisfactory from Russia's point of view.

Recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia has had the effect of blocking any initiatives to restore the use of the railway from Russia to Georgia through Abkhazia, as well as the two highways that run through Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are three of the six roads that connect Russian with the South Caucasus. Three of the four roads pass through Georgia.

By the end of spring the fourth road may be unblocked, not without efforts from Yerevan. This is the road that passes through Upper Lars, where Russia has for some years been engaged in repairing the customs terminal. But even if the Lars road were opened it would be like trying to drain a huge dam through a small drainpipe. Russia urgently wants to develop its economic presence in the South Caucasus, but this can't be done without these north-south roads. Until there is traffic through Lars, all talk about union with Russia's partner Armenia will remain just that. Not only the military base in the Armenian city of Gyumri, but the whole of Armenia will still be an island connected with its northern patron only by air.

Nor did recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia bring Russia any closer to controlling, or being involved with, Caucasian projects for the transportation of Caspian oil and gas from east to west. The blockade of Azerbaijan-Georgian communications lasted several days during the war, but even this brief period was enough to cause genuine discontent in Azerbaijan. Russia's proposals to purchase all Azerbaijan export gas could have compensated Baku for this in August - if Russia had been technically capable of making this transaction. Not to mention Russia's inability to substitute the Georgian pipeline with a route through Russia.


Through Georgian eyes

The result of having recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been to make it practically impossible for anyone in Georgia to create a political bloc oriented towards Russia that would have any wide electoral support. Voters' sympathies for Russia decreased dramatically. This was not just because Russia invaded territories which Georgia would like to consider its own. The sight of Russian tanks, military planes and bombs in Georgia itself had a powerful effect.

Georgia's opposition leaders are prepared for pragmatic dialogue on disputed issues. But if any of them came to power Moscow would see none of the strategic changes in Georgian foreign policy it would like to see.

Realistic progress

These incontrovertible facts, each of which is enough to upset the Moscow strategists, could unfortunately be enough, if circumstances took a turn for the worse, to trigger the use of force again in Georgia. Clearly, if this pessimistic scenario were to arise, it would lead to the complete destabilisation of the South Caucasus region. It would trigger a chain reaction in the North Caucasus too, and cause any investment projects connected with the Caucasus to collapse. So it would seem that the regional players are primarily interested not in creating more diplomatic missions charged with vague new missions, but in a clear formulation of their own agenda and a swift search for means of carrying out these agendas.

It is possible that considerable progress might be made on the issue of the bloc status of territories and the rules for stationing foreign troops in the region - as long as all interested parties, including those outside the region, are agreed that what they want to achieve is not mutual military containment, but a peaceful Caucasus with a common, free and stable economic space.

There looks as if there is some scope too for a restoration of traffic by road from Russia through South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia to Armenia. This would allow Russia to become a proper party to programmes of regional development, and Armenia too, which holds a vital key to resolving the important problem of Nagorny Karabakh.

Obstacles, subjective and objective

Sadly, a number of obstacles, objective and subjective, make this prospect somewhat utopian at present, however pragmatic, adequate and peace-loving a changed leadership in Georgian might be. The subjective obstacle is Russia ruling elites, whose ongoing rivalry for dominance has no clear endpoint. The politics of the Caucasus sometimes becomes the vehicle of this internal rivalry, and this will remain true.

Furthermore, these ruling elites understand the meaning of the word "overload" very differently from the Americans. In Moscow, they are still inclined to assume a parity in relations with the United States, although in reality this has long since ceased to be true.

Among objective obstacles are the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia, like most post-Soviet nations, is a country where the concept of nationality is crucial. A national agenda for Georgians is barely compatible with the thesis of a Georgia for everyone (i.e. for Georgians, Abkhazians, Ossetians, and for all other citizens regardless of their ethnicity). This is not a problem specific to Georgia. It is characteristic of almost all the post-Soviet nations, including Russia itself in many ways. But it is on the solution of this divisive issue that the chances of real Georgian integration and reliable security in the South Caucasus depends.

The Ingush dilemma

In the Russian republic of Ingushetia people celebrated by dancing and shooting in the air when they heard that their president Murat Zyazikov had been dismissed. The news reached me in Ankara, where I was attending a roundtable on the Caucasus, together with experts from Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were recognized by Russia in August this year.

How to make South Caucasus stable?

The subject under discussion was how to make the South Caucasus region stable after the conflict that broke out there on 8th August. Could Russia, which was at least partially responsible for the regional crisis that followed, become the main peace-broker manager there? It was a unique occasion. It is no easy matter to gather Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians round the same table, not to mention Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The only live subject of South Caucasian politics which was not represented was that of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh was little discussed because everyone was interested in Georgia and the regions seceding from it. As chance would have it, a day after the experts left for their capitals, the Meiendorf declaration on Karabakh was signed in Moscow. With this declaration, which actually changed little, Russia made it very clear to Turkey, the European Union, and other players outside the region, that it intends to continue playing a major role in the politics of the South Caucasian. Indeed, it would like to return with the status of master of the situation, as the sovereign whom the squabbling vassals see as the only possible arbiter for their quarrels.

However desirable this may be for politicians in Moscow, even after the August conflict and the Meiendorf handshake between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it needs hardly be said that this is a deeply unrealistic prospect. Some indicators suggest that recent events have even widened the gap between desire and reality.

For example, it was clear that Azerbaijan was alarmed at Russia's encroachment into Georgia. For it has Karabakh, and other territories in the north which could go the way of South Ossetia, given a certain concentration of forces and support from the Russian side. The situation in Georgia has also complicated the transit of Azerbaijani raw materials through Georgian territory. There is no alternative route, because the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline could not cope with the amount of oil Azerbaijan exports daily.

Armenia also values Georgia as its only means of access to the outside world apart from Iran. The Armenian president was not happy that Russian bombers took off from the Russian base in the Armenian city of Gyumri. But after Russia's ambitious behaviour in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were eager to hear what proposals the Turkish government had on stability and co-operation in the Caucasus.

For the first time in many years, there has been progress in the contacts between these three countries. It is not the Minsk group we have to thank for this, but the unvoiced fear of all three governments in the face of Russia's military reawakening. This is the larger picture, while the achievement of the Minsk Group is so far no more than an episode. Russia's own systemic constraints will make it very difficult for the country to build on its success in the South Caucasus significantly. The most obvious of these is the state of its own territory in North Caucasus. When your own house is not in order, it is at the very least strange to want to bring order in the houses of not one, or two, but three of your neighbours.

Caucasus: North vs. South

However, the North Caucasus factor escapes the attention of Russian analysts studying the problems of the Caucasus as a whole. So blind are they to it that at the Ankara conference they were inviting me to events organized by Zyazikov's team for the day after his dismissal as president of Ingushetia. So certain are they that the situation in the North Caucasus has been stabilised that it does not even occur to them to ask whether the president of the country agrees with them. The blindness of the expert community is not as dangerous as the blindness of politicians who make the decisions. But only one step divides the one group from the other. The act that Moscow ignores the problems of the North Caucasus is symptomatic.

The North Caucasus is also intimately connected with the South Caucasus both ethnically and territorially. For instance, the Abkhazians are related to the Cherkess, Kabardins and Abazins of the Northern Slope. The majority of Ossetians live in Russia. Chechens have a strong and very specific diaspora in Georgia, and a number of peoples of Dagestan are divided by the Russian-Georgian and Russian-Azerbaijan border. In the 1990s, there was a whole range of ethno-separatist movements all along these borders. The leaders of those movements are still alive and kicking. What they are asking themselves right now is this: why does the principle of free self-determination apply to Ossetians and Abkhazians, but not to the highland peoples of the South of Russia?

This question is not often heard only because ethno-separatist ideas have lost much of their popularity. In the early 1990s, the nomenklaturas of autonomies that were formed in the Soviet period strengthened their power, raising the banner of national populism. It is not popular to mention this, but many state officials who are still working in government institutions of the North Caucasus raised toasts to the freedom of Chechnya in 1996-1998 at feasts where Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov were present. Now these officials are widely hated by the population, with the exception of Chechnya itself, as they are justly seen as thieves, bribe-takers, embezzlers, and sometimes even murderers. There is hatred of the regional authorities, which are seen as a branch of Moscow.

There is no civil opposition. But there is a slowly but surely growing movement of political Islam, which exists in all seven of the Russian Caucasian regions, including Ossetia with its Christian majority. Islamists have proclaimed the abolition of ethnic borders and a war to establish Shariat law all over the Caucasus. In the end, they don't need guns and explosives: they are waging a war for the minds of young people. They have a strong chance of winning this war. When one looks at the South Caucasus, one can say with certainly that if the Islamic movement flourishes in the Caucasian provinces of Russia, then Russia will have far more serious things to worry about than Georgia or Azerbaijan. The probability that this will happen is not inconsiderable: Moscow does not offer young people in the Caucasus any alternative program of development. For those who have stayed at home, there is unemployment and a drop in the quality and availability of even basic education, and for those who go to find happiness and prosperity in the Russian regions, there is growing xenophobia - and a financial crisis.

Ingushetia is a place where the fire virtually started before our eyes. The problem initially lay in the proximity to Chechnya. When the war began in Chechnya in 1999, Ingushetia was ruled by president Aushev, who did not allow Russian law-enforcement structures to fight rebels in Ingushetia in the way they did in Chechnya. The Russians saw this as a sign of separatism and tried to remove Aushev, who was very popular among the people, could act as a negotiator with Maskhadov, and at least provided stability on the territory of Ingushetia. The new president Zyazikov, who was elected in 2002 with the active practical assistance of the Kremlin in the vote tallying, and was re-appointed in 2006, as elections of regional leaders were abolished, agreed to let the law-enforcement structures into Ingushetia.

The result became clear very quickly: in 2004 there was an attempt to blow up Zyazikov's cortege, Basaev occupied Nazran with a large band of fighters in several hours and took control of half of the republic, and rebels entered Beslan from the territory of Ingushetia. Perhaps Zyazikov could have been forgiven for the mistakes of the federal forces in special operations where peaceful citizens died and disappeared, and the ones who survived joined the rebels out of hatred - if he had made any improvements whatsoever to the problem of poverty and unemployment. This did not happen, despite all his efforts, and certainly despite all the reports that he made to the Kremlin. Since the end of last year, demands for Zyazikov's dismissal began to be heard constantly. At the same time, political processes began which were not pleasant for the Kremlin: the assembly of Ingush Teips, for example, delegated representatives to an alternative regional parliament. As soon as Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, this parliament immediately promised to pose the question of Ingushetia seceding from Russia, unless the problem of Zyazikov was solved.

Three quite distinct groups formed in Ingushetia: Zyazikov's group, which could not have been removed without Moscow losing face, but which it was becoming dangerous to keep in power; the civil opposition which demanded his dismissal; and radical Islamists, who increased in number the longer Zyazikov stayed in power, and with weapons in their hands sought not only the replacement of Zyazikov, but the establishment of Shariat law.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that, since 1992 (and strictly speaking, for much longer than that) Ingushetia and North Ossetia have been in a state of conflict over the border lands. Ossetians to the south of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range are in conflict with Georgia, and to the north with Ingushetia.  It is obvious that if Russia positions itself as the defender and guarantor of the Ossetians, anti-Ossetian feeling (and indeed anti-Russian too) in Ingushetia will increase, as will sympathy towards Georgia.  There is no need for any Georgian-Ingush conspiracies,with Pankisi-Chechen involvements, as some people think. It is the logic of several billiard balls lying next to each other: you hit one and another one moves; if you strike at random it is unclear which direction they will go in.

Zyazikov removed

By finally removing Zyazikov, Moscow has chosen the right and most suitable course of action from the few possibilities available. There were in fact three options. The first was to return Aushev to Ingushetia, as the Ingush opposition demanded. The second was to unite Ingushetia with Chechnya and hand them both to Ramzan Kadyrov, so that he could solve the problems there in the way he solved them at home. The third was to replace the President of Ingushetia with someone other than Aushev.

The first option was impossible because of Aushev's relations with the federal politicians who take the decisions. He may not have a relationship with Medvedev, but he had more than enough rwith Putin.  His involvement alone in attempts to find a bloodless solution to the crisis in Beslan in 2004 was already sufficient for strong mutual dislike.

The second option would firstly have given too much strength to Kadyrov, whom Medvedev does not see as his man in the Caucasus, evidently understanding that this young and independent leader can only be considered to be Putin's man by a considerable stretch of the imaginagtion. Secondly, if Kadyrov has managed to achieve a general reduction in the level of violence in Chechnya, this happened because he forced out the federal troops and transferred the law-enforcement functions to local structures, mainly comprised of former separatists, who had fought against Russia in one or two wars, but have now declared their loyalty. This Chechenization of Ingushetia would have angered federal generals, who generally see Moscow's Chechen policy as a capitulation. Quarrelling with generals is also not part of President Medvedev's plans. Furthermore, Kadyrov's police in Ingushetia, for all the ethnic kinship of Chechens and Ingush, would not be very different from the federal troops: Kadyrov's men in Ingushetia are also foreigners, even if they speak a comprehensible language. And finally, if Ingushetia and Chechnya were to unite, this would deprive Ingushetia of the formal basis for its territorial claims on North Ossetia.  When Chechnya and Ingushetia were one autonomous region in the USSR, the lands of South Stavropol that were handed over to Chechno-Ingushetia in 1957, were considered to be compensation for the territories being disputed with the Ossetians If they became part of Chechno-Ingushetia, the Ingush would be deprived of the formal right to demand territorial rehabilitation (the border lands were taken away from them during the Stalinist deportation in 1944). This unity with Chechnya might solve the Ossetian-Ingush problem from Moscow's point of view. But it would detonate the bomb of Ingush nationalism and inevitably turn the Ossetian-Ingush border into a front line again.

Sensibly postponing the project for uniting Chechnya and Ingushetia - and Grozny clearly tried to breathe life into this project in October - President Medvedev chose the third option. The first steps by the man he appointed, colonel of the Intelligence Division Yunusbek Yevkurov, have already significantly reduced tension in Ingushetia. The civil opposition is satisfied with the appointment. The hated government has been dismissed. Yevkurov has promised an objective investigation of the most high-profile crimes involving security forces, and also to reduce their numbers in the region.

New president Yevkurov, can he succeed?

But this is not even half the problem. These are the steps which any other person replacing Zyazikov would have taken. Future success depends on whether Yevkurov will really be able to influence the quality of work of the federal security structures, or whether everything will remain unchanged, and Yevkurov himself will turn into a copy of Zyazikov, only with a moustache. Zyazikov's experience in the intelligence division bodes well. The leadership of the intelligence division is loyal towards Medvedev and has its own ideas about the need to reform administration in the North Caucasus. But there are security officers who are unhappy with the Zyazikov's departure, as he was a convenient figure for them. They appear to be prepared to go to considerable lengths to stop Yevkurov from strengthening his position. Which faction of the security forces wins depends in many ways on whose position in Moscow is strengthened in the medium-term perspective - Putin's circle, which understood the need for Zyazikov's dismissal, but is still unhappy about it, or Medvedev's circle.

Yevkurov's survival in this battle between Moscow groups (the ‘bulldogs under the carpet') will also be complicated by the fact that from the few reserves on the bench in Ingushetia, he will inevitably choose people from Aushev's group for his staff - if only to distance himself from his predecessor. And he has already been accused of lobbying for Aushev's group interests. To be fair, it should be said that one of the first people to mention Yevkurov as a probable replacement for Zyazikov was the Ingush businessman Musa Keligov, who was close to Aushev at one time. Keligov and the Gutseriev brothers (one of whom, Mikhail, fled Russia after the Kremlin tax police attacked his oil company, whose output ranks it 10th in Russia, are thought to be a source of finance for the anti-Zyazikov opposition. For his own political survival, Yevkurov should refrain from even mentioning these ties. At the end of the day, Aushev's group in Ingushetia from 1992-2002 was mainly valuable because of Aushev himself, and without Aushev it has just as many bribe-takers and opportunists as every other group.

Yevkurov cannot become the Ingush Kadyrov: he is not a field commander, and Ingushetia lacks the unique class of combatants who joined the side of the law. There was no fighting in Ingushetia before, but when it started it was young Islamists that were the backbone of its army.  These are not weary veterans of two wars with federal troops, and it is practically impossible to lure them out of the forest. They don't care whether Yevkurov or Zyazikov is in power. And if Yevkurov becomes another Zyazikov, the war will only escalate.

The only alternative path for Yevkurov is to acquire a certain political independence based on the ideological platform of Ingush traditions, and, ultimately, moderate Ingush nationalism. Within Ingushetia, this path is still not closed for him: he belongs to the large and influential Orstkhoi sub-ethnic group, and his first steps received the consensual approval of the main teips. The problem is that this path goes directly against  Moscow's preferred way of functioning in the regions: regional leaders are not supposed to be too independent. The Ingush dilemma looks bad for Moscow: a governor who is a pawn means a probable escalation of war, and an independent governor is a serious compromise, a rejection of Putin's concept of administration in the Caucasus and the federal system as a whole.

Russia: how the new ‘cold war’ plays at home

Only a week ago, Russia's recognition Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence was regarded as unlikely by most observers. They hoped that the Kremlin today was too strongly integrated into the world of global finance to resort to a drastic escalation of antagonism with the West. Nonetheless, this took place.

Even after 25 August, when both chambers of the Russian parliament voted for recognition, it could still be hoped that this vote amounted to nothing more positioning at the beginning of a potentially difficult and lengthy bargaining process. The chips in this negotiation could have been not only the status of the disputed territories and the peacekeeping operations in the conflict zones, but also Georgia's plans to join NATO, as well as Russia's political and economic interests in Georgia. Now that Russia has decided to recognise the independence of these two states, this bargaining can no longer be used as a means of coordinating the interested parties into relatively sensible positions.

To some extent, Moscow could be said to have been forced into recognising Abkhazia. Once Tbilisi, along with Washington and most of its European allies, made it clear that the territorial integrity of Georgia was its only concern, there was no more place in Medvedev and Sarkozy's plan for international discussion of the future status of the territories. Moscow began to see unilateral recognition of independence as the only way to maintain its military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the light of the now seemingly inevitable accession of Georgia to NATO it was bound to want this.

The time has come to abandon the idea that Russia, by its actions in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict, had a decisive influence on Georgia's choice to join NATO. By making its choice Moscow has effectively deprived the unrecognised republics of the possibility of full international legitimacy, or at least postponed it to the medium-term planning. But it has also gained the opportunity of creating a buffer zone on its border, right where NATO is likely to expand.

Once it has signed agreements on military cooperation with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, it will be able to keep troops in this buffer zone, unrestricted by international peacekeeping controls on the number and quality of these troops. To put it bluntly, it will no longer need to explain why Russian air force planes are stationed at the aerodrome in Gudauta (Abkhazia), which they should have left a long time ago, and why Russian soldiers use their infrastructure in the region of Dzhava (South Ossetia).

If you accept the Kremlin viewpoint of NATO as a military rival and an upholder of alien values, Moscow can be seen as having succeeded. It has finally found the courage to be consistent in its policy towards the two unrecognised republics. They have been rescued from the status of a conditionally controlled ‘gray zone', which they have occupied for the last 15 years. Isolation from the western community, which even leading Russian politicians now admit is a possibility, is seen by them either as an inevitable side-effect, or even as a desirable result.

In August 2008, Russia twice showed that it was not in any way a part of the West. The idea of a renewed confrontation not only does not deter it. It is even popular among Russian voters, however little this may mean in a ‘managed democracy'. Russia's political elite and the majority of the population warmly supported the decisive measures of President Medvedev in the Caucasus. Clearly, they want to believe that Russia has regained its ability to act in a heavy-weight capacity on the international stage, like America. Constrained as it is in its policies towards Moscow by dependence on Russian energy resources, the EU has been relatively compliant. This only strengthens Russia's dangerous and self-satisfied delusion.

Domestic effects of a new ‘cold war'

But the domestic political scene suggests that populist considerations and the desirability of creating a military buffer zone in a region of potential NATO expansion may not have been the Kremlin's main motives for recognising the disputed territories.

The August crisis in Georgia has had an important political effect domestically. It has practically destroyed any hopes that President Medvedev, who was elected in March 2008, would play an independent role in changing the character of the regime formed under Vladimir Putin.

There can be no doubt that the war in Georgia has been months in the planning. Preparations must have begun when Medvedev had not even been in office for 100 days, before he had even had a chance of taking an independent position. After some delay at the beginning of the war, Medvedev started making public statements which showed that his policy towards Georgia was completely determined by the siloviki from Vladimir Putin's circle. As a result, for three weeks in August, Russia's relations with the western community plunged to below freezing point, lower than they have been since the fall of the USSR. They are worse even than during the dramatic moment when Russian paratroopers were about to make a descent on Pristina (Kosovo), when Prime Minister Primakov's plane turned back over the Atlantic Ocean in response to the American bombings of Belgrade in 1999.

Unfortunately, it was no slip of the tongue when Medvedev's used the term ‘cold war' in an interview he gave half an hour after the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The experience of the last century tells us that a ‘cold war' is more than an exhausting foreign policy confrontation: it costs the economies of the participants dearly.

This war is also a political statement that blocks any attempts at internal reform in Russia. By putting Medvedev up against a ‘cold war', the siloviki and Putin have ensured their own positions within the Russian elite. For them this is undoubtedly more important than the battle for independence of the Ossetians and the Abkhaz. Furthermore, Medvedev has to carry full responsibility for the events, while Putin can stay in the shadows and preserve his image as a politician whose relations with the West, while maybe not rosy, were not as problematic as they have unexpectedly become under his successor, from whom people were on the contrary expecting a thaw.

This may be good for the siloviki, but it is not too good for the country. The relative stabilisation of the elite is perhaps preferable to a new wave of a division of power and property. But the problem is that the regime has stabilised itself while creating a whole number of problems to the system. Quite apart from those posed to the national economy, there are the issue of relations within parts of the Russian Federation, with all the inter-ethnic and religious difficulties connected with this.

Federation troubles

At the moment, relations between different parts of the federation come down to the personal relationship between the head of state (and/or Prime Minister) and specific regional leaders, who on the basis of a certain mutually beneficial contract try to control Russian territories. This may work in the traditional Russian provinces or the rich oil and gas regions of Siberia. But in the North Caucasus, it is becoming increasingly clear that this means of managing the regions will not be able to cope with important challenges like the rapid growth of political Islam.

Moscow's relationship with governors in the Caucasus still follows the old model. But the people it appoints in these regions are facing tectonic-scale cultural shifts, to which they have no way of responding. This not only increases the alienation between the government and the country's growing number of Muslims still further. It is grist to the mill of a coming ‘cultural revolution'. None of this bodes well for Russia's influence and presence in the Caucasus. Russia has created problematic ‘buffer zones' for itself in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Moscow's decision to recognise the independence of these two republics may put a dampener on escalating violence in neighbouring regions of the North Caucasus. Refugees from South Ossetia are now unlikely to fuel the old inter-ethnic conflict between the Ossetians and the neighboring Ingush. Furthermore, the decisiveness shown by Moscow towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia may improve the image of federal power in the eyes of North Caucasian elites and the population of the republics. It is at least a more popular step than handing over the unrecognised republics would have been.

But in the medium- and long-term perspective, Moscow will have to face the very danger about which it warned western governments when they insisted on the independence of Kosovo and Metochia. The principle of the territorial integrity of nations has effectively been abolished by Russia on its very own borderlands. These regions are hotbeds for separatist movements. They died down in the mid 2000s for opportunistic rather than ideological reasons. But they may well return. Only this time it will no longer be the naïve separatism of the early 1990s. Now it will be fed by a powerful movement of political Islam common to the Muslims of the Caucasus, one which the muftis controlled by Moscow cannot oppose. Unrest in the Caucasus is bound to increase if the analogy with Kosovo is carelessly applied to the situation in Nagorny Karabakh.

The Azerbaijan factor

The problem of Karabakh (along with the problem of the transit of oil and gas through Georgia that has been disrupted by the war) seriously concerns Azerbaijan. The country is just as important a player in the South Caucasus today as Russia. The experience of two wars in Chechnya suggests that Azerbaijan may become a source of instability for the Russian part of the Caucasus. The communities of divided Dagistani peoples living there - such as Lezgians and Avars - may become new conflict zones. If that were to happen, the echo of these conflicts would inevitably be heard north of the main Caucasian mountain range.

What is more, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have ethnic relations in the Russian Caucasus. The Northern Ossetians and the Cherkess peoples of the West Caucasus are now bursting with euphoric solidarity for the peoples of the republics just recognised by Russia, whom they believe have achieved their goals. Ossetia and Cherkessia (in the wide sense of this ethnonym, which includes Cherkess, Adygians, Karabdins, Abazins, Shapsugs and other Western Caucasus peoples of common Cherkess origin) are not likely in the short term to demand a special status in Russia by analogy with the status achieved by Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But we should remember that the Beslan hostage catastrophe, where 331 people died in North Ossetia on 3 September 2004, seriously undermined Ossetian trust in Russia. Because of its Christian culture, this region is justifiably considered to be the most reliable ‘outpost' of Russia's presence in the Caucasus. But with instability on the rise north of the mountains, independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia could become poles of attraction for Ossetian and Cherkess separatism. This could in turn be directed against Moscow itself.

Syndicate content