North Caucasus: united we stand, divided we fall!

Sergei Markedonov
8 September 2009

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!

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