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

Ivan Sukhov
29 August 2008

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.

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