Russia’s victory could turn into defeat if it continues its neo-colonial policy, by Sufian Zhemukhov

The International Institute For Strategic Studies - Caucasus Security Insight, July 19, 2011

The disintegration of the mighty Soviet empire at the end of the twentieth century created a geopolitical vacuum, unknown in the Eurasian space since the disintegration of the Golden Horde in the fifteenth century. Today, very much as in those times, the Caucasus, due to its strategic significance and complex ethno-political nature, has become a key arena of confrontation: it is a sort of Gordian knot, holding out new geopolitical prospects to those who attempt to cut it.

The most obvious feature of contemporary Caucasus history is the growing national consciousness of the region’s nations. This trend manifests itself most prominently in the South Caucasus. Small territories there, such as Abkhazia, Nagorny Karabakh and South Ossetia, are successfully fighting for their sovereignty. But national consciousness is also growing in the Russian North Caucasus. Moscow, however, seems not to have appreciated the strength of this development.

This trend of national consciousness appears irreversible due to both external and internal drivers. Globalisation has brought benefits to the small nations of the Caucasus. The political and economic spheres of interests of the Caucasus national elites are widening. The groups are more active outside of their own regions and are engaging in global economic and political processes. Moreover, the experience of genocide, deportations and external and internal conflicts over the past 300 years has created an ethnic disinterest in power politics among the Caucasus nations. Despite their weakness and fragmentation, they pull away from the centres of power politics – from Russia and from Georgia (and, in the case of Nagorny Karabakh, from Azerbaijan and Armenia).

The Russian recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia may not be a unique situation. The territories could serve as a precedent for self-proclaimed entities in the rest of the world.

The brevity of the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 and powerful international pressure on the parties to the conflict have demonstrated that in the contemporary environment drawn-out wars are extremely difficult to prosecute without the support of the international community. Such military operations can be afforded only by large military powers like Russia and only such countries can use strong-arm tactics. Militarily weak countries, like Georgia, must seek other ways of strengthening their influence within their region.

The Russian-Georgian war affected the participants in different ways. Russia’s easy victory, its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with complete disregard of the opinion of the international community, increased its influence in the new states. All these factors boosted Russia’s status as the only superpower in the Caucasus. No country or coalition of states effectively supported Georgia during, or after, the conflict.

However, against the background of this positive result, subsequent events have demonstrated that Russia did not reap tangible benefits from its victory. In addition to its own problematic North Caucasus regions, Russia has acquired two more regions it needs to subsidise. Moreover, these two are sovereign states. This obviously creates a precedent not only for Chechnya, which has had separatist ambitions since the disintegration of the USSR, but also for North Ossetia, which logically aspires to unification with South Ossetia. The same can be said for the Circassian republics, which are ethnically close to Abkhazia and which contributed significantly to Abkhazia’s defeat of Georgia in 1992-1993. The easy victory also strengthened the political forces inside Russia that oppose liberalisation of Russian foreign policy. It is in this way that the negative effects of the war could manifest themselves for Russia. The 2008 conflict could turn out to be Russia’s defeat if, intoxicated by its easy victory, it continues its neo-colonial policy which, as history has shown, had become outdated by the middle of the last century.

The unconditional defeat of Georgia put an end to the micro-Georgian empire in the Caucasus. But paradoxical as it may seem, in August 2008 Georgia did not lose anything, apart from its illusions. Abkhazia and South Ossetia were de facto no longer its territories and it was only internal political logic that prevented the country’s leaders from acknowledging that. After the defeat, Georgia managed significantly to re-evaluate its place in the Caucasus. New prospects suddenly emerged in terms of using in the Caucasus the same mechanisms of global integration that had been successfully employed in integrating the EU. For the first time, the Georgian leadership voiced in its foreign policy rhetoric the concept of creating a united Caucasus and developing links with the region’s small nations. So far, however, there has been no visible movement in this direction, even if Georgia has taken concrete steps to ease visa restrictions, establish contacts with the North Caucasus regions, recognise the Circassian genocide, and so on.

Consequently, two different approaches exist in the Caucasus today. Russian policy is buttressed by its own successful historical experience, but this could prove to be obsolete and based only on neo-colonial ideology. The Georgian approach is characterised by the contemporary politics of soft integration. However, it has not proved its effectiveness in the post-Soviet space, nor has Tbilisi shown its ability to implement such a policy.

In recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia raised the issue of sovereignisation of the small Caucasus nations to a new level. However, its own approach in the North Caucasus is the opposite of this process and is in sharp contrast to the current trend of revival in the region. The federal centre has abruptly cut the national and regional components of higher and secondary education; regional laws have been brought strictly into strict line with federal laws; the powers of the regional leaders have been curbed; presidents of the North Caucasus regions have been renamed heads of the republics; and there is talk of changing the names of the national republics. All these decisions point to the fact that the federal centre does not appreciate the full force and seriousness of the new historical developments in the North Caucasus.

The international community is demonstrating the same attitude to both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These new states remain more of an object than a subject of international politics, even after Russia’s recognition of their independence. However, the modern European integration trends that Georgia is trying to emulate give rise to hopes that this policy will change. The EU’s policy of ‘engagement without recognition’ in relation to the new South Caucasus states and Georgia’s introduction of a visa-free regime for the North Caucasian regions are concrete steps in this direction.

The continuing diplomatic stand-off between Russia and Georgia is extremely harmful for both countries and is capable of causing them considerable political and economic damage. The background to their conflict is the growing trend to sovereignisation among smaller nations of the South and North Caucasus. Given the existing methods of resolving problems in the post-Soviet space, it is possible that normalisation of Russian-Georgian relations in the near future would only hinder this process. Such a normalisation is likely to take the form of mutual Russian-Georgian concessions, by which Georgia would declare its readiness to abandon its support of the Circassian issue in exchange for a return of the external economic functions it lost as a result of the 2008 war.

The Caucasus could turn out to be a crossroads. What awaits its nations? Will their desire for sovereign power be suppressed yet again? Will the Caucasus see history repeat itself, with Russia forcing itself into the geopolitical vacuum, instinctively travelling the same route it took from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries?  Or are the region’s small nations on the brink of an era of voluntary integration based on sovereign principles – a project that, for the moment, appears a mere Utopia?

Sufian Zhemukhov is a Research Associate at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, The George Washington University (USA).

Source: IISS

4th issue of the IISS Caucasus Security Insight‏

The International Institute For Strategic Studies