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Analysis & Opinion
28.08.08 A Change Of Heart
Comment by Sergei Markedonov

On August 26 Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev signed the decree on the formal legal recognition of the independence of the two former Georgian autonomies, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, two new states will appear in its former realm. They will no longer be unrecognized and self-proclaimed republics. There is now a country that is willing to acknowledge their independence and, consequently, their international political “subjectness.”

As of August 26 Abkhazia and South Ossetia have elevated their status. Now they are moved into the ranks of partially recognized states, where they join the company of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Taiwan, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and Kosovo. All of these above-listed states are not recognized by the UN; however, their sovereignty and independence have been recognized by some UN member countries (and in a few cases even by permanent members of the UN Security Council and by NATO members). Presently, Kosovo has been recognized by 40 states around the world (among them are three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Great Britain and France). Taiwan is a special story. Until 1971 this country, which called (and continues to call) itself a “Republic of China,” represented China in the UN and was even a permanent member of the Security Council with the right to veto. However, later it was “demoted” and its spot in the international elite club was taken by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Even today, more than 20 countries (mostly states in Oceania and the Caribbean basin) recognize Taiwan and do not, consequently, recognize the PRC.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) has been recognized by 49 of the world’s countries (de jure this republic is considered a part of Morocco). The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was created in 1983, nine years after the blood-filled conflict between the island’s Greek and Turkish communities, which Turkey interfered with. As of today, only Ankara has accepted the de-facto Turkish state on Cyprus, and Azerbaijan has close economic and humanitarian contacts with it (to the great displeasure of Greek Cyprus and Greece itself). In any case, when it comes to Kosovo and the TRNC, we are dealing with facts of recognition by states that are NATO members. In the case of Kosovo it is a large group of states, while in the case of TRNC the recognition is provided by a country with an army that is second largest in NATO after the United States.

The reaction of the CIS countries (as well as CSTO members) to the events in South Ossetia demonstrates the fact that the former Soviet republics are not ready to revise the results and outcomes of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The elites of these state formations understand perfectly well that the “territorial integrity” of former Soviet republics was in many ways guaranteed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and by all the power of the repressive Soviet system. Even before 1991, far from everyone accepted the borders between the republics and the autonomies created inside them as legitimate.

Against this background, the position of the former prime minister of Ukraine, the leader of the Party of Regions, Viktor Yanukovich, seems especially interesting, compared to the openly pro-Georgian course of President Viktor Yushchenko. After a long break taken by the “regionalists,” on August 27 Yanukovich urged Kiev to acknowledge the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, giving up the “double standards” and drawing a parallel between the self-definition of the two former autonomous regions of Soviet Georgia and Kosovo. According to the journalist Vitaly Portnikov, “It is quite possible the Bloc of Vladimir Litvin also might join such a partnership – its leader, formerly the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, has also publically disapproved of Georgia.” Taking into account the schism inside Ukraine’s political establishment (as well as the “concentrated” popularity of Yanukovich in some of the country’s regions), such “pluralism” in foreign policy might create a serious domestic policy crisis in Ukraine. Especially since the leader of the Party of Regions is not some political outcast.

In any case, even if the “breakdown” stays the same as it is right now, the sovereignty of the two former Georgian autonomies is recognized by a country that has the right to veto in the Security Council, that is a member of the nuclear club, and that is a state without which many problems of global politics simply cannot be solved.

On August 26, the de-facto states in Eurasia were separated into two conventional groups. The first one contains Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They have already been recognized by Russia. The second one includes Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdnestr. Both of them have no joint borders with Russia. And both conflicts around them have many more players and interested parties (Ukraine in Transndnestr, Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh). Be that as it may, Moscow seems to have brought the diversification of its approaches to the Eurasian de-facto states to a logical conclusion. In the cases when the security of these “formations” can directly affect the security inside Russia, Moscow is willing to raise the stakes. In other cases, the Kremlin is willing to limit its presence to the role of a mediator in the peace negotiations process (between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, or between Transdnestr and Moldova).

Until August 2008, Russia refused to openly acknowledge South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We all remember that the declaration of the lower chamber of Russia’s Federal Assembly on March 21 of this year, which had caused so much ado, had set in black and white: “The State Duma respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and Moldova within their internationally accepted borders.” The pathos of Russia’s politics toward the de-facto states was the appeal worded by Vladimir Putin during his still-presidential farewell press-conference: “no aping!” In this case, he was talking about the Kosovo case, recommending that it not be used as a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A few months later, Russian politicians started talking a different language. During his meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy, when listing the “six steps” of settling the conflict in Georgia, Dmitry Medvedev stated that the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should become a subject of international discussion. This was actually the first time that the Kremlin openly disputed the territorial integrity of Georgia (a “sacred cow” for the United States and the EU). Then, on August 14, 2008, Russia’s president was even more specific: “We would like you to know: Russia’s position remains unchanged. We will support any decision made by the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in compliance with the UN Charter, the 1996 International Convention and the Helsinki Act on Security in Europe; we will not only support, but also safeguard it both in the Caucasus and in the rest of the world.” As translated into more simple and common language, this meant that from that point on, Moscow was ready to recognize the two de-facto republics, which legally were still considered parts of Georgia. On August 26, Medvedev put an end to all the disputes on the topic of “will Russia recognize them or not?” But what is the reason for such a hasty evolution of views and beliefs?

The reason is right there, on the surface. By “freezing” the conflicts in the early 1990s, Russia agreed to the existence of such territorial entities as the main result of the conflict. The “frozen status” implies that the resolution of the conflict has been postponed until better times (until improved political conditions or until a compromise has been reached by the parties involved). In such a situation, predetermining the status of the controversial territories would not be reasonable.

First of all, the entities that claimed their statehood had to prove that they are capable of surviving and functioning as states, not as criminal enclaves. Secondly, particularly in South Ossetia until 2004, there were still opportunities for re-integration into Georgia (especially considering all the bilateral connections that were still intact between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali after the first conflict of the early 1990s). Thus, the unresolved status of the de-facto states reflected the political realities of the 1990s. These realities were maintaining the status quo, the lack of active military operations (in Abkhazia, however, such attempts were made in 1998 and 2001, but their scale was not comparable to that of Tskhinvali-2008). This gave grounds for hopes that the parties might eventually come to some sort of an agreement.

On August 8 the status quo finally crumbled. The old formats that implied the “hung-up status” of the two de-facto states no longer existed. Moscow (as well as Abkhazia in Kodori) concluded the “defrosting” process started by Tbilisi four years ago. Russia objectively turned from being a peacemaker to a participant of the conflict. At the same time, withdrawing from the territory of the two former autonomies of Georgia would have had catastrophic consequences for the domestic security of Russia in the Northern Caucasus (taking into account North Ossetia, the Ossetian-Ingush conflict and the four Adyghe-speaking subjects of the Russian Federation). It was very difficult to remain in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, protecting our legitimate interests, after August of 2008. An alternative could have been found in internationalizing the peaceful settlement process. This would have been a format in which Russia would have been actively pushed out of the region. The appearance of foreign peacemakers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia would have led to a “competition” of peacemaking projects. Most probably this is what forced Moscow to speed up the procedure of recognizing the two de-facto republics.

Today we can argue until we turn blue in the face about how well-founded Dmitry Medvedev’s decision really is. We can reproach (with reasonable grounds for doing so) the Russian authorities for refusing to calculate the costs of this process (foreign policy isolation and creating a precedent for revising the borders within the former Soviet Union).

However, it is impossible to cancel it now. This is like the famous formula “the cost is one ruble to enter and two rubles to exit.” Russia’s refusal to recognize South Ossetia or Abkhazia, if it did refuse, would have significantly damaged the reputation of the country that betrays its clients; it would have demonstrated the weakness of the state and its leader. It probably would have been more right to “take a break” in the process of recognizing them. Really, the “hot August” made it impossible to realize the state project called “Georgia within the borders of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.”

However, recognizing the two former autonomies in Soviet Georgia could have been presented in such a way that the majority of the world would have ended up accepting the inevitability of the appearance of two new states on the maps. This is what happened with Kosovo, the recognition of which started in February of 2008. It took nine years to prove the obvious fact that Kosovo with its overwhelming Albanian majority cannot become a part of Serbia (among other reasons, because Belgrade itself was not ready to consider Albanians as their equal compatriots). In August of 2008 Russian diplomacy chose what looked like the easiest way out. Not to prove anything to anyone and not to persuade anyone.

Be that as it may, it is impossible to “play it back.” A new reality has formed in Eurasia. From now on, all the domestic and foreign policy must become much more complicated. The victory in the “five-day war” should by no means become the beginning of “building a new, special path” and giving up the Western value system (and primarily democracy and political competition). It is necessary to clearly separate the policy of the United States (and, to a lesser degree, of the EU), with which we will have to compete (and maybe even fight), and the need for political modernization of the country (which cannot be accomplished without employing the most progressive Western experience). Unless such a “separation effort” is made, the “closedness” of our country will only intensify the degradation of the managerial class in Russia and strengthen the ethnocratic tendencies on all levels. And only in this case can the “Abkhazian boomerang” act against Russia.

Sergey Markedonov, Ph.D. is the head of the Interethnic Relations Department at Moscow’s Institute of Political and Military Analysis.
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