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Analysis & Opinion
09.08.10 Breakaway Assurances
By Tai Adelaja

Two years after Russia fought a five-day war to repel Georgia's assault on Tskhinvali, the Kremlin is still struggling to polish its image as the worthy defender of the weak in the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. President Dmitry Medvedev visited Abkhazia on Sunday, his first visit since the pro-Moscow separatist region gained de-facto independence after the 2008 conflict. He held talks with Abkhazia's leader Sergei Bagapsh, and promised to develop full political, economic, and security relations with Abkhazia.

In the early hours of August 8, 2008 Georgian troops stormed Tskhinvali, the capital of the pro-Moscow breakaway province of South Ossetia. Tbilisi said it was restoring order in the region and briefly took the city before its army was crushed by a massive Russian response which saw Russian troops push deep into the Georgian territory. The five-day conflict broke out after days of clashes with the pro-Moscow rebels, and followed years of growing tension between Moscow and U.S. ally Tbilisi. "Exactly two years ago, well-known grave events occurred in South Ossetia, which triggered a whole number of political processes, including the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as the independent subjects of international law," President Medvedev said, RIA Novosti reported. However, only three countries - Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the tiny island state of Nauru - have joined Russia in recognizing Georgia's breakaway regions.

Critics say far from actually being independent, both regions depend on Russian aid, with Moscow supplying as much as 99 percent of South Ossetia's budget. “There is a huge pressure from the Russian economic and political elite on the government to widen its economic sphere in the Caucasus,” said Mark Urnov, the dean of political science at the Higher School of Economics. “As far as Abkhazia is concerned, this is a confirmation of the status quo because the economy of Abkhazia has never been independent of that of Russia.” Urnov, who was also a former director of political science and sociological research at the Gorbachev Foundation, said South Ossetia, unlike Abkhazia, is a big burden on Russian budget and cannot survive as an independent state without regular cash infusion from Moscow.

Medvedev insisted Sunday that recognizing the two Georgian breakaway regions as independent two weeks after the war was necessary to end the threat that their people would be wiped out. "The decision Russia made after the military part of the conflict wasn't an easy one, but time has shown it was the right one," Medvedev said. Moscow said it acted to prevent Georgian genocide in the two regions, a view relentlessly supported by Russian state-controlled print and electronic media. Georgia has consistently accused Russia of annexing its breakaway provinces and has severed diplomatic relations with Russia over the recognition of the two regions.

An opinion poll by Levada Center last month found that the majority of Russians tended to support the official justification for its actions in August 2008 and many said that it is too early to withdraw Russian troops from the region. Two years on, 64 percent of respondents believe that Russia did "everything in its power to prevent the escalation of the conflict and the bloodshed" in 2008, compared to 57 percent last June. The poll also showed that anti-Western and anti-American sentiment remains very strong among Russians asked about the causes of the conflict. About 56 percent of those polled say Western countries supported Georgia in 2008 because they wanted to weaken Russia and its influence in the South Caucasus, down from 62 percent last year. The majority of respondents (54 percent) want the Russian troops stationed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to stay put, even in violation of a French-brokered ceasefire ending the conflict. Only 26 percent think that they should be withdrawn.

Lev Gudkov, the director of Levada Center, said this mindset is the result of relentless negative news from the electronic media as well as some carefully choreographed publications in the print media. "They regularly publish features on Georgia and the North Caucasus that encourage pro-Russian and anti-Western attitudes," Gudkov said. "An individual cannot withstand this mindset. It is impossible to either substantiate or deny because no rational arguments are presented."

Nor is this attitude helpful in obliterating the scars of war. To portray itself as a staunch ally, the Kremlin has continued to pump money into the two breakaway regions, sometimes with little oversight. Since October, 2008, Russia has disbursed 26 billion rubles ($840 million) for the restoration of South Ossetia and pledged 5.7 billion rubles for the restoration of infrastructure in 2010, reported last week. However, Tskhinvali has so far renovated only 385 office buildings while practically all the residential buildings remain in ruins, the paper wrote.

Undeterred, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Friday that Russia would earmark 9.8 billion rubles ($329 million) to rebuild infrastructure including a telecommunications network in the regions next year. First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov told Putin that local and foreign investors are unwilling to put money into the regions until roads, power and communications are functional. Shuvalov visited the regions late July and reportedly told local authorities to show more accountability as Russia cannot afford to throw money around with the approach of 2012 presidential elections.

Even though the Kremlin has staked its name and fame on maintaining control over the breakaway regions, support for its policies appears to be eroding at home - a point also underscored in last month’s Levada poll. Asked whether Russia gained by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the vast majority of respondents (60 percent) said that Russia gained little or nothing while 14 percent said it did more harm than good. Only 25 percent of Russians believe that it benefited Russia, down from 29 percent from a year earlier. “Russian people have problems of their own and few cared about what is happening down there in the Caucasus,” Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of Panorama think tank, said. “If there is a public debate, many Russians will probably lash out against some state policies with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is especially true of South Ossetia, which is little more than a Kremlin-occupied territory and a drain on its budget.” Sooner or later, South Ossetia may return to Georgia under special arrangements, he said.

But the prospect of Abkhazia ever becoming part of Georgia is dimmer than ever, analysts say. “Abkhazia has existed more or less as a quasi-state and has some of the attributes of an independent state such as Kosovo,” Pribylovsky said. “This is not saying that it will accept the tutelage of Russia or become a puppet in the hands of Kremlin. All they seem to need from Russia is protection against domination by Georgia.” Despite a rift with the European Union and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking Russia to end "the occupation" and withdraw troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to their pre-conflict positions, both the United States and European Union have sought to restore relations with Moscow.

“Russian policies towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia can only change when there is a change of power in the Kremlin, but that is a wild dream,” Pribylovsky said. “The easiest way to make Tbilisi and Sukhumi meet each other half-way is perhaps for the European Union to offer both memberships with strong strings attached.”
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