Goble on the Ossetia Quagmire

The following two-part installment from the always-brilliant Paul Goble offers chilling details on the quagmire Russia has made for itself in Ossetia.

Part I: The Mess in Ossetia

Moscow’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has shaken Russia’s ties to the United States and other Western countries and raised new questions about its relationship to the non-Russian republics and even some predominantly Russian regions inside the Russian Federation. But the last week has provided evidence that each of these breakaway republics is presenting Moscow with some problems that no one in the Russian government appears to have expected but ones that some Russian commentators are now beginning to discuss more or less openly.

On the one hand, South Ossetia’s Eduard Kokoity can’t seem to remain on message at least from Moscow’s point of view concerning what the final status of his republic should be. And on the other, Abkhazia’s Sergey Bagapsh came to power as head of an “orange” revolution Moscow opposed and is soon likely to behave just as independently as that origin would suggest. And consequently, in the words of one Moscow writer, the “paradise” Russian leaders thought they had achieved by the signing of friendship treaties two days ago is likely to prove “temporary” indeed, with each of these men and their states seeking to advance their interests by playing off one power off against another rather than simply following the dictates of Russia.

The problems South Ossetia presents are the more obvious. Its leader cannot seem to decide whether he wants his republic to be included in Russia or to be independent. Indeed, twice in the last week, he has insisted on the former and then shortly thereafter reversed course and said the latter. But if Russian officials are pleased with their ability to bend him to their will in this way, they cannot be pleased by his latest remarks concerning how Kokoity sees the future. Yesterday, he said that South Ossetia does not intend to give up its independence but at the same time will work to unite with North Ossetia, a republic within the Russian Federation.

There are “many forms” for the combination of the two into one, he said, and his government will work “to facilitate the unification of our people … “an integration which is taking place today and creating possibilities for the Ossetian people so that we will unite in everything.” Kokoity’s words on the future status of the two Ossetia’s, one outside the Russian Federation and the other inside, prompted Regions.ru to survey members of the Russian parliament and the leaders of religious and social communities as to how the two might be combined and what should be done. Not surprisingly, given that combining the two within Russia would constitute annexation and combining the two outside could provoke a new wave of sovereignty declarations within, those queried calls for a careful examination of “the possible forms” that this unity might take before taking any irrevocable step.

That might appear to push the issue off far into the future, but in fact, such discussions – and the near certainty that Kokoity will continue to speak incautiously about these possibilities – will keep this issue front and center in the Russian media and expert community and undoubtedly attract the interest of ethnic and regional groups within the Russian Federation. The problems that the situation in Abkhazia presents Moscow with may be less immediately obvious in the Russian capital, Sobkorr.ru’s Sergey Petrunin says, but they almost certainly will prove far more difficult for the Russian authorities to cope with over the longer term.

Most Russians have forgotten, that the first “color” revolution after the “orange” one in Kyiv took place in Abkhazia where “inspite of the clearly expressed ‘wishes’ of Moscow, the presidential election was won not by Raul Khadzhimba but by a leader of the moderate opposition Sergey Bagapsh.” Moscow used “all the classic instruments of pressure” to prevent that from happening, measures that in the event did not work and surprised “the freedom-loving Abkhaz” who noted that since both Khadzhimba and Bagapsh were for close ties to Russia, it was their “right” and “not Moscow’s” to “choose one or the other.” Neither Bagapsh nor the Abkhazian people have forgotten that, Petrunin says. And consequently, that history is likely to cast a long shadow. “On the one hand, the Abkhaz are of course grateful to Russia for everything” it did to help them and to ensure that they could gain independence. “But on the other, the freedom-loving mountaineers are concerned about the march of ‘Moscow money’ on their shores.” And Petrunin continues, “they do not want to turn the independence they have won with such difficulty into an empty formality” in which not they but Moscow will call the shots.

Consequently, the era of good feelings that exists between Sukhumi and Moscow now is unlikely to last forever, the Sobkorr.ru commentator says. Indeed, no one is in a position to “say with 100 percent certainty” that it will be in lace “tomorrow, a month from now, [let alone] a year” or more.
And no one in Moscow or anywhere else, he concludes, is in a position to “guarantee that the Abkhaz leadership will not begin as in recent times the Belarusian leadership has a careful maneuvering among Russia, Georgia and the West in the search of advantage first of all for its small, long-suffering and proud people.”

Part II: The Georgian Tinderbox

In an article certain to exacerbate hostility between ethnic Russians and ethnic Georgians and possibly to lead to mistreatment or even expulsion of the latter, “Izvestiya” today argued that Georgians working in Russia “secretly” support Tbilisi and are sending enough money home to fund President Mikhail Saakashvili’s military effort. According to the Moscow paper, “more than a million Georgians officially live in Russia, and another half million do so unofficially,” figures that are impossible to confirm and almost certainly exaggerated. But the paper’s suggestion that many of them are sending money home is true, even if its figures also are high.

Georgians in the Russian Federation are sending back to their homeland from one to two billion U.S. dollars annually to support their families, the paper says, a range that itself indicates how problematic these figures are but numbers that even at the low end are more than the one billion U.S. dollar Georgian defense budget. The paper also focuses on the firms controlled by several Georgians who are now billionaires and in a position to send money to Tbilisi and on Georgian criminal groups within Russia, which Moscow officials say are currently transferring home some 600 to 800 million U.S. dollars. And having linked these three groups together – Gastarbeiters who are simply trying to feed their families, oligarchs whom many Russians regard with disdain, and criminal groups whom many in major Russian cities fear – the paper asks: “did Georgia fight [Russia] using money sent from Russia itself?”

Both the way in which the newspaper chose to treat this sensitive topic and especially the question it poses in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia almost certainly will lead many Russians to look at Georgians living there with even greater hostility than in the past and even consider supporting ideas like Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin who called for their internment. But even if the Russian government does not take that step – and doing so now would likely give Moscow yet another black eye internationally – individual Russians are likely to conclude that the militia and other officials will look the other way if they take action against Georgians on their own. And the possibility that Moscow might do more, especially restricting transfer payments now that Georgia has broken diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation, as part of an effort to influence Tbilisi or promote regime change there is sufficiently real that both Georgians in Russia and Georgians are home will be taking it seriously.

At the same time, however, the Russian government’s ability to pressure Georgia this way is limited by two factors. On the one hand, Moscow’s decision to hand out Russian passports in South Ossetia and Abkhazia means that many Georgians in Russia are now Russian citizens, something that as “Izvestiya” admits makes treating them differently harder. And on the other, the war itself has reduced the amount of money Georgians in Russia are sending home. According to data from the National Bank of Georgia as reported by Sobkorr.ru’s Tbilisi correspondent, the amount of money transferred from abroad into Georgia fell by 25 percent from July to August.

Much of this decline was the product of a fall-off in the amount from Russia. In July, the bank said, Georgians sent 63.4 million U.S. dollars home (out of a total inflow of 97.5 million U.S. dollars), but in August, Georgians in Russia sent 18.4 million U.S. dollars less, out of the total decline of 23.7 million.
During August, the Georgian bank said, people in that country transferred 5.7 million U.S. dollars, a figure that was 3.5 million U.S. dollars less than the month before. The corresponding figures for money sent from Georgia to Russia between July and August were 3.7 million and 2.1 million.

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