The ghost of the Soviet Union, by Sergey Markedonov

Sergey Markedonov

The USSR is still breaking up, and the international community does not know what to do

Sergey Markedonov

IISS - The International Institute for Strategic Studies | Caucasus Security Insight

The war in the South Caucasus in 2008 was the third armed confrontation involving Georgia and South Ossetia in 17 years. However, its effects were radically different from the previous two. Up until 2008, ethnic and political conflicts in Eurasia were low on the global agenda. In the US and Europe these conflicts were not only called 'frozen' but were also said to be 'forgotten'.

The five-day war, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, attracted the attention of the international community. Thus, Russia now has to deal with the problems in the Caucasus within a much broader international context. 

The increasing attention given to the region can be explained in a number of ways. Firstly, two of the four conflicts in Eurasia are now no longer 'frozen conflicts'. Secondly, the peacekeeping operations and legal agreements worked out in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s – resulting in several ceasefires – are no longer in place. Finally, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a precedent has been set of redrawing post-Soviet borders. 

Today, Moscow – echoing Washington and Brussels' position on Kosovo – speaks of the unique position of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  However, the manner of the republics' recognition by Russia has established the precedent of ethnic self-determination based on the use of force, rather than a political compromise. The implication of this decision will now be carefully internalised by all interested parties.  For example, the fact that right after the events of 2008 the Circassian national movement in southern Russia gained a new momentum (though it does not seek secession) indicated that, by recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow has exposed itself to new vulnerabilities. 

In the summer of 2010, it is useless to argue about the rights and wrongs of President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although the decision itself was unpopular, and even Russia's allies in the CIS refused to support it, revoking the decision would risk further instability. 

If anything, the five-day war has shown that the disintegration of the USSR is far from over. The major political crisis in Kyrgyzstan in the spring and summer of 2010 demonstrated that while the Soviet Union no longer exists, its former territory is not yet irreversibly divided along established state borders. In the former Soviet republics and the wider region, there are many players who are interested in creating new political entities. Such interests are further encouraged by the lack of an effective nation-building policy within the newly independent states themselves.  

Reaching a political settlement? 

An important question surrounding the August war concerns the normalisation of relations between Russia and Georgia. At first glance, the relationship between the two looks to be spoiled for years, if not decades. Today, however, there are several factors that indicate otherwise. Despite all the rhetoric, Russia's business presence in post-war Georgia, rather than decreasing, has actually increased. This fact is not too well-known. Even on such an important energy facility as the Inguri hydroelectric power station – located on both sides of the administrative border between Georgia and Abkhazia – Russian and Georgian energy representatives have held talks without involving Sukhumi. 

It is difficult to imagine a Georgian politician today recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent territories, separate from Georgia. But since there are no military, political, financial or psychological resources to reintegrate them back into Georgia a future generation of Georgian politicians will have to come to the pragmatic realisation – in 15 to 20 years' time – that Georgia can benefit from transferring social responsibility for its ethnic minorities –  who are hostile to Georgia – to Russia.

This scenario will not be realised overnight. However, little by little it will come to gradually absorb the minds of Georgia's political and business elite. If this is the case, we may see the 'Finnish way' being emulated in the Caucasus. The timely understanding in Helsinki that the loss of Vyborg in 1944 was the lesser evil served Finland well during the Cold War. 

A future rapprochement between Russia and Georgia could also be triggered by the rise of radical Islam in the North and South Caucasus. Today this threat is confined primarily to the Russian North Caucasus, and to a lesser extent Azerbaijan. However, the Russian–Georgian border (apart from the areas of Russia’s border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia) could be a primary target of violence from the supporters of fundamentalist Islam, targeting 'Georgian non-believers'. This would pose a high-level risk for the Georgian government, which has considerably fewer resources to tackle such violence than the Russian Federation. 

The expansion of the Islamist threat could return the geopolitical situation to that of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when the Georgian elite welcomed Russia's arrival to the Caucasus. Thus history might repeat itself. Moreover, this time Moscow itself will be interested in closer relations with Georgia.  Such an interest-based approach would be much more realistic for resolving conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, than that of Georgia declaring a national project of 'returning Abkhazia and South Ossetia' to a 'prosperous Georgia'. 

The role of the international community

In any case, the events of 2008 have implications that go far beyond the Caucasus. They demonstrated the shortcomings of legitimate international arbitration. Instead of mediating between the conflicting parties, the world's leading players were divided in their sympathies. 

On the one hand, the US and its allies remained steadfast in their commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity, even if this meant blind commitment to the methods of achieving that end; on the other hand, Russia unilaterally shifted its status from peacemaker to that of military–political patron to the two former Georgian autonomous areas. The great powers of the international system did not attempt to find multilateral legal avenues for compromise, but rather relied upon the principle of unilateralism. 

Unfortunately, this trend has not abated. Rather it has strengthened, particularly in other ethno-political crises in the former Soviet Union. Both during the spring crisis in Kyrgyzstan and the summer wave of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, international organisations limited themselves to humanitarian action (although the supply of several tonnes of flour to the regions did not help resolve either conflict). Meanwhile, leading regional and global players continue to pursue a zero sum-game of competition in the region. 

The events of 2008 have clearly demonstrated that, in the absence a clear international consensus on particular criteria for international legitimacy, powerful states could chose to recognise the legitimacy of any sub-state entities as dictated by their interests.  In February 2008, several members of the United Nations (including three members of the Security Council) recognised the independence of Serbia's breakaway republic of Kosovo. In August 2008, Russia, another permanent member of the UN Security Council and a member of the nuclear club, recognised the independence of the two former autonomous regions of Georgia. 

Having done that, Russia now defiantly refuses to recognise Kosovo, while the US and European Union countries do not wish to abandon their commitment to supporting Georgia's territorial integrity. Evidence of this steadfast commitment can be seen in recent visits to Georgia by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. 

In the absence of common rules, standards and criteria for self-determination, political expediency has become a major driver in world politics. This is not to suggest that 2008 was when this began. However, the events of 2008 reaffirmed (at least in the post-Soviet space) the failure of the Yalta/Potsdam system of international relations, while a new post-Yalta system has not been formally accepted.

In these circumstances there is little hope of an active international engagement in the region.


Sergey Markedonov is a Visiting Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC.


Source: The International Institute for Strategic Studies


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