Recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Role of Context, by Sergey Markedonov

Abkhazia and South Ossetia celebrate the first anniversary of their independence from Georgia on 26 August. That is how their current status is correctly defined. It is unlikely that anyone seriously thinks that the recognition of the independence of the two former autonomous areas of the Georgian SSR has turned them into genuinely independent entities.Today Abkhazian and Ossetian choices have been made in favor of Russia. And this in turn has enabled them to achieve the aim that the elites of these entities have had for many years - leaving Georgia. Not only de facto, as has been the case with Abkhazia since 1993 and South Ossetia since May 2004 (when the peace process that started in the summer of 1992 was destroyed) but also dejure. If only with the support of just one country (however, there is a difference between countries).

No shortcoming in the assessment of last year's events and their consequences can be observed today. The question: "Has Russia gained or lost from recognizing Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence?" will be the main one for the experts and political scientists for a few days. However, it is much more productive not to see this Russian step as an abstract and timeless decision. Then it is possible to move from debates in the style of the well-known poem by Vladimir Mayakovskiy about what is good and what is evil. And acknowledge that any specific foreign policy decision is the result not of abstract philosophizing but of acting within a certain "corridor of possibilities".

From the very first day after the disintegration of the USSR (this happened on 8 December 1991 with the signing of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha agreements), internal dissent existed within the Russian establishment (intellectual, political and journalistic) with regard tothe 14 articles signed at Viskuli. In particular with the fifth article in the agreements that buried the USSR. It clearly and unambiguously directed that there should be respect for "one another's territorial integrity and the inviolability of existing boundaries within the framework of the commonwealth". At the same time, the text of the article stipulated "openness of the boundaries, freedom of movement for citizens, and the transmission of information, within the framework of the commonwealth". That is where the phrase "near abroad" came from. According to Gasan Guseynov, the well-known philologist and cultural historian, "the very form of the phrase requires a dual interpretation": "countries that are not fully or not really independent", "theoretically foreign countries", "our own but already beyond the boundaries of our territory". And many Russian politicians and public figures tried to re-play scenarios for the disintegration of the USSR "strictly according to its boundaries", considering it unjust. However, the aspiration to restore "justice" was contained for a long time. But that is just one aspect of the matter. The other aspect was this: inside the "newly independent states" (a term which caught on in the West) many "new citizens" were not delighted about such a "divorce" and for this reason did not want to accept the new political realities. All of this was a reason for the separatist challenges, in which post-Soviet history is so rich, and also for the attempts to review or revise the agreements at Viskuli.

However, Russia at the beginning of the 1990s, could not in the face of the separatist threat have even thought about any recognition of those entities which were separating from their named "fatherlands" and were prepared to take up the Russian flag the next day. In 1991-1994 the separatist threat came not only from Chechnya but also fromTatarstan. And that is not even to mention the separatist aspirations of Yakutia, Bashkortostan and even some Oblasts, which introduced their own customs, immigration codes and tried to obtain republican status. At that time any recognition of the independence of Abkhazia, South Ossetia or the Dniester Region would have been a suicidal step not for Russian foreign but for Russian domestic policy. A certain paradox developed. During the first half of the1990s, the West essentially had nothing to do with Georgia, Azerbaijan or Moldova. At the time, Moscow could have recognized the autonomy of anyone it liked much more freely. But inside the country, the Kremlin's hands were tied by complicated circumstances (separatist and independence threats). Today, Moscow's conduct in the "near abroad" is watched much more closely both by the West and the East (just remember the reaction of the PRC to the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia last year), but inside the country the Kremlin has a much freer hand.

However, let us return to the situation at the beginning-middle of the 1990s. Not wishing to create precedents for ethno-political self-determination within the country, Russia took the path of "freezing" conflicts in the former Soviet republics. At that moment, this was the optimal solution both for the countries suffering from conflicts themselves and for Russia. It presented an opportunity for domestic policies to be amended in the same Georgia and for the extreme national policies of the beginning of the 1990s, which had led to these conflicts, to be revised. And the Russian Federation was prepared at that time to "contain separatism" beyond the boundaries of its own borders. Let us recall here the blockade of Abkhazia in 1996-1999 (and de facto from December 1994), as well as the Russia policy of forcing Sukhum(i) into "a common state". The fact that Moscow suggested this model both to Tiraspol and to Stepanakert (with an identical lack of success everywhere) is interesting. However, the "frozen" time was spent not on seeking peace and compromise. The former autonomous republics, which had de facto become states, tried to secure success and did not think about any "re-integration". They started to implement their own project to create separate nation states.

The former union republics, which had been recognized by UN countries, started to think about revanche. That is the reason for the search for friends on their side (America, Turkey, the EU). Russia, seeing that the status quo was to its advantage, tried with all its strength to maintain it. As Georgia lost hope that the Russians would play Georgia's game, relations between Moscow and Tbilisi deteriorated. "The process started" during Shevardnadze's time and it simply took off under Saakashvili. As a result - the "freezing" of the conflicts (security and diplomatic) and a change in the rules of the game. In the long term - Russia's withdrawal from the game, the internationalization of conflict settlement, the loss of positions in the South Caucasus (as well as in the North, where there were enough other problems as it was).

The "five-day war" reduced Russia's choice to a black-and-white format. The author of this article is quite happy to acknowledge that the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence was an excessively emotional step. It was not a calculated decision (taking into account some of the internal features of the country, relations with CIS neighbors). But let us imagine (although this is not one of the principles of historicism) that the Kremlin did not take this decision on 26 August 2008. It is obvious that this would not have meant a departure from Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Having won a victory in a war with Georgia, Russia could not simply abandon the two former autonomous regions of the Georgian SSR. No one in its position would have acted like that. And that is why any other decision apart from a hasty flight would not have rid Moscow of the headache. In reality, taking a break for some "international discussion" would have looked more respectable. In the final analysis, America did not recognize Kosovo in 1999,and Turkey did not do so in relation to Northern Cyprus in 1974. Such a "discussion" was spun out over nine years. No one would have forced the Kremlin to leave the positions it had taken after 12 August 2008. However, there would have been criticism for "illegal holding" of Georgian territories. There should not be any illusions here. And there would have been criticism both with official recognition of the two de-facto states, and without it. Moscow would have been criticized not for its recognition of two official parts of Georgia, but for the presence of Russian troops on the territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

And that is why, I repeat once again. A less respectable decision was taken. Russian diplomacy did not want to explain its positions over a period of many years. But essentially, a more respectable decision would not have been that different from the act of 26 August. By wading into a "five-day war", Moscow severely restricted its own choice. Not wading in to it after the attack on the Russian peacekeepers was impossible for any self-respecting country. "The responsibility for the death of more than one hundred civilians and Russian peacekeepers during the Georgian attack lies entirely with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his generals," writes not Anatoliy Nogovitsyn but Donald Rayfield, a professor at London University (who is also an expert in the Georgian language, by the way), in his article "Georgia and Russia: Consequences". Otto Luchterhandt, a German legal expert and member of the EU commission investigating the Russo-Georgian conflict, also spoke about this in his special work "International Legal Consequences of the Georgian War".

Another issue is the language with which Moscow explained its decision. Pathological anti-Western zeal, the desire to oppose the entire world, to demonstrate proof of it "getting up from its knees", coupled with the most odious rhetoric of the times not even of "disengagement" but of the "father of the peoples". The impression was createdthat the latently slumbering "revanchist" sentiments were sublimated in the summer-autumn of last year in the Georgian direction. Just look at the news hysteria about the "Western media war". Meanwhile, no one other  than two British military observers from the OSCE came to the conclusion that there was no direct provocation, which might have justified the Georgian attack on Tskhinval(i). This confirmed items by British journalist Tim Whewell (who broadcast on the BBC and other media). In the end, the combination of harsh anti-Georgian action and the rhetoric of the "Cold War" era did not work in Russia's favor. All of this alienated those who were prepared to listen to its arguments or at least not trust Mikheil Saakashvili's rationale. However, Moscow has not yet committed any worse mistakes. The recognition of the two former Georgian autonomous areas has not been the start of a total revision of the outcome of the disintegration of the USSR.

Thus, the decision of 26 August was taken within the framework of a quite definite historical context. It was not good and it was not bad, it was a reaction to a certain totality of events and circumstances. Did Moscow win or lose? Neither the one, nor the other. Instead of one set of problems (fighting for the status quo), we gained another (social responsibility for infrastructure development in two republics, guarantees of their security and internal order). Accordingly, a different context is developing and this means also a basis for other, better quality, and respectable decisions.

Source: (in Russian)




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