Russia self-trapped in Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Ossetian President Leonid Tibilov (RIA Novosti / Aleksey Nikolskyi)

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two Russia-backed breakaway regions of Georgia were recognized by Russia as independent states following the Russia-Georgia war of August, 2008 in a hasty and emotional rather than rational move. The recognition must be reviewed in the light of the annexation of Crimea and the two brutal and bloody wars Russia had waged against its own breakaway region Chechnya.

Considering the implications of the Crimean annexation, the Chechen conflict and the recent Russian behavior in Syria what the Russian perspective on Abkhazia and South Ossetia is? I argue that the Russia perspective is awkward while the implications of the Crimean annexation and the Chechen conflict are that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have appeared to be in a humble position. Yet due to Russia’s behavior on the Syrian crisis, the international community is likely to regard the independence of Russia-backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia more adversely.

To justify its annexation of the Crimea and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian leaders have repeatedly and publicly stated that Kosovo declared independence and was recognized by western nations, why not Crimea, why not Abkhazia, why not South Ossetia. With Russia’s own advocating and recognition of secessionist regimes in the post-soviet space like Abkhazia and South Ossetia based on the Russian elite’s “why not” logic may well retrigger a wave of national movements like the past Chechen movement by the force of the same logic: Crimea seceded from Ukraine, Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Georgia and were recognized by Russia, why not Chechnya?!

Russia doesn’t seem to have a valid answer to that question. Although Crimea’s secession from Ukraine may be regarded as encouragement for Chechens, who advocate Chechnya’s secession from the Russian Federation, Crimea’s annexation by Russia sends a crystal-clear and strong message: one may secede from others but Russia and may be annexed to none but Russia.

Then, what about Abkhazia and South Ossetia? It is 8 years on that Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been recognized by Russia as independent states. The question of secession and independence may be raised not only by Chechnya but also other Muslim regions of ‘multi-national and multi-faith’ Russia. Such scenario may end up in fatal effects on Russia’s national security and territorial integrity because the independence of a Russian autonomous republic could represent a precedent for other Russian regions to follow. Therefore, it could have been logical to expect Russia to favour Georgia’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty because Russia has quite a few autonomous republics that are prone to secessionism. But it did act contrary to expectation.

A vital nuance here is that Georgia had taken orientation towards the Euro-Atlantic integration, which may mean the US or NATO military presence on Russia’s borders in future. During the Chechen wars, Russia has repeatedly blamed Georgia for being used by Chechen rebels. Any ‘third-party’ military presence in Georgia is perceived by Moscow as a direct threat to the national security. This perception is amplified by assumptions that such presence could result in more opportunities for secessionists in Russia’s North Caucasus. Secessionist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are like a sky-fallen ‘gift’ for Russia to prevent such scenarios from happening.

So, Russia looks at the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia through this prism of its national security. Therefore, it is very likely scenario that Russia will aim at annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia at some point in future in a way similar to the Crimean annexation.

What that scenario means for Abkhazia and South Ossetia? These breakaway regions seceded from Georgia to become independent not part or dependent of Russia. They could have been better-off within Georgia rather than within Russia though. Abkhazia and South Ossetia could have better and stronger position in relation to small Georgia rather than to giant Russia where being just one of numerous autonomous republics they could find themselves in a humble position.

Apart from political aspects, even practicalities of the Abkhazian or South Ossetian independence looks troubled. Yet there is North Ossetia within Russia. Probably, one day North Ossetia and South Ossetia would like to be united. No doubt that Russia will not afford for them to unite as a nation independent of Russia. So, in the best case scenario they would be able to unite within Russia.

The populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia fluctuates around 240,000 and 60,000 accordingly. These tiny populations are not homogenously Abkhazian or Ossetian. The demographic compositions are ethnically and religiously very diverse. Abkhazians and South Ossetians sound furious about the Georgian nationalism and obsessed with promoting their ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity. That is good undertaking. But it is not unambiguous, is it? Abkhazia and South Ossetia are both inhabited by other ethnicities like Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Jews, Turks, etc. if that identity is so vital, why they are not appealed to other ethnicities as well?!

Furthermore, there is domestic opposition to unification with Russia in particular in Abkhazia. Russia doesn’t seem to be attractive to Abkhazia. As a result of the Russian military campaign in Chechnya, the number of Chechen civilian casualties is estimated around 200,000-300,000, which roughly equals to total populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet the Russia’s record of democracy, rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, and in particular the rights and powers of autonomous republics is much troubled. All these factors help to explain why ordinary populations as well as arrays of elites in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia would oppose to unification with Russia or at least would be much divided on unification with Russia. Yet, these regions are heavily dependent on subsidies from Moscow. And they have become more isolated from the international community after the Russian-Georgian war of August, 2008. And nowadays those breakaway regions even more than ever would feel the consequences of the negative attitude from the western world in response to the annexation of Crimea and Russian behavior on the Syrian crisis. The western response to Russia’s behavior and role in the separatist conflicts on the post-soviet space is much late though.

By recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow put itself in an awkward position while ‘helped’ Tbilisi get the rid of the Sword of Damocles hanging over Georgia, which was the fear that Russia could recognize the independence of the breakaway regions. And the proper way to follow for Tbilisi is to continue on its democratic path towards the European integration based on unifying values like democracy, rule of law, human rights, etc. Only in this way Georgia may achieve two important objectives - ensuring the well-being of its citizens and generating power of attraction to mingle with its breakaway regions. Meanwhile Abkhazia and South Ossetia must be ready for political, economic and other turbulences to come. They have become heavily dependent on Russia, which goes through hard times due to plummeting energy prices, international sanctions, and political troubles due to its interventions in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, and elsewhere.

As Robert Strausz-Hupe famously said “a nation must think before it acts”. Russia should have thought before acting with regard to the recognition of the breakaway regions of Georgia. A consequence of that hasty and emotional decision is that Russia is confronted by a terrible dilemma either to let Abkhazia and South Ossetia go on as independent states or to annex them. Neither way works for the Russian perspective. Independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia represent an undesired precedent for Chechnya and other Russian regions. The annexation could have also bitter consequences: on one hand, it could trigger opposition from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and on the other hand, could cause another wave of international sanctions against Russia, aggravate Russia’s already damaged international reputation, and even more importantly, contribute to depicting Russia as aggressive and hostile on the neighboring post-soviet nations, who has been suffering from or prone to Russian-backed separatist conflicts. To put it differently, Russia looks like self-trapped in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The conclusion is that the Russian perspective on Abkhazia and South Ossetia appears to be awkward and humble despite the defiant rhetoric of the Kremlin. And the phrase that best describes the situation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia is ‘poor present, uncertain future’.

Rahim Rahimov

Independent researcher on Russia, post-soviet space, and political Islam
Rahim holds MA in International Relations from the Hult International Business School in London, UK, and BA in Arab Studies from the Baku State University. He speaks English, Russian, Arabic, Turkish, and Azerbaijani.

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