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Russia self-trapped in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

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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’.

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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.

Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.

Bad, but Still a Strategy

If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.

In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.

The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.

“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.

The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.

It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.

“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.

Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.

According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.

Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.

“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.

According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.

Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”

FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.

What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.

As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.

In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.

Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.

Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.

Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.

In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.

However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.

Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.

Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.

The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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