Caucasus headed for further Balkanization?

Georgia officially charged four Russian servicemen with espionage last month, spurring new tensions between the two countries over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (RIA-Novosti, Sept. 29) In a counterintuitive development, Russia is backing the predominantly Muslim Abkhaz separatists to weaken Georgia, which is seen as dangerously close to the West, especially since the December 2003 Rose Revolution. Now, Abkhaz “nongovernmental organizations” have announced they will urge Abkhazia’s parliament and President Sergei Bagapsh to start talks with Russia on Abkhazia’s recognition as an independent state and on establishing long-term relations. The appeal states that Russia and Abkhazia must start talks “on the formation of a military-political union, and on the coordination of Abkhazia’s foreign, defense and security policies with those of Russia.”

Russia has given tacit support to Abkhazia since it broke away from Georgia in 1994, despite the fact that the EU, US and major international organizations consider it part of Georgia. Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili responded to the new statement by asserting that a UN resolution urging Georgia to withdraw troops perceived as threatening will not affect its control over part of Abkhazia. “We currently control 30 percent of the territory, on which we will continue to build schools, hospitals and police stations,” he said at a briefing in Tbilisi after the Security Council resolution was passed. “No power in the world will stop this,” he said. He also denied that the troops were threatening: “Nobody has any illusions that anyone will kick out the legal authorities and citizens by force. We intend to restore control over the whole of Abkhazia through negotiations.” (Mosnews, Oct. 15)

Georgia’s government is now calling the area formerly known as Kodori Gorge “Upper Abkhazia,” in a bid to establish an Abkhaz entity under Georgian control. (Reuters, Oct. 12) UN military observers stopped patrolling Kodori Gorge after a local insurgent or “bandit” group abducted four peacekeepers in the region in June 2003, and demanded a ransom. The patrols are now ready to resume, Georgian officials say. (RIA-Novosti, Oct. 12)

In an Oct. 10 interview with the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the conflicts in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He decried that the Ossetian people are “divided into two parts” and “now part of the Ossetian people live in Russia.”

The Republic of North Ossetia-Alania is part of the Russian Federation. According to a 2002 census, 62% of it’s population, over 400,000 people, are ethnic Ossetians.

“Do you and your readers know that the Ossetian people claim that in recent history ethnic cleansings occurred twice in Ossetia? And they describe it as genocide by Georgia. It [occurred] in the [19]20s and the [19]80s. This is a major problem,” Putin said. He added that Georgia is perceived in the region as “a micro-empire of the regional nature.”

“In the case of Ossetia, during Soviet times this republic was simply divided into two parts:the Russian North Ossetian Republic—Alania in the North Caucasus, which is now part of the Russian Federation, and another part that was handed over to Georgia and is today called South Ossetia. Today this unified people has become divided. [It is the] same thing that happened with the Federal Republic of Germany and the former Democratic Republic of Germany. The latter was a result of World War II, and now what we have [in the Caucasus] is a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now the Ossetian people are in a similar situation to the one in which the German people were after the World War II,” Putin said.

He asserted that there is a “similar situation in respect to Abkhazia” because many nationalities living in Russia’s North Caucasus “consider themselves to be ethnically very close with the Abkhazians.” (Caucaz, Oct. 13)

Georgia’s President Saakashvili, commenting on the Abkhaz crisis, explicitly invoked the fear that the former Yugoslavia and particularly Kosovo will serve as a precedent. “This is very important, firstly, to restrain any possible aggression from the north and secondly to totally rule out any possibility of Kosovo scenario in Abkhazia, because Abkhazia is no longer exclusively in the hands of the separatists,” Saakashvili said. (Caucaz, Oct. 4)

See our last posts Georgia and the struggle for the Caucasus.