A matter of Russian honour; Russia

The Economist
August 21, 2004
U.S. Edition

A matter of Russian honour; Russia

Four unresolved conflicts in the ex-Soviet republics are a festering

Vladimir Putin should solve rather than stoke regional conflicts

AFTER a humiliating decline as a world power, Russia is working hard
to regain respect and authority. That is a fair, even praiseworthy
aim. But to achieve it, Russia must respect other countries too,
including places once ruled from Moscow. It will prosper more with
friendly, confident countries around it – not weak, frustrated ones.
Russia understands that, but often seems incapable of showing it.

By offering unconditional support to rebel regimes in the Georgian
provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia dishonours itself and
destabilises its neighbourhood (see page 35). Since South Ossetia
broke away from Georgia 12 years ago, it has degenerated into a
smugglers’ paradise. Russian soldiers prop up a sleazy regime that
peddles vodka and arms. Moves by Georgia to cut this illegal trade
have led to a violent summer. Heavier fighting, and open Russian
intervention, are a risk.

The crisis needs delicate handling, but the fundamentals are simple.
South Ossetia is not a viable state. It lives on crime. Its
government needs to be closed down as part of a generous settlement
which Georgia now offers. Abkhazia, Georgia’s other breakaway
province, is a tougher problem, and its local government even less
legitimate – in that it speaks for even fewer of the region’s lawful
residents – than South Ossetia’s.

Of the two places, Abkhazia has more claim to separateness – and it was
the scene, in 1992-93, of a war where both sides fought dirty. Any
settlement must include some deal for Georgians who fled Abkhazia;
but only a limited right of return may be possible – and not straight
away. On the positive side, Georgia wants to talk, and will offer
Abkhazia any arrangement short of independence. But by underwriting
the separatists, Russia is holding up such a solution.

Faced with this, America and Europe should give more help to
Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili, whose openness to ethnic co-existence
and western values make him the region’s most promising leader for
decades; the governments of the West should steady his hand while
affirming his choices.

They should also look beyond Georgia, to other “frozen conflicts” in
the region. One is in Moldova, where another rebel statelet,
Transdniestria, lives on smuggling and Russian guns. Then there is a
far bigger stand-off: over Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs, where a
decade ago Armenians broke free from Azerbaijan and expelled local
Azeris. That logjam has other causes besides Russian meddling – but it
would be easier to shift if Russia worked constructively with the

All these conflicts destabilise countries on the new borders of NATO
and the European Union. The four Russian-backed statelets at the
heart of these disputes have something in common: they have no legal
existence, and can easily serve as a free-for-all for illegal
activity of every kind.

That should be a worry for Russia too. If it sponsors adventurism and
racketeering in Georgia and Moldova, that is partly because its
policy there has been captured by crooks. The West should take its
worries to the top, putting it to Vladimir Putin in plain language.
Will the president continue backing separatist regimes that live on
smuggling? Is a miserable bit of local power worth the harm done to
Russia’s name as a responsible state? Of course it is not. But only
when Mr Putin takes a stand will the behaviour of more lowly Russians
change. And he will do so only if other countries persuade him that
his reputation, and that of Russia, are at stake.