Georgia Tries To Recapture All Its Breakaway States: The CaucasianMe


The Caucasian melting-pot heats up

Le Monde diplomatique
October 2004

The school siege in Beslan, North Ossetia, demonstrated the Chechen
resistance’s resort to extreme terrorism and desire to spread conflict
across the volatile Caucasus region. The region is already trapped
in a war of decolonisation because of its strategic importance both
to Russia and to the western powers.

By Jean Radvanyi

While Chechen fighters increase their violent raids into Dagestan,
Ingushetia and North Ossetia, Georgia’s young president, Mikhail
Saakashvili, is struggling to regain control of South Ossetia and
Abkhazia. His problems have suddenly opened up the possibility of a
new war in the southern Caucasus.

The region is not unfamiliar with territorial and nationalist
conflicts, but these are now bursting out of their traditional borders
and into other areas. The years of Russian repression in Chechnya that
began under Boris Yeltsin have driven some elements of Chechen society
to a murderous anger (1). Repeated disappearances and “purification”
raids wiping out whole villages, or their male populations, have only
increased the violence of the separatist resistance, which reached a
new peak last month with the Beslan hostage crisis. There is as yet
no final death count for the assault on a school full of children,
teachers and parents that became a shoot-out between hostage takers,
Russian special forces and armed locals.

In reaction to this crime, Moscow announced that it would not hesitate
to carry out preventative attacks on terrorist bases outside its own
territory – something it had already done in Georgia in 2002. But
Georgia is not the same place that it was then. Actively supported
by the United States, Mikhail Saakashvili took over in November 2003
after a wave of public demonstrations toppled Eduard Shevardnadze’s
government and changed the country’s whole attitude. The new president
managed to regain full control of Adzharia, south-western Georgia,
without violence, leading him to hope that his legitimate campaign
to reintegrate Georgia’s other two secessionist provinces – Abkhazia
in the northwest and South Ossetia in the centre-north – would be
similarly successful.

But it has not been easy. The combination of Georgia’s problems and
the Beslan events reminds us of just how explosive the Caucasian
melting pot can be when heated. The stakes are raised enormously by
the fact that Russia and the US have been vying for control of this
region ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia is determined
to maintain the upper hand in its former fiefdoms, but the US wants
more than just access to the substantial oil and gas reserves of the
Caspian Sea: the Caucasus occupies a key position in its long-term
strategy, located right between Russia and the Middle East.

Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin can make all the grand
declarations they like about working together to bring peace to the
region; these mean nothing when their rivalry continues to prevent
any of its many conflicts from being resolved. Dampened down rather
than stamped out, these conflicts smoulder, severely threatening to
the security of the whole region, from the central Ossetian axis out
across the greater Caucasus.

For Saakashvili, fighting corruption and bringing Georgia’s breakaway
provinces back into the national fold is a top priority. Three of the
semi- autonomous regions, created under Stalin, that Georgia fought to
retain in the wars of 1991-93 have evaded central government control
ever since: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adzharia. Together they make
up more than 22% of Georgia and have been turned into black holes,
havens for trafficking: alcohol, tobacco, oil-based products, weapons,
drugs. The smuggling boom created common interests that eclipsed the
conflicts, leaving them frozen but not resolved. Illegal revenue
became the principal resource not only of the secessionists, but
of all parties, including both the Russian intervention forces and,
according to several sources, Shevardnadze’s own presidential clan.

As soon as he was elected, Saakashvili set about ousting the ruler
of Adzharia, Aslan Abashidze. Abashidze and his clan (he made his son
mayor of the regional capital, Batumi) had been in charge of Adzharia
since 1991. Abashidze had always accused the Georgian government of
wanting to assassinate him and never visited its capital, Tbilisi,
during his 12 years in power. But he never made an outright declaration
of independence. Indeed, he came to occupy an important position
in Georgia’s political landscape, since his party became the second
largest there.

Shevardnadze and Abashidze came to a curious kind of
understanding. Customs revenues from Sarpi, Georgia’s main land
border crossing with Turkey, and from the major oil conduit port
at Batumi never reached central government, but part of the money
did wind up in the pockets of Tbilisi grandees. This situation was
problematic for Saakashvili since it had led Abashidze actively to
support Shevardnadze during the October 2003 crisis: he attempted to
save Shevardnadze’s presidency through an electoral agreement.

Aware that Abashidze was growing increasingly unpopular at home,
Saakashvili began a destabilisation campaign in Adzharia this
spring. Using similar tactics to those that had led to Shevardnadze’s
resignation in autumn 2003, he gave strong support to students and
other activists demonstrating against Abashidze. Troop movements
and blockades along the border combined with a partial blockade
of Batumi’s port to increase the tension. Some observers predicted
outright war, with soldiers from the Russian base at Batumi intervening
on Abashidze’s side. Things came to a head in May, when the Adzhar
authorities destroyed the two bridges linking Adzharia with the rest
of Georgia. For the first time, this was an explicit declaration
of independence.

But most of the population were against secession. Though they have
been Muslims since the Ottoman empire ruled the province (1517-1878),
Adzhars consider themselves Georgians and are attached to the Georgian
community. The prospect of a war of independence led to an uprising
against Abashidze, who fled to Moscow. Adzharia rejoined Georgia on a
wave of public euphoria, its people only too glad to put the years of
despotism behind them and return to what they saw as normality. The
whole world congratulated Georgia on this bloodless victory.

A buoyant Saakashvili, determined not to rest on his laurels, announced
his intention to reintegrate the other two breakaway provinces before
the end of his first term as president. But that challenge has proved
a good deal tougher.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia both split from Georgia for a range of
historical and geopolitical reasons. The Orthodox Ossetians provided
Moscow with a crucial ally in the region during the 19th-century
Caucasian wars. After the first world war the Bolsheviks sought to take
advantage of the differences between Georgians and the populations
of Abkhazia and Ossetia, strategically positioned on two of the main
routes linking Russia and the Transcaucasian republics of Armenia,
Azerbaijan and Georgia, which enjoyed a brief period of independence
in 1918-21. During this period the Bolsheviks encouraged independence
movements in the breakaway areas in order to weaken Tbilisi. Under
Stalin, they were made into autonomous areas in a deliberate attempt
to undermine any revival in Georgia’s movement for independence from
the Soviet Union.

Abkhaz and Ossetians saw perestroika and its parade of sovereignties
as an opportunity to affirm and extend their autonomy, compounded by
Georgia’s independence from Moscow in 1991. They received unfailing
support from the Russian leadership, though for dubious reasons:
the Russians had publicly to oppose the idea of secession for fear of
losing their grip on breakaway areas within their own borders, Chechnya
in particular. But at the same time, they supported secessionist
movements in the former Soviet republics, from Moldova to Azerbaijan,
judging that this would provide them with an invaluable tool for
exerting pressure on these newly independent states.

In Abkhazia, the Russians helped Cossacks and other north Caucasians to
intervene on the Abkhaz side, while officially remaining neutral and
even stepping in themselves at key moments, such as the major Abkhaz
attack of October 1993, to save Shevardnadze’s skin. This duplicitous
behaviour continued throughout the ceasefire negotiations that gave
Russia responsibility for most of the peacekeeping forces in both
conflicts. Despite the Russians’ obvious interests in the region,
the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation
in Europe were happy to put them in charge.

The Georgian authorities criticised these organisations’ attitude and
accused Moscow of seeking to maintain a stalemate. The anti-Russian
campaign reached absurd proportions in the Georgian media, but its
real purpose was to hide Tbilisi’s own underhand tactics. Georgia’s
leaders never made any serious attempt to understand or to address
the causes of discontent among the Abkhaz and Ossetians. Often they
preferred simply to offer a distasteful justification for their rashly
perpetrated injustices against these peoples: they were unfairly and
incorrectly said to be recent immigrants.

The hardline policies of both Shevardnadze and Zviad Gamsakhurdia,
Georgia’s nationalist first president, made major contributions to
the radicalisation of the separatist movements. Gamsakhurdia’s 1990
dissolution of South Ossetian autonomy was interpreted as a declaration
of war, and later army incursions frequently became looting parties.

Abkhaz and Ossetians regard re-integration quite differently from
their Adzhar neighbours. They are not Georgians and they do not trust
Tbilisi. Moreover they have become well-integrated within the Russian
economy over the past 12 years. Russian businessmen, including members
of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s family, have bought up many of the
hotels that made Abkhazia’s fortune in Soviet times. More worryingly,
an estimated 80% of Abkhaz have obtained Russian citizenship, creating
an unprecedented situation. Though both Tbilisi and Moscow have
rejected this option, the possibility of these provinces rejoining
the Russian federation cannot be ignored, since their own leaders
openly support it.

But Saakashvili appears keen to break with his predecessors’
nationalist posturing. In his address to the Georgian nation on 26
May, he revived the idea of an asymmetrical federation, adding that
he intended to give the South Ossetians in Georgia as much autonomy as
their North Ossetian counterparts enjoy in Russia. But the new regime
has also espoused some alarming, pseudo-mystical rhetoric. Along
with the adoption of a new flag bearing five crosses, Saakashvili’s
government has made much of the fact that both Shevardnadze and
Abashidze fled to Moscow on St George’s day (conveniently, there
are two St George’s days in Georgia, one in November and one in
May). This might just be colourful folklore if it weren’t accompanied
by aggressive predictions of future successes, to be achieved by war
if necessary.

The two autonomous republics on either side of the Caucasus range that
forms Russia’s southernmost border, South Ossetia and North Ossetia,
constitute two crucial challenges for the Russian and Georgian
states. The main routes across the mountains from Vladikavkaz (the
North Ossetian capital) to Tbilisi pass through the republics, with
the result that the region’s largest black market trading centre is in
South Ossetia. Here, at Ergneti, just outside the capital, Tskhinvali,
goods from Russia, Georgia, Armenia and elsewhere, including drugs,
light weapons and stolen cars, change hands illegally. North Ossetia
has been home to Russia’s military headquarters for its campaigns
against Chechen separatists since Moscow sided with the Ossetians
in a 1992 territorial spat (2) with neighbouring Ingushetia, forcing
thousands of Ingush into exile. This explains why Chechen terrorists
have so often targeted the republic (including Beslan).

In late May 2004 Georgia decided to block access to the Ergneti market
and the powder keg exploded. Though accompanied by sensible measures,
such as flour and seed deliveries, this was a military intervention
within a ceasefire zone, and could not but lead to an escalation in
tension. Moreover it reminded Ossetians of other armed interventions
they had suffered, such as that of 1920 under the first Georgian
republic, or of 1991 under Gamsakhurdia, which had left hundreds dead
and forced thousands to flee to North Ossetia.

This summer there were men and weapons rushing in and villages bombed
on either side. It took vocal appeals for prudence from the West and
a Russian intercession force to restore a shaky peace at the end of
August. Moscow and Tbilisi each accused the other of provoking the
clashes, and Saakashvili demanded that an international conference
be held to resolve the matter.

This was the tense atmosphere into which the Chechens’ bloody
action at Beslan erupted. There is no convincing evidence of any
link to al-Qaida, but nor is there any doubt that this act was
part of a concerted effort to spread the Chechen conflict into
neighbouring areas. Ingushetia was targeted in June and Dagestan in
July. Vladikavkaz faces an even greater risk because the conflict
between Ossetians and Ingush remains unresolved. Though some Ingush
refugees have returned to their villages, they have often found their
homes occupied by refugees from South Ossetia. The North Ossetian
government has been placing them there since 1991. This cynical
attempt to stake an ethnic claim to the disputed territory has only
exacerbated the dispute.

In the run-up to the October presidential election in Abkhazia
(eventually won by the opposition candidate, Sergei Bagapsh) much
depended on Tbilisi’s strategy, both there and in South Ossetia. To
regain control of the two republics, Saakashvili will need to earn
their people’s trust. Driving them out of their homelands by aggressive
manoeuvring will only bring about a return to violence. But Moscow
must shoulder equal responsibility. Its equivocal attitude towards the
southern Caucasus is a woefully short-term strategy that is pushing
Caucasian states into alliances, strategic as well as economic,
with the US and Europe.

Russia would do better to use its influence over the secessionist
governments to get them back under Georgian sovereignty. But Moscow,
blinkered by the same militarism that has made such a fiasco of the
Chechen conflict, does not seem prepared to do that.

The US and European stances are hardly more coherent. Washington
has given a boost to the warmongers in the Tbilisi government by
training and arming the Georgian military (small contingents of which
are currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq). And by refusing to
criticise Russia’s strategy in Chechnya, Americans and Europeans are
shirking their responsibilities towards this highly volatile region.


(1) The reports of the International Helsinki Federation for Human
Rights are a good source of information.

(2) The Ingush wanted to reclaim the district of Prigorodnyi, ceded
to Ossetia in 1944 with the deportation of both Ingush and Chechens,
and since absorbed into the eastern suburbs of Vladikavkaz.

Translated by Gulliver Cragg