Eye On Eurasia: Russia’s Caucasus Choice

EYE ON EURASIA: RUSSIA’S CAUCASUS CHOICE
by PAUL GOBLE

United Press International
April 17, 2006

Moscow no longer has any “rational basis” for keeping the non-Russian
republics of the Northern Caucasus within the Russian Federation,
according to a Moscow commentator, but “neither the Russian government
nor Russian public opinion is yet prepared” to allow them to become
independent.

That time will come, Boris Sokolov has argued on the prognosis.ru
web site, when Russians finally recognize that “the North Caucasus
republics have completely lost their strategic importance” and that
raising the standard of living there sufficiently to integrate them
into Russian society would be prohibitively expensive.

Two hundred years ago, Sokolov notes, controlling the northern
Caucasus was a strategic necessity for the Russian Empire. Having
gained control of what is now Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the
tsars needed to control the land bridge between Russia proper and
these new territories, especially since the Russian fleet was so weak.

And because of the strategic importance of the North Caucasus in this
regard, both the tsarist regime and the Soviet one that succeeded it
were prepared to use force on a regular basis to put down the revolts
by one or another group that have flared up on a regular basis in
this most unsettled region.

But Sokolov continues, “with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the
geopolitical situation changed completely.” On the one hand, the three
countries of the southern Caucasus became independent and Turkey ceased
to be “a potential opponent” of Russia. And on the other, Russia is
in a position to supply its remaining bases in Armenia by air.

In addition, the republics of the North Caucasus “from an economic
point of view” are more a burden than an asset to Moscow: “the
reserves of oil there are not great and do not play any role in
Russia’s exports, there are few useful natural resources, the land is
not that fertile, and agricultural production at best is sufficient
only for internal consumption.”

They are all extremely poor, with unemployment rates approaching
70 percent or in some localities even more. In other respects to,
these republics “were and remain internal colonies” in precisely the
way Lenin defined that term. Moreover, the nominally democratic
institutions there are a cover for what in fact are corrupt
patron-client relations.

Because of the events of the last 15 years, virtually all Russians
have left. Indeed, Sokolov continues, “it is impossible to imagine
a Russian who would risk moving there to settle on a permanent basis.”

Changing that or the economic situation would require an amount of
money “that no Stabilization Fund could have.”

Consequently, just as President Charles de Gaulle decided to grant
Algeria independence rather than continue a disastrous war or spend
enormous sums in order to keep that North African area under French
control, so too, Sokolov insists, some future Russian leader will draw
the same conclusion and allow the North Caucasus republics to leave.

But such a decision is unlikely anytime soon. At present, Russians
who oppose independence for these republics advance two arguments,
he says. First, they point to “the memory of a great empire and hopes
for its revival. And second, they suggest that there would be a domino
effect elsewhere in the Russian Federation.

The first of these arguments is at best a distant dream, and the second
is simply not true, Sokolov says. “Today separatist inclinations
behind the borders of the North Caucasus are not to be observed,”
noting that the Middle Volga republics are not seeking independence
and that others can’t because of size, location, or the dominance of
the Russian community.

As a result, he says, “by itself the separation of the North Caucasus
republics will not have “a domino effect” elsewhere in the Russian
Federation.

What is more important, Sokolov says, is that all of the means Russia
has to exert influence on the southern Caucasus “are not connected with
Russian control over the North Caucasus republics. The “only thing”
Moscow might be concerned about would be the transit of oil and gas,
but when independent, these republics would want to help with that.

Despite current opposition to recognizing the independence of these
countries, Sokolov argues that eventually Moscow will do so, possibly
as a result of a dramatic fall in gas and oil prices will make the
burden of retaining them too great. In the meantime, Russia will
continue to lose its position there, as the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov
in Chechnya shows.

(Paul Goble teaches at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu
in Estonia.)

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