What Will Be the Legacy of Ukraine’s Maidan?

Euromaidan Protestors in Kiev (Photolure)

Euromaidan Protestors in Kiev (Photolure)

Though Western commentators have rushed to hail Ukraine’s Euromaidan as a “democratic” revolution, in truth its results still remain very far from certain.

It can be said that Euromaidan was a truly post-Soviet movement. In other words, it was a revolt in which many fervently believed that simply joining an organization (in this case the EU) could instantly solve all their problems. This recalls other instances in Ukraine and other former Soviet states in which people voted for a given politician believing that he or she will be the “savior” of their respective country.

Of course, the reality is that joining the EU holds no promise of immediate reform for Ukraine. In fact, it will likely mean that Ukraine (a near-bankrupt country) will have to fall in line with harsh EU austerity programs, thus only creating more problems. It is also true that EU institutions can indeed help Ukraine reform itself and reduce corruption. However, they cannot simply “cure” Ukraine of the corruption issue. What Ukrainians who supported the Maidan do not seem to realize is that Ukraine must work toward fundamental reform on its own.  Unfortunately, with Ukraine’s present corrupt political elite, this does not seem to be an immediate prospect. In this regard, if Ukraine were to actually join the EU, it would become like Bulgaria or Romania, i.e., a large country which despite joining the EU, continues to be plagued by corruption, poverty, and other issues. However, given Ukraine’s large size and the sheer level of corruption and poverty, the task of integrating this country into the EU would be even more problematic, especially because the EU is still in the process of recovering from its own very serious Eurozone crisis.

Poland is often evoked by advocates of Ukrainian EU membership as an example for Ukraine to follow. However, this too is misleading. Poland’s perceived success was not due to simply joining the EU. It was the result of hard work and serious reform efforts conducted by the Polish government both before and after joining the EU.  Again, this illustrates that joining the EU alone will not be a solution to a country’s problems.  The reform can only come from that country alone.

Yet another problem with Maidan is that it seems to have been encouraged and driven by internal and external forces who are not acting in the interests of the Ukrainian people or its demands. The internal forces are Ukraine’s corrupt political elite who see an opportunity, not so much for Ukraine, but for themselves. The external forces are those Western countries with geopolitical interests in Ukraine, especially the United States. It is acknowledged that the emotions of those fighting against the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych and for democratic reform were truly genuine. However, these same emotions were also manipulated by the above mentioned internal and external forces, which sought to achieve their own aims in Ukraine and which are not seriously interested in the genuine, fundamental reform of the country.

Outside the EU, there is the Moscow-backed option of the Eurasian Union. Casting common stereotypes about corruption in Russia aside, the Eurasian Union and Russia actually do offer impressive results to Ukraine. Regardless of Putin’s questionable democratic credentials, it is apparent that he has managed to stabilize the situation in Russia, especially from where it was in the 1990s. The economy is stable and growing. The middle class is growing. The birthrate is growing and not just in “national” republics like Chechnya but in the Slavic Russian heartland as well. Corruption is decreasing (slowly, but still decreasing — Russia ranked 143 on Transparency International’s CPI in 2007 and last year ranked 127, still very corrupt but a significant improvement nonetheless). Alcoholism too is decreasing (albeit again, slowly).

At the same time, Russia still has many problems. Poverty remains a serious issue and Putin, though reigning in several oligarchs, has not reigned in all of them. Though the print media is free in Russia, television, from which many Russians get their news, entertainment, and information is still controlled by the government.  In addition to all of this, the most daunting task facing the Eurasian Union idea is its lack of a coherent vision. The EU presents itself as supportive of human rights, democracy, reform, etc. By contrast, the Eurasian Union, which is a direct descendant of earlier integration efforts in the post-Soviet space, does not really have a set of ideals, aside from the natural historical, cultural, and economic links that bind the ex-Soviet countries. What the Eurasian Union needs is a common vision and, in this regard, the best would most likely be a common social democratic vision. Such a vision would be a natural fit for populations in the ex-Soviet space suffering from widespread poverty and joblessness and who are somewhat used to leftist economic models, given the Soviet experience.

The Eurasian Union also needs to promote itself as a “union of equals,” meaning that all of its members should have a stake in it.  In this respect, all the national languages (not just Russian but Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, Kazakh, etc.) should have equal status in the union as well.  Like in the European Union, all documents regarding the Eurasian Union should be translated into all of the state languages of each member state.  Such a policy would make the Eurasian Union far more attractive to the former Soviet states and would demonstrate a sensitivity and understanding toward national cultures.  By contrast, campaigns to have ex-Soviet states adopt Russian as a co-official language will fail because the republics will only perceive this as an “imperial” endeavor.  In other words, Russian is already widely spoken in these countries.  Why push the issue and create a problem where there is none?  As Mikhail Gorbachev (one of the leading advocates of post-Soviet integration) has stated, if the Eurasian Union is to work and succeed, it must be a real union of equals, not an empire.

Overall, whatever the choice Ukrainians make, they must realize that they cannot simply “sign up” to join this union or that union and expect instant reform.  True reform can only come ultimately from the Ukrainians themselves.


10 Points on the People of Southeastern Ukraine

Bronze statue of a mother and child in Odessa (Rex Features)

Bronze statue of a mother and child in Odessa (Rex Features)

1. Most of them are not ethnic Russians. In fact, unlike in Crimea, the vast majority are ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian. Census data from the Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras uniformly confirm this for all of the Russian-speaking oblasti in present-day Ukraine. At the same time, there is also a substantial ethnic Russian minority in the southeast. There are many mixed marriages between Russians and Ukrainians and a large number of southeasteners have family in Russia.

2. Their native region does not correspond entirely to historic Novorossiya. The southeast also encompasses other historical regions of Ukraine, notably Sloboda Ukraine (around Kharkiv), the Donbas (the Donetsk basin), and Zaporozhia (centered on Dnepropetrovsk). The latter was an old Cossack territory and is largely considered to be the “Piedmont of Ukraine,” the place where the movement to unify the Ukrainian people began. Yet regardless of whatever historical regions existed in the southeast, one thing is clear: the vast majority of the people historically self-identified as either “Malorussians” or “Ukrainians” in Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet censuses. This is an indisputable fact.

3. They tend to be more cosmopolitan and, indeed, “Soviet” people. It is the quality of multiculturalism that really dominates in this part of Ukraine. Ukraine’s largest cities are located here and this has attracted many people from other Soviet (and later ex-Soviet) republics to move to this area. Ukrainian nationalism has much less traction in this part of the country and, even more broadly, antisemitism and discrimination in general are less of an issue in the southeast than in other parts of Ukraine. Jews are well-integrated and there have been many Jewish mayors and governors. Mixed marriages between different ethnic groups is also a frequent phenomenon. Odessa is perhaps the best example of a multicultural city in the Southeast.

Two images of the Donbas.  The top shows Alexei Stakhanov with a fellow miner in 1935 (Library of Congress).  The bottom shows a Donbas miner in 2014 (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Two images of the Donbas. The top shows Aleksei Stakhanov with a fellow miner in 1935 (Library of Congress). The bottom shows a Donbas miner in 2014 (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev).

4. Many of them, especially in the Donbas, are working-class people. The Donbas is synonymous with industry in Ukraine. It was a significant region in the “Rustbelt” of the former USSR, comparable to the Ruhr valley in Germany.  The area remains very economically important for Ukraine today. There are several large cities in this part of the country with large working-class populations. It is a heartland for coal mining and, as an example of just how “working-class” it is, one of its famous native sons is the great miner and Hero of Socialist Labor Aleksei Stakhanov. The Stakhanovite movement had a major following in the Donbas.

5. Most of them support neither Euromaidan nor the post-Maidan government of Ukraine. Despite hopeful predictions that Euromaidan would “unite Ukraine,” the opposite has in fact occurred. There were even more supporters of the 2004 Orange Revolution in the southeast than there were of Euromaidan. Further, most favor membership in the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union as opposed to the European Union and perceive the post-Maidan government as assuming power through illegal means or even through a “coup.” Few participated in the recent Ukrainian Presidential election which Petro Poroshenko won. Most blame the United States and the Obama administration specifically for Ukraine’s most recent misfortunes.

6. Most of them disliked the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych. Despite the fact that Yanukovych registered consistent victories in the Russian-speaking oblasti of the southeast, most nonetheless disliked his corrupt and incompetent government.  Few, however, viewed the Euromaidan revolution as the solution to the problem.

7. Most of them do not support the Donbas rebels. The rebels’ Russian nationalist ideology and advocacy of a “separate” identity for Ukraine’s Russian-speakers has led the majority of the people in the southeast to view them with distrust. The one aspect of the rebels that they do support is their general opposition to Kiev. Generally, though, the ideology of the rebels has failed to catch-on beyond the Donbas. This is most certainly not due to any success on the part of Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation,” but rather by the rebels’ own narrow and short-sighted nationalist dogma.

Pushkin Monument, Odessa (ua-travelling)

Pushkin Monument, Odessa (ua-travelling)

The rebels’ nationalism is particularly unappealing in a progressive multicultural city like Odessa on the Black Sea coast. With its mix of Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Mediterranean influences, Odessa is an irreverent city celebrated for its “love of the dandy in men and the daring in women.” It was “the St. Petersburg of the south,” founded on the order Catherine the Great and her lover Prince Potemkin with the vision of the Spanish General José de Ribas, after whom that the city’s famous Deribasovskaya Street is named. It was Odessa that was the scene of Pushkin’s torrid love affair with the wife of Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, producing some of the most beautiful Russian-language poetry. It is also a city that brought the world Yiddish theatre, Babel, and Ilf and Petrov. Comedy and humor are more than a staple of Odessa: they are a way of life. It is this inherent cultural liberalism that explains why the rebels will never stand a chance here ideologically. But then again, neither will Kiev.

Pro-Russian demonstrators in Donetsk (Reuters / Valeriy Bilokryl)

Pro-Russian demonstrators in Donetsk (Reuters / Valeriy Bilokryl)

8. Many of them view Russia favorably. Putin, Russia, and the Eurasian Union are all still very popular here due to a mix of factors, including linguistic, familial, and economic connections to Russia. On Crimea, it should be noted that though few initially supported Russia’s move to incorporate the peninsula, this now appears to be changing, especially since the 2 May Odessa massacre and Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation.” It should likewise be noted that support for Russia does not necessarily mean support for the rebels whom most southeastern Ukrainians view with distrust.  The Soviet Union is also still greatly missed here and most southeastern Ukrainians are leftists when it comes to economics partially due to this sense of nostalgia.

9. Most of them strongly oppose the “anti-terrorist operation.” Kiev’s bombardment of towns and cities, human right abuses, atrocities, the massive death toll of civilians, and the involvement of right-wing groups like Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) have alienated most southeastern Ukrainians against Kiev.

10. Most of them want more rights. These primarily include bilingualism and the right to elect their own governors. Some advocate for a simple de-centralization in a reformed unitary state while others favor federalism, and more extreme factions (a very small minority among them) support a confederation. Most importantly, it must be emphasized that the vast majority of southeastern Ukrainians do not want to secede from Ukraine.

Putin and Poroshenko: A Tale of Two Presidents

Updated on 15 March 2015 with newly revealed information on Crimea.

Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are in a pickle. Both presidents have a crisis on their hands in Ukraine. Both presidents know genuinely how to resolve it: through diplomacy and dialogue. However, the currents of the crisis in Ukraine, and that of history in general, seem to be moving faster than either gentlemen would prefer.

Putin and Poroshenko

Putin and Poroshenko

Following his election as Ukraine’s President, the Podolian “Shokoladni Tsar” Poroshenko inherited the so-called “anti-Terrorist operation” from the Yatsenyuk government. Poroshenko seems to want to end the conflict and has vocally sought to reach out to his Russian-speaking compatriots in the Donbas. Yet at the same time, he appears restrained in what he can do, and at times even appears to even endorse the controversial “anti-Terror” campaign that has thus far cost hundreds of lives, including many civilians. There are at least three reasons for this.

One is that the 2004 Orange Revolution constitution was restored in Ukraine, which effectively means that the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, has more power than Poroshenko. Therefore, by law, Poroshenko is limited in what he can do.

Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the far-right paramilitary organization Right Sector, flanked by two members of the group.  Right Sector has actively participated in the controversial "anti-terrorist operation" in the Donbas in which hundreds of civilians have died.  (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the far-right paramilitary organization Right Sector, flanked by two members of the group. Right Sector has actively participated in the controversial “anti-terrorist operation” in the Donbas in which hundreds of civilians have died. (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

The second problem that Poroshenko faces is the fact that the “anti-Terrorist operation” is led by a disparate assortment of groups including Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) and other far-right militants, the Maidan self-defense forces, oligarch-financed militias (effectively “private armies”), and (allegedly) mercenaries from other countries. The regular Ukrainian army, with defections and desertions, has proved to be unreliable for Kiev. Therefore, to “reign in” the rebels, it relies on these “independent” groups and militias. The problem with this strategy is that the latter are truly “independent” and thus it is difficult for Poroshenko to command them to “stop,” even though he is now calling for a cease-fire.

Finally, Poroshenko is under pressure from rival political forces, primarily the Batkivshchyna party and its leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who has threatened to launch “another Maidan” if Poroshenko’s presidency proves to be a disappointment. In a concerning development, the usually pro-Western and liberal Batkivshchyna now appears to be co-opting itself with Ukraine’s nationalists. In fact, since this crisis commenced, nationalism and Russophobia appear to have become increasingly prevalent within the Ukrainian political elite; though it is doubtful that these attitudes reflect the popular sentiment of the vast majority of Ukrainian people.

Aleksandr Dugin

Aleksandr Dugin

On the Russian side, Putin is in a no less enviable position. Despite Western and Ukrainian allegations that the Donbas rebels are effectively Russian puppets, the truth is that they are indeed largely comprised of locals. However, they do indeed have supporters and handlers across the border in Russia. These are primarily extremist and nationalist Russian political forces led by fanatical ideologues and writers like Aleksandr Dugin and Aleksandr Prokhanov and fierce commanders like Igor Strelkov. They write for far-right Russians gazetas like “Zavtra,” reenact battles from the 1918-22 Russian Civil War as White Army officers, and like their nationalist Ukrainian counterparts, they too harbor antisemitic sentiments. They dream of forging an authoritarian Eurasian state, a vision that (despite Western rhetoric) is in fact quite different from post-Soviet integration schemes like Putin’s Eurasian Union or similar ideas proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, and others in the past.

The Russian nationalists supporting the Donbas rebels are not officially backed by the Russian government. Instead, they are acting out of sheer nationalist zeal.  However, hardliners among Russia’s political elite, like Dmitry Rogozin, are putting great pressure on Putin to intervene to support the rebels. For his part, Putin has to balance relations between the hardliners like Rogozin and the more liberal wing of the Kremlin represented by Dmitry Medvedev and other liberals from Putin’s Sobchak days. As I wrote earlier, the hardliners earlier demanded that Putin immediately annex Crimea. The Medvedev group supported a referendum on the issue but ultimately favored caution, arguing that an outright annexation would make relations with the West worse. In the end, Putin ordered a special operation in Crimea in which the troops of the Black Sea Fleet gained control of the peninsula as a so-called “self-defense force.”  He also took the position that he would support the final outcome of the Crimean referendum, whatever the result.  In the end, the population voted for the incorporation of Crimea into Russia and Putin backed this decision.

This has not occurred with the Donbas and Eastern Ukraine. Despite invoking the rhetoric of “Novorossiya,” Putin has refrained from intervening in Ukraine, a decision that was likely not only influenced by Medvedev and the liberals, but also by other dynamics as well. These include the mere fact that the division between the Russian-speaking oblasti and the mixed Russo-Ukrainian Surzhyk-speaking oblasti in Ukraine is ambiguous. Thus it would be very dangerous for Russia to intervene militarily, if only for this reason. Further, Putin had clear geopolitical objectives in Crimea centered around concerns regarding the Black Sea naval base and potential NATO expansion. There are no such geopolitical concerns for Eastern Ukraine specifically, though in the bigger picture, the fate of Ukraine as a totality is important for Russia geopolitically. That said, while Russia will likely not intervene militarily in Ukraine to support the Donbas rebels, it may lend itself to other initiatives, including establishing a humanitarian corridor.  Given the outcry in the Russian public over the atrocities and violence occurring in the Donbas in Kiev’s controversial “anti-terrorist operation,” this may very well happen.

Flag of the Donetsk People's Republic (AFP)

Flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic (AFP)

Finally, it must be noted that a major shortcoming and self-defeating factor of the Donbas rebels is their narrow focus. Their ideology is based on Russian nationalism, Orthodoxy, Russian-speakers, the southeastern oblasti of Ukraine, and “Novorossiya” (even though Novorossiya historically did not cover all of the Russian-speaking oblasti). However, this hardly makes for a viable ideology that can attract large numbers of people and that the Kremlin can feel justified in supporting. Such an ideology may find traction in the Donbas where sympathies for Russia run particularly high. However, in the old Sloboda Ukraine (centered on Kharkiv), historic Zaporozhia (centered on Dnepropetrovsk), and the “core” of Novorossiya (cities like Odessa and Nikolayev), the ideology of the rebels has garnered very little traction, even if the population has a strong dislike of the post-Maidan government and disapproves of the atrocities being committed in the so-called “anti-Terrorist operation.” Also, most have no interest in seceding from the Ukrainian state, even though they strongly dislike the current government.

Further, while the majority of the locals in Southeastern Ukraine speak Russian and take their cultural cues from Russia, they still identify as ethnic Ukrainians. Tsarist-era censuses (particularly the 1897 census) attest to the fact that the people of this area largely self-identified as “Malorussians” (i.e., Ukrainians) in Tsarist times. Hence, the people of these oblasti are indeed of Ukrainian origin and are not ethnic Russians who simply adopted the “Ukrainian” ethnonym in the Soviet era. Therefore, unless the rebels think in terms of “Ukraine” as opposed to “the Donbas” or “Novorossiya,” most southeastern Ukrainians will continue to view them with skepticism.

As the Ukraine crisis enters a violent, prolonged military phase, its greatest tragedy is that the people of the Donbas and other regions of Ukraine will continue to suffer in the process, becoming cannon fodder for rival Ukrainian and Russian nationalist visions. Meanwhile, Putin and Poroshenko will continue to remain hostage to events that are unfolding fast. History will proceed, regardless of what either president has to say about it.

Between East and West: The Curious Case of Kirovograd

Where does East Ukraine begin and West Ukraine end? Conversely, where does West Ukraine begin and East Ukraine end? These are not easy questions to answer primarily due to the existence of the Surzhyk-speaking Central Ukraine, which lies between East and West. Indeed, it is Central Ukraine that comprises the great “transition point” by which Lviv gradually merges into Luhansk and vice versa.

It is for this reason that simply drawing an arbitrary “dividing line” through Ukraine is exceedingly dangerous and problematic.

Nowhere is this more vividly illustrated than in the mixed oblast of Kirovograd. Much of the area was part of the historic region of Zaporozhia, and later Novorossiya. At one time, a good portion of the oblast’s northern raioni comprised the region of Nova Serbia, a short-lived borderland march on the Polish frontier that was organized as a safe haven for Serbian, Romanian, and other Balkan refugees. The capital city, after which the oblast is named, was founded in the 18th century as “Yelisavetgrad” meaning “City of Elizabeth” after both the Russian Tsaritsa Elizabeth and her patron saint of the same name. Following the Russian Revolution, the city was renamed Zinovievsk after the Communist leader Grigoriy Zionviev. However, after the assassination of Sergey Kirov and the beginning of Zinoviev’s fall from grace with Stalin, the city assumed its present name in the 1930s. Since the Soviet collapse, there have been proposals to return the city to its Tsarist-era name or to give it a new name entirely, though no official steps have been made in this regard.

Elections between pro-Western and pro-Russian political candidates in this specific oblast have been especially close. Yuschenko and Tymoshenko both won here, but by close margins. In 1999, the oblast favored the Communist Petro Symonenko for President of Ukraine. In the 2014 presidential election, the majority of the oblast’s raioni registered low voter turnout, with only the capital city and the westernmost raioni near Poroshenko’s native oblast of Vinnitsya registering high voter turnouts. Linguistically, the Kirovograd oblast is inhabited by both Russian and Surzhyk speakers who frequently intermarry and mix socially with one another. In terms of classification, Kirovograd can be best described as “mezhdu” (между) in Russian or “mizh” (між) in Ukrainian — that is, an area somewhere in-between.

Location of the Kirovograd Oblast in Ukraine

Location of the Kirovograd Oblast in Ukraine

Defining this as a region either as part of the Russophone oblasti or outside of them is thus very problematic. In fact, conflicting maps in this regard have already emerged. Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian nationalist thinker and the chief ideological supporter of the Donbas rebels, has presented a map showing the proposed “Novorossiya” state including all of the Southern and Eastern oblasti plus Kirovograd. Meanwhile, maps issued by the rebels show Kirovograd as not being included within the scope of “Novorossiya.”

Aleksandr Dugin's Proposed Territorial Extent of the Federal State of Novorossiya

Aleksandr Dugin’s proposed territorial extent of the Federal State of Novorossiya.

The Proposed Territorial Extent of the Federal State of Novorossiya by the Donbas Rebels

The proposed territorial extent of the Federal State of Novorossiya by the Donbas rebels.

Ironically, one can say that the Kirovograd oblast is actually more “Novorossiya” than the Kharkiv region, an area that was never historically part of Novorossiya. Instead, Kharkiv was the center of the old historic region of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine) along with other cities like Sumy and Izyum. Yet strangely, the Donbas rebels always claim Kharkiv to be part of “Novorossiya,” while Kirovograd, which was largely a part of both historical Novorossiya and Zaporohizia, is sometimes included in “Novorossiya” by the rebels and sometimes not.

Location of Novorossiya in Ukraine and Transnistria

Location of historic Novorossiya in Ukraine and Transnistria

The situation of Kirovograd illustrates the complexity of Ukraine’s linguistic and cultural divisions and demonstrates that any effort to simply divide Ukraine into two even halves would be extremely difficult, problematic, and dangerous. If conflict were to emerge here, it would not fall simply along linguistic lines, but rather along familial and interpersonal ones. This fact alone is most likely at least part of the reason that official Moscow has thus far refrained from invading Ukraine or giving material support to the Donbas rebels (instead, as I have previously argued, it is the nationalists and hardliners in the Kremlin who are backing the rebels in their own capacity).

Historical footage of Zakarpattia from the Czech National Film Archive

In a “sequel” to my earlier overview on the Carpatho-Rusyns and the Zakarpattia oblast of Ukraine, below are some glimpses of life in the Zakarpattia/Carpathian Rus’ region during the interwar period, when the area was formally part of Czechoslovakia. I came across this footage from 1922-1930 online which comes the Czech National Film Archive in Prague. Enjoy!:





Abkhazia’s Revolution: Background and Analysis

UN Map of Abkhazia, 2014

UN Map of Abkhazia, 2014

As the attention of the world was fixed on the violence, unrest, and uncertainty in Ukraine, a revolution erupted in another former Soviet territory. This was the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia, a subtropical breakaway territory of post-Soviet Georgia located along the Black Sea coast. However, in order to fully understand what is happening in Abkhazia now, a brief background of the region is required.

What is Abkhazia?

Mural of Bagrat II of Abkhazia from the Gelati Monastery in Imereti, Georgia

Mural of Bagrat II of Abkhazia from the Gelati Monastery in Imereti, Georgia

An autonomous republic of Georgia in Soviet times, Abkhazia is the home of the Abkhaz, a people who speak a Northwestern Caucasian language that is unrelated to Georgian but more closely related to the language of the Adyghe people, better known to the English-speaking world as Circassians. At the same time, the Abkhaz have a long historical relationship with the Georgians. Though linguistically distinct, Abkhazia was part of the old West Georgian Kingdoms of Colchis and Lazica. Further, the celebrated King Bagrat II of Abkhazia (himself of mixed Abkhaz and Georgian ancestry) unified Georgia as a single, feudal state in the Middle Ages. Consequently, as a people, the Abkhaz have a mixed cultural heritage, incorporating Circassian and Georgian influences as well as Russian, Byzantine, and Turkish ones – and also elements that are uniquely “Abkhaz.” Like the Georgians, the Abkhaz are renowned for their polyphonic singing. In terms of religion, most Abkhaz are Orthodox Christians with significant Muslim and pagan minorities (though pagan traditions generally persist among all Abkhaz).

The Abkhaz-Georgian relationship is complex. In the 19th century, several Abkhaz perceived to be sympathetic to the Ottoman Sultan were deported, along with almost all of their Adyghe neighbors, to the Ottoman Empire by Imperial Russia. Though many Abkhaz remained in Abkhazia, members of other ethnicities moved into their territory as well. These included Russians, Germans, Baltic peoples, Armenians, and Greeks. They also included Mingrelians, a subgroup of Georgians. Many of these Mingrelians were peasants who sought to find free land that was unavailable in their own historic region of Mingrelia.

Nestor Lakoba and his wife Sariya.  Both were victims of Stalin and Beria's Terror in the 1930s.

Nestor Lakoba and his wife Sariya. Both were victims of Stalin and Beria’s Terror in the 1930s.

By the early 20th century, Abkhazia was a distinctly heterogeneous region. Abkhaz comprised roughly the same proportion or a slightly higher proportion of the population to Georgians, with other ethnicities forming the remainder of the population. During Sovietization, Abkhazia was made a contractual, co-equal republic affiliated with Soviet Georgia. However, the territory’s status changed when it was downgraded in the 1930s from being a co-equal region within Georgia, to an autonomous republic of Georgia. Nevertheless, its leader Nestor Lakoba enjoyed popular support from the local population. Abkhaz and Georgians within the republic generally got along well with one another. In fact, Lakoba’s own wife Sariya was a beautiful ethnic Georgian woman from Batumi.

However, Lavrentiy Beria, the leader of Soviet Georgia and of Soviet Transcaucasia despised Lakoba. Born to a Mingrelian family in Abkhazia, Beria viewed Lakoba as a rival for influence with Stalin especially because Stalin seemed to favor Lakoba. The rivalry is perhaps best illustrated in the glasnost-era film Belshazzar’s Feasts, or A Night with Stalin based on a story from the novel Sandro of Chegem by the celebrated Russian-language Abkhaz writer Fazil Iskander. The enmity did not end well for Lakoba or Abkhazia. He was assassinated by Beria in 1936. Shortly afterward, he was declared an “enemy of the people” and his family was persecuted. Beria then flooded Abkhazia with large numbers of ethnic Mingrelian settlers and encouraged the invention of a false academic discourse claiming that the Abkhaz were not indigenous to Abkhazia, but “new arrivals.” By the 1950s, the Abkhaz were reduced to only 15% of the population in their own homeland.

Beautiful Gagra on the Black Sea Coast (Panoramio)

Beautiful Gagra on the Black Sea Coast (Panoramio)

After Stalin’s death, the Abkhaz began to experience an era of limited freedom. Abkhaz-language publishing returned and the Abkhaz representation in Abkhazia increased. Gradually, the Abkhaz portion of the population was beginning to bounce back as well. The situation in the republic remained largely peaceful. Abkhazia was known throughout the Soviet Union as a popular and prosperous holiday destination. Gagra, Sukhumi, Pitsunda, and other coastal cities became highlights of the Soviet Black Sea Riviera. Its citrus trees, spas, and the famous Sukhumi botanical garden became legendary throughout the Soviet Union. Politics meant little to vacationers on Abkhazia’s inviting Black Sea coast. The republic’s diverse ethnic groups generally lived in peace with one another.

However, ethnic tension arose with the start of glasnost. Some Abkhaz nationalists demanded to elevate their territory to the status of a full union republic while Georgian nationalist dissidents, led by the eccentric Zviad Gamsakhurdia (also a Mingrelian) began to encourage a chauvinistic discourse of a “Georgia for the Georgians.” They claimed that Abkhaz, Ossetians, and others were “new arrivals” in Georgia and consequently alienated them. Clashes erupted between Abkhaz and Georgians in Sukhumi in 1989. Yet despite the violence and the rival nationalisms, Gamsakhurdia reached a compromise with the Abkhaz in a power-sharing agreement. Thus, as ethnic tension engulfed South Ossetia and civil war in Georgia proper erupted over Gamsakhurdia’s nationalist discourse and authoritarian rule, Abkhazia remained relatively peaceful. Notably, the Abkhaz leadership expressed the desire for their republic to become a full co-equal republic within a federated Georgia, an offer that was rejected by Tbilisi.

The Council of Ministers Building of Abkhazia, still damaged from the 1992-93 Abkhaz-Georgian war (RFE/RL)

The Council of Ministers Building of Abkhazia, still damaged from the 1992-93 Abkhaz-Georgian war (RFE/RL)

In December 1991, the rouge general Tengiz Kitovani led a coup against Gamsakhurdia that deposed the controversial nationalist president. After Gamsakhurdia was ousted from power, the more moderate Soviet-era Georgian leader and former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was invited to return to Tbilisi as Georgia’s new President. Undeterred, Gamsakhurdia fled to his home region of Mingrelia where the “Zviadists” launched a revolt against the new government in Tbilisi. Acting on his own accord, Kitovani invaded Mingrelia and then pressed on to Abkhazia, claiming that Gamsakhurdia’s supporters were sabotaging the Abkhazian railway. In reality, Kitovani was moving to bring the Abkhaz firmly under Tbilisi’s rule.  His operation resulted in a full-fledged and violent war in Abkhazia with atrocities committed by all sides. The Abkhaz side was assisted by rouge Russian nationalists (though not the Russian government) and by militants from the North Caucasus like the notorious Shamil Basayev. By the end of the war, much of Abkhazia’s Georgian population either fled or was expelled. Many still live as IDPs in Georgia today, though a sizable number have returned, notably to the southern Gali district.

Post-war Abkhazia and lost alternatives toward peace

Abkhazia's Sergey Shamba (RFE/RL)

Abkhazia’s Sergey Shamba (RFE/RL)

Peace talks subsequently ensued, often with Yeltsin’s Russia leading the way in the negotiations. Several proposals existed in the 1990s to create a common Georgian-Abkhaz federal or confederal state structure. The Abkhaz side claims that they accepted such proposals, but that they were rejected by Shevardnadze who wanted to retain a unitary Georgian state with an autonomous Abkhazia. The Abkhaz refused this and talks ultimately fell through. However, a renewed effort toward peace began after the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. Mikheil Saakashvili’s new envoy to the disputed territories was Irakli Alasania (now Defense Minister of Georgia).  Born to a Mingrelian family, Alasania was able to forge very good working relations and friendship with the Abkhaz.  He invited the Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba to Tbilisi, a request with which Shamba accepted with pleasure. The visit was by all accounts a success, except for the fact that President Saakashvili refused to meet with Shamba. Instead, confident that he had the full backing of the United States and NATO, Saakashvili planned (according to many Georgian observers) to retake Abkhazia and Georgia’s other breakaway region, South Ossetia, by force. On the day of Shamba’s Tbilisi visit, Saakashvili was on the Georgian-Abkhaz frontier making military preparations.

Yet Alasania was undeterred. With Shamba he agreed to sign a non-use-of-force agreement as a confidence-building measure with the Abkhaz. This would have taken place in Sochi under the auspices of then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. It would have been a serious alternative leading to a de-escalation in tensions not only between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, but also Tbilisi and Moscow as well. However, Saakashvili refused to permit the meeting to take place. Instead, according to Nino Burjanadze and others, Saakashvili continued preparations for war on the two territories, and brazenly informed Russia’s Vladimir Putin about it. Putin warned Saakashvili that invading either of the two territories would result in a Russian intervention and a formal recognition of their independence. But Saakashvili dismissed this. The result was the August 2008 war in which Saakashvili’s Georgia lost. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia were recognized by Russia.  Any sort of peace or reconciliation now seemed more distant than ever.

Georgian Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (VOA)

Georgian Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (VOA)

A renewed chance for peace?

In October 2012, Mikheil Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement lost parliamentary elections to the Georgian Dream coalition, led by the Imeretian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Unlike Saakashvili and his party who were unequivocally pro-Western, Ivanishvili and his party can be best described as neither pro-Western, nor pro-Russian, but pro-Georgian. While Ivanishvili has spoken of the historical importance of joining the EU, he has, at the same time, not completely ruled out joining the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union either. The party’s control on power increased following Saakashvili’s loss of the Georgian presidency to the bon-vivant philosopher-turned-politician Giorgi Margvelashvili. Then, Ivanishvili himself stepped down as Prime Minister, appointing Irakli Garibashvili as his successor.

One of the cornerstones of the new Georgian government’s foreign policy is reunification with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even more so perhaps than membership in the EU and NATO. Evidence of this is the fact that the Ivanishvili government is filled with people who have good working relations with the Abkhaz and Ossetians who understand fundamentally the ethnic concerns of both groups. These include individuals like Alasania, Guram Odisharia, and Paata Zakareishvili. Many were featured in the documentary, Absence of Will, a must-see film for anyone wanting to get a true understanding of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict. Indeed, the present Georgian Dream government can truly be described as the first post-Soviet Georgian government that really understands Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ivanishvili has kept both the EU and NATO on the table, likely as bargaining chips with Moscow to regain the two breakaway regions. However, the sentiments of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes have to be taken into consideration as well, and Russia will not simply “reverse” its recognition of these two regions. Rather, it may work to promote a “reunification” of these regions with Georgia proper into a co-equal federation or confederation (though Tbilisi would be more accepting of the former than the latter). This would be a logical resolution to the issue and it would certainly help Moscow both geopolitically and domestically with the Georgian public (the Georgian Dream would receive the credit for reunifying the country, not Saakashvili). I have written about such a resolution in the past and others, including Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center, have done so as well.

What is happening in Abkhazia now?

Protests in Sukhumi (AFP / Getty Images / Ibragim Chkaduaibragim Chkadua)

Protests in Sukhumi (AFP / Getty Images / Ibragim Chkaduaibragim Chkadua)

Since last Tuesday, there have been massive protests in Sukhumi against the Abkhaz President Aleksandr Ankvab. The opposition has accused the leader of authoritarian tendencies and of misspending funds by Russia. On Saturday, the Abkhaz parliament relieved Ankvab of his presidential duties. He resigned the next day. Snap elections have been called for August 24.

What is happening now in Abkhazia is either:

A) Genuine discontent and frustration with the Ankvab government by the people of Abkhazia and by the political opposition, or,

B) Moscow covertly working through the opposition in Abkhazia to unseat Ankvab and to bring to power a government more compliant to Moscow that would be more willing to compromise with Georgia. This is possible given the sheer timing and speed with which the events have been proceeding (kind of like Crimea) since last Tuesday.

Both are reasonable explanations for the present situation.

However, it must also be noted that the Abkhaz opposition is a diverse group. One of its leaders Raul Khajimba is a hardline nationalist and former KGB agent who has categorically ruled out any compromise with Georgia, let alone granting ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia Abkhaz citizenship. Another, Sergei Shamba is the man who both led the peace negotiations with Abkhazia in the 1990s and forged a good working relationship with Georgia’s Irakli Alasania. If anyone in Abkhazia can find a compromise solution to the problem, it would be Shamba.

Former Abkhaz President Aleksandr Ankvab (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Popov)

Former Abkhaz President Aleksandr Ankvab (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Popov)

The most interesting development is the sudden request by the Abkhaz opposition to join Moscow’s Eurasian Union. Prior to this, the idea of joining the Eurasian Union never figured in Abkhaz politics much at all. The rapidity of such a request, and the fact that it has appeared almost coincidentally with the signing of the Eurasian Union deal between Moscow, Astana, and Minsk, also makes one wonder whether or not Moscow is involved. This may be intended to further illustrate to Tbilisi that it risks being permanently separated from Abkhazia if it joins the EU and NATO. On the other hand, if this request emerged from the genuine sentiments of the Abkhaz opposition, it could be in response to the Georgian Defense Minister Alasania’s statements calling for NATO bases in Georgia, which Abkhaz politicians of all political strands oppose. Such statements may have been made by the traditionally more moderate Alasania to call Moscow’s bluff. Likewise the request to join the Eurasian Union could also be a combination of both factors (i.e., Moscow’s involvement and concerns of the Abkhaz regarding Georgian NATO membership).

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how Moscow responds to the demand of the Abkhaz opposition to join the Eurasian Union. Will they welcome them with open arms, or will they shuffle their feet? My guess is the latter, not only because Moscow still wants to have a card on the table to lure back Tbilisi, but also because the other two founding members of the Eurasian club, Belarus and Kazakhstan, do not recognize Abkhazia’s independence. Minsk and Astana would need to recognize Abkhazia’s independence before supporting Sukhumi’s membership in the Eurasian Union, which they will likely not do because they have their own geopolitical priorities (especially Nazarbayev with his traditionally balanced foreign policy). All of this adds credence to the scenario that Moscow is involved in the present revolution in Abkhazia because, under the present geopolitical circumstances, Abkhazia can never fully join the Eurasian Union without Georgia largely due to the position of Minsk and Astana. Hence, the ouster of Ankvab may very well be step one to a detente between Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Moscow.

It should likewise be noted that Moscow does not need to do this in South Ossetia because it already has a government in Tskhinvali that is now more or less under its control. To illustrate this, it should be recalled that the former interim South Ossetian President Vadim Brovtsev was an ethnic Russian businessman from Chelyabinsk with no prior ties to the region.

In any case, one can safely say that unless Moscow, Tbilisi, and Sukhumi resolve their differences, Abkhazia could become another “frontline” in the emerging new Cold War. If this happens, it would make the situation in the Caucasus region much more dangerous and it would ultimately be a negative development for Russian, American, European, Middle Eastern, and international security.

How Influential is Ukraine’s Far-Right?

Ukraine's Praviy Sektor (Reuters / Vasily Fedosenko)

Ukraine’s Praviy Sektor (Reuters / Vasily Fedosenko)

As in any crisis situation, the crisis in Ukraine has been subject to polar interpretations. Russia, the Donbas rebels, and others are quick to paint what is happening in Kiev as a “fascist coup” and that the entire Kiev government is comprised “entirely of fascists.” On the other side, Western governments (primarily the United States and the European Union) and the Kiev government have stated that the far-right in Ukraine has marginal electoral support and thus has “virtually no influence in the country.”

As in any historical event, the truth is neither black nor white, but somewhere in between. It is indeed correct that both Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) and Svoboda are on the electoral margins (I even know people in Western Ukraine who can vouch for this). However, it would be wrong to mitigate their influence entirely.

Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of Ukraine's far-right Svoboda party (zbroya.info)

Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of Svoboda (zbroya.info)

At the end of the day, it was Right Sector and Svoboda that still played a crucial role in helping the present Kiev government rise to power. In return, they were granted positions in the government. Most of the posts awarded to the far-right have been given to Svoboda, though the newly-appointed Education Minister, Serhiy Kvit, is affiliated with Right Sector and its associated far-right paramilitary organization Trident (Tryzub). Also, Svoboda was conferred governorship of five oblasti: Lviv, Ternopil, and Rivne in the West and Zhytomyr and Poltava in the Center (though they have never been a major force in either of these two Central oblasti). Since there are a total of 24 oblasti in Ukraine, this means that Svoboda and its leader Oleh Tyahnybok effectively control about 20% of them.  Further, if one were to add up the total area of the oblasti ruled by Svoboda and then divide that by the total area of Ukraine, then one would arrive at approximately the same percentage (i.e., 20% of the country overall).  Given this, the question inevitably arises: how can a political party with the support of less than 2% of the entire electorate of Ukraine govern about 20% of the country?

Of the two right-wing parties, Svoboda is arguably less of a threat than Right Sector. Right Sector has very little popular support in Ukraine but they talk big and they are armed, so they cannot be easily dismissed. From my research and observations, it seems that they clearly played a role in the violence in the “anti-Terrorist operation” in the Southeastern oblasti. Right Sector is largely to blame for the Trade Unions fire-massacre in Odessa and they have also been involved in the shootings of civilians in the Donbas. Kiev has heavily relied on them and other private militias in recent weeks because their own military, drawn on recruits from all parts of Ukraine but primarily from the Central oblasti, has proven to be unreliable (with defections, etc.).

Therefore, it is indeed correct to say that the far-right has marginal support in Ukraine. However, at the same time, one cannot dismiss their potential danger, since they do retain influential political positions in the present government and their more militant segments (Right Sector, Patriots of Ukraine, Trident, etc.) are indeed armed and have participated in violence in the country.

Who are the Donbas Rebels?

Updated on 15 March 2015 with newly revealed information on Crimea.

Lenin in the Donbas (Andrew Butko)

Lenin in the Donbas (Andrew Butko)

As I have written previously, based on the available evidence, I have concluded that most of the Donbas rebels are indeed locals. At the same time, I also believe that they are being encouraged by Russian nationalists from Russia, such as Igor Strelkov.  These nationalists are acting in a private capacity to not only assist but also encourage the rebels.  It is important to note that they are not supported in their endeavors by official Moscow.

However, the hardline faction of the Russian political elite, led by Dmitry Rogozin, wants Putin to intervene in Eastern Ukraine to support the rebels.  They took a similar position on Crimea.  Following ouster of Yanukovych from power in Kiev, a debate ensued in Moscow on the fate of Crimea.  Concerns regarding NATO expansion in Ukraine, the influence of the far-right in the new Kiev government, and the potential effort by the new Kiev government to expel the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol prompted the debate over the peninsula’s status.  Such fears were not unfounded as many in the Kiev government supported Ukrainian NATO membership, while others sought to cancel Russia’s lease on the base – and still others on the far-right (particularly Oleh Tyahnybok and Svoboda) wanted to abolish Crimea’s autonomy entirely.

The hardliners demanded immediate annexation, arguing that you either “take Crimea today” or “fight there tomorrow.”  At the same time, the more liberal political wing in Moscow (represented by Dmitry Medvedev and others from Putin’s St. Petersburg Sobchak days) was opposed to annexing Crimea outright.  They favored a referendum on the issue, but preferred to delay a final decision on the matter and use Crimea as a “bargaining chip” to ensure the presence of the Sevastopol base and to ensure that Ukraine does not join NATO.  Additionally, they argued, if Russia were to “reunite” with Crimea right away, it would make relations with the West even worse.

Putin ordered an emergency opinion poll during this time that showed that the vast majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. Weighing all options, Putin ultimately decided to support the pro-Russian movement in Crimea through a special operation, using the troops from the Black Sea Fleet to gain control of the peninsula as a so-called “self-defense force,” starting on 27 February 2014.

Putin also took the position that he would favor the outcome of the referendum, whatever the final result.  As he said in a new documentary on Crimea that was aired on Russian television on 15 March 2015, his “final goal was to allow the people express their wishes on how they want to live. I decided for myself: what the people want will happen. If they want greater autonomy with some extra rights within Ukraine, so be it. If they decide otherwise, we cannot fail them.”  The referendum was then organized in which the majority of the voters cast their ballots in favor of reunification with Russia. The rest is history.

The hardliners seek to convince Putin to take a similar position in Eastern Ukraine. However, the potential of intervening there is far more dangerous. Primarily, the linguistic demarcation between Russian-speaking Southeastern Ukraine and Surzhyk-speaking Central Ukraine is very blurred. Thus a Russian intervention would only make the situation more dangerous. Given this and other factors, Putin has not did not yielded to the pressure of the hardliners to intervene, even after a referendum was organized in the Donbas. In this regard, the more liberal St. Petersburg faction in the Kremlin, led by Medvedev and others, has been successful in persuading Putin not to intervene.  The most that Putin conceded to the hardliners with regard to Eastern Ukraine was his invoking of historic “Novorossiya.” However, even here, Putin has recently moved away from making such statements and has made attempts to clarify his use of that term to stress that Moscow is not seeking territorial claims on Ukraine.