Moscow’s Sochi Summit on Karabakh

Karabakh Armenian Soldier on the Frontline with Azerbaijan (nkrmil.am)

Karabakh Armenian Soldier on the Frontline with Azerbaijan (nkrmil.am)

In recent weeks, Armenia and its sister republic of Nagorny Karabakh have been experiencing an increase of violence along the contact line with Azerbaijan, claiming the lives of many soldiers on both sides. The fighting has been so intense that some observers have dubbed it the worst the region has seen since the 1994 ceasefire.

Ceasefire violations have been common since the 1994 armistice, with Azerbaijan often doing the violating as a means of warning the Armenians and the international community that it is not pleased with the status quo. Since the death of longtime Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev and the succession of his son Ilham, the ceasefire violations have only increased in their intensity and aggressiveness. This reflects much of the character of the regime of Ilham Aliyev, who frequently engages in bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric as a means of rallying the population around his notoriously corrupt government. He has often referred to the Armenians as a “worthless” nation and has continuously vowed to not only invade Karabakh but also advance on the Armenian capital Yerevan and to take the country’s turquoise Lake Sevan and the ruggedly mountainous Syunik region as well. Aliyev has also worked to use his country’s oil wealth as a means of not only enriching himself, his family, and his clique but also massively increasing Azerbaijan’s military spending. All this while brutally and swiftly stifling voices of dissent at home, earning Aliyev’s Azerbaijan an international reputation as an authoritarian petrostate – a corrupt kleptocratic khanate on the Caspian.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Aliyev’s strategy is a dangerous one. By intensifying ceasefire violations, engaging in aggressive rhetoric, and massively spending on the military, he believes that this will increase his authority and legitimacy domestically.  However, he is instead driving the region toward a war that neither the Armenian nor Azerbaijani sides need. In fact, despite its astronomical spending on high-tech military equipment, Azerbaijan is in a particularly bad place to start a war. Among other things, the Azerbaijani army is poorly-trained and rampantly corrupt. This is compounded by the fact that Aliyev does not want to have a military that is too strong because there has been a history of military coups in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. A war would also be devastating for Baku because the Armenians could easily target the Western-backed oil pipeline that runs through Azerbaijan. Further, it would be extremely difficult for Azerbaijani tanks to make it through Karabakh’s very mountainous terrain, which the local Armenians know intimately and would use as a “natural fortress” to fight against the Azeris. Finally, Armenia has very good security relations with the Russian military, which would protect Armenia in the case that a new conflict erupts.

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has persisted in violating the ceasefire along the line of contact and not just in the vicinity of Karabakh. In recent years, there have been several ceasefire violations along the border with Armenia’s northern province of Tavush, close to the border with Georgia. Then in June, Azerbaijan launched an unexpected attack on Armenia from its exclave of Nakhichevan. The exclave has a naturally-defined border with Armenia running along the Vayots Dzor and Syunik (or Zangezur) mountain ranges. The situation has remained largely calm along this border due to the fact that Armenia controls the heights looking over Nakhichevan.

Protection mounds placed near the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, July 2014

Defensive mounds placed near Armenia’s north-south highway along the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, July 2014. (Photograph by this writer)

However, one section of Armenia’s border with Nakhichevan, between the Armenian Ararat province and the northern Nakhichevan district of Sadarak, remains less secure and it was there where the recent border attack unexpectedly occurred. While traveling along Armenia’s north-south highway in Ararat province this July, I witnessed large mounds along the roadside of this section of the border that had been setup by the Armenian military. They are intended to protect civilian drivers from Azerbaijani artillery and indeed, the attacks on Armenian positions are so close that they have actually reached this highway.

In yet another recent episode in early July, three men from Azerbaijan (allegedly Azerbaijani commandos) infiltrated the Karabakh contact line and entered into the region of Karvatchar (or Kelbajar) where they killed two people and seriously injured another. One was shot dead while the other two are on trial for murder in Nagorny Karabakh. All of this has only increased fears in Armenia about the start of a potential new conflict in the region, which very few in Armenia desire. It has also made efforts for peace and dialogue between the sides even more difficult.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters / Maxim Shemetov)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters / Maxim Shemetov)

Despite this, Armenia’s Sargsyan and Azerbaijan’s Aliyev have been invited to Sochi at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting was already planned in advance. Moscow wants to strengthen its position in the Caucasus, especially regarding the Eurasian Union. As efforts to lure Georgia back into Moscow’s fold have stalled, the Kremlin is instead looking to the possible prospect of bringing the sides together and luring Azerbaijan into its Eurasian Union. However, despite some recent warm-up in the relations between Baku and Moscow, Aliyev appears largely content with remaining independent of any geopolitical union, whether it be the Eurasian Union or the EU.

In this context and in the context of the more recent ceasefire violations, Moscow is now shifting gears and trying to play the role of a peacemaker. It realizes that an immediate peace deal over Karabakh is unattainable and is instead working to simply calm tensions and prevent another war from breaking out. As noted above, if a new conflict erupted in Karabakh, Moscow would be obliged by treaty to assist Armenia in ensuring its security. However, given the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, a war in the Caucasus is the last thing that Moscow needs. Therefore, Putin’s primary objective at the Sochi summit is to de-escalate tensions between the sides, as Moscow was successfully able to do during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Overall, one thing is most certain: nobody in the region would benefit from a new war over Karabakh.

Russia and Georgia: Where to Go Next?

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (left) and EU's José Barroso (right)

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (left) and EU’s José Barroso (right) (Georgian Government)

On Friday, Georgia signed its Association Agreement with the EU. The event was favorably celebrated in Tbilisi and touted in the West as a “first step toward the EU.”

However, the agreement does not guarantee automatic membership in the EU. In this regard, Georgia still has a long way to go. Russia has voiced its concerns regarding the EU agreement. Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s breakaway republics on the Black Sea, has echoed this sentiment. On July 1, its Foreign Ministry declared the following:

It is quite obvious that signing of the Association Agreement with the EU does not provide to Georgia an immediate perspective for membership in this union, but at the same time, it distances Georgia from cooperation with neighboring states, first of all, with the Russian Federation and Republic of Abkhazia.

There has also been concern in the West, and to a lesser degree in Georgia, regarding an even greater Russian reaction. Some fear a reversal of the progress made on economic ties while still others fear an invasion of Georgia proper.

Yet Moscow will likely not resort to hard retaliatory measures as has been widely speculated in the West. In its effort to bring all the ex-Soviet states into its Eurasian Union, instead Moscow has sought to pursue its aims by proposing offers and deals that may make the ex-Soviet republics more amiable to it.

Georgia is an important country to include in a proposed supranational union of ex-Soviet states, not just for Putin, but for any future Russian leader for several reasons.  Georgia has historically been viewed in Moscow as the “center” of the Caucasus region and the gateway to Eurasia. Outside of Abkhazia, it possesses a prosperous Black Sea coast that includes port cities and resorts like Poti and Batumi. Russia views the Black Sea as a vital geostrategic region and as part of its traditional zone of influence. Georgia naturally plays a role in this. The United States, Russia’s rival in the region, has also realized the geopolitical significance of Georgia and thus has focused much of its efforts on trying to bring Georgia into Euro-Atlantic structures. Whether or not such ambitions will help US-Russian relations, global security, or Georgia’s own efforts toward reform, remains an open question.

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Further, there are also cultural and interpersonal affinities between Russia and Georgia. A Georgian nationalist might state that “as people, Russians and Georgians were never brothers and sisters” and that this is “Soviet mythology.” However, the truth and reality are far different from such ethnonationalist pronouncements. Despite the rupture in relations from the 2008 war, most Russians admire the Georgians, if only because of their reputation as easy-going party people. Conversely, many Georgians deeply admire Russian culture, literature, and language. At least 92% of Georgians still speak Russian as a second language. There are also the shared ties of Orthodox Christianity. Additionally, as many as one million ethnic Georgians live and work in Russia, and that number is estimated by some to be even higher. Georgians are generally well-integrated in Russian life and freely intermarry with Slavic Russians. The most famous Georgian in Russian history is probably Prince Bagration, the hero of the Napoleonic War. The most infamous is probably Joseph Stalin.

These are the reasons why Russia values Georgia and why its long-term plan is to lure Tbilisi back through some goodwill gesture. The obvious place for this to occur would be in Georgia’s two breakaway regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both were recognized by Russia as independent states after the 2008 war, thus further complicating Georgian-Russian relations. However, Moscow’s aim at the time was to “respond” to the West’s recognition of Kosovo and to domestically discredit Georgia’s controversial President, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Georgia's Moscow attaché Zurab Abashidze (Georgian Government)

Georgia’s Moscow attaché Zurab Abashidze (Georgian Government)

With these goals attained and with a new government in Georgia willing to talk to Moscow, Russia may be more flexible on the issue. Already Bidzina Ivanishvili has stated that the goal of reunification with the two breakaways is Georgia’s top priority and the Georgian attaché to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, has confirmed this position, even tying it to the re-establishment of relations between Georgia and Russia. At the same time, Russia will not betray the interests or rights of the Abkhaz or Ossetes. Instead, the logical solution lies in working to find a compromise between them and Tbilisi to forge some sort of federal or confederal solution. This can be accomplished informally without direct diplomatic relations, even outside of the Geneva framework which, like its OSCE counterpart on Nagorny Karabakh, has failed to produce any serious results or resolutions.

It is likewise unclear how the recent revolution in Abkhazia will affect such talks. Regardless of speculation on whether or not Russia played a role in the revolution, or whether it was an entirely domestic Abkhaz affair, it is clear that whomever the Abkhaz select as their next president, he or she will play a decisive role in working to normalize relations between Abkhazia and Georgia. Certainly, even this depends on the development of Georgian-Russian relations.

Woman casts ballot in the South Ossetian parliamentary election as her daughter watches (ITAR-TASS)

Woman casts ballot in the South Ossetian parliamentary election as her daughter watches (ITAR-TASS)

Meanwhile, the situation in South Ossetia is less clear. United Ossetia, the victors of the recent parliament vote in the breakaway region, advocate joining North Ossetia in a political union with Russia. It is unclear if they will follow through with such a program or, if under pressure from Moscow, they will take a more compromising stand on relations with Georgia. Moscow has already distanced itself from Ossetian demands and will likely react with caution if South Ossetians do indeed vote for a political union with Russia (as Moscow did with the Donbas rebels in Ukraine). In general though, the outcome of all of this remains to be seen.

The Georgians are also looking for an opening with Moscow not just in terms of a resolution to its conflicts. Tbilisi also wants to ensure that if Moscow makes an attractive counteroffer to the EU, it must consider Georgian national sensitivities. Any effort toward integration among post-Soviet states cannot be imperial in nature, but rather a union of equal states. If the Eurasian Union, like the EU, were to ensure an official status for Georgian and other national languages, then such an idea would become much more attractive to Tbilisi and would make the Eurasian Union an easier sell to the Georgian public at large. Moscow must keep in mind its own long tradition of multiculturalism, universalism, and ethnic tolerance that has preceded the birth of post-war “EU values” by several centuries. In order to be a viable international player, Russia must do more to embrace this great tradition of multiculturalism and shun all forms of ethnic Russian nationalism that not only threaten the unity of Russia but also its geopolitical interests in the ex-Soviet space as well. In this regard, presenting the Eurasian Union as a “union of equals” to Georgia would certainly work to its advantage.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Imedashvili)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Imedashvili)

Efforts toward a reconciliation with Moscow by Tbilisi began almost immediately after the victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012. However, the progress of such a reconciliation had to be limited to basic issues, such as trade and visa questions. This was due not only to the complex situation that existed over Georgia’s breakaways, but also because of the fact that Saakashvili still remained the President into 2013 and thus still held significant political influence. Following the electoral victory of Margvelashvili in 2013 and Ivanishvili’s appointment of Garibashvili as the new Prime Minister, the chances for an enhanced reconciliation grew significantly. During the Sochi Olympics, Putin proposed meeting with the Georgian President. Abashidze, and his Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin, agreed to meet and plan this high-level visit which was supposed to take place in March. However, as the Ukraine crisis worsened and the crisis in Crimea erupted, the proposed meeting was postponed indefinitely.

Both Moscow and Tbilisi likely have their reasons for this. Moscow is not only focused primarily on the outcome of Ukraine but it is also clear that, since Yanukovych’s ouster, it learned from recent history and sought to not place the potentially friendly government in Tbilisi in the same position as Yanukovych. Already Mikheil Saakashvili has threatened to launch his own “Georgian Maidan,” and a Georgian volte-face on the EU Association Agreement would have been the perfect excuse to launch such a revolt. Tbilisi likely shares this same concern and that probably played a part in its considerations on how to approach Moscow. Adding to this were other considerations on the Georgian side, such as its desire to balance its relations between East and West. The government also sought to maximize its support base in the recent local government elections.

The Georgian government also has a problem in that its party, the Georgian Dream coalition, is still a coalition. Garibashvili and Margvelashvili, though they have disagreed on petty issues such as who will sign the Association Agreement, are nevertheless allied on the question of Russia. They favor a pragmatic and balanced approach. This is contrasted by Davit Usupashvili who heads the Georgian parliament, a very vocal critic of Moscow and a stalwart supporter of NATO expansion. Defense Minister Irakli Alasania has been traditionally more moderate and once played a key role in bringing the Abkhaz and Georgians close to a peace. However, during his stint as Defense Minister, his advocacy for NATO membership and his proposal to place missile bases on Georgia soil near Abkhazia have raised eyebrows in Moscow, Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Tshkinvali.

Tbilisi was likewise concerned over the Russian annexation of Crimea and of the potential implications of this for Georgia’s breakaways, though Russia quickly assured Tbilisi afterward that Crimea was a unique case and that Russia was not interested in annexing Abkhazia or South Ossetia. The Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili reaffirmed this view on an interview with the BBC.

What the next step will be in Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow remains to be seen. However, there are compromises and deals to be made. One aspect of Tbilisi’s protracted conflicts with Moscow, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali remains clear: that from a basic geographic perspective, cooperation between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, is not only desirable and logical, but necessary.

Some Georgians may want to break away totally from Russia and join Europe, but they seem to forget the simple fact of geography; that the Kura is not the Seine and that Georgia is not at the center of Europe but at its very fringe. Historically, it has had less-than-pleasant relations with its larger Islamic neighbors like Turkey and Iran. It shares a very long northern border with Russia, a country that has served for centuries as Tbilisi’s protector and as its lifeline to the rest of Europe. Georgian nationalists can try to wish Russia away all they want, but the fact is that Russia is there and Tbilisi has to deal with it and can even benefit from it.

For its part, Russia views Tbilisi as an important factor in its security policy, and in turn needs Georgia to secure its position in the Caucasus region, especially in the unstable North Caucasus. Thus, while ethnic Russian nationalists may believe that weakening or punishing Georgia for its “independent attitude” will help Russia, in fact they are far from correct. This will only exacerbate regional divisions and animosities that will most certainly not serve the interests of Russian security.

Finally, the Abkhaz and Ossetian nationalists too may try to wish Georgia away, but this is unrealistic as well. Geography and centuries of close cultural ties demand coexistence and compromise. Thus, it is to everybody’s benefit and advantage that there be a solution to the protracted conflicts plaguing the Georgians, Russians, Abkhaz, and Ossetes. Above all, it is the people of Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russia who will benefit the most from a peaceful diplomatic solution. This is what the politicians of these countries and regions have to realize if any tangible progress is to be accomplished.

Moscow’s Kurdish Question

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu voiced his support for an independent Kurdish state. Israel is certainly in a good position to do this. It has bad relations with Syria, Turkey, and Iran, while Iraq appears to be disintegrating. It also has long had sympathy with the Kurdish cause and it would view an independent Kurdistan as a boon to its “periphery doctrine.”

The Kurds are the largest nation in the world (around 30 million people) who do not have their own country. They are a largely nomadic people who primarily live in the mountainous borderlands of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. They speak an Indo-European language closely related to Farsi and that is subdivided into several dialects such as Kurmanji, Sorani, and Gorani. The Kurdish language has been written in three different alphabets: Latin (in Turkey), Perso-Arabic (in Iraq, Iran, and Syria), and Cyrillic (in the former USSR). The majority of Kurds practice Sunni Islam, though a significant minority also practice the Yazidi faith, a religion associated with Zoroastrianism. The Kurds who follow the latter usually identify themselves as a distinct ethno-religious group altogether (the Yazidis), even though they speak Kurdish and follow Kurdish traditions. For the most part, the Yazidis live in Iraq and Syria, though significant communities also exist in Armenia, Georgia, and Russia.

CIA map of Kurdish-inhabited regions from 1992, courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin

1992 CIA map of Kurdish-inhabited regions, courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin

Denied their own state, the history of the Kurds in the 20th and 21st centuries has been one of near-endless uprisings and bloodshed. In particular, the Kurds in Turkey have been in almost constant revolt against Ankara since the beginning of the Turkish republic. Turkey sought to forcibly assimilate the Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and to actively suppress Kurdish culture and language. The Kurdish uprisings became especially heated under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In the war between Turkey and the PKK, human rights abuses were committed by both sides, but especially by Turkey. Kurdish uprisings also occurred in neighboring Iraq, Syria, and Iran. In Iraq, the plight of the Kurds gripped headlines in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein used poison gas to suppress a Kurdish uprising, killing hundreds of thousands of Kurdish citizens. His Al-Anfal Campaign is today referred to by many Kurds as “genocide.”

Netanyahu’s move to support Kurdish independence comes as the Kurds of Iraq and Syria remain almost entirely isolated from Damascus and Baghdad, cut off by territory seized by the radically militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL has menaced the southern border regions of Kurdish-controlled territory and has appalled and shocked the world with its flagrant abuses of human rights.

In an immediate response to ISIL, Russia has dispatched fighter jets and advisors to assist Baghdad in its fight against the self-proclaimed militant Islamic state. Russia has issues of its own with regard to militant radical Islam. In the North Caucasus, the war in Chechnya in the 1990s began as a more nationally-based conflict. However, as the conflict progressed, radical Islam began to overtake nationalism as the dominant ideology of the Chechen rebels. Soon, this ideology spread, facilitated by the work of Saudi missionaries, to other parts of the North Caucasus, notably Daghestan, thus widening the scope of the situation. Russia’s recent aid to Baghdad and its very strong support for Bashar Assad’s Syria need to be comprehended in this context.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Meets Masoud Barzani in Moscow (KRG)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Meets Masoud Barzani in Moscow (KRG)

But what about the Kurds? Will the Kremlin too back Netanyahu’s call for an independent Kurdish state? This does not seem likely for the immediate future. Russia has good working relations with Turkey and Iran and, as mentioned above, it has both stood by Assad’s Syria and has aided official Baghdad.

At the same time, Russia also has a lengthy relationship with the Kurds, dating back to the Tsarist era. In 1946, the USSR supported the creation of a Mahabad Kurdish Republic in Northern Iran.  After the fall of that state, Moscow gave refuge to one of its key figures, the famous Iraqi Kurdish rebel leader Mustafa Barzani, and his followers.  Barzani was the father of Masoud Barzani, the current President of Iraqi Kurdistan.  In February 2013, the younger Barzani paid an official visit to Moscow where he was greeted warmly and met with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and others.  His “independent” attitude reportedly shocked Baghdad.

Kurdish Children at a Kurdish Demonstration in Moscow (PUK Media)

Kurdish Children at a Kurdish Demonstration in Moscow (PUK Media)

Beginning in the 1960s, Kurdish-language radio broadcasts were made from Yerevan in then-Soviet Armenia and could be received by Kurds from other countries like Turkey where broadcasting in Kurdish was officially prohibited. Some Turkish Kurds even believed that broadcasting in Kurdish was impossible until they heard the Soviet broadcasts.  There were also Kurdish-language Soviet newspapers like Riya Taze.  Earlier, there was also the brief experience of the so-called “Red Kurdistan” (“Kurdistana Sor”) in the Caucasus.  Further, it has been alleged that when the PKK began its insurgency against Turkey in the mid-1980s, it received support from the Soviet Union.

There is also a significant and active Kurdish diaspora population (both Muslim and Yazidi) in Russia. In Soviet times, this population was even larger since it also included Kurdish populations in the now-independent republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Given this history and the situation on the ground, it is possible that if the situation between the ISIL and Syria and Iraq continues to worsen, Russia may well follow Israel’s lead and back Kurdish independence. Ultimately, though, it remains to be seen what will happen next and how Moscow’s Kurdish policy will evolve.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Myth of the European Panacea

The EU flag was a prominent symbol of Ukraine's Euromaidan (img.pravda.com.ua)

The EU flag was a prominent symbol of Ukraine’s Euromaidan (img.pravda.com.ua)

Capitalism hit the former Soviet Union very hard in the 1990s. That was the Boris Yeltsin era of “shock therapy” wherein the economic ideas of Larry Summers, Jeffrey Sachs, and others transformed the countries of the former USSR from state-dominated economies with capitalist elements to the capitalism of the wild, unregulated sort. The results of such a severe and rapid transition were disastrous for these countries, socially, politically, and economically. The ramifications of those years are still felt throughout much of the former Soviet space today, both directly and indirectly.

In Russia itself, the “shock therapy” brand of capitalism was implemented with aid from American advisors such as Sachs and by “democratic” Russian “reformers” like Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, and others.  Their subsequent “reforms” plunged approximately 75% of Russians into poverty and reversed many of the country’s hard-won 20th century achievements, becoming, in the words of Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen of NYU, “the first nation ever to undergo actual demodernization in peacetime.” It changed public perceptions with regard to the West. If there were many Russians in 1991-92 who were supportive of the basic idea of having democracy, the years of “shock therapy” created a desire for much-needed “stabilnost” and caused many to view the West as primarily responsible for such a terrible economic catastrophe.

Similar rapid transitions to market economies occurred throughout the former Soviet sphere, leaving legacies of entrenched oligarchies, monopolies, economic disparity, poverty, bad business environments, and most of all, corruption. For the citizens of former Soviet states like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia, the EU and its Eastern Partnership program appear to be effective remedies to finally “cure” their economies of these diseases once and for all. The reputation of the EU for its rules, regulations, and carrot-and-stick initiatives seemed to be a cure-all solution to many.

“Like hopeless alcoholics, we are trying to toss ourselves into a rehab, where caring Europeans will cure us from the addiction (in our case – corruption),” wrote the Armenian comedian Sergey Sargsyan. Indeed, corruption remains a very serious problem for all four of the Eastern Partnership states that sought deeper ties with the EU, with Georgia ranking 55, Armenia 94, Moldova 102, and Ukraine 144 on the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index of 177 countries (CPI) by Transparency International.  The issue of corruption is especially serious in Ukraine where the oligarchy and the political elite, from Tymoshenko to Yanukovych, have robbed the country and its people into bankruptcy.  Consequently, the EU is viewed as a panacea, a “symbol” for the hope of a better future.  In the words of Mark Adomanis and Luka Orešković with regard to Ukraine specifically:

Given Ukraine’s omnipresent corruption, the lack of legal security and, most importantly, the country’s economic implosion, it is not surprising that many citizens would latch onto a symbol (“Europe”) that is associated with all of the things that the country itself lacks. Throughout Ukraine, Europe is popularly identified with economic prosperity, transparency, democracy, and the rule of law, with the possibility of living a “normal life” of dignity and material security.

In contrast to the EU, the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union at face-value appears to offer little, especially with regard to combating corruption. With a CPI ranking of 127, corruption is widespread in Russia, though the Kremlin does realize the gravity of the issue and has been trying to fix it in recent years. Still, the continued presence of corruption combined with oligarchic monopolies, has likewise made opportunities for independent businesses and entrepreneurs very difficult. Together, these issues stifle real economic growth and potential and pose a serious challenge to competition, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Additionally, the fact that much of Russia’s economy is also based on non-renewable natural resources has also raised very serious concerns.

“The main reason why many Armenians are not crazy about joining the Russian Customs Union is not the Russian people, culture, literature, or cuisine,” wrote the Armenian comedian Sergey Sargsyan. “The problem is corruption.”

Despite this, Russia is remarkably holding its own. The Kremlin managed to pay off much of its foreign debt from the 1990s. Moscow’s economy is also currently growing much faster than that of the EU. Additionally, the birthrate of the once “dying Russia” has also bounced back and is on the rise, not only in national autonomous republics like Chechnya, but also deep into the Slavic Russian heartland as well.

Still, is the EU a viable alternative solution to these countries’ economic woes?  It is true that the Europeans would undoubtedly implement their rules, regulations, and carrot-and-stick reforms on these countries. However, by placing their hopes on the EU, which is still limping along from the devastating 2008 Eurozone crisis, these countries are staking their fate on a supranational union that cannot bring them any serious promises of lasting economic prosperity and stability. In November 2013, the noted American Economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times that his…

…joke slogan for Obama has been, ‘It’s not as bad as the Great Depression!’ But Europe can’t even claim that. At this point it’s just as bad as the Great Depression — and where European economies were recovering strongly by this point in the 30s, they’re stalling now. Doing worse than the 30s; that’s a remarkable achievement.

Indeed, by investing so much hope in an entity as economically unstable as the EU, the people of the ex-Soviet states “run the risk of being sorely disappointed with their ‘civilizational choice’” in the manner that ordinary Russians were sorely disappointed with capitalism in the Yeltsin era of the 1990s.  There is also no guarantee that the corruption issue has been completely solved either.  In Bulgaria and Romania for instance, corruption remains particularly widespread. Even more interesting, according to the 2013 CPI report, non-EU member Georgia actually ranked higher on transparency than not only Bulgaria and Romania, but other EU members such as Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, and Greece. Meanwhile, Armenia and Moldova rank higher than prospective EU member Albania! Further, according to Adomanis and Orešković:

The three most recent entrants to the EU (Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia) have performed terribly since the onset of the financial crisis. Croatia, in particular, has seen no economic growth for the past seven years.  After many years of painstaking reform, per capita incomes in these countries are still less than 40% of West European averages. Even more alarmingly, these three countries have almost entirely stopped converging with the “old” EU members in the West.

In spite of all this, both politicians and citizens in the former Soviet Union seem completely sold on the vision of the “European paradise.” At Ukraine’s Maidan, some activists even believed that “in Europe there is no police brutality.” Apparently, they have never been to Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Bulgaria, or France.

Joining the EU at this point will likely not bring about the long-desired dream of economic prosperity. In fact, it could become potentially destabilizing, especially for a country as large and diverse as Ukraine with an economy that, if not near bankruptcy, is already bankrupt.  That said, as unrest continues in Ukraine, ordinary Ukrainians must consider the question, “should we rely on the EU to help us out of our situation, or is up to us, the Ukrainians alone, to create a better future for ourselves?”

Russia Betrayed?: Voices of the Opposition: A Documentary Film

Here is a must-see prophetic film, especially in light on the continuing crisis in Ukraine.

Produced by Rosemarie Reed on the eve of the 1996 Russian presidential election, it is entitled Russia Betrayed?: Voices of the Opposition. The film includes interviews between Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen and oppositionists Aleksandr Lebed, Aleksandr Rutskoi, Grigory Yavlinsky, and Gennady Zyuganov. Most interesting are the portions of the film that touch upon Russian foreign policy, Russian-American relations, and NATO expansion.

Watch the entire film in four parts below, presented with permission of the filmmaker:

 

 

 

 

How Moscow Views the Ukraine Crisis

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David, 1800.  The historical memory of the Western invasions of Russia (including the Napoleonic invasion of 1812) still affects Russian perceptions of the West today.

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David, 1800. The historical memories of the West’s invasions of Russia (including the Napoleonic invasion of 1812) still loom large in the Russian consciousness.

Throughout the ongoing Ukraine crisis, few Western commentators and/or observers have considered Moscow’s view of the situation. In the Western media, the prevailing image is that Russia is an aggressor, intent on dominating its neighbors. Western influence is presented as “positive.” Russian influence as “negative.” Joining the EU is depicted as being a road to economic and social prosperity and NATO is offered as a defensive bulwark against the “terrible” Kremlin. Remarkably, at least in the United States, liberals and conservatives are singing the same song. Further, the discourse of “invasion,” “occupation,” “aggression,” and “World War III” is hardly diplomatic. How does anyone believe that negotiations can ensue when such language is thrown about?

By contrast, in Moscow, the view of the situation in Ukraine is entirely different. It perceives the West as encroaching on countries to which it has been very closely associated. Ukraine (the entire country, East, South, Central, and even West), along with Belarus, is viewed as a fraternal East Slavic nation to which Russia is intimately bound. The capital Kiev is regarded by all Russians as the “mother Russian city,” the common point of origin for all East Slavs. To view Kiev within the boundaries of the EU and NATO is more than just a violation of a sphere of influence.  To the Russians, it is almost sacrilege.

Meanwhile, it does not help that some of the most vocal advocates for Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO come from countries that Russia perceives as historical invaders. They include Poland and Sweden, the co-founders of the Eastern Partnership program that sponsored the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Both countries have a history of animosity toward Russia, but it is Poland in particular that Moscow views as being one of the chief advocates for Western expansionism.

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

We in the West regard Poland primarily as the victim of Russian aggression, particularly communism. We reflect on Russia’s participation in Poland’s partitions, its suppression of Polish uprisings, the Polish-Soviet War, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyń massacre, and the establishment of communist Poland. Conversely, to a Russian with a sense of history, Poland is perceived as a historical invader, a country that during the Time of Troubles in Russia (1598-1613) supported the Tsar-pretender “False Dmitriy,” attempted to bring Catholicism to Orthodox Russia, and eventually invaded and occupied Moscow in 1609. That invasion was repelled in 1612 by the duo of Kuzma Minin and Dmitriy Pozharsky, whose statue stands today in front of St. Basil’s in Moscow.

Even in more recent times, Russians recall that it was Poland’s Marshal Piłsudski who, during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21, not only tried to ensure the freedom of Poland, but also sought to annex to Poland large swathes of Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Western Russia to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of old. Piłsudski is still admired by some in Poland today, including members of the political elite such as the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his twin brother, Jarosław. He is also greatly admired by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in a portrait by Ilya Repin, 1887.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in a portrait by Ilya Repin, 1887.

Russians likewise recall Polish participation in the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is the Polish legion that is depicted as being the most fanatically supportive of an expansion toward Russia, so much so that they drown in the River Viliya for Napoleon. Today, the Russians see very much the same thing, except that Napoleon is now replaced by NATO and that the Poles are now showing their loyalty, not by drowning in the Viliya, but by asking for NATO troops to be stationed in their country.

In another Tolstoyan parallel, Moscow also likely views the Ukrainians who protested on the Maidan as being the modern equivalents of the muzhiks of War and Peace. It was the muzhiks who rose up against their oppressive landlords for Napoleon, who they viewed as the embodiment of the French revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité. Today though, the modern landlords are Ukraine’s corrupt political elite and oligarchs, while the liberal ideals of Napoleon and revolutionary France are today the liberal ideals of Brussels and the European Union. Moscow regards the latter ideals in 2014 just as they regarded Naopleon’s ideals in 1812 – that is, as false promises motivated only by geopolitical ambitions rather than by any genuine sense of altruism.

Given this, it would be wise to recall history before permitting the rhetoric to get too out of control.