Abashidze-Karasin Meeting Today

Georgia's Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze (Tabula)

Georgia’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze (Tabula)

Today, Georgia’s special envoy to Russia, Zurab Abashidze, will meet with his Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin in Prague to discuss bilateral relations between the two countries and to lay the groundwork for a future meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Georgian political leadership, the first such meeting since 2008.  The Abashidze-Karasin summit was  originally scheduled for March 4-5 but was postponed twice.

The stakes are relatively high for both Tbilisi and Moscow. From a geostrategic perspective, Moscow specifically needs Georgia as part of its planned Eurasian Customs Union. Not only would it geographically link Russia with prospective Eurasian Union member Armenia, but it would also discourage further Western efforts to expand its geopolitical and energy interests into former Soviet territory. Political circles in the West, and particularly Washington, view Georgia as a critical part of its efforts to gain access to natural gas and oil reserves in the Caspian basin and Central Asia.

Moscow views this expansion as a threat to its security. Consequently, Russia has been reaching out to Georgia in recent months. Its efforts include both Medvedev’s August  invitation to Tbilisi to join the Eurasian Union and Putin’s friendly comments toward Georgians during his December press conference. In the meantime, the West has been also reaching out to Georgia, expanding the presence of the EU and NATO, and taking advantage of the fact that Georgia has not yet fully restored its relationship with Russia.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

The post-Saakashvili Georgian Dream government kept the pursuit of the both the EU and NATO on the table, likely as leverage in its relations with Moscow. The major force behind the party, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a patriot in his own right who can be best described as neither pro-Western nor pro-Russian, but pro-Georgian. Whoever can offer Ivanishvili, and by extension Georgia, the best deal, Tbilisi will accept. So far, the West recently increased its efforts to bring Georgia fully into its camp. It has moved up the date of Georgia’s planned signing of the EU Association Agreement to June and has discussed the possibility of granting Georgia a NATO MAP (Membership Action Plan) at the next NATO summit in Wales in September. Yet, unlike his predecessor Saakashvili, Ivanishvili and his party have not ruled out the Russian option completely.  In September 2013, just six days after neighboring Armenia formally reversed its course on its EU Association Agreement in favor of Eurasian Union membership, Ivanishvili announced that Georgia too may consider joining the Moscow-backed union “if it will be advantageous for our country.”

In plain Georgian, this means that if Moscow wants to see Georgia join its Eurasian Customs Union, then Georgia needs to be enticed to join. Tbilisi will not accept any solution that would involve forgoing claims to its breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Significantly, Ivanishvili and others in his Georgian Dream party have placed more emphasis on Georgian unity than any other issue. For Georgians, the unity of their state, including all of its historic and ethnically distinct regions is a top priority, even more so than EU or NATO membership.

Irakli Gabribashvili (Government.ge)

Irakli Gabribashvili (Government.ge)

In a December interview with Eduard Shevardnadze’s granddaughter Sophie Shevardnadze on the Moscow-backed news service RT, Georgia’s new Prime Minister Irakli Gabribashvili, expressed his sadness at the present situation vis-a-vis Georgia’s breakaway regions. While acknowledging the mistakes of Georgia’s earlier post-Soviet governments, Gabribashvili stated “we are hurt because our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers no longer live with us.” He also stated that “if, as a hope – I am quite optimistic about this issue – the Russian government decides one day to reset relations with Georgia by means of peaceful conflict resolution, it will be the best case scenario.”

Consequently, only a peace deal between Georgia and its breakaways involving a federal solution would be the best possible outcome, satisfying all parties in the dispute. Such a solution would ensure Moscow’s security in the region, the unity of the Georgian state, and, most importantly, the ethnic rights of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes.

However, if Moscow tries to entice Georgia to join the Eurasian Union without any incentive for a peace deal on its breakaway regions, then the situation could become very dangerous. If Tbilisi were to make a U-turn on the EU and NATO without any significant concessions from Moscow, then Euromaidan-style civil unrest could break out in Georgia, led by Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM). Kiev-style violence and unrest is especially concerning for a country like Georgia, which experienced a very violent civil war in the 1990s. If the UNM were to launch a revolt in Tbilisi, succeed in overthrowing the potentially friendly Georgian Dream government, and replacing it with a staunchly pro-Western nationalist government, then it would be a geopolitical nightmare for Moscow.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

Already the Georgian government is taking precautions in the case of such an eventuality. Prosecutions and questionings of UNM lawmakers and activists, including former President Saakashvili, on various unresolved controversies have increased in recent weeks. Also, Georgia’s Interior Ministry recently spoke of concerns with regard to UNM launching a Maidan-style revolution. Prime Minister Garibashvili has responded by declaring that “no one will dare to stir destabilization in this country while we are in the government” and that “if anyone has any such desire or attempt, they will be strictly punished.”  Indeed, in light of the recent Ukraine crisis, the UNM has become increasingly aggressive, nationalistic, and Russophobic, calling for sanctions against Russia by Georgia, an end to any diplomatic communication with Moscow, and for denial of “Russian aggression against Georgia” to be criminalized. From his base in Ukraine as an advisor to the Yatsenyuk government, Saakashvili has been particularly provocative, not only against his traditional enemy Russian President Putin, but also his domestic arch-rival Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream government, which Saakashvili dismisses as “completely worthless.”

Certainly, the UNM could try to launch a Maidan-style revoltion even if Moscow does grant Tbilisi concessions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, its effectiveness would be greatly diluted given its already declining popularity and the fact that a peace resolution on the two breakaways would seriously undermine their credibility even further among the Georgian public. Conversely, if Moscow attempted to entice Georgia into the Eurasian Union with no concessions on the breakaways, it would create an angry backlash in Georgian society on which the UNM could easily capitalize to launch a “Georgian Maidan” in Tbilisi. Saakashvili might even take advantage of this to restore his political career and return to the Georgian presidency in a coup d’état.

Given this, Russia has to very cautious and very prudent. The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back in 2008 has served its purpose by discrediting and neutralizing Saakashvili and by illustrating to the West the potential dangers of the Kosovo precedent.  Now Moscow has to consider its strategic priorities.  Specifically, Russia must ensure its security in the region as well as the overall stability of the Caucasus.

If Moscow can entice Tbilisi into its Eurasian Union, then this would be a major diplomatic success. If not, Russia will continue to be vulnerable to Western expansionism, not just in the Caucasus but in Central Asia as well.  Much of this depends on the outcome of tomorrow’s meeting as well as any future meeting between the Georgian and Russian leaderships. Already there are some concerns because a Georgian TV crew was detained yesterday for accidentally crossing the border into breakaway South Ossetia. Given Moscow’s concerns regarding Georgia, releasing these journalists should be a top priority, which in turn would build trust and confidence between both sides.

Conversations with Gorbachev: A Documentary Film

In light of the recent Ukraine crisis, there has been a renewed interest in the events surrounding the final years of the Soviet Union. This 1994 documentary, Conversations with Gorbachev, by Rosemarie Reed helps shed light on those events, from the first-hand perspective of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, interviewed by Professor of Russian and Soviet Studies at NYU and Princeton Dr. Stephen F. Cohen.

It also includes Gorbachev’s insights on reintegration in the post-Soviet space and his support for the basic concept for a Eurasian Customs Union of former Soviet republics. When Dr. Cohen asks him “what do you think will be the reaction in the United States if any kind of new ‘larger Russia’ union, confederation, association begins to emerge?”, Gorbachev responds “But why? But why? But why is it that Washington ought to decide what relations there should be between the former republics of the Soviet Union?”

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

 

 

 

How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis

Below are ten basic provisions that I believe may ameliorate not only the Ukraine crisis but also the broader tension that currently exists between Russia and the West. Not all readers will agree entirely with these positions, but hopefully they will become a starting point from which to defuse the situation, proceed forward, and create mutually friendly, not hostile, relations among all parties:

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS).  The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand "one inch" beyond East Germany.  The promise was never fulfilled.  To defuse the ongoing Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS). The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch” beyond East Germany. The promise was never fulfilled. To defuse the Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

1. The West and Russia should drop any mutual sanctions or restrictions against one another.

2. In order to encourage mutual trust, Moscow and Washington should make an unambiguous, official agreement prohibiting further expansion and encroachment of NATO into the former Soviet republics. Such an agreement must be clearly articulated in a written document, unlike the informal promise not to expand NATO made by US officials to former Soviet President Gorbachev in the 1990s.

3. The United States must promise to cancel the planned missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

4. The United States should recognize Russia’s interests in the former Soviet states, including at least verbal support by Washington for the Moscow-based Eurasian Union, provided that it does not expand beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet states.

5. On Crimea, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize and accept Russia’s incorporation of the peninsula. This may be a difficult step to take, but the West and the Yatsenyuk government have to acknowledge that the area is demographically and historically Russian, and that it is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Moscow will not reverse this action and any attempts to force Russia to do so would be counterproductive. Therefore, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize the reality that Crimea is effectively part of Russia.

6. On Ukraine, both Moscow and Washington should express a desire to see Ukraine proper united and indivisible, and to adopt either an oblast-by-oblast federal system or a decentralized unitary system. Ukraine should declare military neutrality and should pursue integration into the Eurasian Customs Union based on Ukraine’s logical and historic economic ties with Russia; notwithstanding the fact that the EU economy currently cannot manage Ukraine. If Brussels were to bring in Ukraine, it would seriously threaten the stability and unity of the EU and would unravel the progress made over the decades of forging a united Europe. Both Russia and the EU should cooperate on helping Ukraine to strengthen its economy and state institutions by challenging the stranglehold of the Ukrainian oligarchs.

7. Given the fact that many Moldovan citizens are already EU citizens via Romanian passports, and that Moldova is becoming increasingly integrated with the EU, Moscow should recognize Moldova’s pro-European orientation.  In turn, Chișinău should relinquish its claims to Transnistria.  Depending on the situation in Ukraine and the will of the people of Transnistria, the latter could then reunite with the former as part of the multiethnic, Russophone Odessa Oblast. The new division would occur along the River Dniester, with all Moldovan-controlled areas on the right bank of the river being ceded to Transnistria, and all Transnistrian-controlled areas on the left bank being ceded to Moldova. The remaining Moldovan state would proceed with EU integration, but would declare military neutrality and disavow any intention of reunification with Romania.  Its relationship with the latter would then become akin to the relationship shared between Germany and Austria.  Such a resolution would alleviate ethnic concerns within Moldova, particularly with the Gagauz.

8. On Georgia, Moscow should promote (with the support of Washington) a federal solution for Georgia as well, making Abkhazia and South Ossetia federal states within a unified Georgian republic. The process for this should follow roughly along the lines of the proposed plan that I posted earlier. Like Ukraine, this new united Georgian federal state should declare military neutrality and, for economic, historical, and geographic reasons, should integrate into the Eurasian Customs Union.

9. On Armenia and Karabakh, the solution to this particular issue should be in the principle of self-determination for the Karabakh Armenians, though this is just an opinion. The aggressive and threatening rhetoric and actions from official Baku have only alienated the Karabakh people. Notably, Baku has also consistently denied basic human rights to its own ethnic Azerbaijani citizens. Thus, such a regime could not be trusted to rule over the people of this region. Aside from this, in order for there to be a realistic and lasting solution to this problem, Azerbaijan must open its borders with Armenia and civil society contacts must be enhanced. Armenians and Azerbaijanis can get along, but not when they do not see or communicate with one another. In their common humanity, they will find that peace and coexistence are possible, but the borders must be open first. Turkey too must open its border with Armenia.

10. Both sides should agree on a gradual convergence of the West and Russia (along with the former Soviet states) in economic, political, and military spheres, thus ensuring that all parties are on the same page with regard to the future of the post-Soviet space and post-Cold War world in general. There are so many more important priorities that need to be solved in the world (Iran, North Korea, Syria, etc.). Russia and the West need to cooperate on these issues and must not be in conflict. Further, such a solution would effectively help to realize the long-term goal of a united and indivisible Europe. It would also go a long way toward building trust with Moscow, thus creating the conditions for Russia to deepen its democratic development endogenously.

Crimea and Karabakh: A Precedent in the Caucasus?

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

Previous posts on this publication have been devoted to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Today’s post shifts the focus on Georgia’s southern neighbor, Armenia. Like Georgia, Armenia shares a very strong sense of national pride, related to its unique art and culture as well as its centuries-old history. Also like the Georgians, Armenians are independent-minded and are generally adverse to Russian imperialism, though, again like their Georgian counterparts, they are also fond of the Russian culture and people. Indeed, Armenia is an ancient Christian country with a long tradition of statehood. The Christian faith arrived here via two of the original twelve apostles of Christ and in AD 301, Armenia became the first nation to officially adopt Christianity as its national faith. This had a profound impact on the development of Armenia’s cultural and literary traditions and resulted in the creation of the unique Armenian alphabet invented in the 5th century and written horizontally from left-to-right, thus indicating a Western orientation. At the same time, similar developments also profoundly affected Georgia, which also adopted a unique alphabet with a left-to-right directionality.

Armenia, along with Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, was one of four countries that actively participated in the Brussels-backed EaP.  Yet, on September 3, 2013, Yerevan made a sudden volte-face on signing its Association Agreement deal with the EU (basically the same deal that Ukraine later refused in November). Instead, it opted for membership in Moscow’s Eurasian Union. This shocked many commentators, who at the time viewed Armenia’s signing of the EU Association Agreement as a foregone conclusion. Many observers, both inside and outside of Armenia, quickly concluded that the Armenia’s President Serj Sargsyan was pressured by Russian President Vladimir Putin to join the Eurasian Union.

Armenia's Serj Sargsyan and Russia's Vladimir Putin immediately after their 3 September meeting.

Armenia’s Serj Sargsyan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin immediately after their 3 September meeting.

However, I believe that it is more plausible to conclude that Sargsyan managed to squeeze out the best possible terms for Eurasian Union membership from the Kremlin. This would explain the body language between the two leaders when the decision was announced. Sargsyan was visibly pleased, as if he had received something, whereas Putin looked somewhat satisfied, though also as if Sargsyan had extracted major concessions out of him. Sargsyan has stated publicly to the Armenian media that he managed to secure “major concessions” from the Russian leader. What these concessions are is not yet known. However, they must have been quite substantial since Armenia was willing to sell the remaining 20% share of its gas sector to Russia’s Gazprom and guarantee that this agreement would remain unchanged until 2043. This action remains controversial with both within the Armenian parliament and on the streets of Yerevan, where Armenian students have launched demonstrations against it. The vote to validate the deal was boycotted by the opposition in the Armenian parliament. Still, though, the basic idea of joining the Eurasian Union has been broadly endorsed by all sectors of the Armenian political elite, including one of Sargsyan’s most vocal critics, former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan. Though Sargsyan has not yet announced the benefits of Eurasian Union membership for Armenia, they are likely tied to security concerns stemming from the dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh.

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

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

Then in yet another more recent shocking move, on March 27 Armenia voted with Moscow against a UN Resolution condemning the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. Earlier, Yerevan seemed to have at least partially endorsed the Crimean move, with Sargsyan phoning Putin and hailing it as “yet another example of realization of peoples’ right to self-determination through a free expression of will.” The latter caused a slight rupture in Ukrainian-Armenian relations.  Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the far-right Svoboda party, urged the recall of Kiev’s ambassador to Yerevan, a demand with which the Yatsenyuk government eventually complied. What is behind Armenia’s pro-Russian posturing on Crimea? Is it under pressure from Moscow with regard to security and energy ties? Possibly. However, a far more likely scenario is that the Armenians actually see a precedent in Crimea for Nagorny Karabakh.

The famed 13th century Gandzasar Monastery in Karabakh.

The famed 13th century Armenian Gandzasar Monastery in Nagorny Karabakh (Gandzasar.com)

So what exactly is Nagorny Karabakh and why does Armenia attach such importance to it? Nagorny Karabakh is a disputed, mountainous region sandwiched between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its very name is a testament to its checkered history with “nagorny” being Russian for “mountainous,” “kara” being Turkish for “black,” and “bakh” being Farsi for “garden.”  The current Armenian President Sargsyan is a native of Karabakh as was his predecessor Robert Kocharyan. De jure Karabakh is recognized internationally as being part of Azerbaijan. De facto the region is a self-proclaimed independent state, closely tied with Armenia. Yet no state, including Armenia, presently recognizes it internationally.  The landscape of Karabakh is littered with old, historic Armenian churches and monuments. Its local population is comprised entirely of ethnic Armenians who speak their own distinct musical dialect, heavily influenced by Russian and Farsi with significant remnants of the old Classical Armenian or grabar (the Armenian equivalent of what Old Slavic is to Russian or Ukrainian or what Latin is to Italian).  The dialect is so unique that even native Armenian speakers have difficulty understanding it.  The Karabakh Armenians are known as a strongly independent mountain people and are said to be “more Armenian than Armenians.” Many prominent Armenian military figures that fought in the armies of Tsarist Russia and the USSR came from Karabakh. During World War II, a significant number were renown for their bravery in the war.

We Are Our Mountains (also known as Tatik u Papik (Grandma and Grandpa) in Armenian), a statue that is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh's identity.  It was completed by the sculptor Sargis Baghdasaryan in 1967. (Barev Armenia.com)

We Are Our Mountains (also known as Tatik u Papik (Grandma and Grandpa) in Armenian), a statue that is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh’s identity. It was completed by the sculptor Sargis Baghdasaryan in 1967 and is located near Stepanakert, the capital of the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic. (Barev Armenia.com)

The area of Nagorny Karabakh, known as “Artsakh” in Armenian, is of particular significance to Armenians historically and culturally. Historically, it formed one of the easternmost provinces of the Kingdom of Armenia.  Along with the province of Utik, Artsakh was disputed at times with the neighboring Caucasian Albanians, a Christian people, unrelated to the Albanians of the Balkans, whose core homeland encompassed significant portions of modern Azerbaijan east of the Kura River, west of the Absheron and Shirvan, and south of the Greater Caucasus range. In the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Armenia enjoyed significant prosperity under the Bagratuni dynasty which also had a branch ruling in neighboring Georgia. This kingdom collapsed amid Armenian infighting, Byzantine opportunism, and invasions by the Seljuk Turks. It was only the province of Artsakh (today’s Nagorny Karabakh) along with the neighboring region of Syunik (today the southermost province of Armenia) that managed to maintain some level of independence and autonomy. Together, these two regions became to Armenia what Piedmont-Sardinia became to Italy. To Armenians, they became a center for national liberation and unification.

18th Century Armenian diplomat Israel Ori

18th Century Armenian diplomat Israel Ori sought the aid of Peter the Great to free Armenia and Georgia from Persian suzerainty.

By the 18th century, both regions were still governed by Armenian nobles and were under Persian suzerainty with Artsakh now known by the name of “Khachen.” The local Armenian nobility was eager to secure protection from a Christian power and thus sought aid from Imperial Russia. The diplomat Israel Ori was especially notable in this regard. A noble from Sisian in the Syunik region, Ori secured an audience with Tsar Peter the Great, in which he detailed the persecution of the Armenian and Georgian people who lived under the sphere of Persia and under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Peter, already interested in gaining access to the silk and spices of Persia, Central Asia, and India, now found an additional reason to expand Russia into the Caucasus. He readily agreed with Ori’s proposal and sent a delegation to Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church (then under Persian rule).

Davit Bek as portrayed by Hrachia Nersisyan for the 1944 Soviet Armenian feature of the same name.  The film was meant to foster patriotic feelings among Armenians during the time of the Nazi invasion of the USSR.

Davit Bek as portrayed by Hrachia Nersisyan for the 1944 Soviet Armenian feature of the same name. The film (the Armenian equivalent to Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevsky) was meant to foster patriotic feelings among Armenians during the time of the Nazi invasion of the USSR.

Unfortunately, Ori died in 1711 and thus was unable to see his dream realized. Yet, he nevertheless laid the groundwork for Russia’s intervention in the region. The movement for the liberation of the Caucasus from Persia continued under the Armenian Catholicos Asdvadzadur as well as the Georgian King Vakhtang VI the Scholar (whose descendent would later be Prince Pyotr Bagration, the great hero of the Napoleonic War). Having soundly defeated the Swedes in the Great Northern War in 1721, Peter finally set his sights on the Caucasus. The time seemed perfect as Persia had descended into a civil war. Vakhtang camped in Ganja (in present-day Azerbaijan) with a Georgian-Armenian force 40,000 strong awaiting Peter’s army. He hoped that the Tsar would liberate Georgia and Armenia from the Persian and Ottoman yoke. However, Peter’s Caspian and Caucasian campaigns against Persia proved disastrous and the Russian aid never arrived. Feeling threatened by Russia and taking advantage of internal turmoil in Persia, the Ottoman Empire intervened to violently attack the Georgians and Armenians for entertaining the idea of Russian aid. However, Davit Bek, an Armenian rebel leader of noble stock in the service of the Georgian court managed to hold off the Turks until his death in 1728.  In 1736, Nader Shah reasserted Persian authority over the region and reaffirmed the autonomy of the Armenian princes, who had assisted Persia in expelling the Ottomans.

Following the death of Nader Shah in 1747, the regional autonomies of Khachen and Syunik lasted until 1750 when both were incorporated by a local Muslim Khan into the neighboring Karabakh Khanate with the aid of an Armenian prince. This was a consequence of the fact that the region had since become engulfed in infighting among its different Armenian noble families. The local nomadic Turkic Muslim population (the predecessors of today’s Azerbaijanis) saw an economic connection between the lowland Karabakh area that they had known within their khanate and the highland Khachen principality. They used both areas alternatively for seasonal grazing of their sheep. The incorporation of highland Khachen into the Karabakh Khanate only reinforced this perception of economic unity with Lowland Karabakh among the Turkic nomads. Henceforth, the Armenian region of Khachen gradually became known as “Highland Karabakh” in contrast with the neighboring lowland areas located entirely within present-day Azerbaijan that had been already known as Karabakh.

Eventually, the Russians managed to secure a foothold in the region with the annexation of Georgia in 1800. Then in 1813, St. Petersburg renewed its assault on Persia, seizing Baku and the Caspian coastline and further inland, Highland Karabakh and Syunik (also known by now by the name of “Zangezur” after the area’s distinct mountain range). It was not until 1828 that Russia managed to acquire the remainder of the present-day Armenian republic with Yerevan and Etchmiadzin. Yet, the dates here are significant for Highland Karabakh remained administratively outside of the confines of the Erivan (Yerevan) guberniya (province) within the Russian Empire.

The remants of the Armenian quarter of Susha after the pogrom of March 1920.

The remnants of the Armenian quarter of Susha after the pogrom of March 1920 (US National Archives).

With the collapse of Russian power in the region following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War, the Caucasus at first attempted to unite into a single Transcaucasian Federation. This attempt at unity failed between both the external ambitions of the Ottoman Empire and internal divisions among the Caucasus peoples. The federation was dissolved and three new states emerged: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Armenia was constantly under threat from the Ottomans who had initiated a systematic campaign of genocide against their Armenian population in 1915 in which 1.5 million Armenians perished. A large number of starving refugees from the genocide poured into the newly-independent republic and the government in Yerevan had few resources to deal with them. The new republic also faced territorial disputes. The dispute over Highland Karabakh with neighboring Azerbaijan proved especially contentious. Ethnic violence engulfed the region. A Karabakh Armenian uprising in March 1920 was violently crushed by Azerbaijani forces and an anti-Armenian pogrom ensued in the town of Shusha (also known as Shushi).

By the time of the region’s Sovietization, the area passed into provisional Azerbaijani control, though this was deeply resented by the local Armenians. Meanwhile, the Armenian Republic itself was absorbed by the Bolsheviks in 1920, with Moscow ceding some portions, including the Armenian national symbol Mount Ararat and the ruins of the historic medieval Armenian capital Ani, to now-Kemalist Turkey.  The Bolshevik presence in Armenia was met with significant resistance in Syunik.  In 1921, the Armenian mountaineers of this region fled to the highlands and launched a major revolt against Soviet rule. The situation was so intensely out of control that the Soviet military was called in to establish order.  To placate the Armenians and to subdue the rebels, the Soviets periodically promised that the region of Highland Karabakh would be incorporated into Soviet Armenia.

In the end, the Soviets managed to crush the rebellion. The highland mountaineers of Syunik fled across the border into neighboring Iran. The crushing of the rebellion literally occurred just as the Kavburo was voting to determine whether or not Highland Karabakh should become part of Soviet Armenia. Initially the delegates voted in favor of this but when the fortunes changed on the ground in Syunik, the Soviet Azerbaijani leader Narimanov managed to convince his colleagues that there was no need to make Highland Karabakh part of Armenia anymore. He further threatened Soviet leaders with a possible cessation of oil supplies from Baku. Eager to avoid this and to quickly resolve territorial issues to maintain their control in the region, the Bolsheviks acceded to Narimanov’s demand. Hence the decision was reversed and Highland Karabakh was granted to Soviet Azerbaijan provided that it be granted autonomy in order to satisfy the local Armenian population. Such a decision was never accepted by the Armenian locals who wanted to be part of Soviet Armenia.

Yerevan 1988

Yerevan 1988

Throughout the Soviet era, the Karabakh Armenians periodically petitioned Moscow for the area to be reassigned to Armenia with no success. When Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his policy of glasnost (political openness) in the late 1980s, the Karabakh Armenians seized the opportunity. Petitions, accompanied by peaceful protests in both Armenia and Karabakh, requested that the Soviet leader transfer the region to Armenia. By February 1988, the demonstrations in Yerevan had grown to as many as one million people (about one third of the Armenian population). Fists raised, the protestors shouted slogans such as “Ka-ra-bakh” and “Hay-as-stan” (the Armenian name for Armenia). In addition to Karabakh, the protests also focused on other issues as well, notably environmental concerns such as clean air and the controversial Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. The leaders of the demonstrations were a group of individuals known as the “Karabakh Committee.” However, unlike Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Georgia, the leaders of the Karabakh Committee like Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Vazgen Manukyan, Ashot Manucharyan, Hambartsum Galtsyan, and others were not national chauvinists but liberals influenced by progressive Thaw-era Soviet values.

Memorial to the Armenian Earthquake Victims, Washington, D.C. (Panoramio)

Memorial to the Armenian Earthquake Victims, Washington, D.C. (Panoramio)

Unfortunately, the situation turned violent when anti-Armenian pogroms broke out in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. The protests in Armenia and Karabakh became even more impassioned and tension between Armenians and Azerbaijanis only continued to rise. Soon, all Armenians from Azerbaijan left for Armenia and all Azerbaijanis left Armenia for Azerbaijan. The horrible earthquake in Armenia in December 1988 only seemed to compound the crisis. Measuring a magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale, between 25,000 to 50,000 people died and as many as 130,000 were injured. Azerbaijan also instigated a total blockade against Armenia and Karabakh, preventing the delivery of crucial relief aid to Armenian earthquake victims. Meanwhile, Moscow’s perceived inaction on the crisis by local Armenians fueled the growth of a national secessionist movement in Armenia by 1990.

Armenian Refugees from Karabakh.  The conflict over the disputed territory displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides. (BBC World News)

Armenian Refugees from Karabakh. The conflict over the disputed territory displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides. (BBC)

By the time both Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved independence from the USSR in 1991, the conflict over Karabakh had erupted into a full-scale war. The war left tens of thousands of people dead or displaced on both sides. Though the Karabakh Armenians managed to secure their own de facto independence and a “buffer zone” of territory connecting them to Armenia proper, Turkey joined a blockade against Armenia and Karabakh. This precipitated a grave energy crisis that was only compounded by economic difficulties and a large number of IDPs from the war and the 1988 earthquake. The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed and the situation has remained very tense since. Consequently, a Russian military base in Armenia, located on the Turkish-Armenian border plays a major role as a guarantor for stability and security in the region.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Meanwhile, exploiting its oil resources, Azerbaijan has increased its military spending in recent years and has been empowered to be even more nationalistic. President Ilham Aliyev’s controversial statements have raised serious concern in Yerevan. In speeches and messages, he has referred to Armenia as a “country of no value,” stated that “Armenians are guests in Yerevan,” and that the Karabakh Armenians should accept Azerbaijani rule or be forced to emigrate. Official Baku likewise refuses to allow individuals bearing Armenian surnames to enter their country (even if they are not citizens of Armenia) and has maintained the blockade against Armenia, preventing crucial civil society and people-to-people contacts so important to a lasting peace.

In September 2012, Aliyev declared Ramil Safarov a “National Hero.” Safarov killed a young Armenian man in his sleep with an axe during a NATO Partnership for Peace seminar. In February 2013, an Azerbaijani author, Akram Aylisli, who has called for peace and dialogue in the Karabakh dispute, was threatened by officials affiliated with Azerbaijan’s ruling political party who have called for a bounty on the author’s ear for $15,000 and who have staged public book burnings of his works. Indeed, the level of anti-Armenian sentiment prompted one popular Russian-Jewish television journalist to draw parallels between the official Azerbaijani attitude toward Armenians and that of Nazi Germany toward the Jews. All of this has only evoked painful memories among Armenians about the tragic 1915 Genocide and has only fueled greater distrust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. It also has reinforced the need for Russian security in the region.

Now with the Crimea united with Russia, many in both Armenia and Karabakh see the potential possibility for a direct reunification between their two entities in the case of a future Azerbaijani attack. The precedent of the incorporation of Crimea into Russia via a democratic plebiscite has certainly buoyed hopes in Karabakh for the region’s eventual reunification with Armenia, even if Yerevan-based analysts have emphasized that the two situations are entirely different. Meanwhile, official Baku has been noticeably quiet in the midst of all of this. What will happen next remains to be seen.

Moldova and Transnistria: An Overview

Updated and revised on 20 September 2016 with additional information, including the economic and political roots of the Transnistrian conflict (in addition to the historical factors). Please note that this entry was originally written in April 2014 and thus does not cover subsequent political developments in Moldova, such as the rise of the Euroskeptical and pro-Moscow Party of Socialists and Patria-Rodina bloc. It also does not cover subsequent events in Ukraine, such as Mikheil Saakashvili’s appointment to the governorship of the Odessa Oblast.

Map of Moldova, Transnistria, and Gagauzia

Map of Moldova, Transnistria, and Gagauzia

Moldova and its breakaway region of Transnistria have been in the news a lot lately. I will attempt to give some historical background to this complex borderland in my analysis below.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program included within its scope the six countries of the former Soviet west. These were Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine in Eastern Europe and Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in the Caucasus. Of the six, Belarus and Azerbaijan expressed little interest in the project. However, the remaining four states – Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – actively participated in it. The motives of these states’ involvement in the EaP varies. In the cases of Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine, the leaderships of these countries used the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West to get the best terms for their countries. Armenia’s Sargsyan and Georgia’s Ivanishvili have both played this chess game especially well as their countries have a history of playing Great Powers off of each other to their own advantage. In this respect, they are neither categorically “pro-Russian” nor “pro-Western,” but rather “pro-Armenian” and “pro-Georgian” respectively. Ukraine’s Yanukovych attempted to play this game too but proved far less decisive and pragmatic than his Caucasian counterparts. Meanwhile, the leadership of Moldova has pursued an entirely different path. It seeks to fully free itself from Moscow’s orbit and to integrate into the EU regardless.

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (left) and Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti (right) in Chișinău in July 2014 (President of Romania)

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (left) and Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti (right) in Chișinău in July 2014 (President of Romania)

Indeed, if there is one state out of all the EaP countries that is thoroughly committed to Europe and sincerely interested in leaving Moscow’s orbit once and for all, it is Moldova. The leadership in Chișinău, under President Timofti and Prime Minister Leancă, is entirely committed to the idea of firm and total European integration. Additionally, out of all the EaP states, Moldova is arguably in the best position to become a candidate for EU accession geographically, politically, and economically, making it an “easy pill to swallow” by EU standards. Within the EaP, Moldova also represents a very unique case because their main backer within the EU is Romania. Romanian President Traian Băsescu has lobbied hard for Moldova’s integration into the bloc and would never allow his ethnic Latin Vlach cousins to end up outside of the EU. In the early 1990s, Romania was the first country to recognize Moldova’s independence. It also has allowed for Moldovan citizens to obtain Romanian passports. This has caused a large flow of Moldovans to enter the EU “through the back door.”

Historical background

Mihai Eminescu in Prague in 1869

Mihai Eminescu in Prague, 1869

The reasons for the close Romanian-Moldovan relationship are both ethnic and historical. Moldova corresponds almost exactly to the historical Romanian region of Bessarabia, located between the Dniester and Prut rivers. The majority of its population are ethnic Romanians, who speak Romanian. The colors on the Moldovan flag are almost exactly the same as those on the Romanian flag. Likewise, both countries consider the Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu to be their national poet. Along with a good portion of eastern Romania, Bessarabia had once formed a major portion of the old Vlach-speaking principality of Moldavia. In 1812, it was annexed by the Russian Empire, but after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the region’s local leaders formed a National Council (Sfatul Ţării) and voted to join the Kingdom of Romania in 1918. It remained a part of Greater Romania for much of the interwar period.

As a challenge to Romania’s control of Bessarabia, the Bolsheviks created the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1924 in Soviet Ukraine. Most of the territory of the Moldavian ASSR corresponds to the now-breakaway region of Transnistria. Inhabited primarily by a mixed population of East Slavs and Romanians, this territory was never part of Bessarabia or the historic principality of Moldavia. The Soviets instead used the region as a means of arguing that the Moldovans were not a branch of Romanians but an entirely unique people.

“Scholars from the West, in particular the German ethnographer Gustav Weigand, had noted earlier in the century that Romanian-speakers in Bessarabia and Bukovina spoke a dialect distinct from those in the Romanian kingdom,” wrote historian Charles King in his excellent overview, The Moldovans, “but these differences were no more striking than regional variations inside Romania itself. In the MASSR, however, these distinctions were imbued with political meaning.” These dialectal differences served as the basis for the creation of a new “Moldovan” language, which, despite its Cyrillic alphabet, was virtually identical to Romanian.

Maps of Romania and Moldova. The top map from 1926 shows "Greater Romania" including Moldova within its borders. The bottom map from 2001 shows the present-day boundaries of Romania and Moldova.

Maps of Romania and Moldova. The top map from 1926 shows the interwar Kingdom of Romania including Moldova within its borders. The bottom map from 2001 shows the present-day boundaries of Romania and Moldova.

In June 1940, the USSR annexed Bessarabia as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Most of the area was united with much of the old Moldavian ASSR (modern Transnistria) to form the new “Moldovan SSR.” When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, Romania under the fascist leadership of Ion Antonescu joined the German war effort. The Romanian forces not only regained Bessarabia from the Soviets but pressed on further east to take all of the territory between the Dniester and Southern Bug rivers, including the historic city of Odessa. The new territory, administered by Romania, was called “Transnistria.” Hitler granted it to Antonesu as compensation for giving Transylvania to Horthy’s Hungary in the Second Vienna Award. The Romanian administration of this “Transnistria” was very brutal for the local population, especially for the Jews. When the tide turned in the war, the region was recovered by the Soviets along with Romanian-speaking Bessarabia. By the end of the war, the 1940 borders between the Soviet Union and Romania were now reestablished.

With the onset of perestroika, nationalist elites in Moldova began to gain power and sought to reunite their republic with Romania. However, political concerns prevented this from occurring. Reunification was especially rejected by the people of Transnistria who bristled at the new nationalistic rhetoric from Chișinău.  In contrast to the nationalist elites gaining influence in the capital, the Transnistrians argued that they had never been part of historic Bessarabia.  Many also still had memories of the brutal wartime administration of Transnistria by Antonesu’s Romania. “The Transnistrian war was in no sense about ancient hatreds between eastern Latinity and Slavdom,” wrote King, “but history did play an important role.”

No less significant to the conflict were economic, social, and political factors.  Whereas most of Moldova west of the Dniester was largely rural and agricultural, Transnistria was mostly urban and industrial.  Moreover, after the war, the region became an important industrial center in the Soviet economy and played a significant role in the Soviet military industrial complex.  “After 1945,” wrote King, “Transnistria became a central component of the Soviet defense sector and its heavy industry.  Some four-fifths of the region’s population was employed in industry, construction, and the service sector.”

The industrialization of Transnistria in the Soviet era also fueled the migration of East Slavs into the region, thus making it more distinct from the rest of Moldova and more “Soviet.”  “Internal immigrants arrived to work in the new factories, increasing the Russian and Ukrainian portions of the population,” wrote King.  “The key issue… was not how Russian the region became after the war, but how quintessentially Soviet… The primary loyalty of individuals in the region was not to Russia – even though most spoke Russian and had ties to the Russian republic – but to the Soviet Union.”

Attempts at centralization by the nationalist government in Chișinău only exacerbated the differences with Transnistria.  “Soviet” elites in the latter began reacting to the nationalist elites in Chișinău.  “Already in the late 1980s,” wrote King, “there developed a dynamic that would culminate in full-scale war by 1992: Every move in Chișinău that pulled the republic further away from Moscow was met by a countermove in Transnistria that drew the region itself farther away from Chișinău.”  This eventually led to Transnistria militarily breaking away from Chișinău to form its own self-proclaimed republic in 1992.

Moldovan elites were likewise concerned about the Gagauz, a unique group of Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christian people whose homeland straddles the southern boundaries between Moldova and Ukraine. After the Soviet collapse, the Gagauz “made common cause with the Transnistrians” but did not go so far as to proclaim their own independent republic. Still, in December 1994, Chișinău granted them their own autonomous unit in the south known as Gagauzia. The situation has been stable and the Gagauz have likewise been granted the right to secede if Moldova decides to reunite with Romania. Chișinău offered a similar deal to Transnistria, but there has been no resolution on this to date.

In the 2000s, the head of the Moldovan Communist Party, Vladimir Voronin was elected President of the country, the first such case in the former USSR. Though claiming to be supportive of European integration, Voronin, a highly Russified Moldovan, also sought to expand ties with Russia. However, his administration did little to improve the lives of everyday Moldovans, and poverty and corruption remained major problems. A victory for the Communist Party in Moldova’s April 2009 parliamentary election, though hailed as free and fair by European observers, sparked major protests and civil unrest. Student demonstrators clashed with police, stormed the parliament, and carried the flags of Romania and the European Union, chanting slogans like “We are Romanians!” and “Down with Communism!” At least five students died because of the riots. President Voronin responded by placing the blame for the unrest on Bucharest, which denied any involvement. Three months later, Moldovan state prosecutor Valeriu Gurbulea confirmed that Romania had nothing to do with the protests.

Protests in Chișinău, April 2009 (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

Protests in Chișinău, April 2009 (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

Though successful in the April 2009 elections, the newly elected parliament was unable to elect a President in June. Consequently, Voronin had to dissolve parliament, thus paving the way for snap parliamentary elections in July 2009. This election brought to power a new governing coalition of liberal political parties collectively known as the Alliance for European Integration (AEI). Voronin resigned from the presidency in September but the AEI was unable to elect a president until March 2012, when the independent judge Nicolae Timofti was finally voted into office.

As their name implies, the top priority of the AEI and its successor the Pro-European Coalition (PEC) has been EU integration and EU membership. It took advantage of Moldova’s position with the Polish-Swedish EaP initiative and quickly emerged as the most progressive ex-Soviet state in terms of EU reforms. Among other things, the AEI advanced the issue of visa liberalization in Moldova. On April 3, 2014, it was announced that there will now be a visa-free regime between Moldova and the EU’s Schengen Area. Moldova also confirmed the final version of its Association Agreement with the EU at the November 2013 Vilnius Summit to be signed in June 2014.

Further, under the AEI and PEC, Chișinău also moved increasingly closer toward Romania. In December 2009, the AEI announced that it would be removing the barbed wire fence separating their country from Romania. On December 5, 2013, the PEC recognized Romanian as the official language of the Moldovan republic. This move was welcomed by Romania’s Traian Băsescu who has long favored reunification with Moldova. On the eve on the Vilnius Summit, he stated:

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (AFP/Getty/Lionel Bonaventure)

Romanian President Traian Băsescu (AFP/Getty/Lionel Bonaventure)

When a nation has the opportunity to be together, it should not give up. It may not happen straightaway, but it will happen one day, because blood is thicker than water. I think this is the right time to say that we have this objective, if Moldovan people want this. I am convinced that if Moldova wants to unite, then Romania will accept.

He also stated that after joining the EU and NATO, Romania’s third priority must be reunification with Moldova, though given official Chișinău’s concerns with ethnic minorities such as the Gagauz, it would likely be less enthusiastic about taking such a step.

Băsescu further cautioned that “the big risk for Moldova would be a treatment with arrogance by EU – be aware, I use the word with responsibility – which would not take into account the electoral realities in Moldova.” Moldova still faces many challenges to its EU road, both domestic and foreign. Internally, Vladimir Voronin and the Communist Party advocate a strongly pro-Russian stance, ultimately favoring membership in the Eurasian Customs Union. The Communists adhere to a strong Moldovenist position, advocating a unique “Moldovan” identity and firmly rejecting the idea that the “Moldovan language” is in fact the Romanian language. “Moldova can become a European country only by joining the Customs Union,” the 72-year-old Voronin told a crowd of largely elderly anti-EU activists from the Communist Party.

Vladimir Voronin (Unimedia)

Vladimir Voronin (Unimedia)

However, Voronin and the Communists are not a spent force. As Băsescu alludes, they have a substantial following within Moldova. Though they lost the July 2009 parliamentary election to the AEI coalition, the Communists still garnered 44.69% of the vote. They poll especially well in the north of the country and also among the substantial East Slavic minority of Moldova proper, which numbers about 14% of the total population. They also do well among the Gagauz in the south who fear that closer relations with Romania could threaten their hard-won autonomous status. Consequently, the possibility of Moldova’s pro-EU coalition losing to the communists is very real for Moldova in terms of its future geopolitical orientation. Still, for the immediate future, this risk is mitigated by the fact that Moldova’s next parliamentary election will not be held until November 2014, several months after Chișinău is set to sign the final version of its Association Agreement with the EU in June 2014.

There are also external challenges. Like Ukraine and Armenia, Moldova too is heavily dependent on Russian energy. It currently imports all of its natural gas from Russia, though the newly-inaugurated Iași-Ungheni pipeline with Romania promises to undermine this total dependence. A wine-producing country, Moldova also exports 28% of its wine production to Russia (for comparison, 47% of Chișinău’s exports go to the EU). A recent embargo by Moscow of Moldovan wine, due to an alleged trace of plastic contamination found in barrels of devin, has been a serious issue for the country. Some claim that the ban was politically motivated as a means of pressuring Chișinău to change its pro-EU geopolitical orientation, an assertion that Moscow has flatly denied. In addition, as many as half a million Moldovans are estimated to work illegally in Russia. Significantly, approximately the same number have Romanian passports and have departed the country to work in Western Europe, with Traian Băsescu provocatively claiming the number to be much higher, up to 1.5 million.

A Gagauz Woman Casts Her Ballot in February 2014 Referendum in Gagauzia (Valtenia Ursu/RFE/RL)

A Gagauz Woman Casts Her Ballot in the February 2014 Referendum in Gagauzia (Valtenia Ursu/RFE/RL)

However, Moscow’s biggest cards to play with regard to Chisinău’s EU ambitions are its distinct ethnic regions of Gagauzia and Transnistria. Gagauzia is not a breakaway region but rather an autonomous unit comprised almost entirely of ethnic Gagauz. Though content with remaining part of Moldova, the Gagauz are concerned about how joining the EU could affect their future, especially given Romania’s involvement. Recently, the Gagauz leadership held a referendum in February 2014 that rejected the country’s pro-EU aspirations and reaffirmed its right to secede from Moldova in the case of reunification with Romania. Though condemned by the Moldovan court as “unconstitutional,” this referendum was clearly intended as a warning to Chișinău against the possibility of a future reunification with Romania in which the Gagauz autonomy might be threatened. For the record, ex-communist Romania has consistently refused to grant autonomous status for any ethnic minority in its country including, most notably, the ethnic Hungarians of the Székely Land. Traian Băsescu himself has ruled out any possibility of a future Hungarian autonomy. Following the referendum, the pro-EU Moldovan government sought to reassure the Gagauz that a reunification with Bucharest was not imminent, and that the EU will actively work to better guarantee their minority rights. Whether or not the Gagauz will be adequately convinced of Moldova’s European choice remains to be seen. If left unresolved, this issue could devolve into a very serious crisis.

Aleksandr Lebed in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, during the 1992 war.

Aleksandr Lebed in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, during the 1992 war.

Most significantly of all, there is the unresolved conflict over Transnistria. The majority of Transnistria’s population is East Slavic (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians who collectively make up 60% in total according to the 2004 census) and Russian is the dominant language. Politically, the pro-Russian orientation is strong here and is reinforced by the presence of the Russian 14th Army (now known as the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova). Aleksandr Lebed, the Bonapartist Russian strongman from the 1990s, played a key role in Transnistria’s 1992 war of independence from Moldova proper. He viewed himself as the liberator of Transnistria from the “fascists” and “ideological heirs of Antonesu” in Chisinău. He is regarded as a hero here.

Towards a potential solution

While Moldova is officially committed to returning Transnistria under its rule, it is unclear what benefit this would bring to the country as a whole. For one thing, Transnistria does not have a deep historical relationship with Moldova. Even the poet Eminescu in his famous work Doina spoke of the Romanian nation as only stretching “from the Dniester to the Tisza.” Unlike Georgia’s conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in which the Georgians attach deep emotional and historical significance to their breakaway regions, the same really cannot be said for Transnistria and Moldova. Transnistria was attached to Moldova proper in 1940 and thus was only associated with it for 52 years until its secession in 1992. Compare that to the Georgian-Abkhazian or Georgian-Ossetian relationships which extend back several centuries into history.

Indeed, most Moldovans, according to various opinion polls, are indifferent toward Transnistria. For the vast majority, the issue ranks as the ninth or tenth priority for the population of Moldova proper. Fewer than two percent consider the issue to be the most pressing, while “five percent consider it second, well behind issues such as poverty, crime, or inflation.” According to one observer, “this stands in striking contrast to the much higher preoccupation with frozen conflicts in other post-Soviet countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia.”

In addition to this, Transnistria can be viewed as more of a major economic liability for Chișinău than a benefit. Though Moldova currently owes virtually no debt for its gas imports from Russia, Transnistria owes approximately $4 billion to Gazprom. Moscow presently holds Chișinău accountable for this debt. The only way to get rid of it would be for Moldova to entirely relinquish its claims to the disputed territory.

Transnistrian President Yevgeny Shevchuk. An ethnic Ukrainian and anti-corruption activist, Shevchuk is keen on forging closer ties with Moscow.

Transnistrian President Yevgeny Shevchuk. An ethnic Ukrainian and anti-corruption activist, Shevchuk is keen on forging closer ties with Moscow.

Meanwhile, Transnistria’s current President Yevgeny Shevchuk, while not the Kremlin’s choice in the Transnistrian election, has continued to maintain strong ties with Moscow. An ethnic Ukrainian, Shevchuk studied in both Ukraine and Russia and was elected as a reformer committed to challenging corruption and oligarchy, not as an advocate for reunification with Moldova. After his election in 2012, he immediately met with Sergei Ivanov, one of Putin’s closest associates and an influential member of his inner-circle. He also advocated that Transnistria adopt the Russian ruble and Russian laws, with the ultimate aim of Transnistria joining the Eurasian Union.

Observing this scenario, it seems that while Moldova proper is increasingly moving closer toward the EU, Transnistria is moving very much in the opposite direction toward the Eurasian Union. A potential, logical, and peaceful solution to this problem would be the formal separation of these two entities from each other. Moldova’s pro-EU leadership could recognize Transnistria and relinquish all claims to it, while working with the authorities in Tiraspol to delineate the border between the two states.  Given Transnistria’s limited viability as an independent entity, Moscow could work with Tiraspol and Ukraine to consider the possibility of reuniting the former with the latter.   A solution like this would satisfy Transnistria’s pro-“Soviet” and pro-Slavic sentiments and would absolve Moldova of any lingering debt to Gazprom. It would also help reduce any sort of ill feelings in Ukraine toward Moscow for its recent incorporation of Crimea.  However, such a resolution is entirely contingent on the people and the elites of Moldova and Transnistria and on how the situation in Ukraine develops.  It could only work if a new government more amiable toward Moscow and Tiraspol emerges in Kiev.

It also should be noted that Moldova proper is of marginal significance to Moscow. The country is poor, landlocked, and Romanian-speaking, with few natural resources and very little geostrategic value. It is already very much integrated with the EU and a sizeable number of its citizens already have Romanian/EU passports. Additionally, the inauguration of the Iași-Ungheni pipeline will likely substantially reduce Moldovan energy dependence on Moscow. Thus, the best and most logical solution to the ongoing Transnistria problem would be its split from the Moldovan state and its eventual reunification with Ukraine.

How the West Got Moscow’s Eurasian Union Wrong

Will Rogers (Biography)

Will Rogers (Biography)

Will Rogers, the noted American entertainer and radio personality, once famously joked that “Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, it’s true.” This holds true today, especially in the Western press.

One example of this is the Russian initiative to form the Eurasian Union, a supranational union comprised of former Soviet republics. This has been largely criticized in the West as either a “New Russian Empire” or a “New Soviet Union.” In 2012, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to the project as a “move to re-Sovietise the region.” While acknowledging that the Eurasian Union will not be called “the Soviet Union,” she also stressed “let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.” Timothy Synder, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, went even further in his denunciation of the concept, referring to it as the realization of the anti-liberal neo-fascist Eurasianist schemes of Aleksandr Dugin. He specifically cited Dugin as “the ideological source of the Eurasian Union” and that his work constitutes “the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration.”

Beyond the headlines, though, what exactly is the Eurasian Union? Is it truly an anti-Western conspiracy of neo-fascists, Bolsheviks, and boogie men opposing liberal ideals worldwide which, like Soviet communism, needs to be “contained?” Or rather is it a supranational liberal economic union promoting free trade and open borders with the former Soviet republics who already share close historical, economic, and cultural links with Russia? For the answer to this question, one must turn to the history of the Eurasian Union idea. Indeed, if one explores the history of the Eurasian Union concept, one discovers that its originator was not Aleksandr Dugin, but in fact, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

As the Soviet system and Soviet communism was collapsing in the early 1990s, then-Soviet President Gorbachev took a bold step that is often overlooked: he proposed the basic framework for a reformed Soviet state. The new state would be a non-communist democratic federation (under Gorbachev, the Communist Party already began to lose its monopoly on power in 1989, a fact that became official with his creation of the Soviet Presidency in March 1990).

Gorbachev anticipated a referendum in which Soviet voters would be given the choice to vote on the establishment of this new state in March 1991. This referendum on a New Union Treaty was approved by the vast majority of Soviet citizens, including those in then-Soviet Ukraine, who favored it by 82%. It should be noted that a significant number of West Ukrainian activists had boycotted Gorbachev’s referendum, but even if one were to include the boycotted votes as “no” votes, then the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians still favored Gorbachev’s new union by a wide margin. Additionally, the only other Soviet republics that boycotted the referendum were the three Baltic states (which sought independence), Moldova (which sought to reunify with Romania), Armenia (which was frustrated with Moscow over its indecision on Nagorny Karabakh), and Georgia (under the influence of nationalist dissident leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia). Other than this, the referendum passed overwhelmingly.

Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin

Despite the fact that the referendum was favored by the vast majority of Soviet citizens, it was never implemented. In August 1991, communist hardliners, who bristled at Gorbachev’s glasnost, put the Soviet leader under house arrest in Crimea. In the end, the putschists were faced down by the leader of the then-Soviet Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin and the coup collapsed. Following the coup, Gorbachev sought to pursue the establishment of the new union that the majority of Soviet citizens favored in the March referendum. However, Yeltsin insisted on a confederation of states as opposed to a state federation. Gorbachev was initially opposed, fearing that a confederation would lead to disaster. However, in the end, Gorbachev relented and backed the confederation proposal.

However, even the idea of a confederation was not realized. Without Gorbachev, Yeltsin, along with Ukraine’s Lenoid Kravchuk and Belarus’ Stanislav Shushkevich, formally dissolved the Soviet state at meeting in the Belavezha Forest. Gorbachev lost his position and the 15 Soviet republics were now formally independent states, with some, like the Baltics, Armenia, and Georgia, proposing independence referendums earlier. However, Yeltsin apparently did not want to totally severe Russia’s ties with the other former Soviet states (now known as the “near abroad”). Indeed, the Belavezha Accords also gave birth to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose association of 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics (understandably, the Baltics for historical reasons did not participate).

Nursultan Nazarbayev

Nursultan Nazarbayev

During his administration, Yeltsin never formally lost sight of maintaining Russia’s links with the former Soviet states, despite major problems in Russia itself (most of which were arguably the result of his own policies). In 1992, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was formed, initiating a sort of military alliance among the various ex-Soviet states. Two years later in 1994, in an address to a Moscow university, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed an early concept for an EU-style supranational union of the ex-Soviet states. Then in 1996, this idea evolved into the Treaty on Increased Integration in the Economic and Humanitarian Fields signed by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.  This was followed by the Treaty on the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space in 1999 signed by the same countries along with Tajikistan.  Finally, in 2000, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) was formed.

Again, I have cited three individuals in this historical overview: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Nazarbayev.  All three favored some sort of integration and association among the former Soviet states prior to the major writings of Aleksandr Dugin in 1997, including his controversial fascist-Eurasianist work The Foundations of Geopolitics. The assertions that the Eurasian Union, at its heart, is a Duginist scheme do not take into account the integration processes that were already in progress within the former Soviet Union and therefore are both incorrect and anachronistic.

It can likewise be definitively concluded that, given the fact that organizations like the EurAsEC serve as a direct predecessor to today’s Eurasian Customs Union, the ideology and political philosophy of Moscow’s present-day post-Soviet integration effort is not intended to be a conspiratorial neo-fascist or anti-Western coalition. Rather, it is at its core a liberal idea, intended to promote open borders, free trade, and economic and cultural exchange among the ex-Soviet states, who already share much culture with Russia. In the words of fellow Russia watcher and commentator Mark Adomanis:

Without lapsing into cartoonish Kremlinology, I do think it’s noteworthy and important that Putin is so publicly and forcefully going on the record advancing a broad program of technocratic neoliberalism: harmonizing regulations, lowering barriers to trade, reducing tariffs, eliminating unnecessary border controls, driving efficiency, and generally fostering the free movement of people and goods. Even if not fully sincere, an embrace of these policies is healthy.

…Anything that makes Russia more open to people and commerce is positive and can only serve, in the long-term, to weaken the foundations of its current hyper-centralized system.

Efforts toward Eurasian integration continued apace under the Putin presidency. According to Mikhail Gorbachev in a 2009 interview with the Moscow-backed network RT, Ukraine seemed to have expressed interest in the project as well:

We were close to creating a common economic zone, when Kuchma was still in power. These four countries – Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan had 80% of the potential of the whole Soviet Union. It was a great force. And if you look at all the natural resources… But then many things got in the way of this process – Caucasus, Ukraine.

US President George W. Bush with Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili

US President George W. Bush with Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili

The “things” to which Gorbachev referred were efforts by the United States to expand its geopolitical sphere of influence deep into post-Soviet territory, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia. The US administration of George W. Bush, with the aid of Western NGOs and both major American political parties, sought to promote pro-Western “color revolutions” in the ex-Soviet states. They aggressively focused particularly on Georgia, which was Moscow’s historic “center” in the Caucasus, and Ukraine, a country with which Russia shares deep historical, cultural, economic, and even personal ties. The spread of such revolutions also happily, and not coincidentally, intersected with American and Western energy interests in the region. American oil companies showed particular interest in resource-rich states like Azerbaijan and the “stans” of Central Asia.

George F. Kennan

George F. Kennan

The new leaderships of both Ukraine and Georgia also set an overtly pro-Western course to join both the EU and NATO, much to the Kremlin’s annoyance. In the early 1990s, the administration of US President George H. W. Bush squarely promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would “not move one inch eastward” beyond East Germany as a means to ensure Soviet support for German reunification. However in 1997, under the Clinton administration, the United States backpedaled on its promise to Moscow by inviting several former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO and also intimating the promise of EU membership. Though accepted by Yeltsin, the expansion of NATO by Washington annoyed and antagonized Moscow. In this regard, the words of the great diplomat, George F. Kennan in February 1997 were especially prophetic:

Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.

Gorbachev echoed this sentiment in his 1999 book On My Country and the World:

The danger of a new division of the continent has arisen with NATO’s expansion to the East, which will inevitably encourage military preparations in a number of countries on the continent.

Václav Havel

Václav Havel

However, neither Kennan’s nor Gorbachev’s words were ever heeded by Washington policymakers. Eventually, both NATO and the EU expanded to include virtually all of the former Warsaw Pact states in Central-Eastern Europe as well as the three former Soviet Baltic states. The late Czech President Václav Havel likewise observed that while the Kremlin was annoyed by NATO expansion in Central-Eastern Europe, the expansion into the three Baltic states caused even greater concern to them. Now NATO was on the very doorstep of St. Petersburg. Havel specifically recalled in his 2007 memoir To the Castle and Back:

It was no longer just a small compromise, but a clear indication that the spheres of interest once defined by the Iron Curtain had come to an end. Yeltsin had generously supported Czech membership in NATO, but the Baltic republics must have been very hard for Putin to swallow.

Feeling threatened by the prospect of further NATO expansion and by the provocative behavior of the new “color revolution” governments in Kiev, and especially Tbilisi (with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili being especially antagonistic), Moscow redoubled its post-Soviet integration efforts. The groundwork for the present-day Eurasian Customs Union was first laid in August 2006 at an informal EurAsEC summit meeting in Sochi between Putin, Nazarbayev, and Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Efforts toward forming the actual Customs Union intensified in 2008, the year of the NATO Bucharest Summit, the South Ossetian war, and the start of the Eurozone crisis.  They intensified even more the following year, especially after the official formation of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program to bring ex-Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia into the EU. In November 2009, the Presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia officially agreed to form the customs union in Minsk. On 1 January 2010, the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia (today the Eurasian Economic Community Customs Union) was officially launched. In November 2011, the leaders of the three countries met and set 2015 as the target date for establishing the new supranational union. It also recognized the Eurasian Economic Commission, paving the way for the Eurasian economic space in 2012.

Mikhail Gorbachev (NBC)

Mikhail Gorbachev (NBC)

The primary Russian motive behind the establishment of the Eurasian Union is not historic imperial ambition. In fact, from a Russian perspective, some of the ex-Soviet countries can be viewed as a liability. However, for economic, historic, geopolitical, and security reasons, they are viewed as essential. For Moscow, their necessity has been even more pronounced in light of recent American and Western efforts to aggressively expand NATO into the post-Soviet space, despite earlier promises to the contrary. Yet none of this changes the fact that the prevailing popular perception of the Eurasian Union in the West and among some in the former Soviet countries is that it is a “new Russian empire,” a sad commentary on that which is a falsely propagated historical perspective. In his 2009 interview with RT, Gorbachev, referring to the US-backed “color revolution” governments, stated that “they keep thinking that Russia wants to create a new empire.” When asked whether or not this was the case, he immediately responded:

Not at all. Putin was giving an interview to Le Figaro. He got the same question about imperial ambitions. His answer was a definite no. Russia’s position [by Yeltsin] defined the fall of the Soviet Union. If it were not for Russia, the Soviet Union would still exist. This was the first time I heard this revelation from Putin. I think we need economic co-operation [in the former USSR].

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed the same opinion in an interview with Georgian television in August 2013 where he stated that the CU “is not about restoring the Soviet Union. Who needs the restoration of the Soviet Union? We live in the 21st century.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The perception of the CU as a “new Russian empire” happily coincides with Western geopolitical distrust of Russia and with prevailing narratives in the Western media that Russia is engaging in “19th century diplomacy” and that Putin has “neo-Soviet” ambitions (which is a misnomer because Putin is a moderate nationalist, not a communist). Further, in April 2005, Putin himself publicly lamented the breakup of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. In that quote, Putin was referring to the conglomerate of republics (USSR), not communism. Though this sentiment is widespread in the former USSR and has been even endorsed by Mikhail Gorbachev, many in the West have taken this quote as evidence of Putin’s clandestine neo-imperial agenda. The same quote has only heightened suspicions toward the CU among many in the former Soviet republics as to the real intentions of the Kremlin-backed geopolitical project. Also, a month later, Putin even clarified his remarks in an interview with German television by stating:

Germany reunites, and the Soviet Union breaks up, and this surprises you. That’s strange.

I think you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater – that’s the problem. Liberation from dictatorship should not necessarily be accompanied by the collapse of the state.

As for the tragedy that I talked about, it is obvious. Imagine that one morning people woke up and discovered that from now on they did not live in a common nation, but outside the borders of the Russian Federation, although they always identified themselves as a part of the Russian people. And there are not five, ten or even a thousand of these people, and not just a million. There are 25 million of them. Just think about this figure! This is the obvious tragedy, which was accompanied with the severance of family and economic ties, with the loss of all the money people had saved in the bank accounts their entire lives, along with other difficult consequences. Is this not a tragedy for individual people? Of course it’s a tragedy!

People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain. We do not regret this, we simply state the fact and know that we need to look ahead, not backwards. We will not allow the past to drag us down and stop us from moving ahead. We understand where we should move. But we must act based on a clear understanding of what happened.

Overall, the Eurasian Union concept is not new.  It is not a Russian imperial conspiracy rooted in Duginist neo-fascist tracts, but rather a liberal pro-market project aimed at opening borders and encouraging economic development among the former Soviet states.  It is this reality that the West should fundamentally understand when analyzing Russia’s Eurasian Union initiative.

An 8-Point Resolution on Georgia

As the leaders of the Russian and Georgian governments prepare to meet one another for the first time since 2008, a historic opportunity awaits them to pave the way for not only mutual reconciliation but also a peaceful settlement to Georgia’s protracted territorial conflicts. Below is my recommended 8-point resolution to the Georgian-Abkhaz-South Ossetian conflict, a resolution that I believe could potentially pave the way for a more united Caucasus and for a more united post-Soviet space:

UN Map of Georgia, 2014

UN Map of Georgia, 2014

1. A non-use-of-force agreement should be adopted by all sides, especially Georgia vis-a-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Russia vis-a-vis Georgia. An agreement like this will serve to build confidence on all sides leading to a peaceful resolution. This is especially true in the case of Russia. Even though Moscow claims that it is not a party to the dispute, a non-use-of-force agreement regarding Georgia would go a long way toward building trust with Tbilisi.

2. Official Tbilisi should agree to end its ambitions to join NATO and the EU, thus providing Russia with a sense of security and enhancing the conditions for mutual trust.

3. Borders between Russia and Georgia and between Georgia and Abkhazia and Georgia and South Ossetia should be reopened. The Abkhazian railway should also be reopened and should resume traffic immediately.

4. An arrangement whereby Abkhazia and South Ossetia become co-equal members with Georgia in a united Georgian federal republic should be agreed upon. This would make Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia proper like what Scotland and Wales are to England in the United Kingdom. The Georgians would ideally favor making the two regions autonomous within a unitary Georgia state, while the Abkhaz would favor outright independence, and the South Ossetians would favor unifying with the Russian republic of North Ossetia–Alania. However, none of these scenarios are realistic nor do they constitute a lasting peaceful resolution. Consequently, a federal solution would serve as a compromise and thus works best.

Georgian woman and child during the war of 2008.  (Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)

Georgian woman and child during the war of 2008. (Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)

5. Refugees. In Abkhazia, over 40,000 Georgian refugees have already returned. Georgia must recognize this and both sides must agree on the return of an additional, though very limited, number of Georgian refugees, with the rest being settled in government-funded housing in Georgia proper. Again, it should be stressed that the number of returnees must be very limited and should not dramatically shift the demographic balance of Abkhazia which in turn would create conflict and instability. Sukhumi would never accept the return of all Georgian refugees, especially if it meant making the Abkhaz a minority in their own republic again. For their part, Tbilisi must see and understand the Abkhaz ethnic sensitivities if they are serious about achieving Georgian unity. As for South Ossetia, all Georgian refugees should return, especially those expelled after the hostilities in 2008.

6. The accession of the united Georgian federal state to the Eurasian Customs Union. This would ensure the economic viability of the new state. By contrast, membership in the economically tenuous EU would threaten and seriously undermine its stability. Another benefit of the Customs Union is that it would ensure Russian protection of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes and guarantee the South Ossetians free access to the brethren in North Ossetia, while simultaneously remaining a formal part of Georgia.

7. Switch all Abkhaz, South Ossetian, and Georgian passports to passports of the new Georgian federal state. All Abkhaz, Ossetes, Georgians, and others holding Russian citizenship and passports should relinquish these to the new state as well. The Russian passports were largely issued (a) to enable residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to travel internationally and (b) for Russia to protect the Abkhaz and the Ossetes from a potential attack by Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgia. A new passport for a federal Georgia would enable the citizens of these regions to travel internationally without any problems. Meanwhile, Russia would feel no need to protect the residents of these regions as long as it was secure in the knowledge that Tbilisi had no aggressive intentions against them. Guarantees for an equal say for the Abkhaz and Ossetes in a new federal Georgia combined with a non-use-of-force agreement by Tbilisi, Tbilisi renouncing its intention to join NATO, and potential membership in the Eurasian Customs Union would mitigate any need for the people of these regions to have Russian passports.

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.  Lakoba was a popular leader in Abkhazia and his murder by Beria in 1936 is regarded as a national tragedy by the Abkhaz to this day.  A Georgian acknowledgement of this painful episode would go a long way toward rebuilding trust and friendship.

8. A “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (like the kind in South Africa) should be formed to promote justice and reconciliation among all those affected by the ethnic conflicts in Georgia.

On a separate note, official Tbilisi must make an effort to address and condemn the situation in Abkhazia during the Stalin and Beria years, especially the assassination of the charismatic Abkhaz leader Nestor Lakoba and his family by Beria and the efforts by Beria to increase the number of Kartvelians in Abkhazia. The legacy of this horrible time casts a long shadow over the present-day conflict. Consequently, such condemnations would go far in rebuilding and forging trust and friendship between the Georgians and the Abkhaz. After all, the Georgian and Abkhaz people share much in common in terms of both history and culture. Though they speak two different languages, both share a love for polyphonic singing and traditional Caucasian feasts. Further, the Abkhaz were part of the ancient kingdom of Colchis and it was King Bagrat II of Abkhazia (himself of mixed Abkhaz-Georgian descent) who unified the first Georgian state in medieval times. These two fraternal peoples should not let the heavy burden of the Stalin-Beria years weigh on them forever. Such concerns need to be addressed.

Further, any rhetoric or discourse attempting to cast the Abkhaz and Ossetes as “new arrivals” to Georgia must be vigorously discouraged. The “Georgia for Georgians” philosophy has done more to undermine the cause of Georgian unity than anything else (even arguably among the Georgians themselves!).

Georgia Revisited

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

This past week, photographs of the late Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s body emerged in the press. According to the official investigation by the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili, Zhvania died from a gas leak in his apartment. However, much of the Georgian public did not accept this finding. Suspicions arose when some former officials in the Saakashvili government questioned the formal explanation. The new photographs, disclosed this week on YouTube, show injuries on the former Prime Minister’s body, clear evidence of foul play. Lawmakers in Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), now in the opposition, immediately condemned the discovery as a “political act” by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

This weekend, the Georgian government ordered former President Saakashvili in for questioning. Saakashvili has refused to go, referring to the summons as an “Ivanishvili-Putin game.” He also stated the following:

As for your question, whether I will arrive in Georgia or not, I can tell you that I will arrive in Georgia not to fulfill Putin’s dream but to free my country of those who fulfill Putin’s orders. This will happen much sooner than Ivanishvili can imagine.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has stated that if Saakashvili does not arrive, that the prosecutor’s office will act in accordance with the law and declare the former President wanted. “Whether he will arrive or not is a different matter but, in my mind, he must arrive if he has any common sense left,” said Garibashvili.

Official Tbilisi has been condemned by the West for its summoning of Saakashvili. The British ambassador to Georgia, Alexandra Hall Hall, and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt both roundly criticized the move. More harsh were the words of former US Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, stating that Georgia does not deserve a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in light of the “politically motivated summoning” of Saakashvili. Estonian President Hendrik Ilves said that it would threaten Georgia’s chances of signing the EU-Georgia Association Agreement. In an inexplicable move, the summoning was also criticized by the US State Department late on Sunday, 23 March.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Regardless of what one thinks about Saakashvili’s summoning, it is extraordinary that the West is taking such a profound interest in the legal proceedings of a sovereign, independent country. This fact was underscored in Garibashvili’s response, in which he indicated that Georgia would stand firm on the issue:

I cannot understand where this hysteria is coming from. This is absolutely usual, democratic process. Similar thing is happening in the middle of Europe, as you probably know that there were questions towards former French president, I mean Chirac, Sarkozy, and also towards Berlusconi.

So it’s absolutely a normal process. Moreover, the prosecutor’s office is talking about very grave crimes. I think that we have not given any reason for suspicion, on the contrary, we reaffirm that we are guided by [the principle] of transparency and the rule of law is the most important for us. If someone tries to [demand from] Georgia to be more democratic country than France or Italy, I think this is a wrong assessment. No one should demand from us to be more Catholic than the Pope.

As for Saakhasvili, he is presently serving as an advisor to the Yatsenyuk government in Ukraine. His advisor status has been criticized by the government of Georgia and the government of Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. In Armenia, it has been lampooned on the popular satirical Armenian news program, ArmComedy (an Armenian version of The Daily Show).

Whatever the criticism from his home region, Saakashvili has certainly been relishing the role as a “seasoned advisor” in Ukraine. As one TIME reporter wrote, “the former Georgian leader is at home in Kiev, where he attended law school, served in the Soviet military and has countless political and social ties.” Indeed, Saakashvili has positioned himself as the man who “knows a thing or two about Russian invasions.” After the disastrous war in 2008, Saakashvili feels vindicated amid rising Western animosity against Russia and hysteria in the Western media over a “Russian invasion of Crimea.”

All of this is occurring as the West and Russia expand the frontlines of their geopolitical competition in the post-Soviet space to include Georgia. Most recently, there have been calls in the West for Georgia to receive an MAP at the next NATO summit at Newport, Wales in September. For its part, the EU has moved up the signing of Georgia’s Association Agreement from August to June. Meanwhile, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze are set to convene a meeting soon that will pave the way for a high-level diplomatic meeting between President Putin and the Georgian political leadership, the first such meeting since the 2008 war.

The stakes in this new front of the Russia-West geopolitical contest over the former Soviet space are considerably high. If the West succeeds, it will effectively drive a wedge between Russia and prospective Customs Union member Armenia. It would also give the West a continued open corridor to the vast energy reserves of post-Soviet Central Asia, posing a major threat to Russia as a European energy provider. Most significantly, it would permit the expansion of NATO squarely on Russia’s southern flank, paving the way for military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Russia will never let this happen. Suddenly, there would be a new Cold War dividing line running directly through the Caucasus, one of the most volatile regions of the world.

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Such a scenario would be a nightmare for Russia. Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko has indicated as much, stating that “I was absolutely very clear; we are against [NATO membership for Georgia]. We believe that this is a huge mistake to do it. This is the position of my country.” He has likewise stated:

NATO is free to take any decision and Russia is free to take any decision to protect its legitimate security interest and from the beginning we were telling to all our colleagues and we were very outspoken in all our discussions that we do believe that if NATO goes with enlargement it will continue produce new dividing lines, moving dividing lines towards the Russian borders and we said very clearly also that in some cases these dividing lines will cross the countries, inside the countries and this was a very important signal.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Yet, regardless of the West and Russia’s competition over Georgia, the real power broker behind the future geopolitical direction of Georgia rests in the hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili. A Georgian patriot and a pragmatist, Ivanishvili is the bona fide force behind the present Georgian government, and he appears to be playing both great powers off one another in order to secure the best possible deal for Georgia. The Georgian billionaire, the son of poor Imertian peasants who made it big in Moscow by selling computers and push-button telephones, is likely well-aware of Russia’s strong disapproval of NATO expansion. As a businessman, he also knows that for Georgia to join the EU would be to join an economically sinking ship. However, as I have argued previously, he is keeping both the EU and NATO on the table as leverage in his relations with Russia.

Specifically Ivanishvili wants Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is something that only Russia, not the West, has the ability and mechanisms to resolve. Such a concession by Moscow would appeal to Georgian nationalism and would significantly diminish the perception in Georgian society of Russia as a “threat,” thus rendering any reason for future NATO membership completely moot.

Of course, Moscow would not just return these breakaway regions to Tbilisi nor would the populations of these regions simply assent to this. Rather, Moscow would need to work and promote the “reunification” of these “independent republics” to Georgia in a co-equal federal structure that would then accede to the Eurasian Customs Union. A resolution like this would ensure protection of Abkhaz and Ossetian ethnic rights by Moscow and freedom of movement between these peoples and those of the Russian North Caucasus.

Only time will tell what will happen next during this incredible roller coaster ride of the last several weeks. However, the summoning of Saakashvili by Tbilisi this weekend, and the strong Western reaction will undoubtedly affect future developments in the Caucasus. Through all of this, one thing is clear: Ivanishvili is the man who will make or break any future deal regarding Georgia’s geopolitical future. One can only hope that such a decision will be beneficial for the unity, stability, and security of the Caucasus as an entire region.

Addendum (26 March 2014): As it turns out, the Karasin-Abashidze meeting has not yet been rescheduled. I read earlier that it may have been rescheduled for this week, but this has not happened. There will be likely an official announcement on this soon. I have corrected my piece accordingly.

Further, my friend Benjamin Sweeney has informed me that Georgia has not been officially offered a NATO MAP by the US. Instead, it seems as though there has been a push by some in Washington and in Brussels to give Georgia an MAP at the upcoming NATO summit, though, this is not an official policy of the US (at least not yet). This has also been amended. Ben is a fellow-traveler in Russian and post-Soviet studies and has extensive experience with Georgia. He is an MPP student at the Ford School of Public Policy and an MA student at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREES) here at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and Its Provision on Security

Ukrainian military exercises in Mykolaiv (Nikolayev), southern Ukraine (Reuters / Valentyn Ogirenko)

Ukrainian military exercises near the city of Mykolaiv (Nikolayev), southern Ukraine (Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)

Today Ukraine has signed its Association Agreement with the European Union. It was emphasized that only the political portions of the document were signed and not the ones dealing with economic a trade issues, i.e., Titles IV, V, and VI as well as the three annexes and the three protocols of the deal.

This leaves the remaining portion of the agreement, which includes the controversial provision on “security convergence” that some commentators have interpreted as “NATO expansion through the backdoor.”

The specific provision in question is Title II, Article 7, Part 1 (see here).

To quote the text in full:

The Parties shall intensify their dialogue and cooperation and promote gradual convergence in the area of foreign and security policy, including the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and shall address in particular issues of conflict prevention and crisis management, regional stability, disarmament, non-proliferation, arms control and arms export control as well as enhanced mutually-beneficial dialogue in the field of space. Cooperation will be based on common values and mutual interests, and shall aim at increasing policy convergence and effectiveness, and promoting joint policy planning. To this end, the Parties shall make use of bilateral, international and regional fora.

As you can see, NATO is not mentioned here, but the CSDP is.

What is the CSDP?

It is the Common Security and Defence Policy of the European Union. It was founded in 1999; France and Germany were its biggest proponents. The idea at the time was to develop a pan-European security alliance, independent of NATO.

However the US, under the Clinton administration, objected very strongly to this. They did not want to see NATO decline in its relevance. The 2002 Berlin Plus agreement was able to iron out points of disagreement between the EU and NATO and it led to closer cooperation between the two.

To this day, the CSDP technically remains its own independent institution, subordinate to Brussels. It includes countries like Finland, which is an EU member, and does not include non-EU members of NATO like the United States, Canada, and Turkey. At the same time, the cooperation between the CSDP and NATO is very close, so close in fact that NATO structures are even utilized by the CSDP. This complex relationship has been described as “separable, but not separate.”

Regardless of whether or not this provision indicates a direct pathway for future Ukrainian membership in NATO, it is still likely to raise serious concerns in Moscow.  From the Russian perspective, the possibility of a potential Ukrainian membership in any Western military structure excluding Russia, whether it is the CSDP or NATO, will likely be viewed with great suspicion, apprehension, and unease.

How the Russian Hand Was Forced in Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted Crimea as a subject of the Russian Federation. It was the West, as he specified it in his speech to the Duma, that compelled him to make this decision. Earlier, Putin indicated that he was not interested in bringing Crimea into the Russian fold. However, pro-NATO sentiments among the interim Kiev government in Ukraine proved too much for Moscow. The potential expansion of NATO into Crimea, and the threat to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, became a clear “red line” that Washington had crossed. In Putin’s own words:

… we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia. These are things that could have become reality were it not for the choice the Crimean people made, and I want to say thank you to them for this.

But let me say too that we are not opposed to cooperation with NATO, for this is certainly not the case. For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way round.

In Russia, the decision was greeted with euphoria; the vast majority of Russians (over 90%) agreed with the Crimean referendum. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed with it too, saying that the people of Crimea “corrected a Soviet mistake” and that the West should celebrate this as a victory of self-determination and should not place any sanctions on Russia. Indeed, for many Russians, Putin’s move in Crimea has cemented his place in history as a truly great Russian leader and patriot, alongside the likes of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

On a less celebratory note, the events in Crimea will also have the long-term effect of further discrediting liberal voices in Russian politics who promote more partnership and cooperation with the United States. Washington’s efforts toward NATO expansion and democracy promotion have only served to discredit the US in Russia. As Putin pointed out in his speech, Washington has too often violated international law and worked without any consideration for Russian interests in the world:

Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

This happened in Yugoslavia; we remember 1999 very well. It was hard to believe, even seeing it with my own eyes, that at the end of the 20th century, one of Europe’s capitals, Belgrade, was under missile attack for several weeks, and then came the real intervention. Was there a UN Security Council resolution on this matter, allowing for these actions? Nothing of the sort. And then, they hit Afghanistan, Iraq, and frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called no-fly zone over it they started bombing it too.

There was a whole series of controlled “colour” revolutions. Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically. Standards were imposed on these nations that did not in any way correspond to their way of life, traditions, or these peoples’ cultures. As a result, instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter.

The question now is: what next? What will happen in the post-Crimea crisis era?

In an analysis that I wrote last week, I highlighted five reasons why absorbing Crimea would be detrimental to Russia. Of those five, the first three are arguably not major points and are effectively moot. Ukraine will not seek nuclear weapons, the markets did not react badly to Putin’s move, and the impact of sanctions has been (and will continue to be) marginal. On the latter point, the West knows it can only do so much. If they would implement full-scale sanctions, it would hurt them (especially Europe) as much or more than Russia. Moscow has very good relations with Beijing and has already been looking eastward anyway (today it has indicated as much). If full economic sanctions were put in place, it will be the EU, not Russia, that will suffer. Heavy sanctions would potentially have the effect of compounding the already-unstable situation in the Eurozone. Further, if the EU remains committed to the Kiev government in Ukraine, they will be obliged to give money to them too.

That said, my last two points still remain concerns. I mentioned the domestic response in Ukraine. My impression has been that, out of a sense of national feeling, many Ukrainians throughout the country would feel hurt by Crimea’s accession to Russia. This is still arguably a concern for Moscow, which ultimately still seeks to bring Ukraine into its Eurasian Customs Union at the end of the day. In his speech to the Duma, Putin sought to mitigate the potential fallout from his move by emphasizing that it was forced by geopolitical circumstances and that it had nothing to do with the Ukrainian people:

I also want to address the people of Ukraine. I sincerely want you to understand us: we do not want to harm you in any way, or to hurt your national feelings. We have always respected the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state, incidentally, unlike those who sacrificed Ukraine’s unity for their political ambitions. They flaunt slogans about Ukraine’s greatness, but they are the ones who did everything to divide the nation. Today’s civil standoff is entirely on their conscience. I want you to hear me, my dear friends. Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that. As for Crimea, it was and remains a Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean-Tatar land.

I repeat, just as it has been for centuries, it will be a home to all the peoples living there. What it will never be and do is follow in Bandera’s footsteps!

Crimea is our common historical legacy and a very important factor in regional stability. And this strategic territory should be part of a strong and stable sovereignty, which today can only be Russian. Otherwise, dear friends (I am addressing both Ukraine and Russia), you and we – the Russians and the Ukrainians – could lose Crimea completely, and that could happen in the near historical perspective. Please think about it.

Another serious concern that I discussed was the possible impact that Crimea’s accession to Russia would have on further NATO expansion, and that it may give credibility to those Cold War lobbyists and Russia-bashers in the West who want to bring NATO to Russia’s doorstep. Fortunately for now, it seems as though the West has relented on bringing Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy “Yats” Yatsenyuk now seems to be emphasizing that Kiev does not seek NATO membership and that it supports a possible federalization of Ukraine (ideally on an oblast-by-oblast level), two things that Moscow wants to see.

Still, influential far-right forces in Kiev such as Svoboda and Right Sector may force Yatsenyuk to reconsider these positions. Right Sector especially seems intent on provoking an open conflict with Russia, something that the West, Ukraine, and Russia do not want or need. Already yesterday, Ukraine’s national security chief, Andrey Parubiy (the co-founder of Svoboda and the former leader of the paramilitary far-right Patriots of Ukraine) has issued a statement declaring Ukraine’s intention to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), to have Russians apply for entry visas, and to declare Crimea a “demilitarized zone.”

Yet, efforts toward NATO expansion seem to continue unabated in the Caucasus. Here Washington has shown a clear interest in granting Georgia an MAP (Membership Action Plan) by September this year. The Russian daily Kommersant said as much last week, though for those closely watching developments in Georgia, this was nothing new, especially after Irakli Garibashvili’s trip to Washington last month. Significantly, yesterday NATO announced that it will be sending a delegation to Tbilisi next week. Meanwhile, French President François Hollande, a friend of Washington, has also announced a future visit to Georgia in May.

Having Georgia as a NATO member would be a major strategic victory for Washington over Moscow and would pave the way for NATO military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Moscow will never accept this and, as I have previously written, Moscow will work to strike some sort of a deal with Tbilisi before autumn. Already this week Moscow made two strategic moves: they reopened the Georgian Military Road fully for the first time since 2006, and Grigory Karasin, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and representative for Russo-Georgian relations, held discussions on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian borders with Georgia with UN representative Antti Turunen, OSCE Special Representative for the South Caucasus Angelo Gnaedinger and Permanent Representative of the European Union, to the OSCE Thierry Bechet.

Karasin is due to meet with his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze next week, a very significant meeting that may pave the way for a direct meeting between Putin and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and/or Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. The Karasin-Abashidze meeting has already been delayed twice, and it remains to be seen how this situation will finally develop.

Addendum (21 March 2014): Dr. Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, has informed me that “calls to bring Ukraine into NATO have not diminished among NATO reps and advocates in Europe.” I agree and I must emphasize that I do not think Ukraine has left the NATO agenda. However, I do think that Washington has advised Yatsenyuk to “cool it” hence why he is now saying that he does not want to Ukraine to join NATO. Yet, this is only for the time being and I still suspect that the ultimate objective is to bring Ukraine into the alliance anyway (though Moscow will never allow this).

This is why I wrote “Fortunately for now, it seems as though the West has relented on bringing Ukraine into NATO.” Instead, for the present time, Georgia appears to be the focus for more immediate NATO expansion.

Again, though, I must emphasize that I certainly do not think that Ukraine has totally vanished from the view of NATO expansionists. In fact, I am still concerned that, in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis, NATO expansion is now being viewed as a “wise move” among many circles. NATO expansionists, Russia-bashers, and Cold War hawks will be seen as correct in their predictions that “the Russian bear was always a threat” and that “we need NATO to counter Russia.” Their foolishness, irresponsibility and arrogance is now being viewed as “wisdom” and “foresight.” It seems to somehow reaffirm and vindicate the notion that “poking and antagonizing the bear” was a “well-informed move” and that it enhances the security of the United States and the West. Nothing could be further from the truth.