Commentary: Checkpoint At The End Of The Tunnel

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 55

“All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Leo Tolstoy at the beginning of Anna Karenina. The same holds true for multinational states, yet among ethnically diverse states there are very few “happy families.” Somehow I am at a loss and cannot even recall one; Switzerland, perhaps. There are dozens of acute ethnic intra-state conflicts raging in the world today. There are no common methods for their resolution, as references to international law simply do not work. Contemporary international law is essentially a set of “sacred principles” such as state sovereignty, territorial integrity, self-determination, and human rights — all of which violently contradict each other. No one knows how to strike a universal balance among these principles. This is why any side involved in these conflicts can “prove” its righteousness by invoking this or that principle of international law, depending on how well it suits their interests at the time.

Russian political elites and mass media, by and large, naively continue to judge the decade-long war in Chechnya exclusively based on the principle of territorial integrity, whereas Georgia’s separatist conflict with South Ossetia is viewed exclusively in the context of a nation’s right for self-determination. However, let us momentarily pause on the latter conflict and ponder about Russia’s interests in it.

In general, I believe that whenever an ethnic periphery comes into conflict with central authorities, the center bears the primary responsibility. For it is the duty of the federal authority to build relations with national minorities in such a manner so as to avoid the political, let alone military, conflict. Thus, Moscow bears the primary responsibility for the Chechen tragedy. Likewise, the regime of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who recklessly abolished Ossetian autonomy and brought the situation to military confrontation, is primarily responsible for today’s sorry state of the Georgian-Ossetian relations. It appears that Georgia’s current leadership understands its liability, given the fact that the Georgian parliament recently revoked the earlier Supreme Council resolution on abolishing Ossetian autonomy. Moreover, the Georgian parliament has expressed a willingness to grant South Ossetia republic status, which would raise it to the same level North Ossetia enjoys in the Russian Federation. Only this path, coupled with mutual confidence-building measures between the Ossetians and Georgians, might lead to a resolution of the conflict. Any other scenario leads to a dead end.

However, the South Ossetian leadership still insists on being incorporated into the Russian Federation, While Tskhinvali’s demands have been encouraged by some influential circles in Russia, this position is not only irresponsible but also provocative. No strong Russian government would ever yield to these demands. Such acquiescence would open a Pandora’s box across the entire post-Soviet space. Almost one-third of the population of South Ossetia is comprised of ethnic Georgians, and the Georgian and South Ossetian villages are geographically mixed with each other. If South Ossetia’s status changed, local Georgians would either be “cleansed” or marched into Russia at gunpoint.

The leaders who dream of “gathering the Ossetian lands” like to invoke the thesis that “in the case of armed conflict, the brotherly peoples of the North Caucasus would come to the rescue of their Ossetian brethren.” Perhaps this is true, but somehow I doubt that the tens of thousands of Ingush refugees, for example, would become inspired by the idea of Greater Ossetia. In fact, the opposite scenario is more likely. Already we stand at the threshold of a Great Caucasus War. Should South Ossetia actually be incorporated into Russia, it would push the region across the threshold into war. The blood spilled in the course of the decade-long conflict in Chechnya is still not enough to satisfy our “patriotic society.”

Understanding the catastrophic consequences of such a move, Moscow is not willing to incorporate South Ossetia de jure. However, it has bowed to pressure from influential lobbies enough to conduct a de facto incorporation by means of visa policies, generous Russian citizenship terms for residents of the enclave, and “brotherly international assistance” in the form of all kinds of “Cossacks” and military equipment. This intermediary situation most benefits the criminal circles in South Ossetia, as their profits are primarily derived from contraband trade. Under Eduard Shevardnadze’s regime, the Georgian authorities were shareholders in this prosperous bilateral business. When the Saakashvili government came to power and began to implement measures to curb the contraband trade through South Ossetia (which, incidentally causes a great deal of economic damage to Russia), the commander of peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone, General Svyatoslav Nabzdorov suddenly appeared as an apologist for the criminal business interests. Nabzdorov bluntly told Nezavisimaya gazeta, “It is not possible to organize and conduct the same anti-contraband measures in the conflict zones as in the ordinary neighborhoods. The specific environment is completely different here and the psychology of the residents is different as well” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 16).

The current situation in South Ossetia apparently corresponds with the parochial interests of the South Ossetian authorities and General Nabzdorov. But Russia’s interests should be formulated in an entirely different manner — in terms of the military and economic security of its southern border and the stability of its southern neighbor — Georgia. If we genuinely respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, as is often repeated at the official level, then it is necessary to agree with Tbilisi’s proposal to establish the joint Russian-Georgian border and customs control over the southern exit from Roksky Tunnel, which connects North and South Ossetia.

If we are really concerned about the national rights of the South Ossetians and Abkhazians, then we should offer our services (preferably with EU and OSCE backing and participation) as defenders of the rights of national minorities and their broad autonomy in the multinational Georgian state.