In an apparent attempt to break the strategic deadlock now governing Russia’s policies in Georgia and Moldova, some Moscow political pundits advocate a speedy recognition of the secessionist regions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Trans-Dniester. To justify such a move, they advise putting the problem of the post-Soviet self-styled statelets into a global context and referring to the cases of East Timor, Eritrea, and Taiwan.
Until recently, only Russia’s neo-imperialist and populist Zhirinovsky-type politicians suggested granting full diplomatic recognition to the handful of renegade enclaves that emerged in the borderlands of the former Soviet empire. Top officials in the Russian Foreign Ministry and in the Kremlin, including President Vladimir Putin have repeated, however, that Russia staunchly supports the territorial integrity of its neighbors in the Commonwealth of Independent States. But the tough dilemma Russia is facing, particularly in Georgia, due to the aggressive reunification drive of the Saakashvili government, prompts Moscow strategists to urge a policy shift.
The Kremlin’s strategic predicament, most security experts contend, stems from its attempt to pursue two different policies at the same time. While Russia says it respects the inviolability of Georgia’s internationally recognized borders and is ready to reach accommodation with Tbilisi, it supports the leadership of the renegade regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where it has conferred Russian citizenship to a significant part of local populations. Such an ambiguous course could be pursued only within the framework of the precarious status quo that existed throughout Eduard Shevardnadze’s weak reign. But Saakashvili has made clear that the old status quo is unsustainable. Now comes one of Russia’s traditional “accursed questions”: What is to be done?
Two important policy papers penned by respected analysts suggest that Russian leadership should recognize the self-proclaimed republics and rethink its overall understanding of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The past decade has demonstrated the malleability of international law principles, forcefully argues Andranik Migranyan, professor at the prestigious Moscow Institute of International Relations, in the programmatic article published in the September 17 issue of Izvestiya. “No common rules exist in the international community, and in each individual case the great powers take decisions proceeding from their own interests,” contends Migranyan. He points out that nobody in the West tried to prevent the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, although the secession of some constituent units of these two federative states clearly violated the existing laws. For its part, Russia’s Yeltsin government made a number of tragic mistakes in connection with its obsession with “liberating” itself from Gorbachev’s “imperial center.” If Russia had recognized the territories that seceded from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, or Ukraine in the early 1990s (i.e. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Trans-Dniester or Crimea), “It could have stimulated the analogous processes in the Baltic lands, in northern Kazakhstan, in eastern Ukraine, and probably could have prevented the collapse of the USSR,” argues Migranyan. Unfortunately, the actual scenario of Russia’s own secession from the Soviet Union didn’t allow it to recognize the self-proclaimed state entities in the borderlands, he adds.
The prominent political thinker Boris Mezhuyev agrees. If Yeltsin’s Russia hadn’t proclaimed its independence from what he called the historic Russian (Soviet) empire, but instead associated itself with the “imperial center,” many future problems could have been avoided, argues Mezhuyev in a June 22 commentary posted on the Agentstvo Politicheskikh Novostei website. To remedy the current situation, Mezhuyev believes the Kremlin should do three things. First, Russia should “honestly and clearly” call itself a former colonial empire, identify its post-imperial status, and fashion the CIS to resemble the British Commonwealth. This, he believes, will help Moscow link the situation, say, in Trans-Dniester with those in Indonesia or Africa. Second, he calls for a kind of “civic amnesty” for the unrecognized states that emerged in the wake of the post-imperial collapse. Third, Russia should unilaterally (i.e. without waiting for a comprehensive legal settlement) recognize the secessionist statelets within the CIS (APN.ru, June 22).
Migranyan shares this strategic approach. Nothing, he asserts, can prevent Russia from recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which, in his view, more resemble properly governed states than does Georgia, which he labeled a classic failed state. “Neither economically, nor military-politically, has [Georgia] become a state with consolidated power and efficiently working economic and political institutions,” contends Migranyan. “It survives due to the support coming from the West and international financial organizations.”
Both Migranyan and Mezhuyev assert that after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the notion of territorial integrity became irrelevant. “Territorial integrity emerges where the local authorities have managed to strengthen their statehood, created viable political institutions, and maintained control within the former administrative borders,” writes Migranyan (Izvestiya, September 17).
Both policy papers suggest that Russia should be much more assertive in the region it considers its zone of vital interest. In Migranyan’s opinion, Russian diplomacy should send a clear signal that Moscow would be prepared to take unilateral moves within the CIS to protect its citizens and maintain security along its borders. Echoes Mezhuyev, “At this moment in history, the only rational actor is one who formulates the principles guiding his actions.”