Since the start of this year, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea and pushed for Ukraine’s “federalization.” The severe international concern caused by these actions was further compounded last month (August 2014) by Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s statement in Yalta that after Moscow subdues Ukraine, it will move against other post-Soviet countries in order to rebuild the Russian Empire (see EDM, August 14). Not surprisingly, many countries in the region have thus been forced to consider where the Kremlin might move next and what means it might employ against them—from demands for “federalization” to open aggression.
The proportion of the titular nationality is now greater in all the post-Soviet republics than it was in 1991 (except for the Russian Federation). Yet, none of these countries (even those that are more ethnically homogeneous than at any time in their history, such as Azerbaijan and Armenia) is free from the Soviet inheritance of the presence of significant ethnic minorities or separate regional groups. Moscow has a long history of playing with or supporting such minority communities as a means of reining in the governments of these countries (for a useful recent survey of this problem, see alternatives-economiques.fr, September 1).
Sometimes, these minorities are ethnic Russians, as in Ukraine and Kazakhstan; at other times, they are regional groups as in Tajikistan (see EDM, June 13) and Belarus; and at still others, there is a combination of the two as in Uzbekistan in the case of Karakalpakstan (see EDM, August 12) or Latvia in the case of Latgale. But there is no country on Russia’s periphery that is more ethnically and regionally complex than Georgia—indeed, it has been described in this regard as “the Soviet Union writ small” and was already subject to a Russian invasion and Moscow-sponsored ethnic engineering regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Consequently, it is not surprising that Moscow is focusing on it and is said to be developing a new plan for that country’s dismemberment and absorption into a new Russian Empire.
Last week, while commenting on the recent presidential elections in Abkhazia, Giyai Gvazava, the Georgian official who, from Tbilisi’s point of view is de jure the head of that breakaway Georgian region, said that the Kremlin is developing “a major plan for the division of Georgia.” According to Gvazava, Moscow aims to break Georgia apart into two states: an expanded Abkhazia in the west that would include the Samegrelo district, and a separate entity that would include the remaining Georgian territories in the east (apsny.ge, August 25).
He added that “the Russian special services are [already] doing everything they can to spark separatism in Samegrelo.” To that end, Gvazava suggested, the Abkhazians and their allies “will not be very crude” in their relations with the residents of the Gal district, although human rights there, of course, will continue to be violated.” Moreover, he continued, the pro-Moscow forces will do what they can to prompt the Georgian residents of that area to leave, thus making it easier for separatists to achieve their goals.
Gvazava provided no evidence for his claim, but in the current environment, his words cannot be ignored. Three questions are in order: First, is what he said likely to be true? Second, if it is, what is Moscow likely to do next? And third, how should Tbilisi and its allies respond if after or even during the crisis in Ukraine, Russia moves into Georgia or elsewhere as well.
With regard to the first question, it is almost certain that what Gvazava said is true given that Moscow traditionally fishes in troubled waters and would like to break Georgia—especially because Tbilisi remains committed to its pro-Western course despite the 2008 Russian invasion. But there are two caveats to that answer. On the one hand, it is not clear whether what Moscow is doing now represents a significant change from what it has been doing. And on the other, reports that Russia could follow through on such a plan not only serve the interests of officials like Gvazava but could also be helping Moscow by sowing panic in certain quarters.
With respect to the second question, Moscow is likely to show its hand during upcoming talks leading to a scheduled signing of a new agreement between Russia and Abkhazia. Commentators are already saying that this accord will establish a “common security space” between the two and define Abkhazia’s relationships more clearly with Georgia, at least from Moscow’s point of view (Vestnik Kavkaza, August 28).
And with respect to the third question—what should Tbilisi and its Western allies do?—the answers are obvious if difficult: The Georgian government needs to strengthen the loyalties of its own citizens of all ethnic and tribal groups and thus preempt Moscow. Whereas the strongest move the West could make to counteract Russia would be to back Georgia to the hilt as far as these efforts are concerned, including by offering Tbilisi a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to eventually join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).