Medvedev: Come on and have a go if you think you’re hard enough


Yeah, you have to hand it to those Russians. Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Medvedev and their firm-but-fair government have played an absolute blinder over the Caucasian crisis. And I’m struck especially be the confident performance of Medvedev, who a lot of people had written off as simply Tsar Vladimir’s puppet. In answering questions on the Caucasian recognitions, he’s been able to rattle off the Empire’s Kosovo playbook with considerable aplomb. Certainly, there’s a hell of a distinction to be drawn with Gordon Brown’s attempt at Cold War sabre-rattling.

Brown: Urrrm, Russia must realise its actions have consequences, like we may hold up their entry into the WTO or something.

Medvedev: Oooo, I’m so scared. Look at me, I’m quaking in my boots!

Somebody should tell Gordon that sabre-rattling doesn’t work if everyone knows your sabre is made of cardboard.

So, what of Georgia? Those poor bastards haven’t had a very good time of it since the SU collapsed, have they? First they had a free election, which resulted in the disastrous government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Disastrous not least because Gamsakhurdia thought it would be a bright idea to abolish Abkhaz and Ossetian autonomy, and was prepared to rely on fascist militias to do his dirty work. So that government went rapidly downhill, until Gamsakhurdia was overthrown in an extremely violent coup and the ruling cabal of warlords invited Shevardnadze to take power. This led to Shevy the great democrat being feted in Washington, Berlin and Moscow while at home his government was autocratic, corrupt and spectacularly useless at improving the lives of its population.

Which brings us to the present incumbent, Mikheil Saakashvili. Smoothie Misha does have some media advantages, in that he’s young, speaks good English and has been trained by his American mentors to drop the necessary buzzwords about democracy and human rights and multiculturalism into his interviews. Nonetheless, that hasn’t meant squat in the face of Russian power, and for that Misha has only himself to blame.

Consider this. You have a ‘colour revolution’ democrat who comes to power in a coup, then legitimises his rule with elections so spectacularly bent that Bob Mugabe must have whistled in admiration. Then, instead of doing what Shevy didn’t do and trying to make life better for his citizens, he spends most of the state budget buying American weapons, while making bellicose noises towards Russia and applying for membership of Nato. Shevy, who was savvy enough to have a sense of Georgia’s real leverage, and aware that the Georgian economy is totally dependent on trade with Russia, would not have pushed it that far, never mind actually going to war with Russia.

And so Misha reaps the whirlwind. In a very short space of time, the Kremlin has turned Georgia into a failed state. The Georgian army was effectively dismantled within a week, and those much-vaunted American weapons have been either destroyed or seized. And now the Abkhaz and the Ossetes are a lot further towards getting what they wanted in the first place, and Misha stares into the abyss.

The whole affair also casts doubt on the wisdom of Anglo-American policy towards Russia. The Russian view that Nato expansion is basically encirclement is not paranoid, but has a solid basis in fact. The Americans may say that those missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic are going to be pointing at Iran, but nobody seriously believes that. And it may also be an opportune time to review Imperial policy in Ukraine. Bear in mind that Ukraine contains some ten million self-identified ethnic Russians, plus millions more who have more affinity with Russia than with anticommunist Western Ukraine. The Crimean autonomous republic, which has only been part of Ukraine since 1954, has a solid Russian majority who would secede in a minute if given the chance, and a strong minority of Crimean Tatars who, while not particularly pro-Moscow, are not particularly pro-Kiev either. In view of all this, is trying to build a linguistically-based anti-Russian majority in Ukraine a sensible policy? And the EU commissars, if they can take time out from lecturing Bulgaria on public transparency, might like to consider whether it’s smart for Latvia and Estonia to continue to deny citizenship to Russian-speakers who have lived there for decades.

There’s another question of what this means for similar situations worldwide. International law is hazy on the question of unnegotiated secession, and has tended to lean against since the American Civil War, when the European powers refused to recognise the Confederacy. (This goes some way to explaining why three-quarters of UN members have refused to recognise Kosovo.) So we have a number of positions. There is a position followed by China, and also by most Third World countries, plus European states like Spain, Romania and Slovakia who have their own worries about ethnic separatism, which is that borders are sacrosanct and should not be changed except by negotiation.

Then there is the position held by the Anglo-American bloc, which is basically quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi – or, for those of you who aren’t Latinists, that borders should not be changed by force unless ‘The West’ is doing the changing. Handing over Kosovo to a bunch of narco-terrorists, and then browbeating your client states into recognising it, is only the tip of the iceberg. One may also mention Washington’s open sponsorship of separatist movements against leftwing governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. One may also mention continuing CIA involvement with Uighur separatists in China. And so on.

What Russia’s recognitions have done is to blow the situation wide open. Remember that the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered at least half a dozen serious separatist movements beyond the original separation of the republics. The Chechen insurgency has been put down with considerable brutality, although it’s worth noting that many of the worst abuses took place on Yeltsin’s watch. The Gagauz question in Moldova was settled with patient diplomacy, helped not least by Gagauzia being too small to be a worthwhile geopolitical pawn. Crimea is more or less settled, unless the Kiev government takes a rush of blood to its collective head and tries to abolish autonomy.

Which leaves the four frozen conflicts, where the unrecognised para-states have had more or less functional governments for 16 or 17 years now. Since Russia has now moved to a basically anti-sovereigntist position, there is no reason in principle why Nagorno-Karabakh shouldn’t get recognition soon, especially since Azerbaijan is an even more squalid little dictatorship than Georgia. Transnistria may be a tougher ask, but it’s going to simmer along too. And where does this leave Cyprus? Interesting times ahead, and the IR case studies are going to be aplenty.

15 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    September 1, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    Misha stares into the abyss

    Maybe, but I can feel the abyss staring back into us.

  2. skidmarx said,

    September 2, 2008 at 8:39 am

    “You have a ‘colour revolution’ democrat who comes to power in a coup, then legitimises his rule with elections so spectacularly bent that Bob Mugabe must have whistled in admiration.”

    If the elections were that bent, do you not have quotes from Human Rights Watch saying “This was more of a circus than Barnum & Bailey”?

    Isn’t it reasonable to believe that the Geogians, faced with constant attacks by South Ossetians on Georgians responded with an attempt to take Tskhinvali by the only practical means at their disposal, and if the Russians are able to effectively annex the breakaway regions they will be faced with the prospect that the Russians could destroy Tbilisi within hours any time they want.It seems very similar to “Washington’s open sponsorship of separatist movements against leftwing governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador” and maybe it should also be opposed.
    Yesterday’s Guardian had a piece on the ethnic cleansing of South Ossetia.

  3. ejh said,

    September 2, 2008 at 9:01 am

    Oddly enough, just yesterday I was looking at Saakahasvili’s Wikipedia entry in search of information about those elections that I had read there previously (dissatisfaction of OSCE monitors, widespread fraud suspected but not yet invesitgated etc). I couldn’t find it any more and was not wholly surprised to see that there had been about a zillion edits of the page in the last few days.

  4. ejh said,

    September 2, 2008 at 9:09 am

    In re: the conflict itself, I used to take sides in this sort of thing and possibly as a consequence of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, I don’t any more (of course many people have travelled that road in the other direction). Of course it’s quite reasonable to say that Russia is imposing its will on smaller nations using the Russian-speaking parts of the population as an excuse, but at the same time it’s also true that there is some very nasty anti-Russian politics in many or all of these countries, and one the several virtues of the piece above is that it reminds us that this is so. It’s also true that the main effect (and probably the purpose) of NATO expansion into these aras is to play on these divisions and deepen them. All of which brings us to a situation which tends to put me in mind of the final few lines of All Along The Watchtower.

  5. johng said,

    September 2, 2008 at 10:26 am

    One Georgian interviewed began by angrily refuting the idea that Georgia was a playground for Russian/US great power politics and ended by denouncing Saakahasvili for dragging Georgia further into them. This sounds about right to me. The trouble with treating Saakahasvili or his tactics as the embodiement of injured Georgian national pride, or indeed simply a rational response to great power domination, is that it effectively extinguishes the possibility of any independent progressive politics in Georgia, or in South Osstetia for that matter. To suggest for example that the bombardment of a capital city was the ‘only possible response’ to attacks on Georgian civilians is a mistake. Its also true that the ethnic cleansing which is undoubtably taking place now in South Osstetia should not be read into the situation which existed prior to the action which Saakahasvili’s took. There is a long and bitter history of enmity between these populations in that area, there is also a long history of more everyday friendly relations. Bombing a capital flat on the one hand, or invading Georgia on the other is not likely to have bought out the better side of these traditions. It seems pretty clear that Saakahasvili calculated that escalating these tensions would operate in his favour given his relationship with the US. He was wrong about that.

  6. skidmarx said,

    September 2, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    “One Georgian interviewed began by angrily refuting…”
    Actually he probably rebutted or denied. To refute you really have to have overwhelming disproof.
    “The trouble with treating Saakahasvili or his tactics as the embodiement of injured Georgian national pride, or indeed simply a rational response to great power domination, is that it effectively extinguishes the possibility of any independent progressive politics in Georgia”
    I don’t quite see why.
    ” Its also true that the ethnic cleansing which is undoubtably taking place now in South Osstetia should not be read into the situation which existed prior to the action which Saakahasvili’s took. There is a long and bitter history of enmity between these populations in that area ”
    This seems like a contradiction. And not in a nice dialectical way.
    ” It seems pretty clear that Saakahasvili calculated that escalating these tensions would operate in his favour ” or it was the Russians who escalated the tensions. Have you seen the film Shane or the Bill Hicks routine based on it?

  7. johng said,

    September 2, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    ok my grammer is bad, but i’m surprised you want to justify the bombing of a civilian population centre. why? don’t you see that this would be rather hard to square with progressive politics? And yeah it probably isn’t dialectical in a good way that peoples in such situations have a history of both good and bad relations but its generally the case. its something socialists who live in countries where these kinds of ethnic histories exist have to be aware of (neglecting neither dimension onesidedly). perhaps it was the russians who escalated the tensions. but given that there is no convincing evidence of this, and given that we live in a part of the world where we might have been expected to hear about it if there was any, its not something i’d bank on. There is still all sorts of hemming and haughing about this from official sources. If you have any proof of this beyond statements from the Georgian government I would be genuinely interested to hear about them.

  8. skidmarx said,

    September 3, 2008 at 8:33 am

    “ok my grammer is bad” Sometimes your spelling ain’t too hot. That’s not really important.
    I’m not sure I want to justify it, I’m just even less sure that I want to justify the Russian “response” which seems to entail Moscow having a veto over the composition of future Georgian governments.
    When Kosovo declared independence, the Russians warned Nato that this might fuck things up for Georgia. It seems logical to think that the Russians have proceeded with a deliberate plan to wind the Georgians up to justify their “response”, and if it hadn’t happened they might well have staged something (as with the Nazis in Poland in 1939 – before anyone jumps up I’m not comparing the Russians to the Nazis in general – or what is claimed to be the “Chechen” bombings possibly staged by the FSB).
    As you’ve been to Tshkinvali, presumably you can tell us that it is not a big”capital city”. Maybe if Trotsky were here today he could explain how to retake it from separatists without causing any civilian casualties. Maybe your argument is that socialist opposition to nations and sovereignty should start with Georgia, and so there are no circumstances in which the Geogian government should be supported.
    ” It seems pretty clear that Saakahasvili calculated that escalating these tensions would operate in his favour ” You say that I don’t have convincing evidence for my speculations.
    When Yugoslavia split from the Soviet bloc, presumably it was considered to have a right to independence, even if it received aid and support from the West. I keep hearing that we shouldn’t support Georgia because it is a pawn of Nato, but that it must be run by adventurers because they haven’t manged to drag Nato into the conflict. The fact that they’ve got some rifles and humvees from the Americans is seen as evidence that Washington is behind the whole thing.
    The Russians claims rely on two things, that the Geogians started it and that they were committing genocide. Yet when the Russian media were focussing on the conflict their big hero was a five year old boy whose dad had been one of the South Ossetian militia, who was presumably killed in full accordance with the rules of war. Where are the bodies and the war crimes indictment? (Not particularly a question to you, but more one for the more hysterical anti-Georgians).
    I see the Irish national football team has gained a materiel benefit from the conflict in having their qualifier against Georgia moved to Mainz.

  9. ejh said,

    September 3, 2008 at 9:26 am

    When Yugoslavia split from the Soviet bloc, presumably it was considered to have a right to independence

    Yugoslavia was not part of the USSR, which to my mind renders this argument a little odd.

  10. skidmarx said,

    September 3, 2008 at 10:04 am

    Yugoslavia was not part of the USSR, which to my mind renders this argument a little odd.

    Neither was East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Poland which to my mind renders your objection a little odd.

  11. ejh said,

    September 3, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Well it’s not obvious how the right to independence of any of these might have been affected by their leaving of the USSR, which none of them did, but which Georgia did. In other words, the question never came up: there was not an “after” because there was never a “before”.

  12. ejh said,

    September 3, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Or put another way: of course Georgia has a right to independence, but what’s that got to do with the former Yugoslvia leaving the Warsaw Pact? It just seems to me to be a poor example.

  13. skidmarx said,

    September 3, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Because it seems as if some of the objection to Saakashvili and co starts from their ideology and then draws conclusions about the balance of class forces, which is to move from the specific to the general, from the concrete to the abstract, to put Descartes before the horse. Maybe Yugoslavia leaving the Russian orbit, whether in the USSR or not seems a legal technicality, is more forgivable because they continued to call themselves socialists.

  14. ejh said,

    September 3, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Well, it’s not a technicality at all.

  15. konoplyaev said,

    September 12, 2008 at 8:24 am

    Skidmarx, your grammar and spelling may be fine, but your history could do with brushing up. There was no Warsaw Pact before 1955, and Yugoslavia was never a member of it. In 1948 the Yugoslav CP fell out with the CPSU, which rapidly led to a diplomatic breach between the two states. The Yugoslav CP was expelled from the Cominform. But in legal terms, this was merely a change in the foreign policy orientation of two separate states – something that happens all the time.

    Georgia was a Union Republic of the USSR, South Ossetia was an autonomous oblast’ (region) within Georgia from 1921, while Abkhazia’s status fluctuated from independent republic in 1921, then a sovereign republic within Georgia and Transcaucasia from 1922-31, and then an Autonomous SSR within Georgia. Basically, though, all these administrative boundaries and their official status were decided by Stalin’s officials and ethnographers in the 1930s as they recarved the map of the old Russian Empire they had inherited. The upsurge in nationalism in the late 1980s did not only affect Union Republics. Nationalism in Georgia produced a counter-nationalism in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which in 1989 tried to proclaim themselves Union Republics within the USSR rather than subjects of Georgia.

    The problem with proclaiming “rights to independence” is that it is impossible to agree about who has the right to exercise that right. The fact that Georgia was a Union Republic and Abkhazia was not, for example, was the result of decisions taken in Moscow in 1922 and 1931, largely on the basis of administrative convenience. Many of the locals, unsurprisingly, see nothing sacred in those decisions.


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