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.