Trading Spaces


The NATO of 2009 strikes a sharp contrast with the NATO of 1999.  



Last Saturday, NATO’s North Atlantic Council issued a statement of “particular concern” over Russia’s continued involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.



The statement complained that Russia has not yet withdrawn from the two breakaway states, as it had promised in EU-brokered talks last August and September—seven months later, “the withdrawal is still incomplete.”



It noted that Russia is still increasing its military presence within Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and doing so “without the consent of the Government of Georgia.”



And it restated NATO’s refusal to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as Russia has.



“The Alliance … continues to call on Russia to reverse its recognition, which contravenes the founding values and principles of the NATO-Russia Council, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) principles on which the security of Europe is based, and the United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Georgia’s territorial integrity.”



Since when was a separatist movement contrary to OSCE principles? Kosovo’s wasn’t. In 1999, the OSCE development teams were on the ground, doing their part to ensure that Serbian forces were on their way out, and to help the fledgling Kosovar government gain a sound, democratic footing. Why do Kosovo’s militants get more sympathy than those of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?



Because this is a stew that has little to do with the Abkhazians or the South Ossetians, and everything to do with geopolitical power-play. Some more history:



Once upon a time, there was an independent kingdom called Ossetia. Russia conqered the northern half in 1767 and took the southern remainder in 1801. In 1922, Russia’s new Bolshevik government split the two up into North and South, and created a South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast Council to govern the latter. The Bolsheviks took the added step of transferring South Ossetia into a sub-region of Georgia in 1923. Russia held on to North Ossetia, as it has to this very day.  



South Ossetians have wanted for some time to reintegrate the two- the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast Council made that request to the Georgian Supreme Soviet in 1989, only to be turned down (Georgian leadership has a small country to its own, and wouldn’t be quick to let it get any smaller). South Ossetian militants rose up in arms in 1991 and fought for their independence until a 1992 ceasefire that Russia and Georgia jointly negotiated. By the time of the ceasefire, the fighting had already resulted in 1,000 casualties, 100 missing persons, and innumerable damage to homes and infrastructure. South Ossetian fighters instigated a new round of violence in July 2004, this time with vocal support from the Russian Duma.



Last summer’s showdown was thus many years in the making, and for a reason: When South Ossetians say “independence,” they really mean annexation. It’s only logical that Russia might support this “independence,” and hence give the South Ossetians an easy justification for joining the Russian fold.



Abkhazia is a different story, for the Abkhazians never really identified with Russia: Russia occupied them from 1810 until 1918, when they declared independence and merged with the people of Daghestan, Chechen-Ingushia, Ossetia, Karachay-Balkaria, Abkhazia, Kabarda, and Adyghea into a North Caucasian Republic. Russia took over this new republic in a 1919-1920 invasion and annexation, and handed Abkhazia over to the Georgian Soviet Republic in a Treaty of Union, which all sides signed 1921. This treaty established an equitable union of Georgia and Abkhazia. The two were effectively one republic, but Abkhazians remained in charge of their territory and its internal affairs. Stalin, staying true to his Georgian roots, revoked the Treaty of Union in 1931 and made Abkhazia a fully subordinate province of Georgia. A “Georgianization” of Abkhazia followed. Nearly all Abkhazian intellectualls were imprisoned and/or killed, and Soviet-ordered mass migrations of Georgians swamped Abkhazia’s cities and towns.



A new Abkhazian Supreme Soviet ordered the Treaty of Union back into effect in July 1992. Georgia would have none of it. Frustrated Abkhazian leaders took up arms in August 1992, which prompted Georgian troops to invade and engage with them in a very bloody 13 months of fighting. This fighting included, regrettably, a gory ethnic cleansing by Abkhazians against Abkhazia’s ethnically-Georgian residents: By the time the separatists had decisively won in September 1993, around 15,000 ethnic Georgian civilians had died and another 250,000 had fled.



That time around, Russia did not come to Abkhazia’s aid. The military bases that Georgia was leasing to Russia at the time probably had something to do with that. Instead, Russia punished the upstart Abkhazians by imposing sanctions, closing the border, and denying Abkhazian residents any new passports.  



By now, there is now probably little love among the Abkhazians for Russia or for Georgia. Their first choice would seem to be a more equitable union with Georgia. The fireworks in South Ossetia last year certainly gave them an opportunity to make a go at it. But if that is not attainable – and given Russia’s buildup of military force in Abkhazia, it might not be – a merger with Russia might look like a tolerable alternative (hey, at least it’s not the rule of Saakashvili).



It’s understandable why European leaders don’t sympathize with the “freedom fighters.” Many Europeans are leery of Russia to begin with. They see its combination of authoritarian ways and raw geopolitical power as a bit of a menace–this recent survey of Poles is a case in point. Given that frame of mind, Russian actions to expand Russian territory by force–especially when that territory is a stone’s throw away from the continent–are a little discomfiting.  



Were I President Obama, I might place hope for defusing things in a 50-50 arrangement: a peaceful reconciliation between Abkhazia and Georgia, and South Ossetia can go where it will – if into Russia, then into Russia. The key lies in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as unique cases, who each have their own decisions to make. Of course, I’m not Obama, so I’ll have to leave that call up to him. And blog about it afterwards. 




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One Response to “Trading Spaces”

  1. Taavet Says:

    But what about Adjaria, the ‘third oppressee’? Situation there was defused quietly and with no blood shed, it being outside of immediate annexation range and lacking sizeable Russian peacekeeper presence. It’s now an autonomous region within Georgia, and a quite peaceful one at that.

    I’ve read the offer Georgians made to Abkhaz and ‘Ossetian’ authorities last summer, before the invasion. It’s offer of autonomy reminded me of Basques in Spain, only more so – the Basques would’ve been quite envious. Obviously it was rejected due to the ongoing war preparations, but a model for what you’re proposing for Abkhazia did already exist a year ago.

    S.Ossetia is a different case altogether, it’s been run by Russians for years, actual Ossetian role in any decision-making is minuscule. But at the same time, loss of S.Ossetia would leave Gerogia crippled in the long term far worse than loss of Abkhazia would.

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