Archive for July, 2009

A Chechen Separatist versus Chechen Separatists

July 26, 2009

He was near the top of the list of enemies of the Russian-backed Chechen government. But that government is now reaching out to him as its last, best hope for peace.

“He” is Akhmed Zakayev, prime minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, or CRI, the Chechen government-in-exile following Russia’s reoccupation of the breakaway republic in the mid-1990s.

Zakayev met with Dukvakha Abdurahmanov, the chairman of the Russian-backed Chechen government’s parliament, in Oslo last week for a formal discussion on the ground situation in Chechnya. The meeting, which was mediated by Chairman of the Chechnya Peace Forum Ivar Amundsen, lasted for the better part of Wednesday and Thursday, and concluded with worried, but hopeful, signals on just where the still-violent status quo is headed.

“There is a need to talk,” Zakayev told Chechen Press afterwards.

The CRI had led Chechnya’s separatists in trying to overthrow Russia’s rule of their state since 1991. Russian military operations over the 15 years following drove its leadership either undergound or into exile. Zalayev is in the latter category, having lived in London since 2002.

In the CRI’s place, Russia established a reigning Chechen Republic, with an authoritarian government propped up by Moscow. But Russia has failed, so far, in its ultimate goal of quashing Chechen resistance.

“Fighting in the Chechen Republic continues, not only in the territory of the Chechen republic. They continue throughout the North Caucasus,” he said.

He added that he doubts that the massive renovation projects Russia is planning for Grozny and other Chechen cities are going to help, either.

“We can build a mosque, we can revive the house, we can build anything we want,” he said. “But as long as there is no consolidated position on the existing problems, to stop the violence is impossible.”

He and Abdurahmanov will have another, 10-day meeting in London later this year.

Ramzan Kadyrov, current leader of the Moscow-backed Chechen Republic, has been brutal in his use of force against the separatists. But he is evidently hopeful that the softer touch of Zakayev might achieve for peace what force of arms alone cannot. Thus in February 2009, he went so far as to invite Zakayev to come back and take up a permanent seat in the Chechen Republic’s government.

“It is no secret that he would like to have Zakayev as a vis-a-vis, because he believes that Zakayev now worth a lot to quite a lot of people. And if he can somehow drag Zakayev on their side, these people also would, if not his supporters, then at least, not his enemies,” said Andrei Babitsy, Russian correspondent for Radio Free Europe, on Chechen Press.

Zakayev declined Kadyrov’s offer, but said he is more than willing to work together with him on ending the violence.

“I am not in politics for the first time. Maybe even unfortunately,” he said. “Not reckoning with the reality that exists, is not just politically illiterate, it is bad for everything and for everyone.”

Zakayev represents the moderate wing in Chechen politics: pro-democracy, pro-reform, and against the use of any more violence than is needed to gain freedom for the Chechen people. These stances made him the odd man out in fall 2007, when Dokka Umarov, president of the CRI, declared the CRI officially null and void and said that his goal was no longer merely an independent Chechnya, but a vast Islamic empire, the Caucasus Emirate, which would unite Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and parts of Russia under shari’ah law.

Zakayev, then Umarov’s minister of foreign affairs, immediately condemned Umarov and urged all members of the resistance to stay loyal to the CRI and to independence for Chechnya only. He lost out: All but three field commanders took Umarov’s side.

So Zakayev spoke then, and the Chechen resistance ignored him. What is to stop them from ignoring him when he speaks now? He is a moderate who is speaking to ideologues. And ideologues don’t tend to think highly of moderates. Zakayev’s stance against Umarov’s emirate is one that many in the movement have not forgotten, let alone forgiven. For a case in point, consider the story on Zakayev’s decision to work with Kadyrov as the Kavkaz Center, a Chechnya-based news agency, reported it. The story lays out the bare facts, but then goes on to remind readers of Zakayev’s “scandalous ‘appointment’” to prime minister and describes the CRI as a “telephone government” that is “living on the rights of refugees in Europe.”

Zakayev is an appealing and rational voice among many extremist ones in the Chechen separatist movement. And he holds the most workable ideas for its future. Should Chechnya ever gain its freedom, he is surely someone that it will need.

But sadly, he has only so many fans. The bulk of the resistance fighters do not want what he wants. And they are not going to lay down their arms simply because he tells them to. So ultimately, the chances that talks between him and Kadyrov will quell violence in the republic are pretty slim. But the thought is a nice one all the same.


Wide Lines, and the Crossing Thereof

July 22, 2009

Georgia’s Saakashvili took U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to his country this week as a prime opportunity to ask for new antiaircraft and antitank weapons with which to “make any hotheads (namely, the Russians) think twice about further military adventures.”

As reported by the Washington Post, he said in a publicly aired broadcast on Monday that Putin might start a new war to distract Russians from the “pretty desperate situation” Russia is facing: an economy in crisis, diminished public support, and neighboring republics exercising more independence from Moscow.

“There are hundreds of reasons to attack Georgia,” Saakashvili said. “The only thing to stop him is a clear unequivocal message from the West that there’s going to be very grave consequences.”

He noted that the precedent is already well in place, for the U.S. Defense Department has been training and equipping the Georgian military for over a decade.

“I think the decision to help us is there,” he added. “It’s a matter of speeding up the process.”

It’s true that Putin and company have little affection for Misha. And it’s true that they desire greater control over the affairs of the Caucasus region, of which Georgia is part and parcel. Just ask Lincoln Mitchell, Columbia University assistant professor of economics.

“It is clear that Russian ambitions towards Georgia did not end with the war between the two countries last year,” wrote Mitchell in the Faster Times. “Moreover, the ceasefire agreement brokered by French President Nicholas Sarkozy has been, at least on the Russian side, honored substantially in the breach.”

But a wide line exists between disliking Misha or wanting to control him on the one hand, and militarily annexing Misha’s country on the other. There is an equally wide line between Russia’s 2008 military strike in the two republics—where it already had a military presence and had been in de facto political control of for the last 15 years—and invading the indisputably independent Georgia. Is Russia really inclined to cross both lines?

One would hope not. Consider the never-ending carnage in Chechnya,—4,379 Russian fatalities in 2002 alone, according to Russia’s ITAR-Tass News Agency (who released some incomplete statistics on its own since the Russian government never released any). Given that Georgia is much larger than Chechnya, taking it over would be certain to be a much larger endeavor with a much larger body count. A serious consideration when Russia’s population is already shrinking by 700,000 people a year, according to the CIA World Factbook. Add the certain loss of needed international prestige and developmental assistance Russia would suffer, and the prospects for an invasion of Georgia seem harder and harder to justify.

Saakashvili knows that his country is just not worth the price. So his request for new weapons is one that U.S. officials should scrutinize very, very carefully.

The fact is that the very conditions that he said might motivate Putin to launch a war—Russia’s sagging economy, Putin’s diminished popularity at home, and its government’s declining power abroad—are all ones that he himself is experiencing.

Bear in mind that Russia, for its part, has warned that Georgia\’s leadership would like to attack. Bear in mind also that the European peacekeeping force that currently patrols the border between Georgia and the two breakaway republics is one that Russia, too, endorsed as a check on Georgian aggression.

Saakashvili might simply be waiting for the peacekeeping force’s charter to expire (due to happen in September) and for the United States and its allies to induce Russia to leave the two breakaway republics (however long that takes). Then he can march back in, retake them, and use his new defensive armaments to ward off a new Russian counterattack.

If he is too bold for that, then he might settle for Plan B, which is to pass the arms along to militant groups in Abkhazia and South Ossetia so that they can do the fighting and dying in his place. Russia Today reports that said militant groups are alive and well, and might have found common cause with Saakashvili long ago: A checkpoint in Ghali, Abkhazia, came under fire in late April, and terrorist attacks struck the Abkhazian capital, Sukhum, last year; Abkhazian officials accused Tbilisi of aiding both.

Or there is the low-risk, low-cost Plan C, which is just ask publicly for the weapons purely for purposes of political grandstanding. He’s just raising the specter of a looming Russian attack so as to make a public rally around a president they might otherwise despise. Quote Giuletto Chiaso in Russia Today:

“The Georgian president continues to promise his citizens to take back South Ossetia and Abkhazia under the Georgian government. But he probably understands now that this promise can be honored neither by himself nor by his successors. For that reason, he is trying to frame the situation as if Russia were to plan anything on the ground which, in fact, is not occurring, because Russia has no need at all to change the situation that Saakashvili created himself through his aggression towards South Ossetia last August.”

Of course, the United States should dissuade Russia from starting any new rounds of violence. But the United States should also make sure it does not get itself entangled in any of Saakashvili’s political games.

If the Obama administration chooses to sell arms to Saakashvili, it had better first ask some hard questions about what they are for. And it had best lend genuine moral and—better still—material support to the peacekeeping mission on the Georgian border. Obama has repeatedly stated his support for the “territorial integrity of Georgia.” Fine and good. But may he also state his support for the right of Abkhazians, South Ossetians, and Russians to live peaceably and without needless fear of armed Georgian assaults.

When All Else Fails, Try Democracy

July 21, 2009

Georgian president Saakashvili isn’t scheduled to leave office until 2013. But he’s already planning his retirement, and not without some excitement.

“The biggest response I can have [following the August war] is to organize a smooth transition of power not controlled by the Russians,” he told parliament Monday, July 20, as reported by “It would tell the neighbors—the people and not just the leaders – that Putin is no longer the main street bully in the neighborhood.”

In his speech, he spoke darkly of the encroaching Russian presence that occupies Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and of additional Russian interference in Tbilisi politics.

“We face hard times; parts of our territories are occupied by invaders, which also try to undermine our state through real and not invented conspiracies,” he said.

He likewise spoke darkly of the domestic opposition groups aligned against him, and his own inability to make them go away.

“Everyone has seen that no one is afraid of shouting from the streets, especially they are not afraid of that who came into power through revolution,” he said.

Then he laid out his one answer to these foreign and domestic threats: reform.

“Our only response to these challenges should be deepening democracy,” he said. Specifically:

  • A new Central Election Commission (CEC) with a new chair selected only with broad approval between the political parties;
  • More rights for expatriates
  • A new public TV channel on which “even the smallest political groups” will be free to express opinions and hold discussions; and
  • Large-scale dialogues among national officials and local officials, including those affiliated with the opposition parties. With enough effort by all involved, “We can turn this large-scale dialogue into new large wave of democracy.”

Why is Saakashvili talking now about the end of his presidency, given that it is four years away? Moreover, why is he painting his retirement and replacement by a new president as the strongest rebuke he can make to his Russian adversaries?

The answer to both questions is the same: He’s being realistic. When he looks ahead over the next four years, he sees that his leadership mandate is already over; he has too few supporters left to pursue any serious policy agenda. And he knows that, practically speaking, letting a new president be replaced probably is the strongest rebuke he can make to Russia; there isn’t much else he can do—by his own admission, joining NATO is almost out of the question, and winning back Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not happen any time soon.

And perhaps he is also being strategic. He knows that if he has any remaining chance of NATO membership, it lies in his making some new friends in the West. What better way to achieve this than through a “new wave” of democratic transparency? Note the Tuesday, July 21 statement of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Giga Bokeria to the Wall Street Journal: “If Russia will block Georgia’s joining to NATO, it would be a tragedy. Russia is really not able to do it, as evidenced by the position of President Obama,” said Bokeria.

Bokeria said three key things: that Georgia still aims for a place in NATO, that Russia is an opponent, and that the United States is Russia’s counterweight.

Not incidentally, if you’re seeing a recurring theme of Russia as the bogeyman, then you are right. Saakashvili’s pitches frequently vilify Russia as a looming menace. Much of this is understandable, of course, given last year’s war and Russia’s general track record of inserting itself into neighboring republics’ politics.

But a large part of it is also rhetorical. Reform is what the opposition has wanted all along, and Saakashvili is purporting to give it to them. But how to acquiesce without looking like he is acquiescing? Find an outside enemy and portray the reform agenda as a banishment of that enemy from your country’s midst.

Saakashvili is saving face, finding a foreign scapegoat, and pitching a final appeal to the West, all at the same time. He may be an inept politician, but he is a politician all the same.