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Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Lugansk, Donetsk: the demerits of mutual recognition

On 13 May, President of the Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Zakharchenko announced that it formally recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On 28 January South Ossetia had already received recognition from Lugansk. This follows last year’s decision by South Ossetia to recognise Lugansk (18 June) and Donetsk (27 June). The People’s Council of Lugansk was to consider recognition of Abkhazia on 13 March, but that has so far not materialised.

Somewhat paradoxically, the formal statements of recognition by Lugansk and Donetsk are not very complimentary, because when a new state is formed (the position Lugansk and Donetsk consider themselves to be in) it does not as a matter of principle recognise the independence of established states. So if they had wanted to do Abkhazia and South Ossetia a favour, Lugansk and Donetsk should have simply treated their independence as self-evident.

There is a remarkable asymmetry between Abkhazia and South Ossetia in this matter. While South Ossetia has pushed ahead, agreeing to establish full diplomatic relations, opening representative offices in Lugansk and Donetsk on 16 April and receiving representative offices of Lugansk and Donetsk on 28 April, Abkhazia has so far resisted recognising either Lugansk or Donetsk.

Abkhazia’s reticence, waiting for the situation to stabilise and following Russia’s lead (which does not appear close to recognition), seems more prudent than South Ossetia’s eagerness. It is quite unfortunate for Abkhazia and South Ossetia that the narrative of Russia creating and controlling separatist movements and actively starting and prolonging wars and sustained violence, concocted as an explanation — mostly false and wholly unhelpful — for Georgia’s conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is true in respect to Ukraine, Lugansk and Donetsk. Unsurprisingly, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now often compared to the Ukrainian conflict. They may be best advised not to further strengthen this association, and limit their contacts with Lugansk and Donetsk to humanitarian and cultural support.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Donbass, South Ossetia, The Great Recognition Game

Tuvalu re-establishes diplomatic ties with Georgia following EU pressure

On 31 March Georgia and Tuvalu re-established diplomatic relations. Georgia had previously broken off diplomatic relations on 16 February 2012, after Tuvalu had recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The signed document reportedly includes a statement that Tuvalu considers Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be part of Georgia. This is a political victory for Georgia — even if it is dubious whether recognition can legally be withdrawn and even though Abkhazia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Irakli Khintba reported that as of 31 March, Tuvalu had not formally broken off diplomatic relations with Abkhazia. It would not be so significant had Abkhazia and South Ossetia managed to obtain further recognitions in the meantime, but they haven’t, so it is.

But this decision is also significant for another reason. In an interview with Radio New Zealand International, Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Taukelina Finikaso explained the recent about-face by stating that he hoped that financial assistance from the European Union would now increase, after having slumped following Tuvalu’s original recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This demonstrates the hypocrisy behind complaints that recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was ‘bought’ by Russia through financial assistance. One should not have doubted that western countries are not above such tactics, but it is nonetheless instructive to receive explicit confirmation.

Filed under: Abkhazia, European Union, Georgia, South Ossetia, The Great Recognition Game, Tuvalu

Book review: Kleine landjes by Jelle Brandt Corstius

kleine landjes - cover2Kleine landjes — Berichten uit de Kaukasus

Jelle Brandt Corstius

Prometheus, Amsterdam
February 2009
170 pages
ISBN: 978-90-446-1311-7

Kleine landjes is an account of a series of trips made by the Dutch journalist Jelle Brandt Corstius, generally stationed in Moscow, to Chechnya, Kalmykia, Abkhazia, Karachay-Cherkessia and Ossetia. It is not really an introduction to the Caucasus, in fact one learns more about Russia — police corruption, bureaucracy, drinking culture — than about these republics. (Although the particular selection is original and lends credence to Corstius’s professed love for small countries.)

The reasons for this are fourfold. First, Corstius intersperses his account with anecdotes from Moscow, and some of the action takes place in neighbouring Russian areas like Sochi.

Second, Corstius is not in the region to report on any dramatic events. The exception is his trip to South Ossetia shortly after the August 2008 War and his foray to some neighbouring Georgian villages, and this is indeed the most memoral part of the book.

Third, the excursions to the five republics are very short affairs, which only allow for superficial impressions and themes — hospitality, the impossibility of each of the languages and bride kidnapping. Corstius admits as much when he declares that a freelance journalist has no time to spend several days at a TBC-clinic in Abkhazia.

And fourth, Corstius’s semi-naive, semi-rebellious, deadpan approach succeeds in conveying to the reader the many incongruities a western visitor is faced with, but it fails to uncover some deeper connections. For instance, when visiting a community of old-believers near Sochi, Corstius remarks that some Caucasian peoples were deported from the region in the 19th Century, without mentioning the Abkhaz — which he has just before visited (the deportations do receive a little bit more exposition when he later visits the Cherkess). In another instance, the author mentions the mysterious Obozijnen settled throughout Karachay-Cherkessia. He probably means the Abazins, which are not all that mysterious (the Abazins are closely related to the Abkhaz).

Another downside to Corstius’s colourful style is that it leads to some assessments that are trite or even false, such as the assertions that time in the Caucasus has stood still since the middle ages, that pre-Soviet Russian painting was stuck in 1850 “well before impressionism”, that Garri Kasparov is an evil genius because Eduard Limonov and the National Bolshevik Party are part of his broad opposition coalition and that it is no surprise that the region has seen a lot of fighting given the abundance of oil and gas — about the only time that has ever been the reason for a war in the Caucasus was probably when Hitler tried to conquer his way to Baku — and Stalingrad took the brunt of that charge.

The key observation to make is that Corstius’s trips to the Caucasus were not undertaken for the purpose of writing Kleine landjes, but that the book serves as a convenient bundling of these episodes after the fact. One should read Kleine landjes then for Corstius’s adventures, including a drive over the Kalmukkian steppe, his attempts to escape from his minders in Grozny and talking himself onto a fully-booked plane to Moscow due to depart within 20 minutes — especially if one enjoys his work.

Lastly, Corstius has put up a number of short videos on his website of episodes throughout the book (noted with an *), a nice little addition which helps bring to life some of the characters he encounters.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Book reviews, Chechnya, Cherkessia, Kalmykia, Karachaya, North Ossetia, Russia, South Ossetia

Succession of Chavez also affects Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Reports about the condition of President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez differ widely, and one should be careful not to prematurely declare his days numbered — recall how often Fidel Castro’s imminent death has been announced, and yet still he lives. But Chavez was evidently not fit to be sworn in for his fourth Presidential term on 10 January, and speculation is rife as to who will succeed him. Broadly speaking, there are three scenarios and they have differing consequences for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

On paper, the worst-case scenario for Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be if new elections are held and the opposition comes to power, as they may reject Venezuela’s support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a personal project by Chavez. At best, this may mean that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will subsequently be ignored, at worst, the new government could give in to U.S. pressure and ‘withdraw’ its recognition, even though this will involve more than simply signing a document, as Venezuela has ratified treaties and exchanged ambassadors with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the other hand, in the less likely event that Abkhazia and South Ossetia continue to receive support by the new government, their recognition can be said to have become properly institutionalised.

If Chavez dies or is legally declared unable to fulfill his duties, and his allies subsequently maintain power, there are two politicians most likely to succeed him: Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro and Speaker of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello. It is of course impossible to predict what line of policy they would follow, but of the two, Maduro is the better known quantity, since it was under his tenure as Foreign Minister that Venezuela recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The best Abkhazia and South Ossetia can hope for is for Maduro (or Cabello) to actively promote their cause in Latin-America, which Venezuela’s Ambassador Hugo José García Hernández admitted in August has been hampered by Chavez’s illness. Previously high hopes in the region have been left unfulfilled, which means that there is still a lot left to gain. Certain countries, like Cuba, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, seem in principle prepared to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but currently don’t care enough to incur the diplomatic cost involved. Venezuela carries the necessary clout to sway them — much more so than Nicaragua, which recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia first. And once these countries are brought around, it could lower the controversy enough to convince further states to follow in their footsteps, like Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentine.

Filed under: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Venezuela, , ,

Book review: The Caucasus by Thomas de Waal

the caucasus (de waal) - coverThe Caucasus — an introduction

Thomas de Waal

Oxford University Press, New York
August 2010
272 pages
ISBN: 978-0-1953-9976-9

It is always possible to find fault with a book if only one makes an effort. In the case of The Caucasus, Thomas de Waal’s new book, the most serious issue thus revealed is an off-hand remark about Abkhazia’s 2004 Presidential election. The author states that this “did not involve its Georgian population”, which is inaccurate, because unlike in the later elections of 2009 and 2011, the Georgian residents of the Gali District actually did participate. The reason why this is even worth bringing up here is that in the ensuing post-election crisis, the question whether their participation — without holding Abkhazian citizenship — was constitutional constituted the principal legal challenge against the narrow victory of opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh. Moreover, it is probably not an exageration to say that he would not have won without the Georgian vote.

If pressed further, one quickly enters the realm of the trivial, which to bring up would not do The Caucasus justice. In fact, throughout the book, Thomas de Waal’s extensive knowledge of the region is apparent as he lays connections and interjects delightful bits of extra information, like the wonderful anecdote that one member of the Georgian Mkhedrioni described it as a ‘paramilitary charity organisation’.

The book can be said to consist of two parts. The first three chapters give a very good overview of the history of the South Caucasus — the first chapter is devoted to the pre-Russian period and the development of the regions’ major religions and nations, the second to the period that the South Caucasus formed part of the Russian Empire and the third to the Soviet period. The second part of the book covers political developments since the unravelling of the Soviet Union, with two chapters on Georgia and its conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a chapter covering Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and a chapter about Energy politics.

Specific topics as diverse as wine, Rustaveli Avenue and Baku Jazz are fleshed out in dedicated sections throughout the main text. Controversial subjects like the Armenian Genocide, Stalin and the August 2008 War are treated deftly and with a lot of nuance. Furthermore, De Waal demonstrates that after the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union was not the totalitarian, uniform dictatorship it is commonly believed to have been, as street protests were not uncommon and local governments did in fact determine local policy, with nationalism playing a significant role — historians propagated their nation’s version of history and thousands of people migrated — Armenians from Tbilisi to Armenia, Azeri from Armenia to Azerbaijan.

Overall, there are only two minor things left to remark, which Thomas de Waal may have had no control over. Firstly, the title, which is too general (and incidentally, exactly identical — subtitle included — to the October 2009 book by Frederik Coene reviewed earlier), because Thomas de Waal has limited himself to the history and the politics of the South Caucasus — a legitimate choice in itself. Even if simplicity was the primary aim behind the title, one could have simply chosen The South Caucasus — An Introduction.

Secondly, the book contains a number of small editorial mistakes. Frankly, this comes off as unprofessional for what is a major publication. Curiously, the mistakes start to appear only in the fourth chapter, as if error-checking had stopped there.

Neither of these issues should distract from the fact that The Caucasus is a wonderful book, which confirms Thomas de Waal’s stature as a leading expert on the region.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Georgia, Nagorno Karabakh, Russia, South Ossetia, Wider Region, , , , ,

Book review: The Post-Soviet Wars by Christoph Zürcher

The Post-Soviet Wars — Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict, and Nationhood in the Caucasus

Christoph Zürcher

New York University Press, New York
November 2007
302 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8147-9709-9

Despite its general title, The Post-Soviet Wars covers only the major wars that took place in the Caucasus: the Karabakh war, the two Russo-Chechen wars, the 1991–1992 Georgian-South Ossetian war, the Georgian civil war and the 1992–1993 Georgian-Abkhazian war.

In the Preface, Zürcher thanks Graham Stack and Erica Richardson respectively for translating a previous version of the book into English and for editing the style and language. The result could easily have been messy, but is actually eminently readable. There remain only a number of typos (especially with dates) and some inconsistencies (the table on pages 28–31, the repeated introduction of a cease-fire in three consecutive sentences on page 126, and the claim that Shamil Basayev received his first combat experience in Abkhazia, whereas he participated in the Karabakh war before that). These are regrettable, but don’t distract from the pleasant reading experience.

The book starts with an overview of the history of the Caucasus. At times, this is very good, at times, less so. Thus, it glosses over the entire North-Western theatre of the 19th Century Caucasian war, stating that “the epic struggles in the North Caucasus through the 19th century […] took place in the east” and “in 1859, the wars in the North Caucasus ended”, whereas at that point, fighting in the North-West had yet to reach its climax with the mass expulsion of Circassians, Ubykh and Abkhaz in the period 1860–1867, which is only hinted at in the text.

Perhaps of more concern for the rest of the book, the characterisation of the formation of the Soviet federal framework also leaves a lot to be desired. Most vexing is the claim that in all South Caucasian union republics, autonomous territories were instituted “as counterweights to any possible nationalist politics”. This is a claim made all to often all too easily by those who wish to somehow frame the Soviet Union for pre-engineering the conflicts of the early 1990s. As such, it needs to be backed up by actual evidence. (Moreover, it is also inaccurate because the Armenian SSR did not contain any autonomous territories.) The running text also does not mention Abkhazia’s initial, peculiar, status as a treaty-SSR, nor the Transcaucasian SFSR. Lastly, in this chapter, and in general throughout the book, Zürcher appears to exaggerate the ‘positive discrimination’ enjoyed by the titular nationalities in the autonomous territories. While a case can be made that this applied in Abkhazia (after 1953) and Adygea (not discussed in the book), it cannot for Nagorno Karabakh and South Ossetia and certainly not for Chechnya, where — as Zürcher himself points out — Chechens were systematically kept from power.

The core of the book is formed by three chapters (the wars involving Georgia are grouped together) in which Zürcher gives succinct but sharp analyses of how the conflicts unfolded and how one of the parties managed to gain the upper hand. That these overviews are not overly detailed and focus mostly on the early stages is due to the fact that Zürcher’s primary goal is not description but explanation. Taking recent insights from quantitive conflict theory as his starting point, he aims to determine whether they apply in the cases at hand and whether these conflicts can provide new insights for conflict theory. To further this end, Zürcher also looks at two territories where war was avoided, Dagestan and Adjara.

Zürcher has many sensible things to say about the causation of conflict, and he successfully demonstrates that one has to take into account exactly how a conflict unfolds to determine whether a certain factor contributed to it. For instance, Zürcher demonstrates that the presence of resources did not play a decisive role. Azerbaijan and Chechnya both possess oil reserves and various diasporas and neighboring kin people can be viewed as an economic resource, but while these did perhaps prolong war, they did not cause it.

However, other aspects of Zürcher’s analysis raise more questions. Notably, some of his claims are undercut by insights presented elsewhere in the text. Since analysis of the causes of the conflicts is Zürcher’s ultimate aim, the rest of this review will address these issues in some greater detail.

Evaluating another of the risk-factors established by quantitive research, Zürcher remarks that the Caucasus was not a particularly underdeveloped place in 1990, neither in a worldwide nor in a Soviet context. However, in each of his analyses of the individual conflicts, the dramatically reduced recruitment cost of fighters due to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union at the time of its break-up plays a crucial role to explain the proliferation of armed formations, which does seem to lend credence to the view that economic hardship makes war more likely.

Zürcher also argues that somewhat counter-intuitively, the Caucasian conflicts do not support a third risk-factor, mountainous terrain. In Chechnya, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the principle battles were fought in the plains, and while mountainous terrain may have prolonged the war in Chechnya, it cannot be said to have caused it. But while these cases are convincing, the case of Nagorno Karabakh is less clear. Zürcher points out that Armenian ‘rebels’ there were actually at a disadvantage because Azeri forces held the high ground in the beginning of the war. But in his description of the escalation of violence in Nagorno Karabakh, an important role is reserved for the failure of Soviet troops to bring under control Armenian and Azeri armed formations. Mountainous terrain may very well have played an important role in this.

Another claim commonly made in the literature is that war is caused by ‘a history of wrongs suffered’. Here too, Zürcher’s analysis is inconsistent. In the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he states that this does not explain the conflicts, claiming that appeals to past injustices were only invoked to support a cause already awakened by other concerns — the fear of demographic domination and loss of control over economic resources. However, it remains unclear how he makes the decision that these are the primary causes. Zürcher suggests that there was no political disagreement between Abkhaz and Georgians before Glasnost, but at the same time admits that Abkhaz had never accepted their incorporation into the Georgian SSR, sending out appeals to Moscow on a semi-permanent basis. His rejection of ‘wrongs suffered’ in the case of Chechnya receives even less explanation, despite the fact that it seems obvious that this played a big role in Chechnya’s desire to become independent. Conversely, in the case of Nagorno Karabakh, Zürcher admits that it is hard to deny that past injustices were one of the causes for the conflict. Zürcher gives no reason for this difference, but it may be related to the fact that he barely mentions the conflicts between Georgia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the period 1917–1921, the incorporation of Abkhazia into the Georgian SSR in 1931 and the Georgification of Abkhazia under Beria and Stalin.

The one risk-factor put forward by quantitive conflict research that Zürcher does embrace is state instability, which in the cases at hand was caused by the collapse of the communist system. However, given that this applied throughout the Soviet Union, but most places were spared war, Zürcher rightly reasons that one has to investigate in detail how state instability contributed to the outbreak of war. One very useful variable in this respect is the relationship between nationalists and nomenklatura during the transition from communism. Territories where nationalists did not pose a great challenge to the nomenklatura (Central Asia, Dagestan) or where nationalists managed to co-opt the Soviet apparatus (Baltic states, Armenia) maintained far greater stability than territories where nationalists broke radically with existing institutions (Georgia, Azerbaijan and Chechnya). In particular, the failure of the Georgian government to control its armed formations directly led to the war with Abkhazia. (Although it is a shame that Zürcher does not discuss Doku Zavgayev, who in 1989 became the first Chechen First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, had a hand in the Russian invasion of Chechnya and then became Russia’s first counter-President of Chechnya. He is now the Russian ambassador to Slovenia.)

Zürcher also blames Soviet ethnofederalism for the Georgian wars, pointing out that Armenians and Azeris, who had no autonomous territory, made no attempt to secede from Georgia despite actually being more numerous than Ossetians and Abkhaz. But correlation is not causation, and there is a plausible alternative explanation. The existence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as distinct administrative units in the Soviet Union is a direct consequence of their political ambitions in the period 1917–1921. This same ambition then may have meant Abkhazia and South Ossetia were not willing to join an independent Georgian state in 1991.

In fact, even the correlation does not hold — Zürcher’s incomplete sample of post-Soviet wars leads to oversimplification. The cases of Nistria and Gagauzia in the Moldovan SSR show that administrative status in the Soviet Union was not a necessary condition for territories to declare independence when it dissolved.

And even if one does want to make the point that their administrative status was of crucial importance to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, blaming this situation on Soviet ethnofederalism suggests that leaving Abkhaz and Ossetians without an administrative territory was a historical plausible alternative, let alone the only alternative. This is doubtful at best, especially if one considers that Abkhazia at first enjoyed union republic status.

Finally, while Armenians and Azeris may have been more happy to become part of an independent Georgian state than were Abkhaz and Ossetians, the flat claim that “Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Georgia did not mobilize, and […] demonstrated no separatist tendencies” is not true.

While Zürcher critically evaluates the real explanatory power of the factors singled out by quantitative research as making war more likely, there are two inherent problems he fails to fully acknowledge. Firstly, if a war takes place between two territories, then where do we evaluate the presence of risk-factors? For the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, do we look at Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia, Azerbaijan or all three? And if the latter, what do we do if this gives conflicting results?

What use is it to assess the demographic situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Chechnya when Zürcher finds that ethnic relations remained remarkably peaceful until war was introduced by external forces? In fact, this may resolve one minor puzzle raised by Zürcher. According to quantitive research, ethnic diversity increases conflict risk, although as Zürcher points out, only if a territory has a dominant ethnic group that makes up 45% or more of its population. The common explanation of this finding is that an ethnic group will only be more keen for conflict if it can be confident to dominate the rest of society, and that it will otherwise be opposed by a coalition of other ethnic groups. Zürcher remarks that this makes a wrong prediction for Abkhazia, where it was Georgians who formed 45.7% of the population, with Abkhaz at 17.8% only. However, there is nothing surprising here if war was started by a Georgian invasion. And as predicted by theory, the other ethnic groups then mostly rallied around Abkhaz opposition to this invasion.

Secondly, it is actual military conflict we are concerned about, not just political conflict, but of the wars studied, all but the Karabakh war had a clear starting point. These were invasions by Russian (Chechnya) and Georgian (Abkhazia, South Ossetia) forces and a coup (the Georgian civil war). According to Zürcher, these invasions and the coup against Gamsakhurdia were all essentially due to internal politics. Doesn’t that mean then that ‘a desire to strengthen one’s domestic position’ is the main cause of war in the cases at hand?

This is especially relevant for the case of Adjara, where war was avoided. One might think that conflict risk was reduced by the fact that Adjarans speak Georgian and are now generally considered part of the Georgian nation, the main difference being religion (Adjarans are muslim) — perhaps not that salient in late Soviet times. However, Zürcher argues that there was enough distinctness left in Adjara for it to want to go its own way, plus the necessary state apparatus. Moreover, for quite some time, the situation actually deteriorated in parallel to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with rising tension, heated rhetoric and low-intensity violence. In the end, Zürcher attributes the avoidance of war to a mix of the persistence of communist elites, the succesful Georgification of Adjara in Soviet times, Aslan Abashidze’s personal character and chance. But while these are undoubtedly valid points, it seems that the overriding difference vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia was that Georgia didn’t send its troops into Adjara. The question then becomes why Georgia didn’t do so, but Zürcher doesn’t investigate the side that could have started war.

One could argue that one should focus on the side that declares independence, because such an act automatically triggers war. But that is not true. Chechen nationalism around 1990 can be said to have been no more radical than Georgian nationalism, and yet no Russo-Georgian war broke out. The relevant difference is that Russia accepted Georgia’s independence, but not Chechnya’s. For another example, consider once more Gagauzia. Its declaration of independence did not induce Moldova to start a war. It is probably not a coincidence that in 1995, Gagauzia was peacefully incorporated into the Moldovan Republic. Most independence declarations in the disintegrating Soviet Union did not lead to war, so the thought that Chechnya, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh willingly chose war by declaring independence is an oversimplification, due to the knowledge of what followed. (And Abkhazia hadn’t even declared independence, and was still actively seeking a political agreement with Georgia when the war started.)

While the study into the development of nationalism is certainly relevant, it is not clear whether in the cases where war is started by an invasion from one side, structural factors have any explanatory power. Of the wars Zürcher considers, only the Karabakh war did not have a clear start, with violence slowly spiralling out of control. Perhaps only in this case the question becomes pertinent what factors stimulated this process.

Finally, it would also have been useful to set the Georgian civil war apart from the other conflicts in The Post-Soviet Wars. Unlike the other wars, this was not an ethnic war over political status, and it also had a clear cause that calls into question the relevance of structural factors — the coup against Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In order to understand why this coup was followed by a war, it is not sufficient to look at Dagestan and Adjara — one would have to investigate similar situations that did not provoke a civil war, the most pertinent being the ousting from power of Abulfaz Elchibey in Azerbaijan.

All analyses can be argued with, so the fact that The Post-Soviet Wars invites criticism is not surprising. By going beyond mere description of the conflicts, Zürcher has taken a risk, with mixed results. But even if it is not definitive, The Post-Soviet Wars contains important insights, and Zürcher has provided a worthwhile contribution to the study of the Caucasian conflicts of the early 1990s.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Adjara, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Chechnya, Dagestan, Gagauzia, Georgia, Moldova, Nagorno Karabakh, Pridnestrovie, Russia, South Ossetia, ,

Book review: Georgisches Reisetagebuch by Jonathan Littell

Georgisches Reisetagebuch

Jonathan Littell
Translation: Hainer Kober

Berlin Verlag, Berlin
October 2008
56 pages
ISBN: 978-3-8270-0854-1

Georgisches Reisetagebuch is a translation into German and slight adaptation and extension of an article by the author Jonathan Littell, originally written in French for Le Monde 2 (the supplementary magazine now simply called M).

The book is Littell’s account of the situation on the ground in the immediate aftermath of the August 2008 war. Littell visits Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia and talks to various actors involved, tempering their conflicting views with valuable context and well-informed criticism (barring a single instance where Littell dismisses Eduard Kokoity’s Presidency as self-styled).

At 56 pages, and written soon after fighting had stopped, Georgisches Reisetagebuch cannot and does not intend to be a full account of the August 2008 war. Instead, it is exactly what it sets out to be, a very well written journalistic impression. Besides providing an accessible (and cheap, at €5,-) introduction to the conflict, it is most valuable for Littell’s first hand descriptions of prisoner exchange meetings and civilian suffering, in the form of ruined villages, burned corpses and a general feeling of insecurity.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Book reviews, Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, , ,

A reply to Popjanevski and Cornell

Last week Johanna Popjanevski and Svante Cornell released a report with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program (link), in which they detail the findings of their investigation into a series of (attempted) bomb attacks that hit Georgia between 2009 and 2011. These most notably include a car bomb on 5 May 2010 in Batumi killing a Interior Ministry official and seriously injuring his co-passenger, an explosion on 22 September 2010 near the Unites States embassy in Tbilisi and an explosion on 22 November 2010 outside the Labor Party headquarters which killed a 65 year old woman. Georgia has arrested and convicted a number of persons for these attacks, which it says testified that they had been acting upon the orders of Russian Security Service operatives stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

On 21 July 2011, the story was covered by Eli Lake in the Washington Times (link). This prompted rather sceptic reactions by Joshua Kucera at EurasiaNet (link), Joshua Faust at The Atlantic (link) and Daniel Larison at The American Conservative (link 1, link 2, link 3). Others, like Thomas de Waal writing for The National Interest (link 1, link 2) were convinced by the evidence, but argued that elements of the Russian ‘deep state’ must have been responsible, since the Russian leadership could not be so incompetent as to direct operations that do significant damage to Russia’s standing in the United States while having practically no effect on Georgia’s stability.

Popjanevsky and Cornell’s initial objective is to re-evaluate the evidence behind the alleged Russian involvement. To corroborate the findings of the Georgian investigation, Popjanevski and Cornell recast the bomb attacks in a wider context of security incidents between 2005 and 2011. They also interviewed a number of the people convicted for the attacks who implicated Russian security operatives during their investigations. The authors conclude that the Russian operatives must indeed have been responsible. Next, they consider the theory that while the attacks were planned by Russian operatives, these might not have been acting upon orders from Russia’s leadership, and end up rejecting it. Finally, they distil from their findings a series of recommendations to governments in the west.

In the end, the report does not contain a lot of new facts. The most significant finding is that the persons convicted for the attacks repeated their statements in interviews with the authors.

Popjanevski and Cornell do not investigate the possibility that the attacks might have been planned by the Georgian government itself. This may seem contrived. However, there is precedent. On 1 May 2008, an attack was staged on two minibuses in the Georgian village of Khurcha, close to the Abkhazian border. The minibuses came from Abkhazia and carried Georgian voters for the parliamentary elections that day. The attack injured 3 people, one of whom seriously. Georgia’s authorities alleged that the attack had been perpetrated by Abkhazian and Russian troops in order to disrupt the elections. However, a subsequent investigation by the Norwegian Helsinki Institute and the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) (link) revealed that the attack had instead been staged by Georgian troops. The minibuses had been driven not to the voting booths in Khurcha, but instead straight to the site of the incident, where they were targeted with grenades, under the eye of the media whose presence had conveniently been arranged beforehand.

This omission does not mean that the conclusion of Russian culpability is necessarily unwarranted. One strong piece of evidence consists of the Russian officer stationed in Abkhazia who on 3 October 2010 called the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) to ask about a non-existing train accident with casualties and the subsequent discovery of a bomb on the tracks four days later. A rather uncommitted statement by the EUMM (link) cast some doubt on the veracity of this story, but the authors claim that the phone call was confirmed to them by the EUMM. It appears that Russia is indeed responsible for some, if not many, of the incidents in the wider period between 2005 and 2011 listed in the report.

The authors conclude that the attacks cannot have been the work of rogue operatives, acting without direct consent from Russia’s leadership. They base this conclusion on the similarity of the explosives used, the large number of operatives implicated from two different security services, the large amount of money offered for one of the attacks ($50,000) and the opinions of a number of experts of Russia’s Security Services. Whether this is justified remains hard to judge.

If we grant Russian responsibility for the attacks, the question then is whether this warrants the recommendations by Popjanevski and Cornell, which boil down to: “Georgia is an innocent victim of Russian aggression so the west should renew and strengthen its support for Georgia”. The fact of the matter is that the conflicts in the Caucasus are played dirtily, by all sides involved. The authors give a whole list of security incidents in Georgia with alleged Russian involvement. But they conveniently ignore similar security incidents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia with alleged Georgian involvement. In June and July of 2008, a total of five bomb attacks (link) hit Abkhazia in the middle of the tourist season. The attacks targeted markets, railway tracks and security structures in the border Gali District, killed 4 and injured 18. On 29 January 2010, a mine blast in the Gali District (link) killed 3 and injured 7. Finally, Valmer Butba, one of the people implicated in the confessions in the report, was assassinated in the night of 28 and 29 December 2010 (link).

These are only three in a long list of bomb attacks and targeted assassinations of officials, which seem to have abated in recent times only. Georgia clearly profits: the attacks harm tourism and therefore economic recovery in Abkhazia, they hinder normalisation, state building and integration in the Gali District and they allow Georgia to call for international troop presence. And note that Abkhazia’s authorities do not (as one might think) gratuitously accuse Georgia for every security incident that takes place — they did not, for example, when Deputy Interior Minister Zakan Jugelia was assassinated (link) or following any one of the six assassination attempts (link) on President Alexander Ankvab. Without a proper investigation, we cannot know for certain whether Georgia is responsible for any of the incidents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But it seems extremely premature to portray Georgia as an innocent victim of Russian aggression.

It does not help that Popjanevski and Cornell take a very politicised stance in their report, of which it suffices to give just a few examples. The authors adopt the ridiculous Georgian claims that Russia has been occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia since August 2008 and that Russia should want to destroy Georgia’s political system merely because it is afraid of the democratic example it sets. This latter claim is squarely contradicted by another claim of the authors, namely that Russia is behind the April 2010 revolution against President Bakiyev, which has made Kyrgyzstan a more democratic place. It is also contradicted by the continuing development of democracy in Abkhazia, which, after all, the authors claim is occupied by Russia.

The authors also mention the Russian invasion of Georgia during the August 2008 war, but they ignore the fact that this was a direct reaction to Georgia’s attack on Tskhinval, the capital of South Ossetia. Likewise, one of the security incidents included is the shoot-down of a Georgian spy drone over Abkhazia by an initially unidentified fighter jet on 21 April 2008. The authors point out that the subsequent UNOMIG fact finding report established that the fighter jet had been Russian, but they omit another finding of the report, namely that the use of the unmanned drones had itself constituted a violation of the 1994 cease fire.

That Georgia may not be as innocent as portrayed by Popjanevski and Cornell does of course not mean that we should accept these attacks to and fro as facts of life, or that the west should not raise security incidents with Russia if it has sufficient evidence of Russian involvement. But the authors are right in suggesting that more substantive measures are needed to bring real peace to the region. One of their proposals is that the west should pressure Russia to allow the EUMM access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is vain, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will never allow the presence of international troops under a mandate that treats them as part of Georgia. Instead, the west needs to come to terms with the situation on the ground. The conflicts are decided, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will simply not give up their independence.

The West has to normalise the international positions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as has been done for Kosovo, Northern Cyprus, Taiwan and other places whose sovereignty remains contested. Firstly, the west should strive to end the embargo of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to the point where trade and demographic mobility might make bomb attacks disadvantageous for all sides involved. Secondly, the west wants a lot of things: minority rights, the return of refugees and security for civilians, but it is unwilling to deal with the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is impossible, the west cannot have it both ways. It can only appeal to their responsibility and bind them to international agreements if it accepts the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as legitimate partners.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Georgia, Reports, Russia, South Ossetia, United States of America, ,

South Ossetia’s post-election struggle refocuses on March rerun

The post-election stand-off in South Ossetia between rightful winner Alla Dzhioyeva and the authorities seemed to come to an end with the agreement reached on Friday 9 December. However, while most of the agreement’s letter was adhered to, its spirit was violated.

As provisioned, Alla Dzhioyeva called on her supporters to stop their protests, she called off her inauguration and she publicly accepted the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the election invalid and to schedule a March rerun, in exchange for her being allowed to participate therein. However, while President Kokoity did as agreed dismiss Chief Prosecutor Taimuraz Khugayev and Chairman of the Supreme Court Atsamaz Bichenov, ratification of these dismissals was voted down on Wednesday 15 December by Parliament, controlled by Kokoity’s Unity party. Furthermore, Kokoity appointed several of his allies to the cabinet and to a newly resurrected Constitutional Court. Finally, neither Dzhioyeva nor any of her allies were appointed to the government, although it is unclear whether this was part of the final agreement.

While these actions prompted Dzhioyeva’s supporters to resume protests, these seem to have been half-hearted at best. Dzhioyeva herself raised Kokoity’s violations of the agreement with its guarantor, the Russian Embassy, but was rebuffed. It appears then that despite the fact that she has received far less out of the deal than she had hoped for, Dzhioyeva has resigned herself to a repeat election. The biggest worry for her is whether the election will be as fair as the first time and whether at least the clause that guarantees her right to participate in the rerun will be honoured. In this respect, it is especially worrying that the Head of the Supreme Court has remained in place and that Kokoity now also has allies of his control a Constitutional Court. In addition, March is a long time away and Dzhioyeva may find it hard to rekindle public outrage when her participation is ruled out in February.

That said, the deal did achieve one thing for Dzhioyeva. Kokoity resigned as President on Saturday 10 December (3 days after his term formally expired) and was replaced by Prime Minister Vadim Brovtsev who is Acting President until a new President is sworn in. Brovtsev is Russia’s man, and certainly not a friend of Kokoity’s. That means that as before, South Ossetia is still facing a three-way struggle. Russia controls the Presidency and can exert strong external pressure. Kokoity controls the institutions (Parliament, Supreme and Constitutional Court) and thus the legal playing field. The opposition has the people’s support and it is the only side with a credible candidate.

At the moment, Kokoity’s position looks strongest, which is a remarkable come-back given that none of the original election’s second round’s candidates were his. But the struggle can probably be won by any two sides that decide to cooperate. It is unlikely that this will be Kokoity and the opposition, so it is up to Russia to make up its mind as to whether it prefers a continuation of Kokoity’s corrupt and ineffectual regime, or it is prepared to admit its past mistakes and give the opposition a chance.

Filed under: Elections, Russia, South Ossetia, , , , , , ,

Snow Revolution or South Ossetian Winter?

So it has come to this. For a short while, South Ossetia’s Presidential election looked like a total win. The polling wasn’t merely quite free and fair, South Ossetia’s electorate actually handed a preliminary 56.74% second round majority to Alla Dzhioyeva, the opposition candidate, against Anatoly Bibilov, the candidate openly endorsed not only by autocratic President Kokoity and his Unity party, but also by Russia’s government (whose President Medvedev went so far as to schedule a personal meeting with Bibilov). Alas, before long the election descended into chaos after all.

After the publication of the preliminary results which indicated Dzhioyeva’s victory, the Unity party filed a complaint with the Supreme Court saying that Dzhioyeva’s campaign had engaged in voter intimidation, which the Supreme Court promptly ruled in favour of. It forbade the Central Election Commission to publish the second round’s final results, it ordered the Parliament to set a date for a repeat election, and it barred Dzhioyeva from participating therein.

Quite understandably, Dzhioyeva and her supporters have not accepted the Supreme Court’s ruling. And quite rightly, given that election observers declared the election more or less free and fair. So the situation has developed into a stand-off, with Dzhioyeva’s supporters on the streets in protest, and Kokoity and Moscow declaring that the Supreme Court’s ruling must be respected.

The current situation carries a strong sense of déjà vu, being so very similar to Abkhazia’s ‘Tangerine Revolution’ in the autumn of 2004. One would have thought that Russia’s authorities had learned from that experience, and given its non-interference in Abkhazia’s election this past August, it did seem that way. South Ossetia is even more dependent on Russian support than Abkhazia, its inhabitants probably consider Russia even more favourably, and South Ossetia is of less geopolitical interest to Russia to Abkhazia. So for all intents and purposes, the outcome of the election should have been much less important to Russia than the fact that they were conducted credibly. After all, the credibility of Russia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia squarely rests on the credibility of their respective state projects.

So what exactly does Russia think it is doing? Perhaps Russian officials were so fed up with the massive misuse of aid funds under Kokoity that despite the past negative experience in Abkhazia they decided to openly endorse someone they believed would be able to manage things properly, Bibilov. And perhaps they simply didn’t trust Dzhioyeva to do a good enough job. It is also possible that Moscow’s current insistence that the ruling of South Ossetia’s Supreme Court be respected reflects a genuine desire not to interfere in internal affairs. But that is a very charitable reading of events, and it is much more likely that in the reported words of Moskovsky Komsomolets editorial, the Russian officials responsible are not merely bastards, but morons.

Given the familiarity of the scenario that is enrolling now, current events have already been labelled the Snow Revolution, a designation that is perhaps not very catchy, but very fitting given the meteorological backdrop of Dzhioyeva’s vigil. Yet despite the very similar set-up, there are some important differences in comparison to the Tangerine Revolution in Abkhazia. Unfortunately for Dzhioyeva, South Ossetia’s parliament and all the Republic’s top officials seem securely on the hand of Kokoity and Bibilov. In 2004, Abkhazia’s Parliament and its Vice President favoured opposition candidate Bagapsh, while the security services declared their neutrality. The current legal situation is also different. There is now a Supreme Court ruling that is not easily overturned, whereas in Abkhazia in 2004, Khajimba’s supporters merely forced the Central Election Commission to issue revised results, a decision that could easily be undone once more. So while Dzhioyeva may be an excellent personification of a people patiently but adamantly refusing to have its will be denied, she is facing a formidable challenge. Instead of a Snow revolution, her people may simply face a South Ossetian Winter.

On the other hand, there are also difference that speak in favour of a positive outcome. The election result and the injustice is much clearer now than during the Tangerine Revolution in 2004, when Bagapsh scored a mere 50.08% majority, when the participation of Mingrelian voters was indeed questionable from a constitutional point of view and when the alternative was a comparatively reasonable second round run-off. Also, whereas in 2004, outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba was the father of the Abkhazian nation and his words carried a lot of weight, South Ossetia’s President Kokoity is an upshot ex-wrestler who enjoys little respect. Finally, South Ossetia is notoriously small, its population in the tens of thousands. In such a small community, where everyone knows everyone, including officials, it will prove hard to ignore the determined will of the people when it feels it has been subjected to a grave injustice.

Maurice Bonnot of the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris expressed the problem very elegantly: South Ossetia’s political actors need to learn how to lose.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Elections, Russia, South Ossetia, , , , , ,

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