Georgia: next?

So the Russians are saying they’ll withdraw from Georgia Real Soon Now. Meanwhile Moscow has signed treaties of mutual defense with the, you know, totally independent and sovereign nations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If Georgia makes a move — or something that Moscow thinks is a move, or wants to think is a move — Russia will intervene again, with as much force as it thinks appropriate.

Meanwhile Georgia, of course, has renewed its national commitment to recovering the lost territories. This includes building up its military, continued pursuit of NATO membership, and sucking up massive amounts of foreign aid from anyone who will give it, most notably the US.

Apropos of which, here’s a recent article in EurasiaNet that lays out some options: continued occupation a la Turkish Cyprus (most likely), formal partition, and internationalization (currently very unlikely, but who knows).

It’s a decent summary, but I do disagree with a few of the good professor’s points:

Under the first and most likely scenario, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will remain recognized by Russia and a handful of other countries, such as Nicaragua, that wish to curry favor with Moscow. We could refer to this as the “Cyprus model.” Under this arrangement, Russia ensures the dependency of the breakaway territories by stationing a permanent military contingent and keeping the de facto governments isolated from Georgia.

Actually, the breakaway territories have always been dependent on Russia. South Ossetia is landlocked and desperately poor; its government and economy are entirely dependent on Russia and have been since 1992. Abkhazia is in better shape, but only relatively; almost all of their trade is with Russia, and they too are heavily subsidized.

In the case of Cyprus, the Turkish military intervention of 1974 was followed by a relatively stable three decades, during which a sizable contingent of Turkish troops was stationed in the self-proclaimed Turkish Northern Republic of Cyprus (TRNC). During this time the sequestered TRNC languished, while the Greek-Cypriot part of the island developed rapidly, culminating in its admission to the European Union 30 years later.

The Cyprus model is less likely to stabilize Georgia. Unlike Cyprus or Northern Ireland, Georgia and the breakaway territories have no realistic hope of being absorbed by the European Union…

Perpetual unrecognized status also would have destructive economic consequences. Unable to forge “normal” economic ties with the world due to an international embargo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be forced to depend exclusively on Russian aid packages and fiscal transfers. Without official aid from international economic institutions, the de facto authorities and their security services would be forced to operate within the illicit economy and would exploit their unregulated legal status to engage in smuggling, trafficking and money laundering.

Feature, not bug. Russia has no interest in Abkhazia and South Ossetia being prosperous developing liberal economies with access to World Bank technical assistance and IMF loans. Russia likes having economically shaky gangster states for clients. Look at the last ten years in the North Caucasus. Or, for that matter, 1945-89 in Eastern Europe. Russian armies have installed and supported lot of regimes in various places over the last couple of centuries, and there is a pretty consistent trend.

What’s interesting — and sort of depressing — is that the war seems to have damaged the prospects for liberal democracy for all four parties. Not that those prospects were bright in Russia or South Ossetia anyhow, but still: all the participants are seeing a tightening of press controls, a strengthening of the nationalist line, and a general boost to the authoritarian pretensions of the current ruling class. And this is likely to get worse before it gets better… if it ever does get better.

17 thoughts on “Georgia: next?

  1. The West’s main advantage here is that most people (in fact, anyone with any sense) prefer Western levels of wealth and freedom to Russian levels of the same.

    So the West needs to pump lots of money into Georgia, to make it prosperous. (We also need to send them guns, to defend themsleves from further Russian aggression). Then the Abkhazians and Ossetians will be able to compare and contrast their poverty with Georgian wealth.

    Hopefully, the lesson will not be lost in other places that might have to chose between Russia and Europe, such as Ukraine, Crimea, Transnistria, and Kaliningrad.

  2. Maybe South Ossetia is doomed to become a gangster state. But Abkhazia may have a better future. After all, many Abkhaz believe that they legitimately fought for their independence with the help of their Circassian brethren. Also, remember that Sergei Bagapsh isn’t the Moscow puppet that people think he is. He was not the Kremlin’s choice in the recent elections, after all. And the government in Sukhumi has wanted to seek ties with the Circassian diaspora.

  3. Bagapsh might not have been a puppet before, but now he’s in the firm embrace of Moscow, he’s going to find that he will have to do what Putin says. Or else.

  4. Pingback: Davos Newbies » Blog Archive » Whatever happened to we’re all Georgians?

  5. I don’t think “Kaliningrad” can be placed in the same category as Transnistria or Ukraine. Kaliningrad is already part of Russia. Transnistria, OTOH, is de jure part of Moldova, even as de facto it is independent.

    For Kaliningrad, the choice – Europe or Russia – has already been made.

  6. Herr Muir, you continue to mix-up Russia and Soviet Union “regimes’. The difference is, arguably not as dramatic, as between Germany and Nazi Germany.

  7. Yes, good analogy! Because, you know, Conrad Adenauer was a former Oberstgruppenfuehrer of the SD.

    Modern Russia isn’t the USSR, but there’s a very high degree of continuity in terms of personnel, institutional culture, and unofficial ideology. The Soviet Union was not a detour.

    Doug M.

  8. Replace word “Russia with “USA”; “Abkazia” and “South Ossetia” with “Kosovo” to be able to understand the source of the model adapted by Russians.

  9. Vitaliy: For Kaliningrad, the choice – Europe or Russia – has already been made.

    For the moment. Borders in Europe are not exactly static, are they? It would make sense for Europe and the US to encourage Kaliningrad separatism, because:

    1. it would mean a better future for the people of Kaliningrad.

    2. it would move the border between the Soviet Union Russian Federation and the free world eastwards.

    3. it would make Putin look weak and ineffectual.

    4. it would encourage Russian-speaking minorities in other places (Baltic states, Ukraine, Transnistria, etc) to look towards Europe instead of Russia.

  10. Kaliningrad is much more proseprous than any other federal region, save Moscow and Piter.

    And we’re going by the assumption that the Kremlin will always house autocrats. Meh, I don’t like assuming anything.

  11. Related To Shelley Winters: Kaliningrad is much more prosperous than any other federal region

    This article suggests it is not very prosperous. Though that does not preclude it from being more prosperous than the rest of the sick joke that is Russia, of course.

    And I bet Kaliningrad is a good deal poorer than the EU average.

    And we’re going by the assumption that the Kremlin will always house autocrats. Meh, I don’t like assuming anything.

    I think it will house autocrats for the forseeable future, i.e. the next 10-15 years.

  12. Pingback: Democratization Policy Council » Blog Archive » The case for western pressure on Georgia

  13. Hi Doug,

    I found the EurasiaNet article rather superficial and I don’t think they get close to the real picture:
    – since Kosovo Russia doesn’t believe in “international peacekeepers” anymore. And they might well be right in the sense that a US-led international administration in South Ossetia and Abkhazia would work towards re-assimilation into Georgia the same way they worked towards independence in Kosovo.
    – refugee return is a difficult issue in both regions. Abkhazia has the problem that the ruling Abkhazians become a minority when all Georgians return – so there will need to be some political agreement first. In the case of South Ossetia the largest number of refugees are the Ossetians who have fled from Georgia proper. South Ossetians are unlikely to accept refugee returns until they see their own folk return in large numbers to Georgia proper. So I think that the chance for real refugee returns is even smaller than in Kosovo.

    As for the economy, I think Abkhazia has quite some potential for tourism from Russia. Given that they will like to have tourists from Georgia too I think they will feel some urgency to find a compromise with Georgia. South Ossetia is isolated, but with only 100,000 inhabitants it isn’t very expensive for Russia.

    When write about “gangster states” is not exactly clear for me what you mean, Doug. Are you thinking about dictatorships or about countries living from serving the world’s underworld? In the last class you can also count Liechtenstein, the Bahama’s, the Caymans and to a certain extend Switzerland. Or are you simply talking about those regions about which it is politically correct to talk in a denigrating way.


  14. Well, this is just wrong all sorts of ways.

    1) You keep suggesting that the Russians are disillusioned in international peacekeeping because of their awful experience in Kosovo. Well… no. Russia /never/ trusted international peacekeepers with the disputed territories. That’s why there never have been any there.

    Russia didn’t trust peacekeepers in Kosovo, either. Remember the Russian troops from Bosnia rushing there in 1999?

    They eventually accepted UNMIK, under the fig leaf of UNSCR 1244 — but they didn’t “believe” in them then, and never have since. Yeltsin’s administration grudgingly accepted UNMIK because 1) Yeltsin didn’t want a confrontation with the West, and 2) Yeltsin’s Russia was stone broke.

    So, trying to say that poor Russia has been dreadfully disappointed by what happened in Kosovo is just weirdly wrong.

    2) You say that refugee return is unlikely. In fact, it’s impossible. In Abkhazia in particular, most of the current ruling elite got rich by taking over the abandoned properties of ethnic Georgians. So, even before the current unpleasantness, there was pretty much zero chance of refugees coming back.

    And although it hasn’t gotten much press attention, the recent violence produced two more waves of refugee. A few thousand Georgians were living in a border area of Abkhazia; they’re gone now. A few thousand more were living in villages dotted across South Ossetia, including some within a few kilometers of Tsikhinvali; they’re gone too, dead or fled.

    So, no, no refugee return.

    3) “They will like to have tourists from Georgia too”?

    Um… no. Really, no. The Abkhaz have spent the last sixteen years whipping themselves into hating and fearing the Georgians. It’s pretty much institutionalized at this point. They want nothing to do with Georgia.

    Abkhazia’s economic potential is an interesting question. It does have some, but much of the tourism is playing on Soviet-era nostalgia. If you’re starting in Moscow, there are a lot of places that are warmer, cheaper, and easier to reach than Abkhazia.

    4) South Ossetia has zero economic potential for anything beyond agriculture and a bit of herding and timber. It’s not even a particularly beautiful or interesting part of the Caucasus. It would be poor and backwards whether it was part of Russia or Georgia; either way it would be landlocked, isolated, underpopulated, run by people with little interest in developing it, and completely devoid of natural resources.

    5) ‘When write about “gangster states” is not exactly clear for me what you mean’

    Well, in the case of South Ossetia I mean a state run by gangsters”. Try google for “South Ossetia counterfeiting”, “South Ossetia smuggling”, “South Ossetia criminal” or — I kid you not — “South Ossetia uranium”.

    Eduard Kokoity is a gangster, plain and simple. He was involved in a variety of unsavory biznis in 1990s Moscow, then came back to Ossetia to be the public face of one of the major local clan-militia-political faction-gangs there. He turned on them in 2003, leading to pitched gun battles in the center of Tsikhinvali; he won, killed or drove out all his rivals, and has been ruling the place without opposition ever since.

    In Transnistria the leadership is less dramatic but just as criminal. Pretty much everything worth owning in Transnistria belongs to one of three groups. They are President Smirnov’s immediate family (Tranistrians joke that the Russian acronym for Transnistria, PMR, stands for “Papa i Moi Republika”, Daddy’s and My Republic), the Sherriff Group of biznismen, and brutal thug-oligarch Alisher Ulmanov, a Friend Of Putin, who holds the balance between the other two. Most of Transnistria’s formal leadership, including President Smirnov, three members of his cabinet, and the head of the security services, is either under investigation or being actively sought by Interpol: they can’t travel to Europe because they’d be arrested as soon as they got off the plane.

    And — as noted in the article — Russia is fine with this. In fact, the only one of the three border regions that has given them trouble is Abkhazia… and that’s because the Abkhaz, despite being heavily gangsterized at every level of governmen and society, nevertheless insisted on having actual elections, which the wrong candidate won. But that ended up being settled more or less to Moscow’s satisfaction, so all was well.

    So, yah: gangster states. Run by and for a criminal elite, without free elections, a free press, or any chance for enterprise that’s not either owned by the guys in power or massively paying them off, and with the overt or implicit threat of violence backing the continued tenure of the current government.

    Doug M.

  15. Doug, it seems that we agree – if for different reasons – that refugee returns won’t work.

    As for Georgian tourism to Abkhazia, I live in Holland and we have quite a lot of German tourists here. After Germany has lost WW II in 1945 we had a short dip but after that tourism took up again. People are quite practical in these kinds of things.


Comments are closed.