[Recent rhetorical clashes between Georgia and Russia demonstrate the continuing fragility of talks on self-determination for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite pressure from the European Union and United States to resolve post-Soviet conflicts over these and other territories, the prospects for solutions seem unlikely in the near term.
Following are two interviews that examine these conflicts from a pro-Russian perspective. The first is an interview with Abkhazian leader Sergey Bagapsh. Headlined “ ‘We’re not such idiots as to reject Russia,’ ” it was published 18 June on the Russian news site Utro.ru.
The second is an interview with Mikhail Demurin, a political analyst and former Russian Foreign Ministry official. The ex-diplomat expounded his view of the problem of the unrecognized republics in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta. It was published 16 June under the headline “Uniting the Un-unitable.”]
‘WE’RE NOT SUCH IDIOTS AS TO REJECT RUSSIA’
[Utro:] Abkhazia has announced a multivector policy. What are you putting into this concept?
[Sergey Bagapsh:] Our position is invariable: we are oriented toward Russia. And all the discussions of a “reorientation” can be explained by the early start to the election campaign. Both here and in Russia, there are people who live on elections past and like to stir up a situation. They write that by receiving Georgian envoys Bagapsh was calling for not mixing Russia up in Georgian-Abkhazian relations. But we’re not even close to having those conversations. I don’t believe we should make Russia into a party in the conflict or involve it in the peace dialogue on such a negative level. But a peace settlement process is impossible without Russia.
But there is no such thing as a state, big or small, having a one-sided policy. We receive envoys and “friends of the UN general secretary,” and as a party to the conflict we talk with [EU foreign policy chief] Javier Solana and the U.S. envoy. We can’t help but receive these people. That doesn’t mean we’re changing our orientation. People used to shout about how Bagapsh was driving the military together, that they had “gobbled up” Abkhazia and now were singing a new tune about how they couldn’t live without Russia. But both the state and the opposition are united in the opinion that we have no friend besides Russia. You can’t keep constantly avowing what you believe in and what you live by. Otherwise people think that all the time you’re talking about that you’re thinking something else. We can’t shut ourselves up like spiders in a jar and breathe through a straw. That doesn’t happen in politics. We now have excellent relations with the Russian leadership and its regions. That’s great progress. However, we can’t always be asking for their assistance to develop our economy. We ourselves have to work. Although Russia is, of course, helping us. I have asked several times for an increase in its peacekeeping contingent, speaking out categorically against its withdrawal. I have never said anywhere that we are oriented toward America or Europe, and I have indicated the multi-vector quality of our policy in an address to parliament. At the same time we have to talk with Turkey, where our diaspora is. We’re prepared to talk to anyone who is prepared to talk to us as equals. There can be no other policy.
[Utro:] Does the early start of the election campaign in Abkhazia threaten an increase in tension, like the last time, when things came close to armed confrontations?
[Bagapsh:] I don’t think things will reach the point of escalation. It’s a different situation today. Naturally, the so-called opposition is still against everything. Their statements in the media have nothing but mud in them. But I realize that since we’re building a democratic society we have to suffer through this. Remember the mud that poured down in Russia in the 1990s, but little by little everything stabilized. An opposition should be constructive. Then the state makes fewer mistakes. But the criticism should not spill over into antagonism, hatred for the state, and insults. So we’re demonstrating patience. The state has to prove its competence not with a polemic with the press but by what it builds – the economy, policy, nursery schools, hospitals, homes, and roads.
There are reasons to criticize us. The republic has a million problems. We have thieves and corrupt officials. We need to solve the crime problem, slow the decline in industrial production, and solve the problems of agriculture. Abkhazia needs a base for the economy’s development. After all, an agrarian sector based on horses is no longer possible. We have provided a MTS [machine-tractor station] with tractors and raised pensions by a factor of 10. A Hero of Abkhazia receives a pension of 3,000 rubles [$127]. This was accomplished in three years’ time.
[Utro:] Have they offered you recognition in exchange for rejecting your pro-Russian orientation? Are Tbilisi’s initiatives acceptable for Abkhazia?
[Bagapsh:] Never in our lives will we accept these proposals. Abkhazia is never going to be a part of Georgia again. This is a closed topic for us, something I said directly to Javier Solana, the special representative from Great Britain, and the friends of the UN general secretary. Solana wanted to act as intermediary in the negotiations process, to which we said specifically that there would be no dialogue without Russia. The conversation with [U.S. Deputy Assistance Secretary of State Matthew] Bryza was difficult all around. His statements only made the situation worse. We reacted harshly as well to the provocative role of the Baltic countries. I told the Lithuanian envoy outright, “What peacekeeping process are you butting into? With what forces? Our army is stronger than yours. We’re not going to let anyone in here but Russia.” God forbid Russia ever leaves here. First of all, this is war, and secondly, then we’ll be on the border. There’s no other option. But I’m not giving voice to this always or everywhere.
We have been approached about financial assistance, humanitarian programs, and economic issues. I asked Solana outright where they’ve been for the last 15 years. We’ve been dying of hunger and our children have been sick. But other than Russia, no one came here. When people were being fired on and killed in the partition zone, no one stood up to defend the peace but the Russian soldiers who died here. But today everyone’s become so noble in order to render assistance to Georgia. It’s all nonsense, and no one in Abkhazia is going to agree to it.
[Utro:] Still, where do the rumors about certain negotiations come from?
[Bagapsh:] Previously, rumors were spread about my pro-Georgian attitude, and now they’re unhappy with my pro-Russian focus. If I become pro-American, they’ll be unhappy, too. There’s no fooling around in Abkhazia, and our policy has been defined very precisely, once and for all. There aren’t going to be any behind-the-scenes talks. We have the right to broadcast our position in the international arena. But we are not accepted, unlike Georgia. I told Solana that when two people fight, a good intermediary hears out both sides and then draws his conclusions. “But you’re just listening to Georgia. Coming to Abkhazia, you thought bearded men with submachine guns were leaping from vine to vine here.” Solana admitted that we were an ordinary state with civilized citizens.
[Utro:] Tbilisi viewed the introduction of Russian railroad troops as an act of aggression. Explain Abkhazia’s position.
[Bagapsh:] We have large reserves of high-quality crushed stone that has to be delivered for the Olympic sites [in Sochi, Russia]. Shipment by sea is impossible; neither we nor Adler [Airport near Sochi] are prepared. We’re talking about an insane quantity (25-30 million cubic meters) of crushed stone. We turned to Russia to restore the railroad. If we did that through the RAO [Russian joint-stock company] RZhD [Russian Railroads], a commercial structure, it would be very expensive. Therefore we decided to restore the railroad quickly on the Ochamchira, Gagry, and other segments. The railroad is one of the main sectors of any economy. Without it it’s impossible to develop the state or bring in freight and goods.
You can’t turn everything into politics. We have no plans to fight Georgia by railroad, so they can calm down. There aren’t even cross-ties yet between Ochamchira and Gal.
[Utro:] What is the Sochi Olympics’ security formula going to look like with respect to Abkhazia?
[Bagapsh:] We’ve done a lot of work on security for the air space. From now on we are going to be knocking down these [unmanned aircraft]. No question. We’re strengthening the border. As our partner, the Russian state is creating several belts of security. After all, besides Georgia there are Wahhabites, terrorists, and forces that are going to try to set up a provocation. For Russia and for us, holding the Olympics means a surge and forward movement. And no one is allowed to speculate on this. Georgia isn’t going to do anything; it’s going to sit quietly inside its borders – and receive a harsh response to provocations. There are no prospects for working out the issue of Abkhazia and its status via the Olympics because we have defined our status independently of the Olympics and Kosovo.
[Utro:] Are people in Abkhazia disappointed with the lack of recognition after Kosovo’s declaration of independence?
[Bagapsh:] Long before Kosovo, understanding the full situation, I stated that its independence was not the main thing for us. Moreover, I’m against Russia going and recognizing Abkhazia right away to spite the United States or the EU. Like the South Ossetians, we’re trying to get ours by legal right. No one expected the instant recognition of Abkhazia. Putin has been carefully maintaining this line. He did not say that Russia was recognizing Abkhazia. But if they recognized Kosovo, then Russia, as a great power, has its own intermediates. Look at the uproar raised after the [Russian Federation] president’s instruction that people in Abkhazia should live more simply, that the border be opened, that traffic start, freight and goods. I explained to Solana that our children needed medical treatment and medicines had to be brought into Abkhazia. And I reminded him once again that without Russia neither the European Union nor anyone else would be participating in the region’s restoration. In any agreements, only one side will act as guarantor for Abkhazia: Russia. Period.
[Utro:] Why are negotiations with Georgia at an impasse? Are Abkhazia and Georgia threatened with permanent confrontation?
[Bagapsh:] I think this is going to be a long confrontation. And no one should delude himself on this score because for any ruler of Georgia the Abkhazian and South Ossetian issue is going to be basic. It’s going to be hard to reach an agreement. And this is not Russia’s fault. They got along without the UN Security Council when they were cutting Yugoslavia to bits. No one asked any questions when they brought troops into Iraq. If the United States has geostrategic interests in the post-Soviet space, can’t Russia have them in Abkhazia? Especially since we share a border. But the present and subsequent generations in Georgia are going to have a different attitude towards Abkhazia. They’re going to understand what was done here. When people talk about returning refugees, I send them to [former Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze, who started this war. They should have figured all this out then.
Everything that’s happened to Abkhazia and its people is the fault of Georgia, which has to pay for this. The refugees are poor people who instead of being rehabilitated, adapted to Georgian society, and drawn into peaceful life, are being tortured in Georgia. We aren’t violating anything by gradually returning people – so far just to Galskiy Rayon [district on the border with Georgia proper], according to the agreements. But we are already hearing that Georgia is getting ready to quit the Moscow agreement. Why hold talks if tomorrow they’re going to violate the agreements? Therefore, there aren’t going to be any talks until the withdrawal of Georgian troops from the Kodori Gorge and the signing of an agreement about the nonrenewal of military actions. That’s why the Russian peacekeepers aren’t going anywhere. Georgia is reacting to the Russians like a bull to a red flag because they want to use the peacekeepers’ hands to force Abkhazia to solve Georgia’s own territorial issue. But the peacekeepers’ mission is to prevent a war.
[Utro:] How do you assess Russia’s role in the conflict?
[Bagapsh:] It has a restrained and precise position. Russia has absolutely no need of confrontations in the South Caucasus. Russia is a country close to us. There are things that we coordinate with the [Russian Interior Ministry]. Otherwise we could do something here that would bring about a clash of interests for big Russia, Turkey, the United States, NATO, and the European Union. Little Abkhazia has to solve this situation in a smart and elegant way. We have the Russian ruble, Russian peacekeepers, and Russian language instruction. We aren’t such idiots as to reject Russia. Even the opposition can’t do that.
[Utro:] Is a pro-Georgian opposition possible in Abkhazia?
[Bagapsh:] Naturally not. We have a nongovernmental organization, an NGO. But they are no less patriots than the people in power. They help children’s institutions, the development of sports, and the restoration of housing. We are building an independent state as a subject of international law that obeys the international rules of the game. And the obligations of a small state are sometimes greater than its privileges.
[Utro:] People in Russia are worried that the return of the makhadzhirs [forced exiles] to Abkhazia might lead to the society’s Islamicization.
[Bagapsh:] There are such worries. But let’s not forget that these are our brothers. We can’t say no to those who want to return here. We have to prevent anything negative. In all these years, 300-400 people have returned. Some open a business here. Some fought here and acquired families. At the same time, we are restoring the Novo-Afonskiy [monastery] complex and our churches, because Abkhazia is an Orthodox country. But we will never reject those wishing to return from Turkey because there are so few of us and we are having problems with demographics. So far there have been few wishing to return. There are many more citizens of the Russian Federation who are getting established here and investing their money in various industries in the republic. This is a normal process.
[Utro:] How is the issuing of passports going for Galskiy Rayon?
[Bagapsh:] We have set up a system, although we spent a long time deciding how to do it. Many people have old passports with Georgian stamps. Therefore we have started work on exchanging passports. After verification, residents are issued Abkhaz passports.
[Utro:] Thank you for the interview.
‘UNITING THE UN-UNITABLE: UNRECOGNIZED REPUBLICS REMAIN TERRITORIES OF RUSSIA’S HISTORICAL RESPONSIBILITY’
[Nezavisimaya Gazeta interviewer Marina Perevozkina:] Mikhail Vasilyevich, how do you assess the Kremlin’s policy with regard to the unrecognized republics? It does not seem to be distinguished by its consistency. What is the reason for this?
[Demurin:] It seems to me that the main flaw in the policy of our country’s leaders with regard to the problem of the states on the Soviet space which have declared independence, is the incorrect angle from which they consider it. A solution is sought by looking for reactions to external challenges, while this problem should be approached from the point of view of domestic challenges and, to be precise, of the main one of these, the need for very swift and clear national self-determination. In my view, Russia now needs to show restraint in everything concerning the current foreign policy environment, and even in major problems with no direct relation to this self-determination, and to actively defend its position when matters that have a direct influence on our reconstruction as a great nation and one of the cultural and historic poles of the modern world are under discussion. The situation developing around the problem of the bids for independence by the Dniester Republic, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, including as projected onto the problem of the proclamation of Kosovo’s independence, is a case where there would have been a point in Russia placing paramount importance in such an approach. Everything is important here: both the historical circumstances behind the formation of these states as parts of a larger state – the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union – and establishing the legal impropriety with which the former union republics that these territories were part of left the USSR. It needs to be said that the pan-union law, which, if the question of it leaving the USSR was raised, obliged the union republic to ensure that a referendum was held on the issue in the autonomous entities that were part of it and to respect the results, a law, which was ignored by the leaders of the former union republics, was one of the few manifestations of the best world political tradition during those troubled years and, to be precise – the rule of small ethnic groups being protected by the core ethnic group in multi-ethnic states, most frequently empires, from repression by medium-sized groups.
The development of events in the post-Soviet space since 1991 has shown how well-founded the need for such protection was and remains. It is just that the core ethnic group has renounced its role. So these territories still remain territories for which Russia has a historical responsibility. And that is how formulating policy in this area should be approached. No policy of “fait accompli” can change anything here.
[Perevozkina:] During recent times, the West has become noticeably more active in Abkhazia and the Dniester Republic. EU representatives and American Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza visited Abkhazia, following which rumors started to circulate about certain secret accords between Washington and Sukhumi. A meeting took place in Europe between the speakers of the parliaments of Moldova and the Dniester region, moreover the visa ban – which was introduced for the entire Dniester region leadership – was lifted for [parliamentary leader] Yevgeniy Shevchuk to enable the meeting to take place.
[Demurin:] I do not think that clear-headed politicians in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Dniester region and Nagorno-Karabakh have harbored any illusions about Russia’s policy for a long time now. Of course, hope springs eternal. And somewhere in the depths of their souls they continue to hope that the period of passivity, concealed by intellectual foreign policy “fads,” will end in our country at some point. But they need to live and solve their problems today. Judging by my conversations with representatives of the unrecognized republics, the “pragmatism” inherent in our policy is far from being among the primary reasons for their actions. They really do have different motives and this more or less serves as the main evidence of the fact that they have come of age as states. In this sense, I would not approach this issue from the point of view of whether anyone had asked or not asked them to be outposts for Russia. They did not do this for today’s Russia. As I understand it, they see the experience and future of historic Russia as part of their identity. Moreover, it is a matter of the successful experience of more than 15 years of development of state sovereignty, which has occurred with immeasurably less support from external forces, including Russia, by comparison with Kosovo, for example, and with a fundamentally different degree of external opposition. This time on the part of those who see Kosovo’s separation from Serbia as virtually their own main foreign policy task.
In other words, what we have are real entities in international life. And that is the most important thing. The question is after all not the formal primacy of the principle of respecting states’ territorial integrity or the principle of the rights of peoples to self-determination, especially since such primacy is not established in international law, but that only an appropriate entity can and must put these principles into practice. As for the dialectical subordination of these principles to one another (in practice, whatever is said about the need to respect international law, one always overrides the other), this should be based not so much on external circumstances as on an objective analysis of who will implement them internally.
It is quite possible that Russia’s Western opponents have understood aspects of the problem which we have not yet fully grasped: the importance of support for states that have declared independence in the national revival of our country and the fact that a real state entity, which surpasses in quality those that claim their “right to maintaining territorial integrity,” is present on these territories.
[Perevozkina:] Aleksey Ostrovskiy, the head of the Russian Federation State Duma committee for CIS affairs and links with compatriots, recently stated in Tiraspol: “The aspiration of the leaders and population of the Dniester region for the republic’s independence is a road that leads nowhere. We do not understand the desire to see Russia as a guarantor of the recognition of the independence of the Dniester region, which emanates from the left bank of the Dniester. We are in favor of the territorial integrity of states throughout the entire world. Moreover, the situation which has now developed in the Dniester region is pushing Russia in the first instance to enter into achieving specific accords of some kind with Moldova.” It would seem that Moscow is “amalgamating” the Dniester region. What results will such a policy lead to?
[Demurin:] This game has not just started. It has been under way for a long time. The policy of achieving the accords that Russia needs with [Moldovan President Vladimir] Voronin, by “instrumentalizing” the Dniester settlement, is unpromising and harmful to Russia for at least two reasons. Firstly, the subject of the political actions is incorrectly evaluated by the Moldovan side: even if accords are reached, they will never be implemented. The second reason is the lack of desire or the lack of ability to assess the importance of the Dniester experience in forming a new post-Soviet identity and the potential which this has for Russia and the disparaging attitude toward people from the Dniester region which results from this inability. Russia is not losing the initiative in the Dniester region and the Dniester region settlement now. It lost it when it agreed two years ago to “seat” representatives of the Dniester Republic at the negotiations table with Moldovans without Moldova renouncing the economic blockade of the Dniester Republic that it had introduced in violation of accords previously reached. A respected and self-respecting mediator cannot and should not behave like this.
As for the obviously inadequate statements specifically mentioned above, which make a laughing-stock of Russia, moreover not only on the post-Soviet space, the responsibility for them should be borne not so much by this individual personally as by those who placed Mr. Ostrovskiy at the head of such an important Duma committee. Or perhaps policy in the CIS is not considered an important matter?
[Perevozkina:] The leaders of the Russian Federation said much at the time about “the Kosovo precedent.” Should Moscow have recognized Abkhazia, the Dniester Republic and South Ossetia after Kosovo, and why was this not done?
[Demurin:] Because of the historical circumstances and the actual development of Kosovo, on the one hand, and of the Dniester Republic, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, on the other hand, there is no direct interrelationship between these cases as objects of the people’s desire for self-determination. In other words, Russia has every reason not to recognize the independence of Kosovo and to recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed states on post-Soviet space. And there would not be any double-standards in this case. It is more unfair to try to make fundamentally different situations equal.
Those who oppose Russia recognizing the above states have their own arguments. Perhaps the most widespread of these is the “awakening” of separatism in other Russian regions. In my view, everything is being turned on its head here. We should not be worrying about playing into the hands of those who favor dismembering Russia, but about our state’s overall policy in the socio-economic and national-cultural spheres, guaranteeing prosperity for Russian ethnic groups, and objectively removing all grounds for territorial-ethnic separatism to be kindled.
Argument number two goes like this: it is dangerous for Russia to support separatism in other countries since these countries and their allies will start to behave aggressively towards Moscow. But in actual fact, no one is really standing on ceremony with Russia. Yes, not all the countries of the post-Soviet space that are under the influence of America and the EU act aggressively, however almost all of them allow themselves to be drawn into arrangements of one kind or another that encroach on Russia’s interests. So our country will not be able to guarantee its safety by any “decent” behavior.
In any case, Russia has not yet, in my view, lost the initiative in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in contrast to the Dniester Republic. And much can still be redressed in the Dniester region as well.
[Perevozkina:] What policy with regard to the unrecognized republics would aid Russia’s interests?
[Demurin:] I have already spoken above about the ideological principles of our policy with regard to the states that have declared independence. Incidentally, in my view the time has long come in political journalism and in political science for the term “unrecognized,” which is still used today with regard to the Dniester region, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, to be exchanged for “which have declared independence.” The point of this step both for them and for Russia is, I think, clear: it is important to give top priority not to how you are perceived on the outside but how you perceive yourself.
If Russia was present in a different time in history, it would be possible, as devotees of political correctness suggest, to bank on certain integrationist projects, in which Russia would be the nucleus and the engine, while relations between Tbilisi and Chisinau and the self-proclaimed republics would be “sorted out EU-style.” However, it would be politically counterproductive to wait for a time when Russia will be so rich, strong and attractive: by that time, Western political scientists will have completed a reformatting of the elites and social institutions of Georgia and Moldova and will have definitively consolidated an anti-Russian mentality as the main basis for their existence. By pushing the Dniester Republic, Abkhazia and South Ossetia away, we are not moving one iota closer toward the probability of the “small mother countries” preferring our project for integration (which is not yet obvious to anyone either) and we are not increasing respect for ourselves.
So things should be move toward a recognition of these territories, moreover, with obvious nuances emanating from a realistic understanding of the fact that different approaches towards establishing sovereignty are possible within these republics themselves. It seems that Abkhazia prefers to develop as an independent state, with extensive associate relations with Russia, South Ossetia sees the recognition of its independence as a step towards re-union with North Ossetia within the Russian Federation, and the lack of a decision over the Ukrainian factor and the absence of a common border with Russia will have a strong influence on implementing the preferences expressed by the residents of the Dniester region. But in the last case, if the residents of the Dniester region maintain their desire and readiness to become part of Russia, we could use the experience of the enclave development of Kaliningrad Oblast. Of course, in so doing Russia will be unable to avoid additional conflicts with Chisinau and Tbilisi but this will be less than the damage to our interests under a long-term preservation of the current position, and especially if we are involved in attempts to “unite the un-unitable.”