Russia and the remaking of the ‘near abroad’

The tremors of Russia’s military victory in Georgia are looming over the entire Eurasian landmass, and they are nowhere close to ending. For Russia, winning the war is a turning point on the path to establishing a multi-polar world order by ending the US “uni-polar moment.” Obviously, Russia does not have sufficient capacity to accomplish this on its own.

Moscow’s main goal is, in fact, to remake the “near abroad,” the newly independent states, an area in which it has long felt that it has lost much strategic ground to its competitors, the US and the EU. Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, has stressed this explicitly, saying his country has “special” relationships and interests in the “near abroad” and promising to protect them rigorously. So, how likely is Russia to be successful in its efforts to remake the “near abroad”? Some recent reactions and factors regarding the war in Georgia may provide some answers to this question.

End of US ‘uni-polar moment’ in Georgia

Russia’s biggest challenger, the US, could have done no more than provide financial and humanitarian aid for Georgia. US aid delivery to Georgia by warships via the Black Sea did not repel Russia from its position at all. Having poured out money and humanitarian assistance, the current US government is just trying to save Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, whom Russia has already called a “political corpse.” US Vice President Dick Cheney’s visits to Baku, Tbilisi and Kyiv in early September aimed to prolong the political survival of pro-Western leaders by promising them some security guarantees. But whatever guarantee Cheney is offering is and will remain futile following the recent events in Georgia.

The current US government may want to save Saakashvili for now out of courtesy, but his survival will be decided after the US presidential election in November at the latest, if not before. A Democratic president in the White House will surely look at Georgia and Russia through different lenses. Before all this, the Georgian opposition, which already has serious questions for Saakashvili about taking the country into an unwinnable war against Russia, may oust Saakashvili with an early election. Already, Nino Burjanadze, the ex-chairwoman of the Georgian Parliament, is said to be being groomed by Washington for Saakashvili’s seat. Yet, no matter who the US helps in Georgia for the presidential post, he or she will have to act in line with the terms set by Russia in the region, not by the US. In terms of political leadership, neither the US nor Russia should worry about Azerbaijan, as Baku is ruled by the Aliyev family with the mutual consensus of both Washington and Moscow. This is a fine balance that İlham Aliyev, the Azerbaijani president, does not have the luxury of disturbing. Perhaps for this reason, Aliyev, as reported, has ruled out Cheney’s demand to isolate Moscow by cutting off the oil and gas pipelines currently operating between Azerbaijan and Russia. In Ukraine, the coalition government is about to collapse as Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the former ally of pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution, curbed a motion in parliament strongly condemning Russian action in Georgia by joining pro-Russian opposition leader, Viktor Yanukovych.

So Russia does not feel either any serious pressure from ongoing US policies in the region or care much about the rich states’ threats to kick Russia out of the G8 or prevent it from being a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Nor does it seem to be really scared of the US missile defense shield agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic, or of the possible hasty admissions of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO. Quite the contrary, no matter how symbolic it may be, Russia is getting ready to conduct a naval exercise with Venezuela in the United States’ “backyard,” the Caribbean Sea.

An ever-divided EU

The Council of Europe at a meeting on Sept. 1 condemned Moscow’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states and stressed that a lasting solution to the conflict in Georgia could be found by respecting the principles of independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity in international law. The only concrete step taken by the council was the postponement of the negotiation meetings of the Partnership Agreement between the EU and Russia. The rest of the EU presidency conclusions included either emphasis on the importance of good and healthy relationships between the EU and Russia, or Brussels’ readiness to deploy observer and fact-finding missions to the region. What happened in the council summit was clear: Differing economic, political and security interests of various EU member states stopped them from taking decisive action against Russia. While even the US, with all its global power and unitary nature in policy making, failed against Russia, the EU’s failure, with its diverse foreign and defense policies, is not surprising at all.

Perhaps in order to please those dissatisfied within the EU, Nicolas Sarkozy, accompanied by two other EU high officials, went to Moscow on Sept. 8 to hold another meeting with Medvedev to make Russia fulfill some of the crucial points of the six-point cease-fire agreement of Aug. 12 that Moscow had ignored until then. Sarkozy and Medvedev once again agreed on the withdrawal of all Russian military forces from the territories between Georgia and the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to pre-war positions. This pullout would be completed by Oct. 1, following the deployment of international monitoring mechanisms, including at least 200 monitors from the EU. Also, international discussions would be held in Geneva on Oct. 15 on security and stability in the region, resolving the problem of refugees and internally displaced persons and any other concerns put forward with the mutual consent of all sides. Many may say that this document is a success for the EU, but it actually bars Brussels from its observer mission in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This then means that the EU has accepted the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Brussels has rejected from the very beginning. International talks in Geneva will cover post-conflict issues, but not necessarily on the future status of the two regions. As Russia has already established diplomatic relations with two regions and is getting ready to finalize the necessary documents to establish military bases in South Ossetia, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the EU and Georgia to discuss the status of these regions with Moscow in the context of Georgian territorial integrity. Most likely, the outcomes of the upcoming Geneva meeting and possible subsequent meetings will amount to no more than additional EU financial and logistic support for refugees and internally displaced persons and monitoring missions outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Overall, no concrete result covering either political or economic sanctions came out against Russia. Understandably, Moscow has been satisfied with the division inside the EU leading it to avoid sanctions. Now there is no reason for Russia to hesitate to continue using the rift within the EU for boosting its policies in the “near abroad.”

Eastern support for Russia: the SCO

Unlike with the West, Russia has received strong backing from the states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which include Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

It is true that none of the member states followed Russia’s path and recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states during or after the SCO summit held on Aug. 28 in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Russia is not, in fact, pressuring any state on the issue of diplomatic recognition of these two regions. Nevertheless, they have all backed Russia’s action in the region. Contrary to the EU and US, which have seen the war in the Caucasus as an issue between Georgia and Russia, the SCO has considered it a matter centered on South Ossetia. This explains the fact that, contrary to the Western approach of accepting the issue as a matter of the territorial integrity of Georgia, the states of the SCO have supported the Russian position by making a direct reference to South Ossetia as a conflict region. Further, the members of the SCO have openly defined Russia’s role in South Ossetia as a position promoting “peace and cooperation” in the region.

[Source: By Güner Özkan, Today Zaman, Tur, 22Sep08. Assistant Professor Güner Özkan is an expert on the Caucasus at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (ISRO/USAK) and a lecturer at Muğla University]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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