Georgia’s Caucasus policy: Step forward, step in place, step backward
Israeli political scientist Avraham Shmulevich – president of the Institute of Eastern Partnership and adviser to the Circassian Congress – has studied problems of the Caucasus for years. He has also contributed significantly to recognition by the Parliament of Georgia of the Circassian genocide. Mr. Shmulevich arrived in Tbilisi in mid-December to deliver lectures about the North Caucasus. In an interview with Tabula, the political scientist and activist discussed possible Georgian political strategies toward the North Caucasus and the problem of occupied territories.
- What impact might ongoing developments in Russia – the parliamentary elections and ensuing public protest – have on the existing situation in North and South Caucasus?
The Russian regime is still quite stable. The ruling system is in crisis, but that crisis has been going on for quite a long time now and recent protests will not lead to a regime change. Russia does not have an ideology, a force that would steadily call for revolution. The only country where a revolution really took place was Georgia. Here, the change in elite and ruling paradigms has happened on every level.
One should not expect mass protests of such a scale in Russia that would undermine the regime. The regime will survive. [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin will, however, start seeking support. The only such power on which he can rely is, I think, Russian nationalism. The regime is already doing that by, for example, activating the figure of [Russia's Ambassador to NATO Dmitri] Rogozin.
Listening to statements by high Russian officials, one may conclude that the slogan “enough with feeding Caucasus” will come to the fore. A significant segment of the population feels estrangement from the Caucasus for criminal, economic and other reasons. That is the only motto that will find support among large segments of the population and enable Putin to create an illusion of changes. However, they do not have a capacity for implementing real changes.
Money that is spent on the North Caucasus today causes dissatisfaction. The Russian economy is in crisis. Oil prices will not likely rise any longer. The geopolitical situation is difficult. Consequently, Russia cannot afford to carry on allocations to the North Caucasus in current amounts. That needs some ideological justification. Therefore, under the motto of “enough with feeding Caucasus,” strict measures will be undertaken against local elites.
Preparations are already under way – it has been several months now that FSB [Federal Security Services of Russia] officers of local ethnic origin in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria have been replaced by Russians from the central regions of the country. The legal status of Caucasus regions might change. It is absolutely unacceptable for Moscow that, say, Chechnya does not live according to the laws of Russia.
The West still views Russia as the guarantor of stability in the Caucasus. The Kremlin, however, fails to run its region and has become a destabilizing factor. Its attempts bring about a counter effect. For example, the number of terrorist acts is higher in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan; that is, in those regions which receive the largest amount of allocations.
- Given the situation, how would you evaluate Georgia’s policy toward that region?
Here I have not been able to discern that Georgia is a Caucasian country. The impression I get is that the country which chose the path toward Europe has severed all ties with the Caucasus. That is nonsense. Georgia is not Switzerland; nor is it Scandinavia or the State of Georgia. Georgia belongs in the Caucasus.
Geopolitically, geo-economically and culturally, the Caucasus is an entire region. Stability cannot be ensured in only one part of the region. Today, after the establishment of the visa-free regime, Tbilisi is closer to Makhachkala than Moscow is. If something happens in the North Caucasus, where will refugees go? They will come here rather than head for the North. At the same time, had the population of North Caucasus been supporting Georgia, the war of 2008 would not have happened because Russia needs backing in the North Caucasus. Georgia does not even understand that.
- Why? Certain steps were taken – visa-free travel regime, recognition of Circassian genocide…
Georgian politics toward the North Caucasus looks like step forward, step in place, step backward. What has been done was the right thing. But that is not enough.
Georgian took only half steps. It has recognized Circassian genocide and is going to open a monument. Russia, however, has taken hold of that initiative and is actively engaged with Circassian Diaspora, conducting conferences. Counter-propaganda is in full swing; special services are busy at work. Georgia does not counteract that with anything.
Tbilisi lacks a clear-cut strategy and has suspended activity undertaken in relation to the Caucasus. The reason for that was dissatisfaction of the United States and Europe. They, in turn, were concerned about Russia’s dissatisfaction. Moreover, the West perceives Georgia’s steps not as a consistent policy, but as personal retaliation of [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili against Putin. The West could not see that Georgia turned to the North Caucasus. Such a vision is strange to Georgian officials and society as well. No one explained to the West that that is indeed a real policy which is relevant to interests of Georgia and on which the country’s existence and security rest.
At the same time, there is an objective in the international arena which can be fulfilled by Georgia alone: That is the integration of the North Caucasus into the civilized world.
- What do you mean by that and what is the role of Georgia in that?
That must be a strategy of integration of the region. It must imply the work both with elites and the broader public. It should deal with issues like marine partnership, cultural ties. People of the North Caucasus have close historic ties with Georgia.
Today, Moscow cannot offer anything to the North Caucasus. Consequently, a bilateral or trilateral (with the involvement of the European Union) accord could be achieved on some exceptional status of the North Caucasus, an accord on the entry of Georgia, in agreement with Russia, into that region. The interests of the Kremlin and Georgia coincide here. Both parties have a vital interest in having a stable, non-extremist, economically developed North Caucasus. Georgia’s role of civilizer-integrator plays into the hands of absolutely all the players – the West, Turkey, etcetera, including the Kremlin.
The Russian government today perceives a possible increase of North Caucasus’ autonomy as a threat. The Kremlin has no other choice. Society harbors anti-Caucasus sentiments; the region has become a threat for the integrity of Russia. Moscow has started realizing that it is unable to establish stability in the Caucasus. Russia may become interested in cooperating with Georgia because the interests of Moscow and Tbilisi in this area converge. The important point is to make the West understand that also.
- How can such a policy be conducive to the settlement of the problem of occupied territories?
Moscow, back in the 1990s, succeeded in Abkhazia and South Ossetia only because the populations of some North Caucasus republics supported separatists. Both Abkhaz and South Ossetians take heed of opinions of North Caucasians. The recognition by Georgia of Circassian genocide caused disagreement between the Circassian national movement and the Abkhaz.
Today, Georgia does not have levers to influence Moscow, but it has the capacity to influence the situation in the North Caucasus. This argument can be used during negotiations with the Kremlin.
Dialogue is not being conducted with either the Abkhaz or South Ossetian sides. Even more, Tbilisi does not actually study what is really going on in Sukhumi, Tskhinvali or North Caucasus. To this end, one could even invite foreign sociologists to learn attitudes of the population of those regions. If Georgia treats the issue of regaining lost territories seriously, it must know what happens there.
In the past, I had good contact with Maxim Ghvinjia, the former foreign minister of the Sukhumi regime. I told him that Abkhazia had two choices – either to be entirely absorbed by Russia and thereby lose independence and ethnic self-identification, or to negotiate with Georgia on some form of association. He failed to bring any counter argument to this suggestion.
However, the problem is that no movement and initiative can be seen from any of the sides. According to Georgia’s official position, refugees must return there first. The Abkhaz side perceives that as the end of not only the Abkhaz state but the Abkhaz ethnos too. If you want such an attitude to change you must speak to them, apply appropriate tools and politics. There is a myriad of means to persuade the Abkhaz that their fears are groundless.
Tbilisi does not have a strategy in this respect. Quite an influential person in Tbilisi told me that Georgia does not consider at all that the Abkhaz exist and that Tbilisi is ready to conduct negotiations with Moscow alone. This position is shared by the Georgian society as well.
- However, there is an official strategy – “Engagement Through Cooperation”…
That strategy is incomplete and is frozen now. It is designed for the EU funding, which is impossible at present unless some miracle happens in Europe. Such a strategy must be directed not only toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but also toward the North Caucasus. These regions cannot be considered separately from each other. Resolution of the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is only possible in the context of common Caucasus policy.
Take the elections in South Ossetia, for example. Georgia has not taken a perfect advantage of propaganda. No one said in Tbilisi that South Ossetia did not obtain independence and that South Ossetians are now in a far more difficult situation than they were under Georgia. This is something that you know, but the North Caucasus is not aware of that. The North Caucasus is viewed in Georgia as if it is located on the moon. It does not exist in the perception of Georgians. Georgia must explain to its neighbors what happens in Georgia. I have an impression that Kanal PIK (Georgia’s Russian language TV channel) is busy covering everything save problems of the Caucasus. There are no informational web-pages which could be accessed by even a person interested in the issues to get information about the North Caucasus, let alone by broader masses of the population. Georgia lacks strategy. The impression is that the Georgian society is waiting for Russia to disintegrate so everything will get back to rights.
- Do you exclude such a scenario?
OK then, let us hypothesize that Russia will adopt Buddhism and entirely relocate to the Himalayas – politics shall not be built on the expectation of miracles. If Russia disintegrates, it will be worse for you, and others as well, because we will have a situation similar to what happened in Chechnya in 1992-1996. Do you want the Russia of 1918, an uncontrollable situation, millions of refugees, and so on and so forth? The same could happen now. That would be a direct threat for Georgia.
Russia’s disintegration is unreal. First, because in the case of the Soviet Union, it was not disintegration but a planned, pre-determined and prepared separation. That was a collective decision of the Soviet elite. No one will take a similar decision in respect to Russia. However, a decision on the separation of the North Caucasus is possible, provided that it is clear toward which direction the Caucasus moves. Not only nationalists but even the incumbent government thinks of how to get rid of the Caucasus. It can, however, do that if any other force helps them in that. There is no other such force as Georgia.
In the past, I said once that the disintegration of the Russian Empire did not stop twenty years ago. But this process, like the process of the breakup of the Soviet Union, must be fit into a civilized frame. An independent and stable Caucasus in any form – be it in the form of broader autonomy or separate states – is in the interests of Georgia. This issue must be studied within the framework of a Georgian strategy which does not exist at present. This strategy must be drawn up regardless of the reality that the incumbent Kremlin regime considers it as being against its interests. I am sure that the West would also treat such a strategy with understanding.