Russia has just invented a new kind of state: one in which the land is supposedly independent but the inhabitants are citizens of another country.
Last week, Russia solemnly recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two autonomous republics that had been part of Georgia since the 1920s.
First, Russia tried to justify its military intervention by claiming it was trying to protect its own citizens there.
Using force to protect one’s citizens is nothing new in the history of nation-states. However, the normal process is to go into the hostile territory, rescue one’s citizens and brig them out- end of the story.
In this case, however, the Russians did not go in to bring their citizens out. They went in to give “independence” to Abkhazia and Ossetia.
The problem is that a majority of those living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia today are Russian citizens.
In Abkhazia, Russian passport holders account for 90 per cent of the estimated 200,000 inhabitants. Another five per cent are Georgians while Armenians ad other Caucasian peoples account for the remainder. In other words, in the newly independent Republic of Abkhazia there are no Abkhazians!
A similar situation obtains in South Ossetia where Russia passport holders account for 95 per cent of the 75,000 inhabitants. The remaining five per cent are Georgians, Chechens, Ingush, Kamlouks and Charkess. Again, there are no Ossetians!
This situation is a result of an earlier piece of Russian chicanery.
From 2000, Moscow has been issuing Russian passports to anyone who demanded it in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The sole criterion was that the applicant spoke Russian. That was not difficult because the Caucasus was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and russified for two centuries.
Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev claims that his armies entered Abkhazia and South Ossetia to support national liberation struggles. But which nations are we talking about? Since 2002, more than 90 per cent of the inhabitants of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been voting in all Russian elections, including the one that made Medvedev president.
Why did the Abkhaz and the Osset rush to get Russian passports?
The first reason is that they both hate the Georgians with whom they have a long history of enmity and violence more than they hate the Russians.
In 1991, Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhourdia abolished Abkhazia’s autonomous status and ordered the destruction of Abkhaz cultural centres and historic monuments. In the ensuing violence, more than 4000 Abkhaz were killed while tens of thousands fled to Russia.
Gamsakhourdia presided over a similar scenario in South Ossetia in 1990-92. More than 2000 Ossets were killed and many more forced out of their villages.
In both cases, the Abkhaz and the Ossets regarded Russian passports as an insurance policy against further massacre.
Nevertheless, it was only after 2006 that the Abkhaz and the Ossets rushed en masse to obtain Russian passports. The reason was the European Union’s decision to allow Russian passport holders to travel freely to Europe, a privilege that holders of Georgian passports did not enjoy.
But why is Russia embarking on a high-risk strategy in order to snatch two tiny enclaves from Georgia. (Abkhazia covers a territory of 8600 kilometers, smaller than Lebanon, while South Ossetia is even smaller with 3900 square kilometers.) The Russian move is all the more surprisingly because, in the previous 200 years, Russia had always sided with the Georgians against the Abkahz and the Ossets.
A Turkic People, the Abkhaz were regarded by Russia as pro-Ottoman and anti-Russian. The Ossets, an Iranic people, were distrusted because they had sided with Iran in the wars that led to Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus between 1801 and 1830.
There are three key reasons why Russia has acted the way she did.
The first is to signal her return as a major power that regards the Caucasus as part of its glacis.
The second reason is to punish Georgia because of its quest for a special relationship with the United States. Georgia, with a population of around four million, has sent more than 3000 troops to Iraq. It has applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and is host to a huge American military mission. President Mikheil Sakaashvili has gone further by pressing for membership of the European Union.
Thirdly, Georgia has established itself as the key alternative route for oil and natural gas pipelines linking the resources of the Caspian Basin to world markets via the Black Sea.
This is in defiance of Russia’s strategy of controlling all pipelines to Europe.
By de-stabilizing Georgia, Moscow is telling Western investors to think twice before sinking their money into Georgian pipelines.
Finally, Russia’s lease of the port facilities at Sebastopol, in the Crimean Peninsula, runs out in 2017. There is little chance that the Ukraine, which owns the peninsula, would renew the lease. This would leave the Russian Black Sea fleet homeless and with difficult access to the warm waters, especially since Turkey, a NATO member, controls the Bosporus, under the Treaty of Montreux (1936).
One alternative to Sebastopol is the Syrian port of Lattaqiya, and speculation about its lease to the Russian navy has been going on for years. However, Moscow cannot be sure that the Syrian leadership will not switch sides, leaving the Black Sea fleet homeless.
By seizing Abkhazia, Russia could develop its deep-water harbors into a new home for its navy. Without such a base, the Russian navy would lose its blue-water status, becoming, in effect, a coastguard with limited reach.
What we have witnessed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a classical colonial land grab, facilitated by the naiveté of the Georgian leaders, the cowardice of the Western powers, and the weakness of Turkey and Iran, the two traditional powers that tried to counter-balance Russia in the Caucasus.
These days, however, colonial land grab is hard to sell. This is why the Russian operation is presented as a move to support self-determination in the two enclaves.