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CIS: For Region, Georgia-Russia Crisis Sounds Alarm Bells

Central Asian migrants fear they may be next target of Moscow crackdown (RFE/RL) The current crisis between Georgia and Russia is not just a bilateral dispute. It is one with sweeping implications for the entire CIS. Other ex-Soviet republics are watching the controversy and weighing the impact it may have on their own residents.

PRAGUE, October 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout the CIS, public response to the crisis has ranged from sympathy for Georgia, to support for Russia's actions, to fear of what the crackdown may ultimately mean for others.

In Belarus, where the government maintains a policy of unwavering loyalty to the Kremlin, residents were quick to defend Moscow -- and criticize Georgia as an upstart nation that is only getting what it deserves.
"Every single citizen of the former Soviet Union living as a migrant in Russia should take the situation in Georgia really close to heart."

"The Russians did the right thing," said one Belarusian man. "The Georgians are now behaving in a very defiant way with regard to Russia. In a way, they've provoked them into stirring up scandal. But I don't think there will be a big scandal. I think that Russia could be even tougher on Georgia."

But elsewhere, people expressed dismay at the intensity of the crisis, and defended Georgia's steps to break free of Russian influence.

"I think it's wrong to suspend all the links between Russia and Georgia," said a woman in Kazan, the capital of the autonomous republic of Tatarstan. "We live in 21st century, I think they need to talk to solve the situation."

"My attitude toward Georgian government policy is very good," said a second Kazan resident. "Georgia should live its own life, they should find there own path without us. Every country should be independent."

Concern In Russia's "Near Abroad"

But the conflict between Moscow and Tbilisi is more than just a spectator sport for the former Soviet republics that, to varying degrees, have pursued their own independent identities in the 15 years since the breakup of the USSR.

For some, the Russian blockade on transport and communication links to Georgia has had an immediate knock-on economic effect.

For others, the clampdown on the rebellious CIS nation may act as a signal to temper their own pro-Western ambitions.

Perhaps most critically, for many it means the fear that Moscow's measures against Georgia may eventually be extended to other neighbors as well.

That concern raised to outright alarm with Putin's call for a crackdown on illegal migrants and markets dominated by foreign workers and groups with so-called "mafia ties."

Russia's Federal Migration Service responded promptly, proposing tough penalties for businesses that employ illegal migrants, limiting border crossings, and reducing visa periods.

Among the proposals is a measure to impose a quota system that would limit migrants to visits of between 90 to 180 days, depending on their country of origin.

Today Georgians, Tomorrow Tajiks?

The measures are sure to strike fear in the hearts of many economic migrants from the former Soviet republics, who have flowed by the tens of thousands into Russia to find work to support their families back home.

A Tajik migrant worker in Moscow said he was watching the Georgia situation with growing concern.

"Every single citizen of the former Soviet Union living as a migrant in Russia should take the situation in Georgia really close to heart," he said. "If it's the Georgians today, it will be Uzbeks and Tajiks tomorrow. We should not be happy about what is happening to Georgians."

Russia's unrelenting assault on Georgia has also raised speculation that Moscow is using the dispute to bring other Westward-looking ex-republics back into its sphere of influence.

In this, it may get assistance from Belarus. Moscow is looking to clamp down on the number of Georgians entering its territory visa-free via Belarus. To that end, it says it will press Minsk to create a visa regime with Georgia.

Belarus initially indicated that economic and communication ties with Georgia would continue unchanged.

But on October 5, Vadzim Papou, chairman of the Belarusian House of Representatives commission that oversees contacts with CIS states, gave clear signs of a reversal, saying "consultations are under way" on Georgian transit through Russia.

Russia Resurgent, As West Watches

Many see the Georgia conflict as part of the Kremlin's broader power struggle with the United States, which has also sought footholds in the region.

Both Washington and Brussels have responded relatively meekly to the Georgia crisis, sparking fears that Moscow's impact in the post-Soviet arena the may again be on the rise.
The conflict has raised concerns that Moscow is using the dispute to bring other Westward-looking ex-republics back into its sphere of influence.

Among the countries watching the developments with concern are Moldova and Ukraine -- which, together with Georgia and Azerbaijan have sought to consolidate a Western-leaning bloc with the GUAM regional grouping.

GUAM's pro-Western aspirations have already been struck a blow by the political ascent of pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych to Ukraine's prime ministerial post. But the sanctions against Georgia could do even more damage.

Hennadiy Udovenko, a member of the pro-Western Our Ukraine faction and former foreign minister, has blasted the Russian stance on Georgia, saying it is using the blockade as a warning to other like-minded countries.

"Russia would like to renew its influence in the post-Soviet space, and to that end is conducting an imperialist policy in order to undermine the sovereignty of the post-Soviet states,"

Udovenko said. "In particular, this is currently demonstrated by Russia's attitude toward Georgia."

Economic Realities

Moldova since March 2006 has suffered the effects of a ban on wine and agricultural exports to Russia. The embargo has meant a dramatic decrease in the impoverished country's much-needed export income.

Chisinau says those sanctions -- similar to the wine ban imposed on Georgia at the same time -- reflect the Kremlin's displeasure with Moldova's Western aims.

The recent referendum in Moldova's separatist Transdniester region, in which voters overwhelmingly opted for eventual union with Russia, has only raised tensions between Chisinau and Moscow.

Vlad Cubreacov, who heads the opposition Christian Democrat faction in the Moldovan parliament, says ideally, the current troubles in Georgia should prompt an expression of support from the West.

"The Republic of Moldova is already suffering important losses due to the Russian embargo," he said. "But the Georgian case must give us hope and show us the right way -- the way of principles, correctness, and the way of imposing, with help from the West, respect for the integrity and sovereignty of our country."

A Vulnerable Neighbor

In Armenia, the effect of the Georgian transport ban has been immediate. Armenia is highly dependent on Georgian transit for its Russian imports and exports.

Now, with railway, road, and air traffic blocked, Armenian businessmen say they are scrambling for ways to get their goods to Russia.
"Russia would like to renew its influence in the post-Soviet space, and to that end is conducting an imperialist policy in order to undermine the sovereignty of the post-Soviet states."

The Georgian Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti and the Ukrainian port of Ilyichevsk will reportedly continue to handle Armenian cargo bound for the Russian market.

But lawmaker and Kilikia brewery owner Ashot Baghdasaryan says his business and others are already incurring significant losses as a result of the blockade.

"There is information that our shipment has been stopped on the Russian-Georgian border. It's a very big problem for businessmen," Baghdasaryan said.

"I think both Georgia and Russian should have stopped and remembered that they have international agreements. There is no declaration of war between them, and I hope it won't reach that stage. I wish they could respect the international agreements they have signed and not put Armenia in this situation."

Gestures Of Support

Oil-rich Azerbaijan has been careful to maintain warm ties with Moscow even as it seeks influential friends further afield. But some officials suggest Baku may be willing to fill the vacuum left by Moscow.

"Georgia may try to introduce some products to markets in Azerbaijan which it wanted to sell in Russia," said opposition lawmaker Ali Masimov. "Georgia may also try to buy some products from Azerbaijan which it wanted to buy from Russia."

Oqtay Haqverdiyev, who heads the Cabinet of Ministers department on economic policy, said the sanctions will have no immediate impact on Azerbaijan. However, he allowed for the remote possibility that an extended crisis could affect the operation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which transits Georgia.

In the short term, those most likely to suffer financially from the blockade are the 500,000 Azerbaijanis who live in Georgia, many of whom send money home to help support their families in Azerbaijan.

Russia And Georgia

Russia And Georgia
Beefed up security outside Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi on September 27 (InterPressNews)

NOT ALL WINE AND ROSES. Moscow's relations with Tbilisi since the collapse of the Soviet Union have often been tense and strained. Among the issues that have made the relationship difficult are Moscow's alleged support for the breakaway Georgia regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the continued presence of Russia troops on Georgian territory. Periodically, Georgian lawmakers propose withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) altogether. RFE/RL has written extensively about the rocky relationship between these two countries.


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