Accessibility links

Moscow's Possible Motives In Recognizing Abkhazia, South Ossetia

People in the capital, Sukhumi, take to the streets to celebrate the recognition of Abkhazia's independence by Russia.
People in the capital, Sukhumi, take to the streets to celebrate the recognition of Abkhazia's independence by Russia.
The Russian decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia is, to say the least, an awkward one. It is an extremely surprising decision, including for those who know Russia well. For there is one process that Russia's leaders fear, and that is that the Russian Federation might one day undergo the same process of implosion the Soviet Union experienced almost two decades ago.

To avert that nightmare scenario, Russia did not hesitate to use brute force to smash the Chechen independence movement. Yet the subsequent decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia might present Russia with uneasy contradictions in foreign policy. For instance, what should be done with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh? In line with the Abkhazian and South Ossetian logic, Russia should also recognize Karabakh's independence. But this would alienate Azerbaijan, at a moment when Russia is explicitly courting President Ilham Aliyev to reorient gas transit towards the north in order to thwart the European Nabucco gas-pipeline project.

On the other hand, not recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh could antagonize the one faithful ally that Russia has in the region -- Armenia. The initial steps on the road that might lead to the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Armenia and Turkey are the first sign of Armenia's disenchantment with its historic friend.

Even more disturbing to Russia should be the reactions among its closest "friends."

Challenges To Moscow

First came the declaration by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, led by China, which refused to endorse Russia's decision and did not follow through by extending diplomatic recognition to the two republics. The self-restraint shown by the presidents of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization member states at their September meeting is another challenge to Moscow.

Salome Zurabishvili

The final blow was Belarus's delay in expressing support. Expected to fall in line and recognize Georgia's breakaway republics, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was overtaken by his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez, and indeed still has not formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia. True, Lukashenka has declared that he will consider submitting the issue to his parliament "in due time," but his hesitation constitutes a departure from his previous unswerving and total alignment with Moscow.

How can these reactions be explained?

Moscow seriously miscalculated by undermining a principle that is crucial to many friendly countries. China's sensitivity to any challenge to the principle of territorial integrity is well-known. Although less visible, Russia's Central Asian allies -- Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, or Kyrgyzstan -- have their own minority and border issues that could render them vulnerable were the very principle which protects their integrity to be weakened. This is also true of Azerbaijan, because of the impact such ad hoc recognitions in the South Caucasus could have on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and consequently on Azerbaijan's own territorial integrity.

It is difficult to believe that Moscow, having toyed for years with the possibility of formally recognizing Georgia's breakaway republics, was so taken aback by the international response. Could the Kremlin have made such a hasty decision simply to punish Georgia, without anticipating the likely reactions from its traditional allies and friends?

Alternative Explanation

It is equally difficult to imagine that those same allies would have chosen this issue as a test case to publicly demonstrate their differences with Moscow, or that Moscow's influence over such close allies as Belarus or Armenia is so weakened that it can no longer count on their loyalty.

There is, however, an alternative explanation: that Moscow anticipated those negative reactions from its neighbors and partners and acted knowingly. It might just be that Moscow was seeking to demonstrate the total parallelism with the Kosovo model. Having bombed Georgia (as NATO bombed Serbia in 1999), and having formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia (as the West recognized Kosovo earlier this year), Russia sought to draw a line under these two "precedents" in order to rally everyone around the idea that these two symmetrical exceptions should not be repeated anywhere else.

Consolidating this exceptionality would suit Moscow well by making it into the ultimate backer of the principle of territorial integrity. This hypothesis could explain why Moscow did not exert much pressure on its closest allies to back its decision. What ensued could then stand out as a well planned and calculated strategy of killing two birds with one stone: inflicting the maximum damage on Georgia, while upholding the principle of territorial integrity. Such a move would please Turkey and other European countries that have felt threatened by the implications of Moscow's decision.

Another, even more audacious possibility is that Moscow is trying to obtain a reversal of the Kosovo decision by displaying the absurdity of such micro-states that could endlessly disintegrate into smaller entities, and by generating unease and displeasure among both its allies and competitors. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's address to the UN General Assembly will go a long way toward either confirming or negating this thesis.

Whether it was a gross mistake or a shrewd calculation, it is certainly worth watching to see whether Moscow firmly holds to its decision, or displays a readiness to negotiate and compromise.

Salome Zurabishvili joined the French Foreign Service in 1974. She served as Georgia's foreign minister from March 2004-October 2005. She is today the chairwoman of the opposition party Georgia's Path. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

SUBSCRIBE For news and analysis on Russia by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Russia Report."