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Tremors in the South Caucasus

Author: Lee Hudson Teslik
April 25, 2008

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When Kosovo seceded from Serbia earlier this year, Russia opposed UN recognition of an independent Kosovar state on the grounds that it violated the sovereignty and wishes of Moscow’s ally, Serbia. Moscow also warned the move opened the door for Georgia’s separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which rely heavily on Russia, to seek independence. Now, just weeks after NATO leaders irked Russia by signaling a willingness to expand ties with Georgia and Ukraine (AP), Moscow seems to have made its response. Much to the consternation of Georgian authorities, the Kremlin announced it might increase trade relations (WSJ) with the breakaway Abkhazis and Ossetians.

It remains unclear what will come of Moscow’s overtures. The Kremlin says it wants to avoid conflict with Georgia, which has characterized Russia’s intentions as “creeping annexation.” Russia’s parliament stands ready for more debate on how Russia should characterize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, though the Russian news agency RIA Novosti says the Russian parliament is unlikely to recognize the territories. Regardless, a top Council of Europe official has criticized Russia for entertaining the debate in the first place, adding that Russian bilateral relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia threaten to undermine stability in the region. The potential for broader tensions was underscored following an incident in which an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane was shot down over Abkhazia. Georgia blames the incident on Russia (RFE/RL), though Moscow denies involvement.

The dispute spells concern for the South Caucasus, a region plagued by unresolved secessionist battles and messy politics. South Ossetia, for instance, is culturally conjoined with the North Ossetia region, across the border in geographic Russia. The region has its own language, Ossetian, though since the breakup of the Soviet Union the Georgian government has pressed for Georgian to be used and taught nationwide. Abkhazia, where most people speak Abkhaz but Russian is an official language, has its own linguistic tension. North Ossetia borders two other Russian provinces, Ingushetia and Chechnya, each of which also has its own language and has experienced violent secessionist efforts in the recent past. In nearby Azerbaijan, the province of Nagorno-Karabakh—conquered militarily by ethnic Armenians—continues to press for independence. A map published in the Economist shows the region’s complex and volatile geography. Outside of the Caucasus, but still in the former Soviet sphere, a similar dynamic is at play in Trans-Dniester, a Slav-dominated region of Moldova.

Trans-Dniester and Nagorno-Karabakh are hardly household names, even among foreign policy wonks. But tensions in the region are attracting attention, as they spotlight broader challenges facing Russia as it seeks to create a cohesive foreign policy toward its post-Soviet brethren. Liz Fuller, a Caucasus expert with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, notes that the issue carries political ramifications domestically in Georgia, where President Mikheil Saakashvili won reelection last year “by the skin of his teeth.” Fuller says Russia is floating a new proposal for solving frozen conflicts in its strategic sphere by suggesting joint state entities rather than applying words like “autonomous” to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In a region frayed with border disputes, experts say, any decision that verges on setting a firm precedent will be closely watched and potentially inflammatory.

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