Russia ’s Recognition of Georgian Area s Raises Hopes of Its Own Separatists

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Sep 10 15:48:08 UTC 2008


September 10, 2008
Russia's Recognition of Georgian Areas Raises Hopes of Its Own Separatists

MOSCOW — Tatarstan is a long way from South Ossetia. While South
Ossetia is a poor border region of Georgia battered by war, Tatarstan
is an economic powerhouse in the heart of Russia, boasting both oil
reserves and the political stability that is catnip to investors. But
the two places have one thing in common: Since the collapse of the
Soviet Union, both have given rise to separatist movements. And when
President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia formally recognized the
breakaway areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations
two weeks ago, activists in Kazan, the Tatar capital, took notice.

An association of nationalist groups, the All-Tatar Civic Center,
swiftly published an appeal that "for the first time in recent
history, Russia has recognized the state independence of its own
citizens" and expressed the devout wish that Tatarstan would be next.
The declaration was far-fetched, its authors knew: One of Vladimir V.
Putin's signal achievements as Mr. Medvedev's predecessor was to
suppress separatism. The Tatar movement was at its lowest ebb in 20
years. But Moscow's decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia
made Tatarstan's cause seem, as Rashit Akhmetov put it, "not
hopeless." Mr. Akhmetov, editor in chief of Zvezda Povolzhya, an
opposition newspaper in Kazan, said, "Russia has lost the moral right
not to recognize us."

Mr. Medvedev's decision to formally recognize the two disputed areas
in Georgia — an option long debated in Moscow's foreign policy circles
— has had far-reaching consequences. Most immediately, it has deepened
the rift between Russia and its erstwhile negotiating partners in the
West. But some also see Moscow departing from its longstanding
insistence on territorial integrity, leaving an opening for ethnic
groups within its borders to demand autonomy or independence.

"In the long term, they could have signed their own death warrant,"
said Lawrence Scott Sheets, the Caucasus program director for the
International Crisis Group, an independent organization that tries to
prevent and resolve global conflicts. "It's an abstraction now, but 20
years down the road, it won't be such an abstraction."

Moscow's position is that South Ossetia and Abkhazia were extreme
situations, in which decisions were driven by the threat to the lives
of its citizens. Russian troops poured across the border early in
August, after Georgian forces attacked civilian areas in the city of
Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, with rocket and artillery
fire. The attack made it "completely impossible" to conceive of South
Ossetia returning to Georgian control, said Dmitri S. Peskov, a
spokesman for Mr. Putin, now Russia's prime minister.

Mr. Peskov said Russia stood firmly behind the principle of
territorial integrity and saw no major separatist movements within its
borders. "We do have some separatist movements, some extremist
elements, especially in the northern Caucasus, but they are very
minor," he said. "These are very fragmented and very small groups." He
added that the circumstances of South Ossetia and Abkhazia belonged in
a "totally different category."

The picture looked very different before Mr. Putin took office. In the
1990s, President Boris N. Yeltsin urged regional leaders to "take as
much sovereignty as you can swallow." Movements toward self-rule were
taking hold in some of Russia's most valuable territory: in Tatarstan,
home not only to an oil industry but also to a major truck factory and
an aircraft plant; in Bashkiria, a major source of natural gas; in
Komi, a northern province that produces coal.

All this came to a halt in Chechnya, an oil-rich patch of land in the
north Caucasus. Chechnya was the only region to declare independence
outright. In 1994, Russia sent troops into Chechnya, and two years of
fighting left tens of thousands dead. In 1999, amid a crescendo of
violence throughout the north Caucasus, Mr. Putin, then the prime
minister, oversaw a second war that obliterated the Chechen rebel

The message from Moscow — empowered and newly rich with petrodollars —
was clear. "Russia has shown the inhuman price it will pay to preserve
its territorial integrity," said Sergei A. Karaganov, a political
scientist who leads the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy. "The
fighting in Chechnya was not just against the Chechen rebels, it was
against movements all around." In fact, the threat of separatism has
largely faded from the Russian landscape, and Mr. Putin has granted
enough freedom to quiet internal opposition in many of Russia's
trouble spots. Even in the north Caucasus, one of Russia's most
volatile regions, the government now helps Muslims with visas and
airfare to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. At the same time,
Mr. Putin greatly strengthened his executive power, abolishing the
direct election of governors in 2004. Handpicked bosses improved local
economies and clamped down harshly on opposition groups.

Tatarstan was a case in point. Tatars still commemorate the day in
1552 when Kazan fell to Ivan the Terrible, absorbing their country
into Holy Russia. When Mr. Yeltsin encouraged regions to assume
sovereignty, Tatarstan complied with gusto, adopting its own taxes and
license plates. Gleaming new mosques competed with Kazan's onion
domes, and ethnic Tatars, who made up 48 percent of the population to
the Russians' 43 percent, opened their own schools. The Tatar
Parliament declared that local conscripts could not fight outside the
Volga region.

When Mr. Putin eliminated regional elections, the Tatar president,
Mintimer Shaimiyev, protested vociferously, calling the plan a "forced
and painful measure." But in the years that followed, Mr. Akhmetov,
the editor of the opposition newspaper in Kazan, saw prospects for
autonomy drop to a new low. "We understood that our president could be
removed at any time, within 24 hours," Mr. Akhmetov said. But Mr.
Medvedev's decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, he said,
"created a precedent, kind of a guideline" for gaining independence.
Moscow is confident that it wields strict control over politics in the
outlying regions, he said, but that could change in 10 or 20 years.

"The seeds of self-destruction are built into the authoritarian
system," Mr. Akhmetov said. "It's Moscow's mistake." A similar
stirring came out of Bashkortostan, a major petrochemical center where
ethnic Bashkirs make up about 30 percent of the population. A small
organization called Kuk Bure, which has pushed for the Bashkir
language to be required in public schools, issued a manifesto accusing
Moscow of "double standards" for championing ethnic groups like the
Abkhaz and Ossetians while ignoring their platform.

"The time has come to ask each federal official — and they have
multiplied by the thousands in Bashkortostan in recent years — 'What
are you doing for the Bashkir people?' " said the statement, which was
posted on the group's Web site. Timur Mukhtarov, a lawyer and one of
the movement's co-founders, said the group's mission stopped far short
of independence. Though some may discuss that notion in private, laws
against extremism have made it dangerous to espouse publicly. At 31,
he feels some nostalgia for the Yeltsin years, a time of "more chaos,
but less fear."

The Russian stand for self-determination in Georgia may not change
Moscow's attitude toward Bashkortostan, he said, "but at least it
gives us something to discuss." Russia's act could also stir movements
in the northwest Caucasus, where a number of groups called for
autonomy or separation in the early 1990s, said Charles King, a
professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown
University. Those calls had gone quiet since Mr. Putin took power.

But few people have watched events in Abkhazia more closely than their
ethnic kin, the Circassians. Many Circassians still live in Russia, in
the republics of Kabardino-Balkariya, Karachayevo-Cherkesiya and
Adygeya; the vast majority live outside Russia yet look back at the
Caucasus as their homeland. "They're ecstatic," said Professor King,
author of "The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus." "Their
cousins have gotten independence. They see this as something quite
big, that could have real implications for Russia."
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