Moscow's Georgian Moves Undermine Ethnic Relations in Russia's Non-Russian Republics

Rusiko Amirejibi-Mullen r.amirejibi-mullen at
Mon Sep 15 15:53:37 UTC 2008

Moscow's Georgian Moves Undermine Ethnic Relations in Russia's  
Non-Russian Republics

September 15, 2008

Paul Goble

Speculation that Moscow's extension of diplomatic recognition to  
Abkhazia and South Ossetia might spark a new wave of sovereignty  
declarations by the non-Russian republics in the Russian Federation  
has led many to overlook how Russia's actions are having an impact  
short of that at least in the near term among these nations.
In an article posted on the Caucasus Times portal yesterday, an Ingush  
commentator named S. Sultanov says that people in the republics of the  
North Caucasus are now talking not so much about declaring their  
independence as about the ways in which the Georgian events are  
affecting the situation there.
He thus implies but does not say that few in the non-Russian republics  
of the North Caucasus believe that the West or Georgia will really  
push to recognize them as independent countries, but many there think  
that Tbilisi and its Western partners could raise issues that would  
allow the non-Russians to achieve other goals.
In Chechnya and Ingushetia, Sultanov writes, Tbilisi and the West  
would win many friends if they were to use this occasion to raise the  
question about the recognition of the Soviet deportation of the  
Chechens and Ingush in 1944 as a genocide, something for which he says  
"there are precedents."
Moreover, he continues, many in the North Caucasus will be in a  
position to secure greater control over rural regions of their  
republics, with Moscow left in control of the cities and unable to  
deploy the kind of force that would guarantee Russia control of the  
region, especially as ethnic tensions are certain to rise.
That trend, of course, does not necessarily equal or even point toward  
demands for eventual independence, but it does suggest that relations  
between ethnic groups in these areas and between the central Russian  
government and the leaders and peoples of these regions are undergoing  
a profound change in the wake of Georgia.
As a result of its military moves in Georgia, Sultanov says, "Russia  
has left the Russian language population in the North Caucasus" in an  
increasingly uncomfortable position. Ever more of them will either  
seek to leave or demand that Moscow adopt a more repressive approach  
to the indigenous populations.
But the application of such repression will have the unintended  
consequence of leading even more of the local people to demand that  
the "outsiders" who increasingly will be viewed as "a fifth column" go  
home, further reducing Moscow's ability to manage or even control  
large swaths of territory even if no one declares for independence or  
recognizes it.
Throughout the history of its presence in the North Caucasus, Sultanov  
argues, "Russia has based itself not on peoples and on their  
spiritual, moral and cultural potential but on 'elites' assigned by  
itself." Increasingly, the isolation of these elites from the  
population has become greater, and the events in Georgia will only  
increase this divide further.
As recognition of that reality spreads and intensifies among the  
peoples of the North Caucasus ? and Sultanov indicates that in his  
republic Ingushetia, such an understanding is already widespread --  
there is no reason to think that Moscow will have a "peaceful future"  
if its forces, military and political, remain in the region.
Finally, the Ingush commentator points out that many in the West are  
deceiving themselves about what Russia is and consequently about what  
role any sanctions against Moscow will play. Whatever some in the West  
think, Russia "has never been genuinely democratic."
Instead, Russia even now is a mix of "feudalism and serfdom," a  
combination that the current masters of the Kremlin like to call  
"sovereign democracy." And consequently, the impact of what the West  
does or does not do on the Russian government is very different than  
it would be if Russia were a democratic country.
Many in the West and especially in Europe are now saying, Sultanov  
continues, that imposing sanctions on Russia will accomplish nothing  
or even make things worse. But in fact, he argues, a failure to impose  
sanctions will have that result, because the Kremlin will conclude  
that the West can be pushed around.
And that in turn will set the stage for a more aggressive Russian  
policy both abroad and at home, threatening the international order  
directly in the first case and indirectly in the second by increasing  
repression against the nations in the Russian Federation and setting  
the stage for more explosions there.
Sultanov's argument, of course, does not mean that some of the  
non-Russian republics may not try for independence sometime soon.  
Today's news featured a report that the Altai government has refused  
to comment on the possibility that it might go independent, a position  
some will see as leaving open that possibility.
The decision of Altai officials not to comment, of course, probably  
reflects less that than a desire not to attract the kind of attention  
that came to senior official in the Komi last week when he pointedly  
rejected any possibility that his republic might ever seek to become  
an independent country.
But as so often happens in Russia, a new anecdote may provide more  
insight into what people there are thinking than any other sources: In  
the wake of Moscow's moves in Georgia, reports,  
Russians and non-Russians are noting that "the Russian Federation is  
the only country in the world which defends its citizens only on  
foreign territory."

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