Russia: Being in the Kremlin Means Never Letting Go
In the years immediately following the Soviet collapse of 1991, Russia was so weak that it found itself dependent on Western support, and therefore it felt obligated to accept Western values. Some in the West were lulled into a false sense of security, but the reality is that many Russians never really let go of their old way of thinking, and their nostalgia for empire.
This nostalgia was a chief motivation for Russia's incursion into Georgia in August, and its high-handed actions since then. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. What we are seeing now is a Kremlin that seeks to avenge the humiliation that Russia suffered throughout the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras.
Profound shifts in the global energy landscape have made possible Russia's quest to restore at least some semblance of the old, shattered empire. As Europe currently receives roughly 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, it is Brussels that now must be careful not to offend Moscow.
The United States, with its ill-fated rush into Iraq, also had a hand in enabling the return of aggressive nationalism in Russia. The Kremlin thinking went like this: If the United States could initiate a "preemptive" war against Iraq, why couldn't Russia do the same, and in a neighboring country no less? Russian policymakers, as has been widely publicized, saw no difference in the US recognition of Kosovo's independence and Russia's desire to change the status of the separatist entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Finally, Georgia's aspirations to gain membership in NATO struck a raw nerve in the Kremlin, reviving memories of past insults to Russia's dignity as a great power. Filtered through the prism of Moscow's twisted logic, the West pushed Russia into making the move into Georgia.
It's not such a surprise that Georgia became Russia's first target. Georgia proper, as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, border on Russia. For years, the West was reluctant to acknowledge that Tbilisi's key problem in Abkhazia and South Ossetia had its origins in Moscow, namely the Kremlin's decision to grant Russian citizenship to residents of the two regions.
Euphoric from the success of its military action in Georgia, the Kremlin precipitously recognized the independence of both breakaway regions. In doing so, Moscow now finds itself caught in a paradox: it acknowledged the independence of two entities in which the majority of residents hold Russian citizenship. While the Kremlin is fond of drawing parallels between the Abkhazia/South Ossetia and Kosovo, it must be remembered that before recognizing Kosovo's independence, neither the United States nor any other country encouraged people there to accept American or any other citizenship.
We can expect that, after a respectful pause, the Kremlin will instruct the puppet governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to hold referenda concerning the territories' incorporation into the Russian Federation. The outcomes of such referenda, of course, will be a foregone conclusion. We can also expect that Moscow will offer convoluted justifications for annexation. For example, one argument might say that if the global community, outside of Russia and a few maverick states, continues to withhold recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, then the peoples of those states will have little option other than joining Russia.
By this the Kremlin stands to accomplish its treacherous objectives, which it has been pursuing for years. The most galling aspect of Russia's nefarious plan is that Moscow will try to avoid taking responsibility for its actions. Instead, it will try to pin the blame of the West, which, through its reluctance to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, will be "forcing" Russia to absorb the two territories into the federation.
Vladimer Papava, a former Minister of Economy and former Member of the Parliament of the Republic of Georgia, is a Senior Fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. His latest book is "The Central Caucasus: Essays on Geopolitical Economy" (with Eldar Ismailov).