Much has been reported about Russian President Vladimir Putin's September 6 meeting with Western journalists and academics, just days after the tragedy at Beslan. What many of the reports have missed, however, was Putin's overt questioning of post-Soviet borders.
Georgia, the Kremlin's lead sparring partner of late, was clearly the main target of these statements. "No one asked Ossetians and the Abkhaz whether they want to stay in Georgia," Putin declared.
This declaration is no mere policy posturing. Separatists have allegedly used Russian arms in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and reports have circulated of Cossack and Trans-Dniester volunteers heading off to fight in both regions. Russian ships also reportedly enter Georgia's territorial waters without authorization. In addition, Russia has granted citizenship to large numbers of Abkhaz and Ossetians, while economic ties through investment or illicit trade have tacitly supported the leadership of these breakaway regions.
The Kremlin's policy in Georgia could possibly establish a precedent that may be applied to other territorial/border/ethnic minority issues, such as northern Kazakhstan, a heavily Russian area, Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, and even Nagorno-Karabakh. In those potential instances, the possibility of border revision could be held above the heads of uncooperative neighbors like a sword of Damocles. For this reason, Moscow has supported various separatist causes throughout the former Soviet Union, ranging from the Trans-Dniester enclave in Moldova to Abkhazia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
Security officials with whom our group of experts met in Moscow pointed out that, nearly 13 years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has still not secured its borders with neighboring states. "We have not even decided whether we need to protect the borders of the Russian Federation, or [the frontier] of the former Soviet Union," one senior official said. The Beslan tragedy which took place inside the Russian Federation has helped focus the Russian leadership's attention on this issue.
At present, it appears that the Kremlin wants to pull South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Moscow's orbit. However, Putin's administration should tread carefully: exerting greater force over the two Georgian regions could inadvertently strengthen the case for Chechen separatism. Acknowledging the right of South Ossetians and Abkhaz to determine their own affairs, while seeking to deny the Chechens the same right, would expose the Kremlin as hypocritical.
Putin's actions and rhetoric in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy do little to generate hope that Russia will contain the twin scourges of separatism and terrorism in the near future. For one, the Russian president has been reluctant to admit any missteps by his administration, even while recognizing mistakes made during the Soviet era. Putin acknowledged, for instance, that Soviet ideology suppressed real ethnic conflicts, and that up to 2,000 such conflicts throughout the former Soviet Union are frozen or simmer on. But the president's own decision to nominate rather than to elect regional governors will do little to correct this legacy within the Russian Federation. It will effectively do away with the concept of ethnic autonomy, which survived czarist imperialism, and was embraced by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution.
The poor performance by Russian intelligence and security forces before and during the Beslan hostage tragedy begged a question about Russia's cooperation with the West in fighting terrorism. In response, however, Putin launched a long tirade about the roles that the Soviet Union and the United States played over the past 25 years in turning Afghanistan into a terrorist haven.
Putin places much of the blame for Russia's misadventures in Chechnya on the West. "I have been tracking the issue for several years and have made up my mind", he said. The Western powers are interested in keeping Russia down and "involved in its own problem" by supporting Chechen separatism, Putin believes. Both the United States and Great Britain have granted political asylum to Chechen separatist leaders, he said, and Western intelligence services maintain contacts with Chechen fighters.
Putin decried the horrible conditions under which Stalin exiled the Chechens 60 years ago, and termed the first Chechen war, launched by predecessor Boris Yeltsin in 1994, as "probably a mistake." But what about the second war which he started in 1999? There was no discussion. Nor, he maintain, did the Chechen war have anything to do with the hostage-taking in Beslan.
Today, Russia is facing its demons in Beslan, in Chechnya, in the northern and southern Caucasus. These are trying times for Russia, its neighbors, its president, and its people. The question remains: can the Kremlin shrug off its nostalgia for the Soviet past? And with it, recognize the right of neighboring states to their borders? The security of Eurasia and Russia itself depends upon it.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis (Praeger/Greenwood 1998).