President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a decree formally recognising the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The recognition follows a unanimous vote in both houses of the Russian parliament to support the struggle of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for independence.
These developments do not come as a surprise. As early as last week, the speaker of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house, announced parliament was ready to recognise the independence of both Georgian provinces “as long as that was the wish of their populations and of President Dmitry Medvedev”. The decision could have unforeseeable consequences.
Last week, after the fighting in South Ossetia had subsided, thousands of people assembled in the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, and also in that of Abkhazia, Sukhumi. These ‘people’s meetings’ in both cities called on Russia to recognise the independence of the breakaway provinces.
The gist of the meetings was that, after all that had happened, it was now impossible even to contemplate living in a unified Georgia. “We can only live together as two independent countries,” said the Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh.
Russia has given the two provinces military and economic support since their de facto independence, achieved with Russian military help at the start of the 1990s.
Most of the two province’s populations have received Russian nationality but, up to now, Russia had stopped short of recognising them as independent states. Such a step could have unforeseeable consequences for various separatist ‘problem regions’ in Russia itself. In the early 1990s, before the first war in Chechnya, Shamil Basayev, one of the most prominent Chechen separatist fighters and infamous as a ruthless hostage taker, had fought on the side of Abkhazia against Georgia.
The recognition could also lead to Russia’s international isolation. Kosovo’s declaration of independence and its recognition by a large number of countries was fiercely criticised by Russia.
Moscow argued that Kosovan independence would serve as a precedent which could have serious consequences for a number of conflict areas in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, Russia did not recognise the independence of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, and carried on recognising Georgian territorial integrity.
The recent war in and around South Ossetia has proved a breaking point. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has now clearly stated that Georgia’s territorial integrity depends on the will of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz people. Russia’s parliament believes South Ossetia and Abkhazia have more right to independence than Kosovo. One of their most important arguments is the allegation of “genocide” said to have been perpetrated by Georgia in both provinces. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week talked about Georgia’s “ethnic cleansing” in South Ossetia.
The allegations should be thoroughly investigated, but so should counter claims on the Georgian side. Thousands of ethnic Georgians have fled the war zone since the beginning of August. Many of them have stories of murder, looting and arson in their villages, both in South Ossetia itself, and in the vicinity of Gori, which is in undisputed Georgian territory.
It is not clear whether these refugees will be able to return to their homes, or whether they will suffer the same fate as tens of thousands of non-Abkhaz people who were expelled from Abkhazia at the beginning of the 1990s and, 15 years later, are still waiting to see if they will ever be able to go home.
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity has already ruled out “Georgian enclaves” in South Ossetia. This does not hold out much hope for the most recent flood of Georgian refugees.
Even though open hostilities between Georgia and Abkhazia have ceased, the positions of the two sides are still diametrically opposed to each other. President Medvedev has responded angrily to NATO’s threat to suspend co-operation with Russia for the time being. He says such co-operation is “for the most part in NATO’s rather than in Russia’s interest”. Moscow has meanwhile frozen diplomatic and military contacts with NATO.
The European Union accuses Russia of not honouring the EU peace plan brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy after talks with both Russia and Georgia. Under the deal, Russia agreed to withdraw its forces from Georgia back to their original positions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow’s troops are, however, still deployed in various areas of Georgia, far from the zones of conflict. This is the reason President Sarkozy is calling an emergency EU summit on 1 September.