Ossetia & A Quibble

by Nathan Hamm on 8/17/2004

While gathering stories for this month’s Winds of Change Briefing, I stumbled across an opinion piece from the Moscow Times that seemed to be cut from a cloth different than most editorials on South Ossetia found in Russian publications. Granted, the paper is an English-language, but considering a recent opinion piece they ran on South Ossetia, Pavel Felgenhauer’s is a breath of fresh air. Starting off with the assertion that the immediate collapse of the ceasefire shouldn’t be a surprise (and now there’s a new one–two in one week!), he argues that the South Ossetia’s leaders are essentially a mafia that enjoys the patronage of corrupt Russian and Georgian officials.

In May, the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili moved to stop a massive smuggling operation that has been run for more than a decade by the criminal, self-styled authority of “independent South Ossetia,” actively supported by high-ranking corrupt officials in Russia and Georgia. Only contraband has kept the regime functioning, and without the resumption of smuggling there can be no lasting cease-fire: Ossetia’s criminal separatists and their supporters in Moscow will not settle for anything less. [Emphasis mine]

While it certainly makes sense to consider the conflict as part of Saakashvili’s determination to reclaim Tbilisi’s rule over all Georgian territory, there is a neglected perspective in which the drive for reunification fits in to Georgia’s larger anti-corruption efforts.

Felgenhauer is also skeptical about how much national determination really has to do with the conflict.

The conflict in South Ossetia never had anything to do with national self-determination, since a separate South Ossetian nation has never existed. The Ossetians themselves have always claimed they were one nation: The majority live in Russia in the North Caucasus autonomous republic of Ossetia-Alania, and a tiny minority live in Georgia on the south slopes of the Caucasus in South Ossetia.

I am skeptical too, but not for those reasons. After reading this book, I am fairly sympathetic to the wishes for national determination among Caucasian ethnic groups that never had it before. At the same time though, elites make conscious decisions about how much to play up how deserving they are of independence. Judging from who benefits from both Abkhaz and South Ossetian autonomy, I can’t help but think that national determination is a smokescreen used by corrupt leaders to maintain power.

Many residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia hope that if they officially become part of Russia, the authorities in Moscow will quell the local criminal chieftains that plunder with impunity under the cover of self-proclaimed independence. However, in Moscow the special operation to distribute passports en masse was planned to give Russia a legal pretext to intervene militarily anytime in Georgia to defend “Russian citizens.”

While I don’t know if the former is true, it would not surprise me. It certainly is worth keeping in mind. The latter though, appears to be 100% true and is the clearest window into Russia’s game. The “hey, we’re just trying to make peace here” act is a total lie. Russia is seeking the creeping annexation of territory even it considers legally Georgian.

It’s clear that the fighting in South Ossetia was orchestrated from Moscow. In June and July, this was for the most part a strange war with lots of incidents and virtually no casualties. The aim was to provoke Saakashvili to order a military offensive in South Ossetia that in turn would allow a Russian intervention. The Georgians have not attacked, so now the killing has begun in earnest.

Even if the current fighting isn’t the fault of the Russians, Georgian restraint has been admirable and surprising considering Saakashvili’s oft-bombastic rhetoric.

Felgenhauer ends with a note of pessimism for Russia. He feels that Russia may be setting itself up for a humiliating defeat in the winter. He certainly could be right.

On the other hand… Though I have some quibbles with aspects of the piece I’m taking this from, it should be remembered that the status quo favors Russia.

Over the long-term, the deadlock in Georgia’s sovereignty struggle works in the favor of Russia and the two breakaway mini-states. Not only does it solidify and normalize Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s autonomous status, giving them and their Russian protector more leverage in any final settlement that might be made, but it weakens the Saakashvili government’s support within Georgia, setting the stage for a conflict between nationalists and accommodationists, and a resultant weakening of Western influence.

I’m not sure about the last point or even the assumption in the article that the West won’t dare push back against Russia. The US and the OSCE certainly might, and whether or not they do will shape Russia’s foreign policy in its near abroad for years to come. That being said, Russia’s interest in maintaining the status quo precisely has to do with that it works in their favor. By making Abkhazians and South Ossetians Russian citizens, it’s a small step to start wondering why they shouldn’t just be annexed into the Russian Federation. Also, the Joint Control Commission heavily favors Russia. Made up of North Ossetia, Russia, Georgia, and South Ossetia, Russia essentially gets 75% of the decision-making power. That is precisely why Georgia has tended to view the conflict as primarily being with Russia and seeks a rethinking of the JCC.

As I briefly mentioned above, this conflict certainly bears close watching. The outcome is not only determining borders in the Caucasus and revealing the extent to which the US, EU, and OSCE are willing to push against Russia, it is also defining how the boundaries of Russian foreign policy.


Now a minor quibble with EurasiaNet. You will notice that their story I linked to is from a partner, namely the Power and Interest News Report–a perfect example of “professional design suggests professional product.” I paid these people no mind and thought nothing about them really until EurasiaNet republished this article on Uzbekistan It’s utter tripe. It might be good if it did not automatically assume that the IMU is behind the latest terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan. The smart money is on them being licking their wounds near Wana and not building terror cells in Uzbekistan. That doesn’t really fit their style. They most certainly could be changing, and that’s the assertion of the article, but by all informed indications, they have been chilling in Pakistan doing “insurgency for hire” work there and in Afghanistan. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the IMU had contact with Jamoat/IJU in Pakistan, but nothing I’ve read suggests they’re the same people.

To make a long story short, I have no clue as to why EurasiaNet is republishing stories from PINR, especially ones based on unrpoven (and widely considered to be unlikely) premises. It isn’t as if it was hard to check that premise.

I perhaps would not have even looked into PINR more had Laurence not asked if I knew anything about them. The author of the piece that set me off is Jonathan Feiser. It makes me curious when I cannot find information about an author beyond that he writes for a certain publication. No indication of his background, education, expertise, etc. He’s been reprinted in publications such as Asia Times Online, which I typically consider to be a rag rarely worth reading. With the author of the South Ossetia piece, I could at least be reasonably certain that it is this fellow author of this gem. Reading both, I hardly find him the kind of person to turn to for serious understanding and consideration, but at least we know he has a Ph.D.

Curious to know more, I discovered that the registrant of pinr.com is Erich Marquardt. Of course,

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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