Beslan & Georgia (Updated)

by Nathan Hamm on 9/9/2004 · 8 comments

I have been less than impressed with much of Putin’s public responses to the attack on Beslan. In particular, his statements about foreign powers wanting to dismember Russia are an irresponsible insult done only for short-term political gain and to ignore structural problems in the Russian government.

Of particular interest to me and the issues covered on this site are the failures of Russia’s larger Caucasus policy and its relationship to the war in Chechnya.

Russia has linked the conflict in South Ossetia with Beslan. True or not (and I think it is at best irresponsible conjecture and at worst a despicable lie), I think this is precisely the wrong thing for Russia to be doing.

There certainly is a huge potential for Beslan to increase tensions in the Caucasus and some analysts are calling for a get-tough approach towards Georgia.

Some hawkish political analysts are urging Russia to get tough with Georgia. One Kremlin-connected observer, Gleb Pavlovsky, who heads the Effective Policy Foundation, told the Russky Zhurnal website; those who planned a terrorist act in Beslan wouldn’t have chosen North Ossetia as a target if Saakashvili hadn’t “unfrozen the Ossetian issue.”

I’m certainly inclined to line up on the other side though.

In sharp contrast, a significant number of experts are urging the Kremlin to seek an accommodation with Tbilisi on the South Ossetia issue. The conflict-fraught situation in North Ossetia, Arutyunov told the Vremya Novostei daily, should prompt Russia to press for a rapid settlement of the South Ossetia issue. The end result of this process, Arutyunov contends, should be full-fledged and internationally guaranteed autonomy of South Ossetia within Georgia. For Moscow, he continues, Tbilisi’s friendship and assistance are absolutely necessary to contain the potential for violence in the North Caucasus. [emphasis added]

Even if Georgia wished in its heart of hearts to hurt Russia, the Saakashvili government does not appear the least bit suicidal (though sometimes it operates with a calculated irrationality). Tbilisi knows which way the wind is blowing and I am a little shocked that Russia seems not to.

No one denies that Georgia is doing a poor job of securing its Chechen border. Meanwhile, Russia is offering support to resistance movements within Georgia. Both countries are facing similar foes–secessionist forces whose defeat can only be fully secured with the cooperation of neighboring states.

I certainly hope that the two sides can find a way to cooperate to secure peace throughout the Caucasus.

UPDATE: There are points worth considering in this op-ed from Key among them to the discussion in the comments is that some of Russia’s reaction to Beslan is being colored by 19th century Great Game and 20th century Cold War paranoias.

The arguments of the Russian hawks brought ad absurdum were broadcast in a prime-time news show of Russia’s 1st Channel (ORT) on September 8. Commentator Mikhail Leontyev, known for his close ties with the Kremlin, argued that the Western criticisms of Russian policies in Chechnya is a continuation of the British colonial policies of splitting Russia and squeezing it out of the Caucasus. The US, Leontyev argues, is the modern heir of the British empire, and Saakashvili’s regime is its proxy.

Tragedy in Beslan is not terrorism, Leontyev says “it is a diversion. Its aim is to destroy the Russian statehood.” The diagram during the show illustrated the Caucasus with North and South Ossetia’s united in one color (with the state border with Georgia erased) and the arrows of military intervention directed at Russia from Turkey, Black Sea and Tbilisi.

There is a serious discussion to be had over the Western response to Chechnya, but too much of what I’m reading is silly and divisive nonsense.

Devdariani’s point about Russia’s instrumentalization of terror to achieve other foreign policy goals is worth discussing as well. At the very least, it’s worth considering how much of a link, if any, exists between terror and Russia’s other foreign policy goals, which of those goals is most crucial, and what is the best way to achieve such a goal (I’m leaning towards squeezing out terrorists as top priority and achieving it by being more serious about regional cooperation to achieve that goal).

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– 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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Laurence September 9, 2004 at 12:23 pm

Nathan, don’t get so upset about what Putin is saying, there is some basis for his charges in fact. I myself heard Richard Holbrooke and Zbignew Brzezinski with my own ears make veiled remarks about breaking up Russia through the Chechen separatist movements with my own ears at the Library of Congress, even mentioning the Yugoslavia scenario that Putin discussed–Holbrooke was in charge of the Dayton accords. When questioned, Holbrooke said, “What can Russia do? Russia is weak.” So I don’t think Putin is being irresponsible, and I’m pretty sure there are anti-Russian folks pushing that line in all sorts of places, for all sorts of reasons, and I’m not sure that US and UK were any more committed to the territorial integrity of Russia than they were of the former Yugoslavia. Of course, the US and UK may not have thought the whole thing through in the context of international terrorism, and that is why Putin is raising the issue…

Nathan September 9, 2004 at 12:44 pm

Fair enough, but I think he’s only making these charges because it plays well to many Russians. To me, this is remarkably similar to Arafat’s tired old tactic of blaming all Palestinian problems on Israel to deflect criticism of the Palestinian Authority.

When did Holbrooke and Brzezinski say this by the way? Was it around the time of Dayton? I remember quite a bit of official criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya pre-9/11 and a quick death of it post-9/11.

There may be those who wish to break up Russia (and I don’t have a problem with Chechen independence so much as what kind of state it would be), but I have to be critical of the story Putin is telling. I’m having a really hard time with the allegation that the reffered-to but unnamed foreign powers in the west feel that sponsoring the murder of schoolchildren is the most efficacious way of removing Russia’s nuclear threat.

Laurence September 9, 2004 at 1:24 pm

Nathan, it was a few months ago, definitely post-9/11, the panel was hosted by a German profesor working at the Library of Congress as some sort of Scholar in Residence. It was so anti-Russian, only James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, spoke up for the Russians (he’s written a few books about Russia). I remember being really shocked, finding Holbrooke frightening, and Brzezinski, too. Zbig was also very anti-Israel, and his attack on “neocons” at that same event sounded anti-Semitic, or very close to it. The only reasonable person on the panel was Brent Scowcroft, who was so reasonable, I don’t remember anything he said very much…

I’m sorry to say that think Putin has a lot of facts on his side, unlike Arafat. The US and UK are giving asylum to Chechen terrorists, the Chechens did attack Dagestan when they had independence, they are tied to Al Qaeda, etc. Since the US sponsored the Taliban against Russia in Afghanistan, it is not so paranoid for Putin to think that the same tactics could be used in Chechnya…

Laurence September 9, 2004 at 1:31 pm

Nathan, one more thing, having just read the RFE/RL post–it is anti-Russian propaganda that reflects the exact “cold war thinking” Putin was talking about! Putin invited in American and UK journalists and academics and talked to them for 3 hours about Chechnya because he wants to send a message to the US and UK, it is not a matter of domestic politics. For RFE/RL to dismiss it in that way is dishonest–not journalism but propaganda, and very crude, bad propaganda, in fact. I don’t believe RFE/RL with regards to Central Asia, and now I will ignore them about Russia, too. No wonder they are banned from broadcasting in the USA…

Nathan September 9, 2004 at 2:21 pm

My over-arching issue here is that the Russian government, right or wrong, is being a tad reckless.

As to the facts on Putin’s side, I agree with you to a point.

I can’t find the link now, but his point about mid-level US officials being the problem is one I don’t have much of a gripe about. My problems with Russian policy tend to stem from the actions of their mid-level officials.

Putin knows what he’s doing though when he suggests that we are using terrorists to undermine the threat of Russian nuclear weapons. We may be unwitting dupes or irresponsibly uncaring (though, points of right and wrong aside, there should be some quid pro quo over the South Caucasus), but I’m offended by the image of callous sponsors of child-murder that he paints in his comments for the Russian audience.

I want the US to cooperate with Russia over Chechnya. I am on their side (and have been for a long time) on Chechnya. I think I’ve also been a pretty consistent proponent of US-Russian partnership. It’s just a little hard to be too enthusiastic about standing beside someone who feels like ripping you loudly and publicly (kind of like how I feel about the US doing it to Uzbekistan…).

Nathan September 9, 2004 at 2:30 pm

Let me also quickly add that I’m pretty annoyed by those who blame Russia for its Chechnya-related problems. Also, Putin was right to make the point that negotiation with what’s left of Chechnya’s “resistance” is as out of the question as is our negotiation with Al Qaeda leaders.

Laurence September 9, 2004 at 2:37 pm

Nathan, I don’t think Putin is “ripping” the US, I think he’s telling us to stop supporting the Chechens. And the problem is that we have been supporting the Chchens, even though we are supposedly in a war on terrorism…

Nathan September 9, 2004 at 3:12 pm

This is what has me peeved:

“Some would like to tear from us a juicy chunk,” Putin said. “Others help them. They help, reasoning that Russia still remains one of the world’s major nuclear powers, and as such still represents a threat to them. And so they reason that this threat should be removed. Terrorism, of course, is just an instrument to achieve these aims.”

I read that as Putin saying that whoever (wink, wink) it is he’s talking about is using terrorism to undermine Russia. I think that’s false.

His accusations regarding moral support are more accurate and quite similar to the ones I often make about Human Rights Watch’s unwitting support of terrorism. Still, I’m a big fan of diplomatic niceties and wouldn’t mind them here. I agree that the West has consistently been wrong on Chechnya, but I don’t think he’s helpful by going overboard on the nature of the support (and here I’m talking about comments like those above and not the asylum and moral support ones).

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