Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Time to talk about Caucasian self-determination ?

Following  Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 and its subsequent recognition by the US and most EU and NATO members, various Cassandras told us that this would provoke an avalanche of copycat independence-declarations by secessionist territories all over the world. This did not occur, so following the International Court of Justice’s ruling last month that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not contrary to international law, the Cassandras then told us it was actually this ruling that would trigger the avalanche of secessions. We are still waiting, and I would advise readers not to hold their breath. But there has been one copycat response to our recognition of Kosovo’s independence: in August 2008, Russia retaliated by formaly recognising the independence of Georgia’s two breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However insincere this recognition of the ‘independence’ of what are effectively two Russian colonies may be, Moscow has at least formally broken with its traditional policy, pursued since Tsarist times, of suppressing the independence of the Caucasian peoples, as well as with its insistence that the borders of the former members of the Soviet Union should be respected. This may ultimately prove to be rather more of a trigger for further secessions than the case of Kosovo, which was the only such entity of its kind in the Balkan peninsula. Unlike Kosovo, the former autonomous republic of Abkhazia and autonomous oblast of South Ossetia are entities of a kind with the autonomous republics across the mountains in Russia’s North Caucasus region. One of these republics, Chechnya, already made a bid for independence in the 1990s that Moscow drowned in blood, and the armed insurgency that began there has spread to neighbouring North Caucasian territories. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s bloody-minded attempt to punish the West for Kosovo by formally sanctioning the dismemberment of the US’s Georgian ally may yet prove to be a spectacular own goal.

The main problem with the model of ‘independence’ for Abkhazia and South Ossetia as championed by Moscow is not that these entities should not enjoy the right to independence in principle. A reasonable case could be made that all autonomous entities of the former Soviet Union should be able to exercise the right to self-determination, irrespective of whether they are located in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan or elsewhere. The problem is that Moscow only recognises the right for such entities that have seceded from its enemy, Georgia, but not those that have attempted to secede from Russia, or that may wish to do so in future. Such double-standards cannot be justified on any democratic grounds.

The democratic case for Abkhazia’s independence is highly problematc, given that the ethnic Abkhaz constituted only 17.8% of the territory’s population before the war of the 1990s, whereas ethnic Georgians comprised a plurality of Abkhazia’s population of 45.7%, with Russians, Armenians and other smaller groups comprising the balance. On 17 March 1991, Abkhazia’s electorate actually voted against independence; 52.3% participated in a plebiscite on the preservation of the Soviet Union, of which 98.6% voted in favour. This undoubtedly represented a vote against inclusion in an independent Georgia on the part of the ethnic Abkhaz and of some of the minorities, and a conservative vote in favour of the Soviet status quo on the part of some ethnic Georgians, ethnic Russians and others, but it scarcely represented an unambiguous mandate for independence. Since the war of the early 1990s, the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia, and the emigration of many of the rest of the territory’s inhabitants, have reduced the population to 215,972 according to the last (2003) census, down from 525,061 in 1989. The number of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia who remain dispossessed is not much less than the total population remaining in the territory. In such circumstances, whether self-determiantion can have any meaning is a moot point. Certainly, there can be no possible grounds for granting self-determination to Abkhazia while denying it to Chechnya – a country with the same former constitutional status (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic – ASSR) and two and a half times the population, which in 1991 declared independence on the basis of a solid demographic majority in favour.

Moscow’s double-standard over South Ossetia represents a still more interesting case. Its population of just under a hundred thousand in 1989 was split mostly between ethnic Ossetians and ethnic Georgians roughly 2:1 in favour of the former, giving it a respectable demographic majority in favour of independence, though in terms of viability, a rather weaker case than Abkhazia, Chechnya or Kosovo (the South Ossetians are a community approximately one thirtieth the size of the Kosovo Albanians, and smaller than the Bosniaks/Muslims in Serbia or the Albanians in Macedonia). However, Moscow is paradoxically recognising the right to independence of the autonomous oblast of South Ossetia, but not of the Autonomous Republic of North Ossetia – Alania within its own borders – despite the fact that North Ossetia has a higher constitutional status (autonomous republic as opposed to autonomous oblast) and a population of ethnic Ossetians that was five times as high as South Ossetia’s in 1989 and possibly as much as ten times higher today. It is as if the US and its allies would recognise the independence of the Albanians in Macedonia, but not of Albania itself.

This represents a degree of hypocrisy simply inconceivable for democratic Europe. The international community did not exactly cover itself in glory in its reaction to the break-up of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, under the leadership of the EEC/EU, it applied the principle of self-determination consistently. Thus, in the early 1990s, the right to independence was recognised for all the republics of the former Yugoslavia (and for the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia) equally. The recognition of Kosovo in 2008 meant that the right was extended to all the former members of the Yugoslav federation; in most respects, Kosovo possessed all the rights of the f0rmer-Yugoslav republics, therefore recognition of its independence was ultimately a matter of consistency. And in contrast to Kosovo, which was a member of the former Yugoslav federation, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were not members of the former Soviet federation, therefore Western leaders are not being hypocritical in rejecting any parallel between the two cases.

For all Moscow’s opportunistic attempts at equating its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the West’s support for Kosovo, there really is no parallel. In contrast to the Western alliance’s reluctance acceptance of the break-up of Yugoslavia and reluctant intervention in the conflict, Russia’s constant intervention in the Caucasus since the 1990s has represented the efforts of a colonial power at retaining at least some grip on its former colonies, and at punishing one of them – Georgia – for its rejection of Russian colonial rule. Moscow’s support for Abkhazian and South Ossetian nominal ‘independence’ is a figleaf for its policy of limiting as much as possible the real independence of the entire region. Meanwhile, its colonisation of the two countries is proceeding rapidly. Those looking for a parallel in the West’s own neo-colonial past should not look to the former Yugoslavia, but rather to the policies that France has sometimes pursued in parts of Africa, or that the US sometimes pursued until recently in Latin America. US collusion in the Guatemalan genocide in the 1970s and 80s, or French collusion in the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, represent episodes of a shameful legacy that we should continue to repudiate. And we have every right and reason to expect Russia similarly to abandon its own colonial legacy in the Caucasus.

Rather than allowing Moscow to paint us as the hypocrites vis-a-vis Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is time for Western leaders to call Putin’s bluff; to show that, unlike the Putin-Medvedev regime, we stand for the consistent application of universal principles. Let us state, loudly and clearly, that the principle of self-determination for the peoples of the Caucasus, and for the former Soviet autonomous entities, cannot be selectively applied. Let us invite Moscow to discuss with us whether a set of principles can be agreed upon to determine whether and on what basis these entities should be able to exercise the right to self-determination. But this would require that all such entities be treated on an equal basis, irrespective of whether they are located within the borders of Russia, Georgia or any other former member of the Soviet Union. In principle, there is no reason why we should fear such a discussion, provided it is held without prejudice to the final outcome, and the voices of all interested parties are heard – including both the existing post-Soviet independent states, their autonomous entities – whether they are currently attempting to secede or not – and representatives of any refugees.

Such a discussion could consider recognising the right of all such entities to full independence, or other options that fall short of this, such as granting them the right to complete autonomy – virtual independence – within the borders of their parent states. The latter option, indeed, would not amount to a very great departure from the status quo, in which Tbilisi has lost control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Moscow has effectively ceded control over Chechnya to its president and despot, Ramzan Kadyrov. Were Moscow to agree to such a discussion, it would open the door to a solution of the remaining national conflicts in the European and Caucasian parts of the former Soviet Union – including the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. But if, as seems inevitable, Moscow rejects such a discussion out of hand, its hypocrisy over Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be exposed for all to see.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

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Tuesday, 31 August 2010 Posted by | Abkhazia, Caucasus, Chechnya, Former Soviet Union, Georgia, Marko Attila Hoare, Russia, South Ossetia | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Against the sale of Mistrals to Russia

The following petition was published by the Centre for Geopolitical Studies on 3 December. Although it speaks in the name of ‘European citizens of the countries neighbouring Russia’, all concerned individuals are invited to sign it irrespective of citizenship.

Against the sale of Mistrals to Russia

We, European citizens of the countries neighbouring Russia, wish to express our misgivings about the French government’s intention of selling “Mistrals” to Russia.

According to Vladimir Vysotsky, the commander of the Russian Navy « A Mistral-type vessel will significantly increase the fighting and maneuvering capabilities of the Russian navy. During the events of August 2008 (the Russo-Georgian war), this ship would have enabled the Russian fleet in the Black Sea to carry out its mission in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours».

We want to remind the French government that, in violation of an agreement signed with the President of France, Russia is still occupying parts of Georgia.
The Russian leaders have repeatedly threatened to dismember the Ukraine and to intervene in neighbouring states in defence of “Russian-speaking” citizens. Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council, has recently stated that

“in critical national security situations, one should not exclude a preventive nuclear strike against the aggressor”,

and that Russia is revising the rules for the employment of nuclear weapons to repel conventionally armed attackers,

“not only in large-scale, but also in a regional and even a local war.”

This year Russia simulated an air and sea attack on Poland and Lithuania during military exercises.
Just a few days ago, Prime Minister Putin openly stated his intention to annex Georgia to the Russian Federation.

Taking into account these worrying developments, as well as the fact that the Russian leaders are not subjected to any control from their citizens, and that an arbitrary regime is always dangerous for its neighbours, we ask the French government to remember its responsibility for peace and to renounce the sale of “Mistrals” to Russia in the name of European solidarity.

The petition can be signed here.

Friday, 11 December 2009 Posted by | Georgia | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why David Cameron is right to break ranks with Sarkozy and Merkel

CameronDavid Cameron, the British Conservative leader and probable next British Prime Minister, has been coming under harsh criticism for his decision to take the British Conservatives out of the conservative Euro-federalist bloc in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, and to form a new anti-federalist group: the European Conservatives and Reformists, whose most prominent other members are Poland’s Law and Justice Party and the Czech Republic’s Civic Democratic Party. Critics have pointed out that the new group includes racists, homophobes, climate-change-deniers and politicians with far-right backgrounds. The European Conservatives and Reformists is chaired by Michal Kaminski, an admirer of Augusto Pinochet and opponent of Polish moves to apologise for the Polish massacre of Jews at Jedwabne during World War II. They have argued that Cameron is marginalising Britain within the EU.

So far as Cameron’s critics from the ranks of the Euro-federalist wing of the Conservative Party and of Britain’s Labour Party are concerned, it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The European People’s Party, supposedly the voice of moderate, centre-right conservatism, includes the ruling Italian party, Silvio Berlusconi’s ‘People of Freedom’. The latter, formally founded this spring, includes the heirs to Italy’s Fascist movement, including Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance and Alessandra Mussolini’s Social Action. Poland’s homophobic Civic Platform is also a member of the European People’s Party. Stefan Niesiolowski, deupty speaker of the Polish Sejm and a member of Civic Platform, has described lesbians as ‘sickening‘ and as a ‘pathology‘. The European People’s Party includes also as observers or associates Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which denies the Armenian Genocide and flirts with anti-Semitism, and Serbia’s Democratic Party of Serbia, whose leader Vojislav Kostunica presided over the burning down of the US embassy in Belgrade last year.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s members in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe sit in the Socialist Group, which includes Russia’s fascist Liberal Democratic Party, headed by the overtly racist and anti-Semitic Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who called publicly for the ‘preservation of the white race’ and warned that ‘it’s all over for you once you’re Americanised and Zionised’. The Socialist Group also includes ‘Just Russia’, which incorporates the racist, far-right Rodina party – several of whose members in the Russian Duma have called for all Jewish organisations in Russia to be closed. Another member of the Socialist Group is Turkey’s anti-Kurdish Republican People’s Party, which not only denies the Armenian Genocide but opposed even the Turkish government’s own measures to lift restrictions on the Kurdish language.

This sort of point-scoring is very easy. Geopolitical alliances are not equivalent to domestic political alliances, in which there can be no excuse for allying with bigots or fascists. The reality of geopolitics is that the majority of the world’s states have not achieved Western-democratic standards of democracy, tolerance and human rights. Consequently, even democratic states are frequently forced to have unsavoury allies. We had to ally with Stalin to defeat Hitler; with Saudi Arabia and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991; with the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban in 2001. NATO has long included the highly chauvinistic states of Turkey and Greece, which discriminate against their national minorities in a manner that is wholly at odds with the standards of democratic Europe. The UK shares membership of the EU with states, such as Italy and Poland, that tolerate fascism or bigotry to an extent that would be unacceptable to the UK’s politically conscious public. We share membership of the Council of Europe with states whose democratic credentials are still more flawed, such as Turkey and Russia. A British party sitting in the European Parliament or the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, that does not wish wholly to isolate itself, has little choice but to join blocs that include some highly unsavoury members.

Of course, one could take the principled position that international isolation would be preferable to any alliance that includes bigots or extremists. Yet this is the opposite of what Cameron’s critics, such as Denis MacShane and Nick Cohen are saying, which is that he should have kept the British Conservatives in the European People’s Party in order to preserve British influence through membership of the dominant mainstream centre-right bloc, as represented by Angela Merkel’s German Christian Democrats and Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement. 

I have great respect for both Denis MacShane and Nick Cohen, but I must beg to differ. The biggest internal threat to the EU is not the homophobia or anti-environmentalism of Polish and Czech rightists – disgusting though these are. A rather bigger threat comes from the Euro-federalist project that, with only slight oversimplification, can be defined as follows: forge a strategic partnership with Russia at the expense of Eastern Europe; undermine the Western alliance in the interests of ‘independence’ from the US; keep Turkey out of the EU, at whatever cost to Western strategic interests; keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO, consigning them to the status of buffer zone vis-a-vis an appeased Russia; and build a narrow, inward-looking ‘Fortress Europe’ that would certainly not pull its weight in the global struggle with the enemies of freedom and human rights. Such is the policy of the dominant Franco-German bloc in the EU, currently led by Merkel and Sarkozy.

Sarkozy hardly scores higher in terms of political correctness than does Kaminski. He is on record for opposing Turkey’s entry into the EU on the grounds that ‘Turkey is in Asia Minor’ and that ‘I won’t be able to explain to French school kids that Europe’s border neighbors are Iraq and Syria.’ (This from the head of a state that, via its overseas department of French Guiana, shares a land border with Brazil). Treating Turkey, which was part of the Ancient Greek world and the Roman Empire and whose largest city was for a time the Roman capital, as an Asian ‘other’ with no right to be part of Europe, scarcely marks Sarkozy out as a respectable centre-right statesman free of bigoted views. Nor does his vocal support for the Greek-nationalist campaign to force the Republic of Macedonia to change its name, motivated as this is by the racist belief that a Slavic-speaking people has no right to use the Macedonian name of the ‘Greek’ Alexander the Great, and that the Macedonian nation has no right even to exist.

Sarkozy and Merkel were responsible in April 2008 for the failure to grant a NATO Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine, effectively announcing to Moscow that the Western alliance was not standing by these countries – a message that Vladimir Putin took to heart when he attacked Georgia soon after. Sarkozy and Merkel were then in the forefront of the appeasers who pushed to ensure that Moscow’s aggression would not be allowed to stand in the way of EU-Russian collaboration. At the height of Russia’s aggression against Georgia, while France held the EU Presidency, Sarkozy travelled to Moscow to reassure the Russians that ‘It’s perfectly normal that Russia would want to defend the interests both of Russians in Russia and Russophones outside Russia.’ Sarkozy’s negotiations, in Toby Vogel’s words, ‘yielded a badly drafted ceasefire agreement and provided space for numerous Russian violations that the EU was in no position to counter’. Merkel, meanwhile, is in coalition with the German Social Democratic Party – the champion of collaboration with Russia, whose former leader Gerhard Schroeder described Putin as an ‘impeccable democrat’.

The Franco-German policy of excluding Turkey permanently from the EU – an integral element in the Euro-federalist strategy – has borne bitter fruit. The once reformist government of the AKP in Turkey, persistently disappointed in its ambition to join the EU, is turning away from the West and toward an increasing alignment with Russia, Iran and other tyrannical states of the Islamic world. For the current leaderships of France and Germany, cementing strategically crucial Turkey’s membership of the Western alliance is simply less important than their goal of an introverted federalist Fortress Europe that they would dominate. Meanwhile, Poland, the Czech Republic and other NATO members from the former Communist bloc are increasingly apprehensive at the possibility of a Western rapprochement with Russia that would see their security interests sacrificed – as the recent open letter to the Obama Administration from a stellar panel of Eastern and Central European statesmen makes clear. We can be certain that it will not be Sarkozy and Merkel who will be reassuring our Eastern and Central European allies.

In sum, Sarkozy and Merkel are taking the EU down the wrong path – a path, moreover, with which British public opinion is deeply uncomfortable. The policy of Gordon Brown’s government so far has been to keep rank with the French and Germans. This policy has not achieved results.

It would be wrong to read too much into Cameron’s move, which is apparently the result principally of internal Conservative Party politics rather than geostrategic considerations. Despite promises to the contrary made at the time of the Georgian war last summer, the Conservatives are continuing to sit with Putin’s United Russia party in the European Democrat Group in the Council of Europe. But in principle, Cameron’s formation of the European Conservatives and Reformists shows a welcome readiness to shake up EU politics and power structures and break ranks with elements that are taking Europe down the wrong path. The European Parliament is not where power lies in the EU, but in principle, the new group – small as it currently is, and containing as it does some undeniably unsavoury elements – could grow to provide a powerful voice for Europeans, particularly East and Central Europeans, who are uncomfortable with the federalist project and with the Franco-German preponderance in the EU, and who staunchly support the US alliance. It is to be hoped that this new group will serve as a building block for a new, alternative European project in keeping with Cameron’s professed vision of ‘progressive conservatism’, and not as a haven for European reactionaries.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Update: Stephen Pollard has written a convincing defence of Kaminski from the charge of anti-Semitism.

Hat tip: Dave Weeden, Aaronovitch Watch.

Hat tip:

Friday, 31 July 2009 Posted by | European Union | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment