SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 121 - September 2008

Conflict in the Caucasus

Background to the present crisis

ROB JONES outlines the developments in the region from 1990 which have led to the present crisis.

GEORGIA GAINED INDEPENDENCE from the Soviet Union when the latter broke up at the end of 1991. The first years of independence were painful. The country had as president the former anti-Soviet dissident and nationalist writer, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. He leaned on the widespread mood of opposition to the centralised Soviet Union to become head of newly independent Georgia, but his rule proved to be not only nationalistic but far from democratic.

Georgia was racked by the economic and social collapse that affected the states of the former Soviet Union as they attempted to restore capitalism. In fact, it suffered the worst collapse of all of them with a 70% drop in production. Gamsakhurdia preferred to rely on nationalism rather than attempt to defend living standards for all those living in Georgia. His supporters demanded that ‘Georgia should be for Georgians’ although, at the time, over 30% of the population were non-Georgians.

The national minorities, in particular, the ethnic Russians and groups such as the Ossetians, had always been more pro-Russian than pro-Georgian and began to get concerned for their own position. Pro-Russian movements were deliberately whipped up to undermine the Georgian government, sometimes by the Russian state, as part of a conscious policy and, just as often, by rogue elements within the Russian state and Russian nationalist politicians, such as Russia’s current envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin.

Unhappy with the lack of progress with economic reforms, other sections of the ruling elite moved against Gamsakhurdia. Three ministers resigned, calling him a ‘demagogue and totalitarian’. The army divided into pro- and anti-Gamsakhurdia factions.

Most analyses of this period contain no clear description of what the real nature of the differences within the Gamsakhurdia government were, as the authors either treat history as a conflict between personalities or because they look at the question through the prism of their own national interests.

But in general, throughout the ex-republics of the former Soviet Union at that time, the ideological disputes within the ruling elite centred on the best way to restore capitalism – through neo-liberal ‘shock therapy’ or a slower, state-regulated approach à la China. They often, but not always, ran parallel with the conflict between pro- and anti-Russian interests.

On the level of the newly independent republics, these conflicts were complicated by clan interests. In Georgia’s case, neo-liberals who expected the declaration of Georgian independence to lead to the rapid restoration of capitalism found themselves in conflict with Gamsakhurdia’s nationalism.

During the period of economic stagnation before the break-up of the Soviet Union, when the conditions were ripening for the restoration of capitalism, the working class was unable to form its own political organisations with a revolutionary Marxist ideology. This could have offered a genuine alternative to Stalinism and capitalism – a real socialism based on workers’ control and management, freedom and democracy, national self-determination and internationalism. Instead of taking society forward through a political revolution, the lack of a working-class alternative led society backwards into capitalist restoration, with all the horrors that entailed.

In Georgia, the divisions within the ruling elite led, in December 1991, to a coup d’état against Gamsakhurdia. After a week of fighting in Tbilisi, a military council took control of the country and appointed as president probably Georgia’s only real ‘elder statesman’, the former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. While without the direct involvement of the Russian government of the time, this coup took place with at least the participation of some of the most reactionary elements of the Russian state. Although Shevardnadze often caused difficulties for Russia, he waged a repressive campaign against former supporters of Gamsakhurdia and, by the end of 1993, further armed conflicts broke out into a civil war affecting the west of the country.

Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia all intervened to support Shevardnadze when it appeared that Gamsakhurdia might gain control of the Black Sea ports and thus threaten their export potential. In return for his at least temporary victory, Shevardnadze ensured that Georgia joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). While he essentially had a pro-western position he managed mostly to maintain workable relations with Moscow.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia

TENSIONS BETWEEN SOUTH Ossetia and Georgia began to increase before the collapse of the Soviet Union. With his nationalist rhetoric, Gamsakhurdia proposed that the only language to be recognised should be Georgian. Ossetians have their own language and this provoked the South Ossetian leaders to appeal to the Russian government for support and even recognition as a separate state.

In response, the Georgian government moved to abolish South Ossetia’s autonomous status within Georgia. Tensions grew and clashes developed, which eventually broke out into brutal, largely ethnically-based conflicts. At the end of 1991, ethnic clashes in South Ossetia left over a thousand dead and huge population shifts. Over 100,000 Ossetians were forced to leave Georgia (23,000 from within South Ossetia and the remainder from the rest of Georgia). They went to North Ossetia and the basis was laid for an ethnic conflict there as the Ossetians were allocated homes once occupied by Ingush people. The ensuing Ingush-Ossetian war claimed hundreds of lives. At the same time, over 20,000 ethnic Georgians were driven out of Ossetia after their schools and homes were burned to the ground.

In Abkhazia, where the ethnic make up was much less homogenous, the war which broke out was absolutely brutal. After the Georgian military seized hold of Sukhumi, it introduced a regime based on the exclusion of non-Georgians from power. This led to a flow of refugees from the city and the ground was laid for horrific ethnic conflict. The Abkhazians, with the support of significant sections of the Russian state, responded to the Georgian attacks with ethnic attacks of their own. Within 18 months at least 10,000 ethnic Georgians had been brutally murdered, while a further 200-300,000 Georgians were forced out of Abkhazia.

Many Georgians, of course, were opposed to the nationalist policies of their government, just as in the same way many Abkhazians opposed the ethnic cleansing. Indeed, it is wrong to even call the separatist forces purely Abkhazian. The hard core was made up of mercenaries from the North Caucasus with the later notorious Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, and his bandits playing a central role in the massacres of ethnic Georgians.

These thugs did not care who they killed. On many occasions they slaughtered Abkhazians who attempted to protect their Georgian friends and neighbours or who refused to join them. One report from Human Rights Watch says, "out of a group of twelve frontline soldiers, two were Abkhazian, two were Armenian – one Armenian locally from Sukhumi, one from Yerevan who was too young to go fight the good fight in Karabakh – and the rest were either from the North Caucasus or from places like Siberia. What were they motivated by? Looting. They had been promised houses with tangerine gardens. They had been promised cars".

While the official Russian government policy was to call for an end to the conflict and for peacekeeping troops to be engaged, at key moments the involvement of Russian forces, mainly aircraft and special troops, was critical.

Georgia was forced to accept a ceasefire to avoid a large scale-confrontation with Russia. The government of Georgia and South Ossetian separatists reached an agreement to avoid the use of force against one another, and Georgia pledged not to impose sanctions against South Ossetia. However, the Georgian government still retained direct control over substantial portions of South Ossetia, including the town of Akhalgori. A peacekeeping force of Ossetians, Russians and Georgians was established with the support of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Although unrecognised internationally, in effect Abkhazia and South Ossetia gained de facto independence, just as Chechnya gained de facto independence at the end of the first Chechen war – until Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin decided to end the ‘insubordination’ at the start of Putin’s presidential election campaign in late 1999. In Chechnya, the Russians handed power to a renegade warlord, Akhmad Kadyrov. When he died in a bomb attack in May 2004, his son, Ramzan, took over and has effectively established a police state in Chechnya.

In South Ossetia’s case, the Russians nominated the St Petersburg-based wrestler-turned-businessman, Eduard Kokoiti, as president. He returned to South Ossetia to put together a government team including general Anatoly Barankevich as chief of armed forces, who leads the South Ossetian armed forces with soldiers mainly from North Ossetia. Kokoiti also appointed a former head of the Kabardino-Balkaria FSB (Kabardino-Balkaria is one of Russia’s small Caucasian republics and the FSB is the successor of the KGB in Russia) as head of the South Ossetian KGB.

While the Russian regime leant on Kokoiti and used South Ossetia as a means to pressurise Georgia, it did not want to encourage South Ossetia to go too far. It was already struggling to control instability throughout the Russian North Caucasus. If Chechnya had almost been brought under control under Kadyrov, it was at the cost of spreading discontent to the neighbouring regions.

Ingushetia, Dagestan and North Ossetia became zones of almost constant bombings and armed attacks. The North Ossetian town of Beslan gained worldwide notoriety after the school siege in September 2004 was incompetently handled by the Russian state, leaving hundreds dead. The Russian elite needed to avoid further instability.

The South Ossetian ruling elite, however, used the autonomous republic’s position to their own benefit. No real economic activity was possible in this isolated state in one of the poorest regions of the northern hemisphere, as indicated by the scale of South Ossetia’s GDP – just $15 million. The elite, however, ensured that they had enough to live on by developing smuggling into a business. When the population objected, they diverted attention by blaming Georgia. The success of the smuggling business was due to South Ossetia’s location in the Caucasus region, squeezed between Russia in the north, Turkey, the Black Sea and Europe in the west, Iran to the south, and Central Asia to the east.

As Georgia does not recognise South Ossetian independence, it does not put up border and custom patrols. The only route between South Ossetia and Russian North Ossetia is through the Roki tunnel under the Caucasus. Travel through this is controlled by the Russian state. It does not take much speculation to understand why the Russian army today is so keen to control Gori, which has traditionally been the first staging post on the smuggling route.

The Caspian energy corridor

WITH RUSSIA’S ECONOMY beginning to grow and the oil and gas prices on world markets rocketing, naturally South Ossetia found itself subject to an increasingly bitter struggle for power and influence between the world’s imperialist powers. Ronald Asmus, director of the Brussels Transatlantic Fund, commented in the Herald Tribune: "There are those who say that this is really about Russia and the rules of the game for Europe writ large for the Caspian energy corridor". Both the US and the EU grew increasingly worried about Russia’s growing influence on the oil and gas market. They decided to use the region around Georgia as the only possible transit route between the oil rich Central Asian and Caspian regions and Europe that bypassed both Iran and Russia.

There are now three international oil lines running through the Caucasus with a further gas line planned. These enter the Black Sea through the Georgian ports of Kulumi and Poti and the Abkhazian port of Sukhumi. The BP-operated Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan line alone has a throughput of over a million barrels of oil a day. The pipelines are located in neutral zones in which so many metres to either side of the line are considered international property. In turn, the Russians are planning to build the South Stream pipeline through the region to try and maintain some control over supplies, as part of a project between Gazprom and Italy’s ENI. The equation is quite simple: the larger the proportion of oil and gas supplies flowing through the Caucasus is controlled by the west, the weaker is Russia’s grip on Europe’s energy market and, of course, vice versa.

In June 2004, tensions once again rose as the Georgian government launched a campaign against smuggling in the region. Dozens died in the subsequent wave of hostage-takings, shootouts and bombings. A new ceasefire agreement was reached but both Moscow and Tskhinvali complained about the Georgian military build-up. They kept quiet, however, about the increase in the Russian military budget in the same period.

The rose revolution

THIS IS THE background to the wave of ‘coloured revolutions’ that spread like wildfire across the region in the middle of the last decade. In broad strokes, starting with Serbia, through the rose revolution in Georgia, the orange revolution in Ukraine, and the tulip revolution in Kirghizstan, these movements developed in countries in which there was widespread discontent with the state of the economy, social degradation, and corrupt and undemocratic governments. Because of the absence of working-class and left-wing organisations capable of mobilising this discontent in a socialist direction, western-orientated neo-liberal politicians, with the backing of considerable financial and ‘polit-technological forces’ (spin doctors) were able to parasitically use the popular discontent to overthrow the old, broadly pro-Russian regimes.

Threats by the western powers to encourage similar ‘revolutions’ were used to essentially blackmail Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, and Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to make concessions to western economic interests. As soon as agreement was reached, the US pulled the financial plug and money for the opposition dried up.

Shevardnadze attempted to balance between the US and Russia. In 2003, for example, he signed big deals with Russia’s Gazprom and Russian Energy, effectively giving them control of Georgia’s energy market for 25 years. This so annoyed the US, it threatened to stop building the pipelines and cut off financial aid. In the end, Shevardnadze signed another agreement, this time with the US, which meant that US troops could enter and leave the country without visas, and army units, aircraft and ships could cross Georgia’s borders in any direction without restriction.

For this right, the US agreed to pay an annual sum of $75 million – 10% of Georgia’s budget, which is supposed to go to reforming the army to NATO standards. But, by this time, the US had become increasingly unhappy with Shevardnadze. He could not be fully controlled and the money it was pumping into the country just disappeared into corrupt pockets.

In November 2003, following obviously rigged elections, Shevardnadze was overthrown in the rose revolution and replaced by the Columbia University-educated Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili and his ally, Nino Burdzanadze, represented an alliance between anti-Russian, pro-US Georgian nationalism and neo-liberalism.

From his first day in power, Saakashvili expressed his determination to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under the control of Tbilisi. He demanded that the status of the ‘international’ peacekeepers be changed to reduce the influence of Russia over the breakaway regions, and waged an international campaign in defence of the ‘territorial integrity’ of Georgia. This in itself was sufficient to raise the ire of Russia but, having come to power with the open backing of the US, Saakashvili clearly allied his government with the defence of US interests. Georgia applied to join NATO, troops were sent to Iraq, and the main road from Tbilisi’s airport was renamed George Bush Street.

Saakashvili stepped up the campaign against black-market trading. One analyst described how Saakashvili "closed the market in Ergneti, which was an outlet for contraband passing through South Ossetia, but also a point of sale for agricultural products from the regions of Tskhinvali and Gori. This vast black market constituted, in neutral territory, a place of precious exchange, the only economic integration of a highly divided region. Since its closure, all contact between Georgians and Ossetians has become more difficult, leading to an exacerbation of the alienation between the two sides. In Tskhinvali, as in Gori, many see this closure as a major mistake in the region".

At the same time, Saakashvili won a major victory in Adjara, a third breakaway region that had been Shevardnadze’s power base. He managed to essentially blackmail the local government to accept his conditions. Believing he could repeat his success and fully restore Georgia’s territorial integrity, he directed his attentions towards South Ossetia. However, international pressure held him back, but the relative stability of the previous years was disrupted.

Russian divide and rule

ONCE THE RUSSIAN government realised the implications of Shevardnadze going, in order to maintain its position it stepped up its use of one of the oldest weapons in the imperialist arsenal: divide and rule. The leaders of the breakaway republics were encouraged to strengthen their borders with Georgia to prevent ‘disruption spilling over’. They were then invited to Moscow to discuss ‘improving their relations with Georgia’. However, Eduard Kokoiti, in South Ossetia, saw this as a chance for his breakaway territory to link up with Russia. Naturally, the Georgian government saw this as a threat and stepped up its protests against the increasing Russian economic and political presence in the region and against the uncontrolled military of the South Ossetian side.

This was the background to a referendum organised by the Kokoiti government in November 2006. The question asked in the referendum was, ‘Do you agree that the Republic of South Ossetia should retain its current status as an independent state and be recognised by the international community?’ This has been interpreted by Russian chauvinists, including Kokoiti, as meaning that South Ossetia should merge with North Ossetia in the Russian Federation. The results of the referendum are, however, much more complex. According to the election commission, there was a turnout of 95%, with 52,000 people (99.9%) voting yes. These figures are clearly fraudulent. The whole population of South Ossetia is about 70,000 and about 25% are Georgian. The majority of Georgians did not have the right to vote. So it is stretching the imagination to say that 52,000 voters participated.

The reality is that this referendum was just another in a long series of fixed votes organised by the Kremlin. For example, the so-called international observers were from front organisations, organised by Modest Kolerov, head of the Russian presidential administration’s directorate for interregional ties. One of the most active observer groups was the Kremlin-organised youth group, Nashi. As in the Russian presidential election, it was responsible for organising the exit poll! According to the Electoral Commission of Alternative Elections set up by Tbilisi, 42,000 voters turned out for the elections held in the territories under Georgian control. According to authorities in Tskhinvali, these voters numbered only 14,000. In the alternative presidential election in the Georgian-controlled areas, Dimitri Sanakoev, the candidate favoured by Tbilisi, took 88% of the votes. More than 90% voted for the return of South Ossetia to Georgia by way of a federation. These figures are obviously just as fraudulent. Needless to say, the Russian press reported only Kokoiti’s referendum, the Georgian press Sanakoev’s.

However, the two referendums did reflect the reality of South Ossetia in the days before the war. On the one hand, Georgians populate the villages around Tskhinvali, and nine new settlements have been established between Tskhinvali and the Roki tunnel, linked to the Tbilisi-controlled areas by a single path. The area to the north of the new villages was controlled by the Ossetian militias. This situation makes the statement by Kokoiti on 16 August that Georgians will not be allowed to return, sound like a call for ethnic cleansing. Indeed, there have been reports of Georgian homes being torched.

On the other hand, is the economic position. Although the Russian North Caucasus is an extremely poor region with average incomes (as opposed to wages, because there is practically no work) around €100 a month, the situation in Georgia is even worse. This explains why so many Ossetians have applied for Russian passports (a Russian passport is an internal document, as opposed to the foreign passport, which allows for travel abroad). Holding an internal passport entitles the holder to citizenship, and thus to pensions, which are more generous than the Georgian equivalent. Indeed, in the Kokoiti government’s referendum campaign in 2006, agitation mainly combined calls to ‘Build the Grand Alani’ (an ancient empire once founded in Ossetia), with attacks on Georgia for its past aggressions, and comparisons of how much better life is in Russia.

A clear understanding of questions like national conflicts can be arrived at only on the basis of patiently examining the facts. Clear analysis and readily understood programmes can then lead to the rapid building of the working-class forces capable of ending capitalism, with all its evils and rivalries, and laying the basis for a future harmonious socialist society, nationally and internationally.


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