SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Conflict in the Caucasus

RUSSIA HAS suffered two serious blows in the Caucasus in the past month. On 9 May, during the parade in the centre of the capital, Grozny, to celebrate Russia’s victory in the second world war, the president of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov (a former warlord who became an ally of Russian president, Vladimir Putin), was killed in a bomb blast.

Now Russia is left frantically searching for a successor. The job description is hardly attractive: three of the four post-Soviet Chechen leaders have died violent deaths. The fourth, Aslan Maskhadov, is leading armed opposition to the Russian troops. This blast also blew a huge hole in the cruel illusion that stability has been restored in Chechnya. Indeed, the BBC reports that the situation there today is comparable to Kosova and Bosnia at the height of their conflicts.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, the head of Russia’s Security Council, Igor Ivanov, was forced to fly to Adzharia (an autonomous republic within the republic of Georgia) to persuade its president, Aslan Abashidze, to give up power and flee to Moscow. Abashidze claims that he agreed to avoid civil war in the republic and that, as Ivanov was talking to him, artillery fire from the Georgian army could be heard approaching his palace.

There could be no doubt that the central Georgian authorities were determined to use any means to take control of Adzharia. After Mikhail Saakashvili ousted Eduard Shevardnadze as Georgian president in last November’s ‘rose revolution’ he has made it clear he intends to bring the three autonomous regions (Adzharia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia) back under central control. Saakashvili was educated in US business schools and is determined to force through neo-liberal reforms in the republic, but he has also gained a reputation for his nationalistic rhetoric. He wasted little time in trying to bring Adzharia back under control.

Adzharia is barely 40 by 30 miles in area, with a population of about a third of a million. But, tucked between the main part of Georgia, Turkey and the Black Sea, it is a key transit point for trade. Its capital, Batumi, first came to prominence in 1883 when the Rothschild family financed its construction as one of the first terminals in the world for the export of oil from the Caspian and Azeri fields, through the Black Sea to Europe. Today, western oil companies still rely heavily on the high-volume Batumi oil terminal, as alternative export routes involve piping oil through Iran or Russia. In addition, much of Armenia’s trade goes through the region as its export routes are still blocked by Azerbaijan. Naturally, there is a high level of Russian interest in the region.

Abashidze ran the republic as little more than a feudal fiefdom. He was appointed to rule in 1991 by the Georgian Supreme Soviet and was seen as a key ally of Shevardnadze. Although regarded as pro-American, Shevardnadze was not an advocate of neo-liberalism but preferred, instead, to build his own form of crony capitalism. Georgia gained a reputation for extreme corruption. Abashidze used his position to build his own network of corrupt capitalists. The oil port was privatised, with a large proportion of the shares going to a shady Danish businessman-friend of Abashizde, who used the customs revenue to build his own private army. Whilst the vast majority of the population was scraping by on no more than €20 a month, it was discovered – after Abashidze had fled to Moscow – that the president had a collection of cars and over 200 pedigree dogs, some costing thousands of euros.

Following Saakashvili’s confirmation as president, the struggle for control of the small republic quickly escalated. During Georgia’s parliamentary election campaign in early spring, Saakashvili tried to visit Batumi to campaign but was blocked by armoured personnel carriers on the border. By mid-April, a general military mobilisation was announced by Abashidze. Protests by Saakashvili’s supporters in Batumi were attacked by security forces and, in response, Saakashvili announced an economic blockade of the republic. Shipping in the Black Sea was prevented from docking in Batumi, and trade across land borders was stopped. By the beginning of May, Adzharia and Georgia were almost in a state of war. The bridges linking the republic to Georgia were blown up by Abashidze. Saakashvili gave the latter ten days to step down. Abashidze faced, he said, a choice: either go like Shevardnadze or Nicolae Ceausescu (Stalinist president of Romania executed in 1989). Anti-Abashidze protests continued to grow in Batumi until tens of thousands participated. By 3 May, sections of the army and police and even some ministers were declaring their support for Tbilisi. It had become crystal clear even to Abashidze that he had no support and had to go.

These events illustrate a change in Russian foreign policy in the region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has used the presence of Russian and Russian-speaking minorities in the newly independent countries as a means of pressurising the leaders of the former Soviet republics. In the early to mid-1990s, considerable, if unofficial, support was given to the other two Georgian republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, support which significantly prolonged the bloody ethnic conflicts. Although the population of Adzharia is not Russia but Georgian, they are Muslims in a Christian Georgia, and Russia attempted to use Adzharia as a third lever to pressurise Tbilisi.

But time has moved on and Russia cannot afford to see further ethnic and regional conflicts develop. And now it has seen growing US influence in the region, particularly with the victory of Saakashvili. Not only will plans to build oil pipelines through Georgia allow the export of Caspian oil to bypass Batumi, but the US has provided military training for Georgian troops and is supporting the country as a candidate to join Nato. Russia has therefore decided that rather than moving into open conflict with Tbilisi, other methods may be more effective. It is offering more open support to Saakashvili while stepping up economic intervention in the republic. Russia’s UES has taken over Tbilisi’s privatised electricity network and Gasprom is moving to do the same with the republic’s gas supplies. The Georgian press is interpreting this as an attempt by Russia to have significant influence over domestic and foreign policy, for a relatively small investment, in much the same way as Russian capital has taken control of privatised industry in other republics.

But now Saakashvili appears to be setting his sights on Abkhazia. The patron saint of Georgia, not surprisingly, is Saint George, who is celebrated on two days a year. On last November’s, Shevardnadze resigned; on this May’s, Abashidze resigned. Tbilisi newspapers are now predicting that next November will see Abkhazia coming back into the fold. Tension is rising dramatically.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be more difficult nuts to crack, however. They have ignored Tbilisi’s rule since the horrific ethnic conflict of the early 1990s and their populations are Russian. It will not be so easy for Russia to ignore pressure to intervene if the conflict develops as currently predicted, raising the prospect of renewed, violent ethnic clashes.

The four countries of the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia) are rich in history and natural resources. There are over 100 ethnic and national groups represented, but the legacy of Stalinism and the restoration of capitalism has led to huge tensions. Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Ossetia and, of course, Chechnya have been racked by ethnic wars in the last 15 years. Notwithstanding the wealth (oil, gas, caviar) to be found in the Caspian, the benefits have gone to the multinationals, including Russian oil companies and corrupt bureaucrats, while the peoples remain the poorest in Europe. Meanwhile, the imperialist states (Russia, US, Turkey) have resurrected the ‘great game’ that was once waged in the region by 19th century imperialists.

Unfortunately, the region’s working class is poorly organised and has no political organisations capable of fighting for its rights. Only when such organisations are formed can there be any solution to the poverty, authoritarian rule, ethnic conflict and war, through the formation of workers’ and poor peasants’ governments. To consolidate power and achieve progress they would have to introduce public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management of the natural resources and industry (including pipelines), and the establishment of a confederation of democratic socialist states of the Caucasus, with autonomy and the right of self-determination for those national groups that wish them.

Rob Jones



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