Russia’s recognition of Georgian areas raises hopes of its own separatists

Tatarstan is a long way from South Ossetia. While South Ossetia is a poor border region of Georgia battered by war, Tatarstan is an economic powerhouse in the heart of Russia, boasting both oil reserves and the political stability that is catnip to investors.

But the two places have one thing in common: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both have given rise to separatist movements. And when President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia formally recognized the breakaway areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations two weeks ago, activists in Kazan, the Tatar capital, took notice.

An association of nationalist groups, the All-Tatar Civic Center, swiftly published an appeal that “for the first time in recent history, Russia has recognized the state independence of its own citizens” and expressed the devout wish that Tatarstan would be next. The declaration was far-fetched, its authors knew: One of Vladimir Putin’s signal achievements as Medvedev’s predecessor was to suppress separatism. The Tatar movement was at its lowest ebb in 20 years.

But Moscow’s decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia made Tatarstan’s cause seem, as Rashit Akhmetov put it, “not hopeless.”

Akhmetov, editor in chief of Zvezda Povolzhya, an opposition newspaper in Kazan, said, “Russia has lost the moral right not to recognize us.”

Medvedev’s decision to formally recognize the two disputed areas in Georgia – an option long debated in Moscow’s foreign policy circles – has had far-reaching consequences.

Most immediately, it has deepened the rift between Russia and its erstwhile negotiating partners in the West. But some also see Moscow departing from its longstanding insistence on territorial integrity, leaving an opening for ethnic groups within its borders to demand autonomy or independence.

“In the long term, they could have signed their own death warrant,” said Lawrence Scott Sheets, the Caucasus program director for the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that tries to prevent and resolve global conflicts. “It’s an abstraction now, but 20 years down the road, it won’t be such an abstraction.”

Moscow’s position is that South Ossetia and Abkhazia were extreme situations, in which decisions were driven by the threat to the lives of its citizens. Russian troops poured across the border early in August, after Georgian forces attacked civilian areas in the city of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, with rocket and artillery fire.

The attack made it “completely impossible” to conceive of South Ossetia returning to Georgian control, said Dmitri Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, now Russia’s prime minister.

Peskov said Russia stood firmly behind the principle of territorial integrity and saw no major separatist movements within its borders.

“We do have some separatist movements, some extremist elements, especially in the northern Caucasus, but they are very minor,” he said. “These are very fragmented and very small groups.” He added that the circumstances of South Ossetia and Abkhazia belonged in a “totally different category.”

The picture looked very different before Putin took office. In the 1990s, President Boris Yeltsin urged regional leaders to “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” Movements toward self-rule were taking hold in some of Russia’s most valuable territory: in Tatarstan, home not only to an oil industry but also to a major truck factory and an aircraft plant; in Bashkiria, a major source of natural gas; in Komi, a northern province that produces coal.

All this came to a halt in Chechnya, an oil-rich patch of land in the north Caucasus. Chechnya was the only region to declare independence outright. In 1994, Russia sent troops into Chechnya, and two years of fighting left tens of thousands dead. In 1999, amid a crescendo of violence throughout the north Caucasus, Putin, then the prime minister, oversaw a second war that obliterated the Chechen rebel movement

The message from Moscow – empowered and newly rich with petrodollars – was clear. “Russia has shown the inhuman price it will pay to preserve its territorial integrity,” said Sergei Karaganov, a political scientist who leads the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy. “The fighting in Chechnya was not just against the Chechen rebels, it was against movements all around.” In fact, the threat of separatism has largely faded from the Russian landscape, and Putin has granted enough freedom to quiet internal opposition in many of Russia’s trouble spots. Even in the north Caucasus, one of Russia’s most volatile regions, the government now helps Muslims with visas and airfare to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. At the same time, Putin greatly strengthened his executive power, abolishing the direct election of governors in 2004. Handpicked bosses improved local economies and clamped down harshly on opposition groups.

Tatarstan was a case in point. Tatars still commemorate the day in 1552 when Kazan fell to Ivan the Terrible, absorbing their country into Holy Russia.

When Yeltsin encouraged regions to assume sovereignty, Tatarstan complied with gusto, adopting its own taxes and license plates. Gleaming new mosques competed with Kazan’s onion domes, and ethnic Tatars, who made up 48 percent of the population to the Russians’ 43 percent, opened their own schools. The Tatar Parliament declared that local conscripts could not fight outside the Volga region.

When Putin eliminated regional elections, the Tatar president, Mintimer Shaimiyev, protested vociferously, calling the plan a “forced and painful measure.” But in the years that followed, Akhmetov, the editor of the opposition newspaper in Kazan, saw prospects for autonomy drop to a new low.

“We understood that our president could be removed at any time, within 24 hours,” Akhmetov said. But Medvedev’s decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, he said, “created a precedent, kind of a guideline” for gaining independence. Moscow is confident that it wields strict control over politics in the outlying regions, he said, but that could change in 10 or 20 years.

“The seeds of self-destruction are built into the authoritarian system,” Akhmetov said. “It’s Moscow’s mistake.”

A similar stirring came out of Bashkortostan, a major petrochemical center where ethnic Bashkirs make up about 30 percent of the population. A small organization called KYK BYRE, which has pushed for the Bashkir language to be required in public schools, issued a manifesto accusing Moscow of “double standards” for championing ethnic groups like the Abkhaz and Ossetians while ignoring their platform.

“The time has come to ask each federal official – and they have multiplied by the thousands in Bashkortostan in recent years – ‘What are you doing for the Bashkir people?’ ” said the statement, which was posted on the group’s Web site.

Timur Mukhtarov, a lawyer and one of the movement’s co-founders, said the group’s mission stopped far short of independence. Though some may discuss that notion in private, laws against extremism have made it dangerous to espouse publicly.

At 31, he feels some nostalgia for the Yeltsin years, a time of “more chaos, but less fear.”

The Russian stand for self-determination in Georgia may not change Moscow’s attitude toward Bashkortostan, he said, “but at least it gives us something to discuss.”

Russia’s act could also stir movements in the northwest Caucasus, where a number of groups called for autonomy or separation in the early 1990s, said Charles King, a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University. Those calls had gone quiet since Putin took power.

But few people have watched events in Abkhazia more closely than their ethnic kin, the Circassians. Many Circassians still live in Russia, in the republics of Kabardino-Balkariya, Karachayevo-Cherkesiya and Adygeya; the vast majority live outside Russia yet look back at the Caucasus as their homeland.

“They’re ecstatic,” said Professor King, author of “The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus.” “Their cousins have gotten independence. They see this as something quite big, that could have real implications for Russia.”

Ellen Barry

Source: International Herald Tribune


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