Thursday, 31 July 2008

Abkhazardous Waste

July 30th, 2008 by Vadim Nikitin - Foreign Policy Association

Ever in search of free food, my friend and I decided to attend the Atlantic Council's talk entitled “Dealing with Russia to Rescue Abkhazia from the Brink”. As most of these things serve delicious deserts and canapés, I should’ve recognised this event’s paltry offering of nothing more than a bizarre choice of Snapple Iced Tea or Whole Foods brand cola as a bad omen. Alas.

The presentation, by a David L Phillips, read like an excruciating Greatest Hits compilation of bellicose anti-Russian posturing, Pavlovian nonsense, and Cold War-itis.

For those who don’t know or care about Abkhazia, good news!: it was hardly mentioned. Abkhazia wasn’t the point; the point was ‘dealing with Russia’. And, those wondering what that implies were quickly satisfied:

–sanctions of Russian businesses ‘illegally investing in Abkhazia’

–declarations of solidarity with Georgia

–boycott of the 2014 Sochi Olympics if Russia continues to ‘undermine Georgian sovereignty’

–“resistance to Russian Imperialism”

&c &c &c

As for the creepy Pavlovian factor, a constant undertow of “behaviour change” and “carrots and sticks” punctuated the meeting. Phillips spoke of how the west must “deal with Russia”, “changing its behaviour” of “obstructionism” and “neo-imperialism”. “Russian demeanour around the world”, he said, “calls into question its leadership”, as when Russia “misused its role” and “ambushed” German peace proposals. Thus, “well-intentioned countries” must step in and “present the Russians with a clear choice”: “play a constructive role” or else. Or better yet, don’t play any role at all, as “there is no way that Russia can be mediating in a conflict when it is a party to the conflict”.

Even the moderator observed that he “heard more sticks than carrots towards the Russians”.

A good rule of thumb is that whenever the words “imperialism” and “neo-imperialism” are casually bandied about; whenever countries are anthropomorphically defined as either “well intentioned” or “obstructionist” and referred to not with geographical place names but rather prefixed with definite articles, viz. “The Russians”; whenever this happens, chances are you are dealing with an ideologically driven rant, not a reasoned discussion.

As an Abkhazia expert in the audience pointed out, “the very title, ‘Restoring Georgia’s Sovereignty’, is prejudiced against Abkhaz interests….It will be received in Sukhumi as further evidence that there is no sympathy in Washington for the Abkhaz people. They are regarded as expendable”. The only country the Abkhazians hate more than Russia is Georgia, but it is precisely this sort of language that sends them running into the arms of their despised northern neighbour.

Phillips’s reply was phenomenally, defiantly meaningless: I agree that the title was prejudiced, “but it was prejudiced to the reader, not the writer”.

Of course, Phillips knows a lot about Abkhazia. More, in fact, than even its own people, who voted overwhelmingly for independence from Georgia but whose “core interests are best served as part of Georgia”, according to Phillips. Perhaps someone should tell them!

Apart from Abkhazia itself, the other conspicuous absentee from the discussion was Kosovo. In the report, Phillips briefly ridicules Russian officials for suggesting a ‘Kosovo Precedent’, but does not explain precisely why it is such an absurd notion.

After all, as Harvard’s Alex de Waal has noted, Abkhazia and Kosovo share many fundamental features.

When I asked him about this, Phillips said he didn’t have time to get into it and pointed to his paper entitled “Abkhazia is not Kosovo”, which I haven’t got round to reading yet.

However, it is clear that while Phillips believes that the interests of Kosovo Albanians are best served by being given their own state, exactly the opposite holds for the Abkhazians.

The point of my criticism is not Phillips’s position on Abkhazians independence. Like any civil war situation, the issue is extremely complex and must continue to be seriously and rationally debated; strong arguments can be made for both sides.

The problem with Phillips’s polemic is his Manichean, zero-sum view of Russian and American interests in Eurasia. For Russia to be “constructive”, it must renounce any interests in the region. And any such interests are immediately seen by the US as “challenges” warranting a robust Western “response”.

More dangerous still is his treatment of Abkhazia and Georgia as pawns in a great power confrontation between Russia and America. The report states that “Georgia has become a testing ground for the West’s resolve to advance democracy, security and free markets in the post-Soviet space”. For Russia, that is fighting talk.

Such hyperbolic rhetoric of democracy-spreading gives Russia exactly the ammunition it needs to accuse the West of orchestrating “colour revolutions” to spread its influence and then crack down on legitimate mass movements. Disturbingly, it is uttered at the highest levels.

I remember one day shortly after Georgia’s Rose Revolution, the US ambassador Richard Miles gave an intimate, closed door talk at a Harvard Junior Common Room about his role in the events of 2005. He was practically bragging about giving “my friend Misha” Saakashvili a call and offering him US Embassy services to print opposition leaflets and other help. The way he described it, Miles made it seem like the US was directly responsible for the whole thing. If a Russian official had been in the room listening, Miles’s speech would have confirmed all the vilest Putinite conspiracies about Western meddling in the ‘near abroad’ and democracy activists being one giant American ‘fifth column’.

Of course, the real truth could not have been further from Miles’s smug braggadocio, as a senior Georgian official later confided to me. Apparently, Saakashvili actually mistrusted the US ambassador and hated his insistence that any serious help from the US was conditioned on Saakashvili sitting down for talks with Shevardnadze. So, far from single-handedly saving the Revolution, turns out the US had actually been hedging its bets and pushing for a compromise with the Ancien Régime!

That is the kind of cautious real-politik that Russia understands. Thus, the sooner the US foreign policy establishment gets rid of propagandists like Phillips and casts off the ideological dressing from its actions, the sooner it will arrive at a dispassionate relationship with Russia based on amoral great power politics and mutual respect.

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