Thursday 30 July 2009

MFA Abkhazia: Open letter to the Vice-President of the United States Mr. Joseph Biden

27 July 2009

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia and the people of the Republic express surprise in connection with the address given by Vice-President of the United States Joseph Biden to the Parliament of Georgia during his recent visit to Georgia. Especial concern is caused by these pre-arranged statements from an American politician of so high a rank, and also by some deliberate or unintentional historical inaccuracies, in which connection it would be useful to pay attention to some historical facts. Abkhazians are one of the indigenous peoples of the Western Caucasus, whose statehood has existed for 12 centuries. Throughout all the history of their existence the Abkhazian people were exposed time and again to colonization and violent deportation, but never stopped their struggle for freedom. Historical facts testify that Abkhazia appeared as a part of Georgia due to the will of Stalin. Under pressure from Stalin, Abkhazia in 1931 without any plebiscite was transformed into an Autonomous Republic within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, which led to mass meetings with political demands which were renewed every 10 years. Abkhazians were the only people in the Soviet Union who held mass national protests against the reduction of their status to autonomy, and they regularly with persistence and despair stood up for a separation from Georgia. This is not surprising, considering that for the purpose of assimilating Abkhazians, in 1937-1953 the leadership of Georgia had been taking measures which can only be described as criminal. During that time, actions of mass reprisals and discrimination against Abkhazians, for the purpose of full assimilation of the Abkhazian people into the Georgian environment, were carried out. The Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-1993, which caused violent and massive infringements of rights and freedoms, became the culmination of a Georgian policy to destroy the national identity of Abkhazians.

The continuous colonial and discriminatory policy of the Georgian authorities, which was implemented throughout all the Soviet and post-Soviet period, caused resentment leading to regular mass disturbances in multi-national and multi-faith Abkhazia.

History has shown that for many years the policy of the Georgian leadership has been directed towards the creation of a mono-ethnic state. Therefore those who consider that Georgia is capable of developing similarly to a Western democracy are mistaken. In Georgia over many years a democratic tyranny, not a free democracy, has been created, and this is already confirmed by the regimes of modern, post-Soviet Georgia.

In general it should be realised by those who hope to bring about a democratic framework in Georgia that such a model is alien to the mentality and spirit of Georgians. Any attempt by the USA to make Georgia a democratic state is doomed to failure, as both the leaders and the society of that country continue to think in imperial terms. It is basically impossible to introduce democracy while the main energy of the nation is directed towards trying to regain former territories.

The policy of Georgia, which is screened and supported by the West, is directed towards a destabilization of the situation in the region. Against the background of unprecedented financial help to the state from the USA which is given in the context of help for Georgia (as Mr. Biden declared in his speech, the sum total is one billion dollars), the Georgian authorities continue the process of militarization and hatch plots of vengeful military irruption into territories not belonging to Georgia.

It will be pertinent to remember that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in a resolution has condemned totalitarian communist regimes. Members of that Parliament have especially noted that the people of the former USSR suffered most. They have also urged that a revaluation of the history of communism is carried out without any ambiguity. However we still have not seen an objective assessment of the situation in Georgia, to which by Stalin's will territories not belonging to it were affiliated. Read all... [Abkhaz World]

Flawed Support for Georgia

by Eduard Kokoity - The president of South Ossetia

The Washington Post, 30 July 2009 - Tskhinval, South Ossetia

The July 25 editorial "Mr. Biden's Diplomacy," calling for U.S. personnel to be part of an European Union monitoring mission on Georgia's borders, was based on an incorrect premise and reflects Georgia's continued effort to rewrite the history of last year's war. Last August, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's U.S.-trained army brutally attacked unarmed civilians in South Ossetia. The assault killed many of our people and destroyed much of our infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, electricity and water systems, and thousands of homes.

This has been confirmed by independent observers, major media investigations and human rights groups. Yet Georgia and The Post want to pretend otherwise. It's worth keeping in mind that American military advisers were in Georgia at the time of last year's war and played no role in deterring Georgia's atrocities against civilians. There also were European security observers in the area, and they accomplished nothing.

The United States is rearming Georgia. Why should anyone expect American observers to deter Georgian aggression in the future?

The consequence of the West's blind support for Georgia is a continuing failure to understand the fundamental changes in our region. South Ossetia is a free and independent republic and will never return to Georgian control. We are working to build a nation free of repression, open to economic growth and tolerant of all who live with us peacefully. Russian troops are ensuring that we are able to fulfill our goals without constant fear that the U.S.-supported Georgian army will yet again slaughter our citizens.

Eduard Kokoity, Tskhinval, South Ossetia
- The writer heads the government of South Ossetia, which the United States considers to be a Georgian province.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Circassians: a Holocaust in Paradise

Mass graves in the Makopse river valley a few kilometers from the Black Sea are the only material evidence of the mid-19th-century Circassian tragedy in this area. People buried in these graves were the deportees who, waiting to be picked up by the Turkish ships, died of hunger, cold and disease. A Russian witness, shocked by the scene, later noted: «…The mountaineers <…> gathered in masses <…> along the Black Sea coast wherefrom they were transported to Turkey by the Turkish ships and, in part, by ships hired by the Russian government. But because these vessels were not at all enough to transport half a million people, they had to wait their turn for 6 months, for a year, or even more. All this time, they stayed on the shore in the weather without any means of living. <…> They were dying of hunger literally by thousands. In winter, cold added up to it. The Black Sea’s entire northeastern shore was covered with corpses and moribund men, women and children with those alive but weakened lying amongst them and waiting to be deported».

Max Sher

It is not a surprise that the Russian authorities keep the history of Circassians under a thick cover of censorship: what happened to this people 145 years ago could be described as the first full-scale ethnic cleansing in modern history. Sochi is known as a popular ex-Soviet resort, the future Olympic-2014 host city on Russia’s Black Sea coast. What else do we know about this region and its past?

The word Circassians does not bring too many associations. Neither Russian nor Western visitors would find much sense in the names of Sochi region rivers and villages, as Chemitokvadzhe, Psakhe, Kudepsta, Mzymta. Something local, they would think, but what exactly would remain obscure. History by Herodotus tells us that Circassians’ ancestors populated the vast Northwestern Caucasus area from the times immemorial. In mid-19th century, they were unlucky enough to be caught in the geopolitical struggles between Russia, Britain, France and Turkey. The Russian imperial government, in an attempt to drive the Turks out of the Caucasus and Black Sea and trying to prevent Britain and France from gaining control over the region, waged a long and violent war against the Caucasian indigenous populations. The Circassians resisted longer than anyone else: the conquest of Circassia took 101 years all in all ending only in 1864 when their last stronghold was defeated in what is today known as Krasnaya Polyana ski resort popular with the Russian leadership.

The Circassians’ warlike culture, independence and antagonism towards outside authority have long prevented the Russians from securing the Northwestern Caucasus, despite the large use of scorched earth tactics when entire Circassian villages were burnt down together with all their residents of all ages, including women and children. Immense military casualties and tremendous war costs put the Russian imperial policy makers in a dilemma as to what to do with the Circassians: either gain their loyalty by engaging them through economic and cultural inclusion or exterminate them en masse and deport those remaining to the plains or to the Ottoman Turkey. The latter viewpoint prevailed. The result was up to 1.5 million of Circassians killed or deported. The deportation was chaotic and poorly organized: thousands of people died of hunger and disease after they were rounded up to the sea shore and waited for months to be picked up by the Turkish ships. Many perished on their way because treacherous ship owners, after receiving money for their service, threw their weakened passengers out to sea and returned to pick up the next party and get more money quicker. In late 19th century, Ivan Klingen, a Russian scholar who traveled in the region, noted: “The entire eastern shore of the Black Sea looks like a vast desert with a population scarcer than in Siberia”. It took Russia three to four decades to start developing this paradisiacal “desert” economically. After the final solution of the Circassian question not more than 10 per cent of the original Circassian population remained in Russia in isolated islets in today’s Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygea regions and in a few villages in Sochi area. More than 4 million Circassians live in Diaspora, mainly in Turkey and the Middle East.

Y.Gordin, a Russian historian of Caucasus, believes that “the choice regarding the fate of Circassians made by the Russian generals [in 1860s] was strategically vicious. The point is that not only has the effective colonisation failed. There was a moral aspect to it, less noticeable but no less important: what was done to Circassians became a dangerous lesson of inhumanity for Russia. Whilst the need to conquer the Caucasus might be explained geopolitically, the degree of cruelty towards the already defeated and powerless population cannot be either explained or justified”. Today, the Russian government is still not willing to recognise the tragedies of the past. The official historiography insists all the Russian conquests and expansions were always justified and beneficial both for the country and native peoples. For a few thousand Circassians living in compact communities in the Sochi area that means they are not able to have their own schooling, self-government or even signage in their language, in spite even of their constitutional native minority status. Visitors would never know they are in an area populated by a native people because no sign or monument would tell them about it. Instead, the authorities recently erected a monument to admiral Lazarev here, who, although famous for his discovery of Antarctica, also took part in the extermination of Circassians shelling them from sea to support the landing troops.

May 21 is the day of mourning for all Circassians. On this day 145 years ago, the century-long war ended with their mass extermination and exodus from their native land. This year, as before, this date will pass largely unnoticed both in Russia and abroad. -- 2009

Max Sher
- Born in 1975 in St. Petersburg, Russia. After obtaining a degree in French linguistics worked as translator but then decided to start a new career path as photojournalist. Since 2006, Max has been photographing in various Russian regions (Caucasus, Urals, Astrakhan, etc.), Belarus, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kazakhstan, etc., both as part of his personal projects and on assignments. In his stories he is trying to give reporting on social issues a historical dimension, to portray how things that happened in the past still affect people’s lives today. His work appeared in Ogoniok magazine, Afisha, Der Spiegel, Der Standard, etc. He has exhibited in St.Petersburg, Vienna, Moscow, etc. Speaks Russian, English and French. Represented by Anzenberger Agency in Vienna since 2007. Blog:

Friday 17 July 2009

Der Spiegel: Interview with Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh

Der Spiegel - 17 July 2009
Interview conducted by Uwe Klussmann in Sukhum, the capital of Abkhazia

'We Won't Beg for Diplomatic Recognition'

Once a popular holiday getaway for the communist elite, tiny Abkhazia is now a de-facto republic at odds with most of the world. President Sergei Bagapsh spoke with SPIEGEL ONLINE about his nation's plans, friends and foes -- and prime real estate.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Other than Russia, your neighboring Black Sea states do not recognize Abkhazia as a nation. Are you isolated?

Sergei Bagapsh: We are a small country with around 242,000 inhabitants. At the moment, our connections with Russia suffice to allow us to develop our economy. Of course, we would be happy if Europe was more open toward us. But I think that's just a question of time. At the moment, we are trying to develop economic relationships with Iran, Jordan, Turkey and Belarus. We won't beg for diplomatic recognition.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Up until now, only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized your republic. Did that change anything for the Abkhazian people?

Bagapsh: The most important thing is that our people now know they can have normal lives. We know that it takes time to build an independent state. And we want a state based on a constitution and founded on the norms of international law. That requires new laws and a new way of thinking.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the Obama administration approach you differently to that of former US President George W. Bush, who called on Abkhazia to stick with Georgia?

Bagapsh: Up until now, there's been no trace of anything like that. The Americans first need to be clear about how they want to deal with the ongoing crisis in Georgia. Experts and political scientists are starting to doubt whether it's a good idea to continue to pay such respect to Georgia's concept of "territorial integrity." That's a good start.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Before the Caucasus war with Georgia in August 2008, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier came to visit Abkhazia. He wanted to try to prevent the impending war. Why do you think his mission failed?

Bagapsh: Steinmeier really impressed me. He's an experienced and talented politician. However, we couldn't accept his suggestion that we approach the negotiations with Georgia without preconditions. Negotiations like that could not have changed the fact that Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, was preparing for military aggression against South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Even now, talks with Georgia's leadership are completely useless.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Saakashvili has said that the war is not yet over. Is there any danger of more fighting in South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Bagapsh: As long as Saakashvili is in charge in Georgia, there will be that danger. Where the opposition is suppressed, there will be a build-up of explosive political tension. And then there are going to be attempts to release that tension onto an external enemy. If Saakashvili takes us on again, he will be destroyed. The man is a natural-born aggressor.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But is Saakashvili the only problem? Doesn't his political opposition also dread having to admit that they have lost Abkhazia for good?

Bagapsh: It will certainly take decades before Georgia will really see what has been going on. The current generation wants to prolong the illusion that Abkhazia is Georgia and that the Abkhazians are Georgians. If European politicians -- German politicians included -- were more long-sighted and more courageous, they might be able to help Georgia free itself of an illusion that only does it harm. The sooner that happens, the sooner we will have the neighborly relations with Georgia that we want.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the Georgia-Abkhazia war in 1992-1993, around 200,000 Georgians fled from Abkhazia. Why can't these people return?

Bagapsh: We have let around 60,000 Georgians return to the Gali district. But the return of all the Georgians who left -- including the ones who fought against us -- could lead to war here. Those who started the Georgian invasion of Abkhazia in 1992 should be held responsible for the fate of those refugees. Rather than contributing toward Georgia's rearmament, the West would be better off giving money to Georgia for the reintegration of the refugees -- and for the reintegration of the refugees in their own Georgian territory, because they all emigrated from Georgia to Abkhazia in the first place.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But isn't it true that you are opposed to the return of those refugees because it would drastically alter your country's ethnic mix?

Bagapsh: That obviously plays a role. When the Georgians were here, we Abkhazians only made up 17 percent of the population. But the most important thing remains the irreconcilable political differences between our two nations. Unfortunately, Georgia is doing everything it can to prolong this conflict.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There are Russian military bases in Abkhazia, Russian troops guard your external borders, and your currency is the ruble. And, then, you want the Russians to manage your railways for 10 years. Is it possible that you're getting just a little too dependent on Russia?

Bagapsh: We are dealing with the Russian railways because we have to modernize our own. We would be equally pleased to deal with the German railways if they were interested. In any case, there are no completely independent nations in this world. Liechtenstein is dependent on Switzerland, Luxembourg on France. We are all dependent on one another. Georgia is dependent on America; we are on Russia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The opposition in Abkhazia is concerned that your small nation could turn into "a quasi-nation that lives off foreign financial deposits, like a parasite." Two-thirds of the Abkhazian budget comes from Russian grants. Doesn't that justify a certain degree of concern?

Bagapsh: No country in the world has developed without credit and outside help. Russia builds streets, schools, hospitals and churches -- and we are grateful for that.

'We Won't Beg for Diplomatic Recognition'

Part 2: 'Georgia is dependent on America; we are on Russia.'

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have suggested that foreigners be allowed to purchase real estate in Abkhazia, something that Abkhazian law has blocked until now. Isn't the fear that many Abkhazians have -- that they will be pushed out by rich Russians -- a legitimate one?

Bagapsh: We are discussing this issue. I have suggested that we look at the experiences other nations have had with this issue. Foreigners buy apartments in Spain: They relax there, pay taxes and bring money into the country. On the other hand, houses and land here are being sold to foreigners -- but not in accordance with the laws. As a result, we end up with protracted disputes that overburden our justice system. We need proper regulations. And, in the course of a sensible debate, we should be able to find a workable solution for Abkhazia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you think things will be like for Abkhazia in, say, 10 or 20 years?

Bagapsh: We will be a wealthy, affluent nation because we will have succeeded in swiftly stimulating our economy. There are already British, Czech and Austrian investors who want to get involved here. We are modernizing our airport, and we will soon be able to accept flights from Moscow and St. Petersburg. That will definitely be interesting for German tourists, particularly the ones who may have already been here in the days of the former East Germany.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In December, there will be presidential elections in Abkhazia. Unlike in Russia, it is hard to predict the outcome. Four years ago, there were serious problems with vote counting, the results were considered suspect and there were massive protests. Have things gotten any better?

Bagapsh: Unlike in any other former member state of the Soviet Union, we have an opposition here and an adversarial press. That's good -- and it shows that we have chosen democracy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But that adversarial press also complains of problems. In February, Inal Khashig, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda, was allegedly driven to a remote location by some of your friends and relatives. There, he was reportedly reminded of the fate of murdered Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. Does this sort of thing endanger the freedom of the press in Abkhazia?

Bagapsh: Absolutely not. In my years as president, I have never reacted to any written provocations. No one harassed Inal Khashig when he was criticizing the state. It was only when he wrote about my family -- and in a vulgar way -- that my relatives and a few of my close friends got angry. They sat him in the car, and they said to him: "Now it's not just about the president; now it's personal." But that's the Caucasus. Around here, you have to answer for insults like that.

Thursday 16 July 2009

We will remember you, Natasha

By Andrei Babitsky, special to Prague Watchdog

Today Natasha Estemirova was murdered. I am afraid that the political significance of this killing, about which many words are going to be written, will obscure the tragedy of the death of a very good person, and the intolerable pain, bitterness and rage of hundreds and thousands of people who knew her.

The Russian government no longer restricts itself in its choice of victims. Among those who are abducted, killed, or go missing in Chechnya are Russian citizens of every kind: ordinary people, businessmen, government officials.

In Chechnya there is no longer any question of political rights. Although it does not understand the extraterritorial nature of humanitarian law, Russia’s power elite is nevertheless forced at least sometimes to respond to the protests of Western public opinion about the very serious violations of human rights that take place there. That is why the dissemination of information on such crimes is one of the principal instruments in the hands of human rights defenders.

Natasha had to deal with a system that is hopelessly sick and criminal, trying to ease the burden that oppresses those who live amidst the nightmare in southern Russia.

Now she is no more. It matters little who was behind the assassination – Kadyrov’s forces or some other special service (no one else could have kidnapped a woman in Grozny and then removed her from the republic). The important fact is that it was an agency under the control of the Russian government.

What will happen now? "Memorial" will have to give more thought to the safety of its employees, and possibly limit the organization's activities in Chechnya. Staff members will naturally have to act with caution, knowing that their lives are menaced not by some abstract threat, but by a danger that is real and imminent, lurking round very corner.

Of two things we may be certain. Those who committed this deed will never be caught. On the other hand, the list of those who cannot learn to keep silent will continue to grow longer.

We will remember you, Natasha
by Andrei Babitsky, Prague Watchdog

The Courage of Natalya Estemirova - The Nation
In October 2007, Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova wrote for us about the assassination of the crusading investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya . [The Courage of Anna Politkovskaya by Natalya Estemirova]

Today, Estemirova was assassinated. Her body, dumped near the capital city of Ingushetia, was discovered with two close-range bullet wounds in the head.

A woman who courageously investigated kidnappings, killings and other rights abuses in Chechnya, a single mother in her early 40s, a leading member of the esteemed human rights group Memorial, Estemirova received the first annual award from the international human rights group RAW in WAR (Reach all Women in War) in October 2007.


We want justice for Natasha
- Raw in War

We are shocked and outraged by the killing of Natasha Estemirova in Chechnya today. Natasha was a dear friend of all of us at RAW in WAR.

In 2007 we presented the first annual Anna Politkovskaya Award to Natasha for her courage in seeking and telling the truth about the torture, disappearances and murders of civilians in the war in Chechnya.

Natasha was a gentle, loving woman and a brave truth-teller, who was not afraid to speak out about the torture, rape and disappearances in Chechnya. She paid for it with her life. Like Anna did. Because there is nothing more dangerous than telling the truth in today’s Russia. And Natasha was a truth-seeker with every fiber of her being. She just couldn’t remain silent; she couldn’t play it safe. She was a fierce spirit, a whistle-blower, a caring and loyal friend, a deeply loving woman, who stood up for humanity…

Like Anna, she was killed, because of her describing and reporting the truth about the ‘dirty war’ in Chechnya. She was a condemned woman – giving voice to condemned people: the people of Chechnya.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Rights Campaigner in Chechnya Killed

Natalia Estemirova in London in 2007.

by Michael Schwirtz -15 July 2009 - The New York Times

MOSCOW — A prominent Russian human rights campaigner who worked to expose government-backed kidnappings in Chechnya was killed after being kidnapped herself there on Wednesday, Russian investigators said.

The woman, Natalia Estemirova, was an employee with the Russian human rights group Memorial. She worked for years helping families uncover details about kidnapped relatives. She was the recipient of several international awards, and in 2007 was the first to win the Anna Politkovskaya Award, named for the Russian investigative journalist, who also worked to uncover abuses in Chechnya before she was shot to death in October 2006.

Ms. Estemirova’s work often ran afoul of the Chechen government, led by the Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan A. Kadyrov, who human rights groups have accused of personally torturing kidnap victims.

The Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, expressed condolences to her relatives and friends in a statement released by the Kremlin.

An employee with Memorial’s Moscow office, Andrei Mironov, said that several men pushed Ms. Estemirova, 50, into a white car as she left for work in the Chechen capital of Grozny about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Witnesses said that she yelled out that she was being kidnapped. Her body, with gunshots to the head and chest, was found in the afternoon a few hundred yards off a highway in neighboring Ingushetia, according to a statement by the prosecutor general’s investigative wing.

Despite government claims that stability has returned to Chechnya after two wars and years of internecine fighting, violence above all appears to rule the southern Russian republic.

Shootouts between police and militants from a weakened, but still potent separatist movement are common. So too are kidnappings.

Since January there have been 50 reported kidnappings in Chechnya, more than in all of last year, said Usam Baisayev, a colleague of Ms. Estemirova’s at the Memorial office in neighboring Ingushetia. At least four of the victims have been found dead. Mr. Baisayev said that the number of kidnappings was likely to be much higher, since people often feared to report them.

While separatist fighters were partly to blame for the kidnappings, Mr. Baisayev said, government-backed forces were mostly responsible.

“In Chechnya, Ingushetia and other North Caucasus Republics the vast majority of kidnappings — those that we can prove — are committed by the armed services and law enforcement structures of the Russian Federation.”

A statement on Memorial’s Web site about Ms. Estemirova said, “The government of Chechnya has more than once expressed its unhappiness with her work.”

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Window on Eurasia: Stalin’s Downgrading of Abkhazia from Union Republic Status Decried

by Paul Goble

Vienna, July 7 – Among Stalin’s many mistakes as a ruler, according to a reviewer of an émigré book on Stalin republished a few years ago in the Russian Federation, was the Soviet dictator’s decision to lower the status of Abkhazia from that of a union republic (SSR) like Ukraine or Kazakhstan to that of an autonomous republic (ASSR) like Tatarstan or Udmurtia.

Had he not done so, Andrey Yezerov suggests in a review of S.V. Dmitriyevsky’s “Stalin. The Forefather of a National Revolution” (1931, 2003), Abkhazia would have gained its independence along with other union republics in 1991 and been widely recognized rather than as a result of Russian military action in 2008and recognized only by Russia and Nicaragua.

Yezerov makes this suggestion in an almost offhand manner as evidence that even though he liked Dmitriyevsky’s book, he, Yezerov, is “not a Stalinist” or inclined to provide “an apology” for the dictator. Those who want that, the Orthodox writer says, should “turn instead to the productions of Aleksandr Prokhanov.”

As evidence of his more objective treatment of the Soviet leader, the reviewer offers the following: “I already have more than once,” he says, “directed the attention [of Russians] to ‘the change’ of the Republic of Abkhazia at the beginning of the 1930s from a union republic to an autonomous one” (

This comment, delivered almost as a throwaway line, is nonetheless interesting for three reasons. First, it calls attention to one of the more curious ethno-territorial arrangements in Soviet history, an arrangement that Yezerov himself either does not fully know or is choosing to present in a disingenuous way for political purposes.

Second, his comment highlights something many have chosen to downplay since 1991: The international community did not recognize the former Soviet republics on the basis of the principle of the right of nations to self-determination but rather chose to recognize as independent states only those nations Stalin had chosen to give the status of union republics.

And third, Yezerov’s suggestion that he has been talking about this recently suggests that at least some in Moscow may be thinking about raising this issue, as risky as that may be for the Russian Federation itself, as a means of breaking the current impasse over the possibilities of international recognition for Abkhazia.

Because of the potential ramifications of such a step, these points deserve closer attention. While many people are aware of the short-lived Karelo-Finnish SSR (1940-1956) which Stalin created at a time when he hoped to absorb Finland into the Soviet Union, far fewer know that there was a second union republic that was later downgraded to autonomous status.

That was Abkhazia, but its status as a union republic was both the result of an entirely different history and had a very different legal and constitutional content than the other union republics. In March 1921, the Red Army overthrew the Georgian Democratic Republic authorities in Abkhazia and declared the formation of the Abkhazian SSR.

Two months later, after Soviet forces had occupied Georgia, the Georgian SSR recognized the independence of the Abkhaz SSR. But at the end of that year, Stalin forced Abkhazia to sign a union treaty with the Georgian SSR, something that created a common legal and constitutional space but did not extinguish Abkhazian sovereignty.

Nonetheless, even though Abkhazia did participate independently in the formation of the USSR in December 1922, it was effectively ruled by Tbilisi and thus was the only case in the history of the Soviet Union in which one union republic was subordinate to another, albeit under the cover of a larger unity, in this case, the TransCaucasian federation.

But in 1931, and reflecting Moscow’s greater self-confidence and desire for a more coherent set of power relations, Stalin forced the Abkhaz SSR to transform itself into an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Georgian SSR, an action that sparked mass protests by the Abkhazians. (For more on this, see

This complicated history is important now because many Western governments and indeed many of the regimes in the post-Soviet states assume that the division between union republics and autonomous republics was completely logical and reflected underlying historical realities.

In fact, it was highly arbitrary, with some nationalities that could have been union republics kept at the status of autonomies and others initially given the status of autonomies raised to the status of union republics, shifts that in the hyper-centralized Soviet system often had little meaning but that in 1991 had fateful consequences.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, however, some Abkhaz and several Western researchers pointed to the Abkhaz case as an example of the problematic nature of the assumption that there was a completely objective basis for the division between these two statuses. But such arguments gained little attention and less support.

Now, as Yezerov’s comment suggests, there may be renewed interest in such arguments, especially among the Abkhazians and those Russians who would like to see Abkhazia more widely seen as separate and distinct from Georgia than most members of the international community view it as being now.

That the Abkhazians should raise this issue is not surprising, but Russians and especially Russian officials are less likely to given that any suggestion by them that Abkhazia was once a union republic and thus worthy of recognition calls attention to the problems inherent in the post-1991 settlement not only for the international system but for Russia itself in the first instance.

Consequently, Yezerov’s comment may remain without any serious consequences, but the fact that he says he has “more than once” talked about this suggests that others are doing so as well, a pattern that could play a role of some kind in the course of conversations among Russians, Georgians, Abkhazians and Western governments.

Obama in Russia - The same policies, albeit gift-wrapped

by Justin Raimondo,

President Barack Obama’s trip to Russia – overshadowed in our air-headed media by the death and funeral of Michael Jackson – shows that the change we were all so eager to welcome is rather a bit less than anticipated. Indeed, if we take the text of the speech he gave at Moscow’s New Economic School as in any way definitive, one is forced to conclude it looks and sounds like the same old, same old – and possibly a bit worse.

After getting through the requisite flattery – praise of Russia’s artistic contributions, and a jokey reference to a Russian-born hockey player – our president described the Bad Old Days of the Cold War as "when hydrogen bombs were tested in the atmosphere, children drilled in fallout shelters, and we reached the brink of nuclear catastrophe." Scary stuff, although he doesn’t say who was responsible. Suddenly, however, "within a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be. Make no mistake: this change did not come from any one nation alone. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful."

This is demonstrably false: the end of the Cold War had nothing to do with "the actions of many nations over many years." Instead, it was a decision by the Soviet leadership not to resist the inevitable downfall of their system, which had been calcified and virtually moribund for many years. In short, U.S. foreign policy had zero to do with it: it was all about what was happening (and not happening) inside the Soviet bloc, including inside the USSR itself.

Okay, it’s a minor point, but, in the context of Americans’ routine assumption that everything is all about them, it is one worth making. Another point worth making is that, when you discard all the frippery and flattery, what you get from this speech is Bushism without Bush. To wit:

"I know Russia opposes the planned configuration for missile defense in Europe. My administration is reviewing these plans to enhance the security of America, Europe, and the world. I have made it clear that this system is directed at preventing a potential attack from Iran, and has nothing to do with Russia. In fact, I want us to work together on a missile defense architecture that makes us all safer. But if the threat from Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated."

The idea that American "missile defense" weaponry is being based in Poland and the Czech Republic, for fear of an Iranian surprise attack on either or both of these countries, is absurd. When this fantastical explanation was first uttered by U.S. officials during the previous administration, it was meant, and taken, as an insult to the Russians, as if to say: screw you, Boris, we don’t even have to bother coming up with a halfway credible rationale!

That weapons system, pushed by the "expand NATO" crowd – say "hi!" to Randy Scheunemann – is a naked provocation aimed at Moscow’s increasing vulnerability. Building on the Bushian policy of abandoning progress on nuclear arms reduction begun by Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev in the waning days of the Soviet Union, the Obamaites have taken Bush’s "Eastward, ho!" strategy and run with it – apparently intent on using the missile shield issue as a bargaining chip, in hopes Russia won’t make too much trouble as we prepare to confront Iran.

The Russian response, in Putin’s words, has been cautious yet unequivocal:

"As far as we understand, the new U.S. administration has not defined its position with regard to the future of the missile defense system at least as it relates to its deployment in Europe. But it is evident that the offensive and defensive parts of strategic forces are closely and indissolubly intertwined with one another. This was always the case and we always proceeded from this assumption. And this is precisely why the anti-ballistic missile treaty was signed in the first place.

"When the United States unilaterally abandoned that treaty and ‘buried’ it, the threat of disparity emerged naturally with regard to the offensive and defensive strategic systems. I think one does not have to be an expert to understand the following: if one side wants to have or intends to have an ‘umbrella’ from all kinds of threats, then it may have an illusion that it can do anything it pleases and then the aggressiveness of its actions will considerably increase while the threat of global confrontation will reach a very dangerous level. Russia will, of course, link the questions of missile defense and everything that is related to that subject to the issue of strategic offensive arms."

Those words were spoken some months ago, and no doubt Putin now has a clearer idea of what he’s up against: a U.S. administration that is playing hardball and has no intention of changing its basic policy. The long-term objective of every post-Cold War administration – the encirclement of Russia – remains the same, and there will be no letup. Far from it.

The encirclement strategy really took off with the Clinton administration, as the U.S. bombed Belgrade in the name of "humanitarianism" and Washington began dreaming of the vast oil riches that lay at the end of the Great Silk Road. Indeed, it was the Clintonites who first set up a special sub-agency of the U.S. government, the Office of the Special Adviser for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy, to subsidize and otherwise enable U.S. oil companies to get in on the Silk Road action. The oil reserves in and around the Caspian Sea are said to be enormous, and Clinton massaged the regional despots with plenty of U.S. tax dollars and pledges of support to get them to go along with his plans. The U.S. devised a scheme whereby a pipeline that avoided passing through either Russia or Iran would be built, transporting the oil of Central Asian autocracies like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan through the Caucasus, from Baku, in Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan, a Turkish port – making sure to pass through Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Here lies the real sore point between Russia and the U.S.: Georgia, whose U.S.-supported-and-subsidized "Rose Revolution" installed a militantly anti-Russian and ultra-nationalistic regime in power. Last year Georgia launched an unprovoked attack on the neighboring republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have been effectively independent of Georgia for a decade. Candidate Obama was among those who competed for the dubious honor of denouncing Russia’s aid to the beleaguered Abkhazians and Ossetians the loudest. Yet the European Union’s investigators have determined Georgia, not Russia, struck the first blow – no wonder the discussion between Obama and Putin went into overtime.

I had to laugh when I heard our president utter the following line: "State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order." No mention that the U.S. is the single greatest violator of that principle. "Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders," Obama continued, "states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy. That is why this principle must apply to all nations – including Georgia and Ukraine. America will never impose a security arrangement on another country. For any country to become a member of NATO, a majority of its people must choose to; they must undertake reforms; and they must be able to contribute to the Alliance’s mission. And let me be clear: NATO seeks collaboration with Russia, not confrontation."

When NATO was founded in 1949, if any of its conservative Republican critics had suggested it would outlive the Communist bloc it was supposed to be defending the West against, they would have been dismissed – as they were dismissed – as troglodytic "isolationists" and hysterics. That NATO persists though the Leninist project is dead and buried dramatizes the truism that government programs never die, they just keep on expanding unto infinity.

The mantra that Obama represents "change," in the sense that he’s making a real break with the foreign policy of the previous administration, is sounding particularly hollow these days. This is especially true when it comes to our relations with Russia. The only change is stylistic. Obama, as a personality, is more sympathetic than Bush could ever hope to be, yet this will not get him very far with the Kremlin. Indeed, our own media noticed, with more than a touch of petulance, that Obama-mania seems nonexistent in Russia.

And with good reason. That he is picking up where the Clintons and the Bushes left off is certainly disappointing, but not, alas, unexpected, at least to those whom I count among my regular readers. Long before Obama took office, I warned that the most we could expect would be a continuation of the status quo – and things could even get worse. Nothing underscores the latter prospect more dramatically than Obama’s apparent escalation of the previous administration’s anti-Russian campaign.

The hotheaded Georgian strongman, Mikheil Saakashvili, has cultivated extensive contacts in the U.S. and speaks English fluently. Last time he unleashed the U.S.-trained Georgian military on defenseless Ossetian and Abkhazian civilians, killing hundreds, he did so with a full expectation of aid from the Bush administration, which offered rhetorical support – but no air support. The Russians made short work of the would-be Napoleon of the Caucasus, but there are signs Saakashvili is again stirring, hoping to divert attention away from domestic protests against his authoritarian rule (put down with brutal force last year). Will Obama rein him in – or use the threat of renewed war in the region as yet another bargaining chip with the Kremlin?

U.S. relations with Russia have been horrendously bad ever since Putin threw out the oligarchs and decided not to take dictation from either Washington or London. The Obama administration has said they want to "reset" the relationship, but it’s all talk and no action. They are needling the Russian bear with the same pointed stick, demanding it jump through a whole series of hoops – and they will no doubt be very good at feigning shock when the bear strikes back.