Berkeley Professors Weigh in on the Crisis in the Caucasus

By Monica Friedlander

When Russia assaulted Georgia last month with air, naval and missile attacks that left smoldering ruins in their wake, the West reacted swiftly and unanimously in its condemnation of Russian aggression. This was, after all, the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that Russia had invaded a sovereign country — ostensibly in retaliation for Georgia’s massive offensive days earlier in South Ossetia.

But Moscow’s show of force should have come as no surprise, according to a panel of Berkeley foreign policy experts gathered on Sept. 4 at a forum on the Caucasus sponsored by Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

“No Russian leader, of any political stripe, could have found the situation acceptable,” said political science professor Steven Fish. “It is inevitable, given the recovery of Russian power, that Russia would resist Georgian aspiration for membership in NATO.”

That, not the rattling of sabers over the fate of Georgia’s tiny breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, lies at the crux of the conflict that’s making the region south of the Caucasus mountain range a powder keg in Eastern Europe, the panelists explained. Unfolding here is a power play between two superpowers — one trying to expand NATO all the way to Russian borders, the other reasserting its determination to prevent the West from doing so by any means necessary.

But all countries involved in the conflict, the experts said, bear major responsibility for the smoldering crisis that’s left thousands dead and uprooted 100,000 people. Russia has used Abkhazia and South Ossetia as pawns in its proxy war with both Georgia and the West and — most likely — provoked the crisis in the first place. No less guilty is the hot-headed Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who walked smack into the Russian trap with his reckless and impulsive offensive in South Ossetia on Aug. 7.

Panelists Steven Fish, Edward Walker and Yuri Slezkine But three of the four panelists reserved what may have been their harshest criticism for American foreign policy, which they said, has served to isolate and humiliate Russia and in the process trigger Putin’s Georgia gambit.

“Russia drew a line in sand,” said Edward Walker, associate adjunct professor of political science and director of the Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies. “They said, ‘Do not recognize Kosovo and do not incorporate Georgia into NATO. We see this as a threat to our national security. If you do, bad things will happen.’ We ignored those warnings.”

What’s more, the panelists said, the war in the Caucasus strengthened Russia’s position in the region and embarrassed Washington, which has precious few cards to play in this conflict.

“The U.S. built an ally and abandoned it, or else tried to support it and failed. Regardless, it looks weak,” said Yuri Slezkine, a professor of history and director of the
Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

Although backed by the West and governed by an American-educated president, Georgia is not a democracy, Fish said, and it is not worthy of the political capital the United States has invested in it, particularly through its support of Georgian membership in NATO.

This and other actions on the part of the United States, Fish said, are governed by the dangerous fallacy that Russia is dispensable to American foreign policy. “It is not. The three greatest strategic challenges the United States faces over the next half century are the rise of China, U.S. dependence on oil from countries hostile to the U.S., and the war on terrorism. In all these areas we would benefit from better relations with Russia, rather than from building up a small, poorly-governed, client state on the Russian border.”

Fish, Walker and Slezkine repeatedly cited a string of Western actions they see as provocative to Russia. Foremost is the United States’ long-term policy of NATO expansion, which currently focuses on extending membership to Georgia as well as Ukraine, both of which border Russia. Also confrontational, they say, was Western recognition of Kosovo independence earlier this year and plans to deploy missile defenses in the Czech Republic.

“We now have a very long history of ignoring Russian interests and explicit preferences, going back to the beginning of the post-cold-war era,” said Walker. “Russia is making it clear that it has had enough and will do whatever is in its national interest, regardless of what North Americans think about it.”

Also not to be dismissed, three of the panelists insisted, is the U.S. war in Iraq and what Fish called the Bush Administration’s “foreign policy run according to the principle of machismo.” Walker added that America acts as if “rules about international behavior apply to everyone else except for the United States.”

The forum started with an introduction to the convoluted politics of the region by Professor Johanna Nichols of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. She described the history and ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. While Abkhazia has a legitimate claim to nationhood based on its linguistic and cultural integrity, she said, South Ossetia, with its broad ethnic mix, does not. Nevertheless, the republic had enjoyed de facto independence since its civil war of 1991-1992.

The only thing these Georgian enclaves have in common is that their territories are big enough to allow them to claim nationhood based on that alone, Nichols said. For its own geostrategic reasons, Russia alone recognized their independence. But that’s not enough to make them viable nations.
“Countries don’t come that small and the U.N. doesn’t add countries that size,” Fish said.

Fish suggested that the most viable solution to this crisis would be to hold internationally-supervised referenda in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to allow their people to decide which state they wish to be part of.  “If Russia does not agree, it would reveal its imperialistic hand, showing that it prefers to use these little scraps of territory to destabilize politics in Georgia and South Caucasus. If they agree, they will have to take responsibility for governing these states, which they essentially do now anyway.”

But Fish believes the United States would never agree to such a resolution given its “conservative thinking” about national boundaries. “The idea of one country transferring territory to another is so anathema to American thinking about international relations these days, that this possibility is not even entertained.”

Walker fears that if superpowers refuse to budge, Ukraine will become the next political minefield in the region. “Russia is worried over the increased NATO naval presence in the Black Sea, and it has itchy fingers,” he said. “There’s a risk of a showdown over Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, the panelists said, Georgia’s prospects for NATO membership have collapsed and the fate of the people of South Caucasus remains dire for the foreseeable future. Their region, already devastated by multiple wars and ethnic strife, has now been largely decimated by this latest conflagration. Without a diplomatic solution, Fish said, this area will remain a tinderbox, under constant threat of war and Russian interference.

Said Walker: “The greatest injustice of the 21st Century is being visited on these poor hapless little countries.”

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| Updated: Oct 16, 2008