Lest We Forget: How Russia Ruined Abkhazia and South Ossetia

In light of Russia’s continuous bombardment of civilian areas across Syria, and its positioning as a main player in all international dialogues concerning the Syrian conflict, this article is addressed to Putin’s apologists in the Western left to remind them of Russia’s not-so-distant support of breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the caucasus, only to leave them in a post-soviet ‘90s limbo with false promises of autonomy and prosperity, while using these states as trading cards with the NATO and opposing governments.

On September 28, 2015, Russia officially began its aerial campaign in Syria, targeting opposition-held areas of Homs and Hama. According to Violations Documentation Centre in Syria (VDC), between September and March, Russian warplanes killed at least 2,000 civilians, including women and children. Today, Russia and the Syrian regime forces are undoubtedly carrying out a plan to flatten Aleppo to the ground, embarrassing the U.N. for turning a blind eye to Assad’s ambitions to eliminate all opposition forces in the city.

The Russian Intervention in Syria and the Left

As Russian airstrikes continue to restlessly bomb schools, houses, hospitals and entire villages in opposition-held areas across Syria, the left keeps repeating some of the more cringe-worthy justifications for Russia’s intervention. One might think that the old days of repetitive propaganda slogans have passed, or would at least be met with irony and ridicule. However, five years into the Syrian war, and nearly half a million casualties, phrases such as “anti-imperialist” and “CIA-trained jihadists” are still being tossed around by those who were once considered the torch-bearers of the left.

The Western left’s hesitation to accept the 2011 revolution as a legitimate call for change is no longer news. However, arguments in support of Russia’s intervention in the country are not only morally questionable, but inaccurate. The blind support for any power which opposes western imperialism (in this case the U.S. and its allies), as well as an irrational fear of losing the pseudo-secularism, which the regime and its allies still has the nerve to talk about after deliberately turning a peaceful uprising into a Shiite-Sunni holy war by inviting Iranian militias and releasing Islamist fanatics from prisons, continue to be used as arguments in support of Russia’s campaign in Syria.

At the same time, campists on the international left want a more multi-polar world in which the U.S. can no longer be considered the ultimate superpower (without the slightest consideration for what could happen in a multi-polar world full of weapons of mass destruction), and therefore support Putin flexing his muscles in Ukraine, in which he apparently supports the locals’ wish for annexation; and Syria, in which he is ridding the country from ISIS (by mostly bombing civilian areas where ISIS has no presence).

Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Recently, these same apologists have been awfully quiet about Russia’s previous goodwill missions in the caucasus eight years ago, when they were cheering for the Russian tanks as they approached the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, leading to the de facto occupation of the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The question of autonomy and full independence is something the global left has been morally battling with for some time, and rightfully so. How do we reconcile the people’s rights for self-determination with the states’ rights to their territories? How do we support the people and not the oligarch toying with their ambitions? How do we pressure the international community to accept the independence of one republic, and reject the independence of another?

Abkhaz and South Ossetians were used as strategic minorities for purely political purposes. Does this negate these people’s rights for independence from the Georgian state, which has throughout history tried to erase the ethnic origins and forcefully resettled citizens during a wave of mass “Georgialization”? Absolutely not. However, modern history is full of examples of oligarchs taking advantage of ethnic instability and playing it in their favour. Russia’s behavior in the two regions, as well as Ukraine, couldn’t be further from support for independence and stability, but rather a strategic use of nationalism, sectarianism and poverty in order to guarantee that any chances for cooperation and reconciliation with the state (Georgia) will be met with popular disagreement.

It is clear that Russia is attempting to build a fortress of barely-functioning puppet states around its borders, strengthening its military basis and proving its position on the international level as the force keeping the NATO’s up at night. 

The plans to annex both regions and guarantee Russia’s rule over them were evident from the very beginning. Less than a month after the war ended, South Ossetia’s then president Eduard Kokoity told the media that independent South Ossetia would eventually become part of the Russian Federation, a claim he very quickly retracted after Russian officials denied any plans for annexation.

While Russia might appear to be fully invested in its operations in Crimea and Syria, ambitions for annexation and plans to further its rule in the caucasus haven’t stopped. In April 2016, South Ossetia and Russia signed a new treaty extending South Ossetia’s borders further into Georgia, while the region’s de facto president Leonid Tibilov announced that his government would hold a referendum in early 2017 to officially become a part of the Russian Federation.

It has been eight years since the Russo-Georgian war broke out and Russia formally recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. What has changed? A quick look at the current state of both regions is sufficient to demonstrate the real motives behind Russia’s support for the separatist groups. In Abkhazia, the Russian 7th Military Base hosts approximately 4,500 personnel, while in South Ossetia, the Russian 4th Military Base is home to approximately 3,500 personnel.

Other than Russia, only three U.N.-member states recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, these are: Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru. The two breakaway regions also enjoy the recognition of some non-member states and organizations, including Hamas and Donetsk People’s Republic.

On a domestic level, both regions are considered to be entirely dependent on Russia’s economic and military aid, existing in a state of limbo without any global recognition or any tangible chances for complete autonomy. Abkhazia, with a population just below 250,000, was considered to be one of the most beautiful holiday destinations for Georgians and tourists alike, and an economic stronghold thanks to its port on the Black Sea. Today, the region is in a state of what appears to be a perpetual economic and social depression.  South Ossetia’s economy has been virtually non-existent since the war. The majority of the population is fully dependant on subsistence farming, and the state’s only asset is its control of the Roki Tunnel, which it uses to levy customs duties on freight traffic.

Conclusion

Anyone in doubt, especially on the left, over the reasons behind Russia’s military intervention in Syria, has to simply read the timeline of Russia’s post-soviet meddling with the its bordering republics, as well as its long history of supporting dictatorships in the region.

The Abkhaz and South Ossetian people’s desire to gain full independence and raise their nations to their feet is legitimate by all accounts, but so is the Syrian people’s wish to end a 45-year-long ruthless dictatorship that has indiscriminately imprisoned, tortured and killed members of every single category the international left fears for from the the so-called jihadist opposition.