If you want to know anything about the political economy of CIS countries, there is no better place to turn than the Financial Times. Always erudite, FT’s special reports provide a broad evaluation of the region’s economy, politics, culture, and society often without the usual ideological claptrap about the incompatibility between capitalism and authoritarianism. Take for example the business daily’s most recent special on Kazakhstan.
I think that FT understands the essence of post-Soviet politics as a combination between one man rule, family circles, elite clans, and bureaucratic pressures. There is no total one man rule, only a network of alliances between competing elites. At the center stands, in the case of
The canny Mr. Nazarbayev has built an authoritarian regime with greater skill than most of his regional counterparts, cleverly balancing competing interests. He has promoted the influence and wealth of his family, not least his three daughters and their husbands, but he has appeared to be aware of the dangers of alienating others and provoking international criticism by betting everything on the bloodline. Since the 2005 election, Mr. Nazarbayev has begun to address the succession question by encouraging the development of institutions to which the presidency could devolve some power. In key reforms this year, he increased the role of parliament and local governments. Parliamentary elections are to be held in August to legitimize the changes.
The question is whether post-Nazarbayev
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By Sean — 10 years ago
How did Han Solo put it to Chewbacca after he was freed from carbonite in Return of the Jedi? Oh yeah, he said, “I–I’m out of it for a little while, everybody gets delusions of grandeur.” There I was in Israel with a self-imposed ban on blogging and war ignites between Russia and Georgia. In an instant, the information I was gathering on Russian immigrants and Israeli street kids suddenly appeared less relevant.
While Han Solo’s “delusions of grandeur” was meant to be ironic in Jedi, its current application to Georgia lacks ironic overtones. Just what was President Mikhail Saakashvili thinking when he sent Georgian troops into South Ossetia? Did he really think that Russia was going to sit by and twiddle its thumbs? Did he think that his paltry contribution of America’s War on Terror and its support for Georgia’s NATO membership was enough political capital for US save him? Was the move simply a cynical effort to propel Georgia’s international victimhood in the face of big bad Russia? Or was it a desperate attempt quell his own domestic travails by uniting the country against the external Other? Enquiring minds want to know.
Whatever the answers may be, one thing’s for sure: Saakashvilli fucked up. And fucked up bad. Trying to reestablish Georgian hegemony in South Ossetia with military force has only place his country in mortal danger. Now Georgia is at Russia’s mercy, and given how the Russians already think that Georgia is a child that needs a good spanking, the whipping might end up being worse than necessary just to prove a point. Kind of reminds me when my grandfather would get so infuriated, he would tell one of us, “Boy, go get me a switch from the tree.” It’s almost in a weird Oedipal way, by attacking South Ossetia, Saakashvilli was volunteering to pick the perfect switch for Daddy Russia to beat him with.
This is not to say that Russia hasn’t played the abusive Father in all this. You can cite, as many have, all of the Russia attempts to inflame the situation: supporting South Ossetian and Abkhazian rebels, issuing passports, and declaring itself Ossetia’s protector. Russia is the real power here and its using it to constantly poke Georgia.
But ultimately the blame game is rather boring. There just isn’t much analytical power in repeatedly saying, “It’s Russia’s fault!” “No, its Georgia’s fault!” If one wants to attribute blame then it might better to capture the situation as a dialectical Mobius strip and move on. This is what I think Charles King is trying to point to in his comment in the Christian Science Monitor. He writes:
Russia illegally attacked Georgia and imperiled a small and feeble neighbor. But by dispatching his own ill-prepared military to resolve a secessionist dispute by force, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has managed to lead his country down the path of a disastrous and ultimately self-defeating war.
Unfortunately, language must be presented linear. The more pro-Russian/Georgian reader will find fault and satisfaction in this statement. When read simply, Russia, by virtue of it being mentioned first, comes out the bigger aggressor, tempered by Saakashvilli’s brash and ill advised solution. I would suggest that the reader freely exchange the order of the sentences to escape determinism.
However, the main thing one should notice is that this effort to equally blame Russia and Georgia is predicated on a kind of colonial erasure. Namely, absent from this formulation are the South Ossetians themselves. Their agency is rendered invisible or worse reduced to the body upon which the larger powers dance. Perhaps we should redo the narrative to include them?
The reality is that South Ossetia is not alone in its aspirations for ethnic self-determination. The situation in South Ossetia, as with other places where political borders don’t align with ethnic ones, is kind of ethno-waste of modernity. When the Bolsheviks drew up its Republics, Autonomous Regions, and autonomous oblasts in 1936, the North Caucuses was an artificially crafted mosaic where political borders ran counter to (emergent) ethnic ones. The Ossetians where split politically into North and South, while their ethnicity remained unified. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the South Ossetians became one of the many internal Others for the Georgians to proclaim their new found nationalism. That is, Great Georgian Nationalism was predicated on its vicious denial to the Other. Brutality comenced. As Human Rights Watch reported in 1996,
Between 1989 and 1992, fighting flared in the South Ossetian A.O. and in Georgia between ethnic Ossetian paramilitary troops and Georgian Interior Ministry (MVD) units and paramilitaries. South Ossetia had demanded to secede, and Georgia cracked down on the renegade area by sending in troops. Approximately 100,000 ethnic Ossetians fled Georgia and South Ossetia, and another 23,000 Georgians headed in the other direction. One hundred villages were reportedly destroyed in South Ossetia. Also the North Ossetia-Georgian border went largely uncontrolled, providing an almost unhindered access point for weapons, fighters, and ammunition in both directions.
Since then South Ossetia has overwhelming approved seceding from Gerogia in two referendums, yet their right to self-determination remains ignored.
Contrary to Cold War Triumphalists, neo-Hegelian End of Historyites, Kantian Perpetual Peaceniks, and the Death of Nation State globalists, walls continue to be erected to create or harden ethnic-religious identities. If the symbol of the 20th Century was the Berlin Wall, the 21st appears to be marked by its fragmentation and redepolyment across a variety of ethno-political spaces. The concrete walls at the US-Mexico border, Israel-Palestine, and the streets of Baghdad (For the conjunction between walls and Shia and Sunni ethnic cleansing see Derek Gregory’s excellent “Biopolitics of Baghdad“), have their biopolitical and virtual expression in the new states of Southeastern Europe and the aspiring ones in the Caucuses, South Asia, and China. The formerly bipolar world of the 20th century has begotten a shotgun splatter of ethno-nationalist states of the 21st.
This is why, however much people want to point to South Ossetia as a Russian proxy, they still have to somehow account for the fact that South Ossetians gleefully take those passports, use Russian currency, and are running not into Georgia but into Russia to escape the violence. I think we have to remember that however one wants to attribute blame for the conflict, there are some real reasons why the South Ossetians want to ditch Georgia altogether. Yet in all the reporting that has come out in the last few days, the South Ossentian voice as an agent of his or her own present and future has been more or less muted. In its place has stood a number of metonyms: Russia, Putin, Georgia, rebels, proxies, oil pipelines, NATO, the United States . . .
Human Rights Watch has shed some light on the situation. According to documents provided by the Russian Operative Headquarters for Providing Humanitarian Assistance to the Residents of South Ossetia, from 8 August to the afternoon of 10 August, the Russian Federal Migration Service recorded 24,032 people crossing the border to Russia. Given that the population of South Ossetia is a mere 70,000, that is quite a large percentage of the population. Perhaps more telling is that 11,190 of them have gone back, many of which “to join to volunteer militias of South Ossetia.” Granted, as HRW admits these figures are hardly accurate given the fluidity of the situation. They should merely be taken as a snapshot of what Ossentians are doing in all this.
As for the violence, here is what HRW has culled from refugee interviews:
Human Rights Watch visited a camp for the displaced in the village of Alagir and interviewed more than a dozen individuals, including those from Tskhinvali and neighboring villages. Those from the city reported spending more than three days in the basements of their houses, unable to come out because of the incessant shelling. Two individuals from Tskhinvali – a mother and her pregnant daughter – said their apartment building was severely damaged by shells and they only dared to come out of the basement on the fourth day, early in the morning of August 10, when Russian troops took full control of the city and started transporting local residents to a safe zone. They said the convoy consisted of six buses (about 27 people each), escorted by the military to the safety zone.
Residents of Satskhenet village told Human Rights Watch that after the village came under heavy artillery fire on the night of August 7, all women, children and elderly (more than 100 people) started fleeing their homes; most of them spent the next two days hiding in the woods and then trying to make their way toward the Russian border. They were assisted by the Russian military in the village of Ger and transported to North Ossetia.
Many families were separated while fleeing the fighting in South Ossetia, and to date they have not been able to obtain any information as to the fate and whereabouts of their relatives whom they left behind.
This seems to confirm RAI Novosti‘s telling of events a few days before the Russian military entered the conflict.
South Ossetia has evacuated more than 1,000 children across the border into Russia since violence broke out on Friday. The separatist authorities say six people were killed and 15 injured in mortar and sniper attacks from Georgian forces. Georgia had denied using snipers, and says it only retaliated against South Ossetian grenade attacks.
On Sunday, a total of 543 evacuees arrived in Russia’s North Ossetia, and over 500 are expected to arrive by Monday evening.
South Ossetia’s Interior Ministry said on Monday that Georgia had deployed a howitzer battalion and two mortar batteries along the border over the weekend, while police posts on the southern outskirts of the separatist republic’s capital, Tshinvali, had come under sniper fire.
South Ossentian rebel leader Eduard Kokoity told Interfax that up to 1,400 killed by Georgian troops. The Independent quoted Ludmila Ostayeva, 50, a resident of Tskinvali who fled to the Russian border, “I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.”
Given these images, it’s rather funny to read Saakashvilli’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal as he conjures the historical images of Russian aggression. “This invasion, which echoes Afghanistan in 1979 and the Prague Spring of 1968, threatens to undermine the stability of the international security system,” he writes. He goes on to explain to American audiences how “This war is not of Georgia’s making, nor is it Georgia’s choice.” Nor is it simply about the South Ossetia or Abkhazia. Indeed, he claims, this war was designed by the Kremlin to crush freedom. The war is more about those lofty ideas about “the kind of Europe our children will live in” and “the future of freedom in Europe.” All of these can easily be turned against himself.
What is most wondrous however is Saakashvilli’s geographic wizardry. It’s also ironic since geography as an expression of knowledge and power is part of the problem. Georgia, he asserts, is part of Europe and part of “our common trans-Atlantic values of liberty and democracy.” This war is about Georgia’s self-determination; a self-determination which apparently is rooted in denying the Ossetians theirs.
By Sean — 10 years ago
The Ossetians are slowly creeping into view, though the articles highlighting their history, plight, and desire for self-determination are still relegated to the journalistic periphery. One article to recenter the Ossetian (and also Abkhaz) problem is Donald Rayfield’s “The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation” on OpenDemocracy.net. Rayfield opens with a point that I made a few days ago. Namely,
Much of the media reporting of the “short and nasty war” has been strong and detailed, with a good dose of scepticism in questioning the tendentious (and often downright mendacious) versions of events relayed by Russian and Georgians spokespersons alike. This is in contrast to the lack of attention among commentators to the essential task of exploring the roots of the conflict; indeed, a lot of the opinion-flood persists in ignoring completely the local and regional factors in favour of an instant resort to high geopolitics, as if South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which lie at the heart of what has happened – do not in themselves even exist. [Emphasis mine]
When the Ossetians and Abkhazians at the center, the answer to the problem is clear: recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s right of self-determination, whether that be independence or integration into Russia.
To get there, however, Rayfield suggests that the Georgians come to grip with the idea that losing South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not the end of the world.
Sadly, rationality and nationalism rarely mix well. When he came to power in 2003, Saakashvili put taming Georgia’s separatist regions at the center of his populist nationalism. It didn’t take him long to begin putting pressure on both Ossetia and Akhazia to comply. Under the auspicious of “decriminalizing” both regions of smuggling, corruption, and gang-like rule, Saakashvili ordered his navy to down all foreign ships (i.e. Russian) heading for Abkhazia and replaced his border police with US-trained Georgian troops, who quickly began trading small arms fire with Ossetian militias. As the New York Times‘ C. J. Chivers noted in August 2004, critics were already saying that Saakashvili’s antics were “showing his inexperience and flirting with war.” One wonders where such criticism in the Western press is now.
Or as Mark Ames says in his most recent article in the Nation,
At the root of this conflict is a clash of two twentieth-century guiding principles in international relations. Georgia, backed by the West, is claiming its right as a sovereign nation to control the territory within its borders, a guiding principle since World War II. The Ossetians are claiming their right to self-determination, a guiding principle since World War I.
These two guiding concepts for international relations–national sovereignty and the right to self-determination–are locked in a zero-sum battle in Georgia. Sometimes, the West takes the side of national sovereignty, as it is in the current war; other times, it sides with self-determination and redrawing of national borders, such as with Kosovo.
In that 1999 war, the United States led a nearly three-month bombing campaign of Serbia in order to rescue a beleaguered minority, the Albanians, and carve out a new nation. Self-determination trumped national sovereignty, over the objections of Russia, China and numerous other countries.
Why, Russians and Ossetians (not to mention separatist Abkhazians in Georgia’s western region) ask, should the same principle not be applied to them?
It should but it’s not. What the Ossentians, Abkhazians and Russians have gotten in response is the worse chest pounding, slander, and great power blustering from the United States. The best example of this is Bush’s feeble attempt at continued relevancy by spouting tired rhetoric about how “Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.” “Only Russia can decide whether it will now put itself back on the path of responsible nations or continue to pursue a policy that promises only confrontation and isolation,” he continued. Russia’s response? Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said the Americans had to chose between have a “real partnership” with Russia or a virtual one with Georgia.
The funny thing is that so much of this conflict has simply existed on the virtual plane. How people saw the war was skillfully crafted by their specific culture industry. Each side, whether it be the Russian or the Western press created its own villains, victims, historical parallels, and defense of grand historical ideas. The South Ossetian war was as much, if not more, about narrative than it was about bullets and bombs. The universal opinion is that Russia lost this war of narratives. Yasha Levine put it best in his analysis on the Exiled.
Even the most cursory look at this conflict shows that Georgia’s attack was an almost perfect textbook example of how modern warfare should be fought on the information front. The Georgians showed an amazing grasp of Info Ops concepts, pulling off counterpropaganda, launching disinformation campaigns and manipulating media perceptions as if they did this type of thing every day.
Oh, the Russians tried to do their part, too. But it still isn’t clear if they didn’t give a shit about what the world thought or just failed miserably. Either way, it was bad news for the Kremlin. Despite a military victory, they are going to have a heard time getting the world to go along with their plans for post-war Georgia. All because they failed to win over the hearts and minds of the world community. The Georgians knew the importance of a well-defined information war strategy. That’s because Georgia has had ample training by the masters of this art: America and Israel.
Saakashvili turned out to be a master at manipulating American narcissism. Perhaps his time at Columbia Law School taught him that Americans only react to codes. For example, in his “exclusive” interview with CNN on August 8, Saakashvili repeatedly said he loved freedom and democracy:
“We are right now suffering because we want to be free and we want to be a democracy multi-ethnic democracy that belongs to all ethnic groups and that’s exactly what’s happening there. So, basically, I have to – I mean, it’s not about Georgia anymore, it’s about America, its values. You know, I went to two U.S. universities. I always taught that these values were also those of my own. We have held them not because we love America although I do love America, but because we love freedom. And the point here is that I also taught that America also stands up for those free-loving nations and supports them.”
“We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack.”
His 13 August interview on CNN, he laid the freedom on even thicker. He said the word “free” or “freedom” seven times. He also dropped “democracy” seven times. Perhaps this is why people like CNN’s Glenn Beck are so apt to believe after talking with Saakashvili for 30 minutes that “This is for America. This is for NATO. This is for Bush” was written on the Russian bombs falling on Georgia. Beck is an utter boob. And Saakashvili, well, he should get a fucking Oscar.
One can tell how effective freedom and democracy rhetoric is just by looking how American politicians deploy it themselves. If you can make the conflict about America, its people, and its values, the public will respond. This is why John McCain told a crowd in Pennsylvania that “Today, we are all Georgians.” This is why In Colorado, he said that he wanted to avoid any armed conflict with Russia, “but,” he emphasized, “we have to stand up for freedom and democracy as we did in the darkest days.”
McCain’s blustering has paid off politically. The New York Times, in an application of the “Rolled up sleeves theory,” noted that McCain displayed his “foreign policy credentials,” while Barack Obama “seemed to fade from the scene while on his secluded vacation.” Now American liberals are scrambling out of fear that McCain’s get tough on Russia stance will give him a bump in the polls.
But the narcissism on display is not simply relegated to Bush, McCain, or the American voter as such. American liberals, who pride themselves on seeing through the smoke and mirrors of the propaganda state, are no less myopic. Once upon a time, national self-determination was a principle of the American liberal left. National liberation movements were mark of internationalism and solidarity.
Now those days are long gone and anti-imperialism has faded from the American liberal doxa. Now, they are probably the most egregiously narcissistic bunch that are so steeped in their own “it’s all about me” mentality. They call for the better management of empire rather than its ultimate dismantle. But what do you expect from liberalism? The South Ossetian War can’t be about well, the Ossetians and the Abkhazians (Who are they anyway?). Their struggles, desires, and agency doesn’t just has to, they must be a metynom for a much wider issue: American hegemony? Oil? Iran? McCain-Obama? Make your pick. Because, if the South Ossetians and Abkhazians can’t be molded into a reflection of one of a liberal cause, they might as well not exist. To not do this would require American liberals to actually realize that there is a world out there that isn’t a simple reflection of their values and concerns.
Instead, the South Ossetian and Abkhazian right of self-determination is erased in favor of some grand scheme of American Empire. Take for example, the Nation‘s Robert Sheer’s speculation that the Georgian War was some kind of neocon conspiracy, an October Surprise to influence the American Presidential Election. The logic is beautiful in its simplicity. Randy Scheunemann is McCain’s senior foreign policy adviser. He previously served as a lobbyist for the Georgian government. Scheunemann is also a neocon who championed the invasion of Iraq. Connect the dots people. Sheer does
There are telltale signs that he played a similar role in the recent Georgia flare-up. How else to explain the folly of his close friend and former employer, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in ordering an invasion of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which clearly was expected to produce a Russian counter-reaction. It is inconceivable that Saakashvili would have triggered this dangerous escalation without some assurance from influential Americans he trusted, like Scheunemann, that the United States would have his back.
Why did the US want a Russian counteraction? American needs a new enemy. A good enemy. Not one that hides in caves, blows himself up, and wreaks havoc in failed states with no targets. There’s nothing photogenic in all that. Perhaps this is why all the war on terror films have fallen so flat in the box office. Perhaps this is why there is no Rambo for this war. Even liberals need a simple, flat binaried world of “us” and “US” to make their unfettered political way in an otherwise complex world.
So for Sheer, the Georgia Crisis has been about us from the very get go. Or if you listen to Michael Klare, it’s “South Ossetia: It’s the oil, stupid.” Or if you really want a duesy, read Frank Shaeffer, who says that Russia actions in Georgia “is the slow-motion counterattack of the Orthodox world against the West’s latest crusade. Georgia is just a symbol for the counter-punch to the modern version of the West’s sack of Constantinople in 1204.” What? He’s kidding right? The fact that Georgia is also an Orthodox country (he admits this) doesn’t seem to matter.
Clearly, South Ossetian and Abkhazian bodies don’t matter unless they are used as canvas for sketching out larger and more sinister political designs. Someone should have done the decent thing and sent them the memo. No matter, the cultural industry and its managers will write them in as necessary. Or not.
By Sean — 4 years ago
Lilia Shevtsova, who I like a lot, has an interesting comment in the Financial Times. What she has to say doesn’t bode well for Ukraine or Putin. Putin has won but his victory is only tactical. According to Shevtsova, “tactical victories often end in strategic defeats” and Putin, by turning Russia into a “war state,” has “unleashed the process he cannot stop and made himself hostage to suicidal statecraft.” Essentially Putin has boxed himself in. He can’t extricate himself from Ukraine without a victory, and that victory—with the spent economic and political capital necessary to pull it off–risks “a loss of power.” I think this is pretty unlikely.
First Ukraine. Basically the west has given up without much of a fight. Sure there are the sanctions, which are taking a bite, but they just show how little leverage the West has over Putin. The West is unwilling to really defend Ukraine where it counts. Nato can bluster about the Russian threat and shore up its Baltic members all it wants. And when Poroshenko pleaded to Obama that he can’t win a war with blankets? He went home with more blankets. As for the sanctions, they aren’t going to alter Putin’s course in the short term. They depend too much on oligarchs enslaved to Putin getting together and pressuring him to change course. That’s highly unlikely to happen. If anything, the sanctions have forced a tightening of Putin’s inner circle and a strengthening of his autocratic hand.
So Ukraine has been sold out. Shevtsova writes:
The west dare not call the Russian incursion an act of aggression. They talk euphemistically of a “political solution” to the Ukrainian crisis, which means that the Kremlin’s interests should be taken into account. The Nato summit held in Wales this month demonstrated that the alliance is not prepared to do much more than condemn Russia.
The promises of lethal aid for Ukraine that have apparently been made by some Nato countries will not shift the military balance – though both sides have an interest in pretending otherwise. Western sanctions will not force Mr Putin to backtrack. The west has proved that it is neither ready to include Ukraine in its security umbrella, nor to live up to their commitments under international law as guarantors of Ukrainian territorial integrity. A New Russia (or “Novorossiya”) on the territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists is on its way to becoming a reality. The partition of Ukraine is silently being ratified by the rest of the world (emphasis added).
Still, for Shevtsova, this means Putin isn’t winning even though it appears that’s exactly what’s happening. In fact, “he is again miscalculating.” Putin thinks he can coax Russians into buying into the besieged fortress forever. Russians will tire of the propaganda eventually. Also, few are willing to die for Putin’s adventure in Ukraine. In fact, Shevtsova says that reports of Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine “has already begun undermining the patriotic mood.” Really? According to a recent Levada poll, only 42 percent of Russians believe Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, and 54 percent think those that did die were volunteers. Fifty percent hadn’t heard anything at all about the Russian soldiers. Russians also don’t seem to be too concerned about the sanctions. A recent poll concluded that 84 percent of Russians agree with the ban on food imports from Europe. True, many don’t buy imported food anyway, but that says, contrary what many have argued, Russia isn’t sanctioning itself. Sure, an impressive 26,000 marched in Moscow for peace. But it’s going to take a lot more than that to turn the tide. Patriotism is hard thing to lick.
But the big problem Shevtsova foresees is Novorossyia. She writes:
The irony is that Novorossiya will soon become a problem for the Russian president. The Kremlin will have to contend with heavily armed separatists, embittered by their failure to secure a stipend from Moscow, just as the tide of protest begins to rise at home.
Moscow will have to keep its heroes at arm’s length. Those who are bravely fighting for a “Russian world” could quickly become a threat to Mr Putin if they were allowed into Russia proper. They are welcome in the motherland, but only in coffins.
It would be a problem if fighters began returning en mass to Russia with their guns in tow. This is probably why Putin has sought to “Ukrainianize” the rebel leadership and put forward a peace deal that keeps an autonomous Novorossyia within Ukraine. Russia wants to dominate the Donbas; it doesn’t want to incorporate it. Why formally incorporate the Donbas when Ukraine is willing to hold on to it and foot the bill? Let Poroshenko govern that mess.
So yeah, Putin’s going to keep Novorossiya’s heroes at arm’s length. Novorossyia is just a cinematic project to rile up the population anyway. The “heroes” have always been actors in a larger drama, and when this series jumps the shark, its production set will be folded up and the stage will be prepared for a new theatrical work to dazzle the spectator. The cinematography deployed to turn Russia into “war state” is all just the tactics. We shouldn’t so quickly substitute smoke and mirrors for reality. Putin’s real strategy is to hobble Ukraine and humble the West, and on that he’s doing pretty damn well.