South Ossetia and the Remaking of the Post-Soviet World
An interview with Ronald Suny
Ronald Grigor Suny is professor of social and political history at the University of Michigan and professor emeritus of political science and history at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Baku Commune, 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1972); Armenia in the Twentieth Century (Scholars Press, 1983); The Making of the Georgian Nation (Indiana University Press, 1988, 1994); Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History (Indiana University Press, 1993); The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford University Press, 1993); and The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (Oxford University Press, 1998).
Suny is currently working on a two-volume biography of Stalin for Oxford University Press, a co-edited volume on the Armenian Genocide, a series of essays on empire and nations, and studies of emotions and ethnic politics. He has appeared numerous times on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, CBS Evening News, CNN, and National Public Radio, and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, New Left Review, Dissent, and other newspapers and journals.
In this interview, conducted by phone on Aug. 12, we talk about the situation in the Caucasus after Georgia's attack on South Ossetia and Russia's heavy-handed retaliation in August 2008.
Khatchig Mouradian—Talk about how the mainstream media in the U.S. is covering the conflict between Russia and Georgia.
Ronald Suny—The mainstream media is completely off the wall. It's echoing the line of the president, the government, and the presidential candidates. Also, in trying to make sense of the conflict, the mainstream media is using frames like "Russian imperialism" and "Russian aggression." These are old, cold-war era frames that they are reproducing and the result is a complete misreading of the situation.
After various developments in early 1990's and by international agreement, Russia took up the role of peacekeeper, separating the Georgians from the Abkhaz and the Ossetians. It has kept its role relatively responsibly and maintained peace in the area. Of course, it is correct to say in some abstract way that Russia is not observing the territorial integrity of Georgia or that Russia is attacking a sovereign democratic country, but all this misses the whole point that Russia has been involved in peacekeeping in those areas for years.
This particular crisis began with [Georgian president Mikhail] Saakashvilli. He launched a rocket attack against Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. The attack came at a very strategic point, when Bush and Putin were in Beijing and [Russian president Dmitry] Medvedev was on a cruise on the Volga. Important details such as these are left out of many reports.
The mainstream media is talking about empire and imperialism. But what Russia is practicing is, in fact, hegemony. It wants to dominate its near abroad, just like the U.S. wants to dominate Latin America—although the Americans also seek global hegemony.
The Russians want to preserve the status quo. They want to keep Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a kind of frozen conflict situation. That works for them. They can irritate Tbilisi, keep Georgia from integrating fully with the West, and try to prevent it from entering NATO. For the Russians, Georgia's membership to the military alliance spells disaster. Baltic countries, many Eastern European countries, and Turkey are in NATO. If you add Georgia, the entire western and southern borders Russia would be with NATO member countries. This is unacceptable for a great power like Russia.
K.M.—How do you explain Russia's response to Georgia's attack on South Ossetia?
R.S.—In the last 15 years, Russia has suffered humiliation after humiliation. The breakup of the Soviet Union was not popular in Russia, except among some liberals—and liberal in Russia means right-winger, traitor. The U.S. had promised not to expand NATO to Eastern Europe but has done it. In turn, the so-called "colored revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan frightened the Russians. They read these revolutions as Western interference, artificial events conjured up by the West to push forward anti-Russian elements like Saakashvili and [Ukranian president Victor] Yushchenko. Then Kosovo gained independence despite Moscow's objections.
After this colossal sense of humiliation, of a loss of power, [former Russian president and current Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin comes along, oil prices shoot up, and the Russians are making money, the country is growing, and they begin to flex their muscles again. If you listen to the Russian rhetoric now, it is about how after years of humiliation, they are back and they are no longer going to be pushed around.
K.M.—How far do you think Putin will go after this show of force?
R.S.—I think the Russians made their point. Confrontation is not their first choice. They have too much going with the international community to want to go back behind some kind of Iron Curtain. They don't want to be isolated.
K.M.—What do you think about the West's response?
R.S.—I don't think it's an accident that [French president Nicolas] Sarkozy, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, and other European leaders and diplomats are flocking to Moscow and trying to resolve this issue. The Europeans see Russia as a part of Europe. And they are not taking as hard a line as the Bush Administration.
I have to note that the Bush Administration was very influenced by [vice president Dick] Cheney. The first statement that President Bush made was not particularly strong, but later, he and the government adopted the Cheney line.
But the U.S. and NATO are powerless in this situation. They're obviously not going to go to war over South Ossetia. They don't have much maneuverability. Saakashvili started this, but it's the Russians that took it up and have improved their position.
The only thing that Saakashvili and the West can try to do now is discredit Russia. They're going to play that card, of course. They're going to make Russia look like the aggressor. And, of course, the Russians play into this image. They brutalize. Why did they bomb the Georgian city of Gori? They wanted to punish the Georgians. They wanted to teach them a lesson. And I think they have. I predict that Saakashvili's days in power are numbered. What was he thinking? He's a very impetuous leader. People in Georgia are afraid of him because they never know what to expect. He gambled and he lost this gamble. When you don't win a war that you initiate—as the Israeli leaders have learned in Lebanon, and the U.S has learned in Iraq—then you pay for it.
K.M.—What has changed in the equation after the war between Georgia and Russia?
R.S.—Small as it seems to be, the tiny little place that few have ever heard of—South Ossetia—in fact has changed the nature of the post-Soviet world. Now countries have learned not to muck around with the Russians. They have always been a hard country to bargain with. Now they're saying: if you push us hard enough, we'll also use military power. That's a new dimension.
K.M.—Talk about the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
R.S.—In Soviet times, South Ossetia was an autonomous district and Abkhazia was an autonomous Soviet republic. They had this official autonomy, but in fact they were dominated completely by Georgia, particularly during the Stalin period, when [Stalin's secret police boss Lavrenty] Beria was close to Stalin. Much resentment developed. There was a kind of Georgianization that took place in those regions.
When the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, a very radical nationalist, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was elected president in Georgia. He declared "Georgia for the Georgians." They were going to have an ethno-national republic, and the other peoples, who were 30 percent of the population (hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Muslim Georgians, and, of course, Abkhazians and Ossetians), did not figure in their vision. The Abkhazians and Ossetians rebelled and, with Russian help, declared their autonomy and drove the Georgians out. There are hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees from those areas now in Georgia. Roughly around 1993-94, around the time the Russians were negotiating the armistice in Nagorno-Karabagh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, they also negotiated a similar armistice in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Ossetians and Abkhazians want to be in Russia or independent. Russia never wanted to annex them and bring them fully to Russia because of the international law of territorial integrity. Russia's position is that you can't alter borders without mutual agreement. (In other words, they are against the independence of Kosovo for good reason, because that would then justify Chechnya's revolt). The Russians have held that principle, but when the U.S. backed Kosovo's independence, Putin remarked that if Kosovo can do it, why not Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well?
Unlike Karabagh, where Armenians were an overwhelming majority—they were about 76 percent in 1989 when the conflict broke—in Abkhazia, the Abkhaz were only 17 percent of the population and Georgians were something like 43 percent. (By the way, according to most accounts, the Armenians may be the largest ethnic group in Abkhazia today).
K.M.—In your book The Making of the Georgian Nation, you say, "If there is any conclusion to be derived from such a study of the longue duree of a small nation, it might be that a nation is never fully ‘made.' It is always in the process of being made." How do you think the current conflict will affect the making of the Georgian nation?
R.S.—In their own discourse, the Georgians blame everything on foreigners, the Russians, or minorities. They don't recognize their own responsibility for their own fate. Basically, in some ways, the Georgian state committed suicide by this fierce policy both towards Russia and its own minorities. The Georgians had to make a choice: do they try to regain and solidify, consolidate Georgian national territory with a hard militaristic confrontational policy that is essentially anti-Russian, pro-West? Or do they try to negotiate, grant concessions, offer high degrees of autonomy to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and also try a more cooperative approach towards Russia? Georgia has alternated between these choices. The problem is, they don't get much from the cooperative approach and they get frustrated with that.
Saakashvili has taken a harder line. He's figuring, "I can put Russia in a very difficult position. I can use the West and maybe that kind of pressure will both force Russia to come to some kind of agreement with me and also help me get into NATO." That was his gamble.
K.M.—Georgia's neighbor, Azerbaijan, welcomed Tbilisi's move to regain control of South Ossetia and signaled the possibility of a similar action against its own breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabagh. Do you think Azerbaijani officials will act on their war talk?
R.S.—Russia's actions are changing things. Had Saakashvili succeeded, then Azerbaijan would have been more encouraged to try to do something in Karabakh on its own. If I were Azerbaijan, I'd be very wary. The events in Georgia have shaken things up. Russia is once again the major player in the South Caucasus, and it considers Armenia to be its closest ally in the region.
Khatchig Mouradian is a journalist, writer and translator, currently based in Boston. He is the editor of the Armenian Weekly. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.