The Ukrainian frontier guard syndrome
There is one good joke I want to tell you. Two Ukrainian frontier guards are keeping awake at the observation post. "Look Mykhailo, the Muscovites are coming!" - exclaims the first. "Indeed they are!" - reacts the second. "Let's shoot at them", - proposes the first. "We better not, or they'll return fire", - answers the second. "But why on earth should they fire at us?!" - resents the first.
Really, why should they? We are inherently good, and there can be no filing claims against us. This is the general logic of official nationalism regardless of its "state of origin": USA, Russia or Ukraine. We've grown up with the lexical rule according to which we have heroic intelligence officers while they have corny spies. And while their actions are qualified as aggression, ours can be estimated as preventive measures or even as help to a sisterly nation.
Lately the Russian authorities have once again proved that they are subject to the "Ukrainian frontier guard syndrome" in its most severe form.
It is not about the spying scandal itself (that caused detention of the Russian officers on the territory of the neighboring republic). It is not even about Moscow, in defiance of any common sense, introducing sanctions against Georgia despite the fact that it complied with all Russia's demands. The question on the agenda is the general logic of the Kremlin's policy towards the former Soviet republics.
During all these recent years the Kremlin has been suppressing separatism at home simultaneously fostering and financing all sorts of separatist movements in the neighboring states. Waking or sleeping the Kremlin has been asserting its rights in the Northern Caucasus; besides it has always kept a worried eye on the situation in Bashkiria, Tatarstan and Yakutia. At the same time Russia has been encouraging Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria to break away from Georgia and Moldova. The Crimean issue can also be entered in this list.
But as usually for the Russian authorities the issue of the unrecognized territories in the post-Soviet space is a special case. Haven't the Abkhazians spoken for unification with Russia? And Transnistria residents have expressed their pro-Russian choice via referendum. It's another matter that they are driven by delusive promises both of home and Russian politicians. It is evident that annexation of these territories is simply impossible.
It is not the international law in force that is the basic obstacle. After all, legal regulations evolve with time and accepting Kosovo's separation from Serbia the EU might create a precedent Moscow could take advantage of. The point is that Russia simply doesn't want to annex Abkhazia, South Ossetia or still less the Crimea. What is Russia supposed to do with these territories? Moscow doesn't possess resources to expand the empire via little segmented territories. It even cannot protect them. Besides, these territories are not worth taking the trouble to interfere with protracted conflicts fraught with international isolation and bloodshed. We have failed time after time to create a union with Belarus, so speaking of Transnistria in this context makes me laugh.
The Kremlin bureaucrats take all these considerations into account for they are much smarter than the general opinion believes them to be. And being smart enough they add fuel to the fire of once frozen conflicts. No, they don't mean to conquer or annex any territory - for the Kremlin each of these conflicts is a leverage to influence Russia's neighbors. First of all, frozen conflicts traditionally need mediation from the part of the regional superpower. Besides, unrecognized territories serve as gateways for money laundering, afford ground for illegal privatization, property seizure, trafficking and all sorts of other ultra-profitable businesses for the bureaucratic capital. And luckily "real patriots" will never dare to criticize such "business transactions" for in this manner we strengthen our positions on the territories of the sisterly nations!
Effectively, Abkhazian, Transnistrian and South Ossetian people are hostages in the tricky games of the Russian political elite. The latter has no strategic vision of these peoples' future though sooner or later politicians will have to face these problems!
The Kremlin's policy is inconsistent and imprudent, at least from the point of view of the law. The virus of nationalism is very contagious, and considering that in some of its parts the Russian border with its neighbors is not being effectively regulated, not to speak of any "iron curtain", there is no guarantee that the contagion disseminated by our authorities will not return back to infect Russia. Or rather, there is no need to infect us - it is only the Kremlin that refuses to recognize the problem despite unrest in Chechnya and riots in Kondopoga.
They say, don't throw stones, if you live in a glass house. Our authorities seem to be keen on throwing left and right not stones but boomerangs. Do they know at least how to use this device?!
The Bolshevist Russia assumed strong measures regulating the "nationalities question" before proclaiming the "right of nations to self-determination" slogan. I can't say that the Soviet federalism even at its incipient stage was ideal but it was far in the avant-garde of its epoch as compared to the imperialist policy of other nations. Back in those times Soviet leaders could boldly come forward with decolonization and self-determination slogans, foster and sponsor national liberation movements without serious risk for their own regime.
During the last 15 years the Russian authorities on the contrary haven't done anything that would significantly improve position of the Russians living in the Baltic states. The situation is not much better in Russia itself: the only measure initiated by the authorities in reaction to the Kondopoga turmoil was tightening police control at the marketplaces.
Evidently all these troubles are far less important than the current worries of the Kremlin and its primordial concern about the 2008 presidential election. Being that important the problem will not be resolved at the general elections. At least, not at the presidential election.
Akram Murtazaev, Eurasian Home columnist, has repeatedly said that the 2000 presidential elections were not deciding the fate of Putin. It was the 1999 parliamentary elections that decided everything. Presidential elections were a mere formality. This time just in the same logic they will try to make it clear in 2007.
As for the legislative elections there is another revealing logic. Every time the State Duma elections threaten to change the existing political system, they are held against the background of war. In 1995 it was the first Chechen war, 1999 - the second one.
The 2007 elections are in many respects decisive. But it is impossible to carry on another Chechen war - everything there is already ruined and burnt.
While in Abkhazia there has been only one war so far.
Let's hope that this time considering that Georgia is an independent state represented in the UN our political leaders will not go further than a cold war with this country.
We shouldn't think the worse of people. The Kremlin humanists are not panning any bloodshed, they only need to swing the elections.
And there is nothing to do about it as long as they use the political technologies that they use.
Boris Kagarlitsky is a Director of The Institute for Globalization Studies