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Russia Overreaches Itself in Struggle to Control the Caucasus

Moscow’s inability to rein in its South Caucasian satellites may affect Russia’s posture across the volatile Caucasus region.

by Valery Dzutsev 16 September 2011

On 27 August Alexander Ankvab, a businessman turned politician who has reportedly survived four assassination attempts, was declared the president of the small Georgian breakaway territory of Abkhazia in an early election called to replace Sergey Bagapsh, president from 2005 until his death in May. Following the brief Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, Russia officially recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. Georgia and its Western allies staunchly opposed Russia’s decision but could do little to reverse it, even though only a handful of other states have followed Russia’s lead in recognizing the territories.

Alexander Ankvab casts his ballot at a polling station in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi.


Russia’s move to alter the political map in the Caucasus can be understood only in light of its own, nominally semi-autonomous Caucasian republics, several of which share close cultural ties to the Georgian territories. For the Russian republics observing the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the prospect of continuing to receive generous benefits from Moscow while retaining a considerable level of political autonomy may become an attractive alternative to the status quo. Thus, Moscow faces the tricky task of displaying the Georgian territories to the outside world as successful self-governing mini-states while reinforcing to the domestic audience that the central government is firmly in charge in the North Caucasus.


Cut off from Georgia since the war of the early 1990s and as a result heavily dependent on Russia, Abkhazia, with a population of barely more than 200,000, is strongly influenced by Moscow. Yet, paradoxically, considering the absence of competitive presidential elections in the patron state, Russia did not prevent this client state from holding a vote with an open-ended outcome last month. No clear winner of the race was reported until after the balloting was over. To be sure, there appeared to be little or no difference among the three candidates in terms of their amiable attitude to Moscow. Even so, Russia’s abstinence from directly endorsing any of the contenders was remarkable, especially compared with the 2004 election, when Russia openly threw in its lot with one candidate – who went on to lose to Bagapsh.


A closer look into the problem suggests that important constraints hinder Moscow from acting as it pleases in the Georgian breakaway territories, contrary to what many outside observers believe.


South Ossetia, lying to the east of Abkhazia, is gearing up to elect its next leader in November. The tiny territory, control of which lay behind the 2008 war, is seeing much more tumultuous political campaigning than Abkhazia did. Because of its greater potential to heighten tensions, the South Ossetian campaign may offer more insights into Russian policy in the region.


On 2 September, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity stated that he would support three candidates in the election to replace him. Kokoity, the unrecognized territory’s political leader since 2001, had earlier announced he would not stand for a third term. One of the three he named, South Ossetian Minister of Emergencies Anatoly Bibilov, had already been dubbed the “Kremlin candidate” by Russian media. According to an article published on 18 August in the prominent Russian newspaper Kommersant, Bibilov was the consensus choice of a group of high Russian government officials including the siloviki, or heads of the security ministries. Kommersant wrote that Moscow, disappointed with Kokoity for his alleged embezzlement of Russian funds, had decided to bypass his preferred candidates, especially Prosecutor General Taimuraz Khugaev. The paper quoted numerous sources in the Russian government and the security services, who apparently readily shared their views about the upcoming South Ossetian election, and cited its government sources as assuring the public that everything had been decided. It is also possible that this report betrayed Moscow’s nervousness over the political instability in South Ossetia and reflected the Russian leadership’s concern to grant itself a greater role than it realistically has. 


One North Ossetian activist with ties to South Ossetia, Vissarion Aseev, says that Bibilov was from the outset one of Kokoity’s protégés, so there was no question of a conflict between Kokoity and Moscow. However, real opposition to Kokoity and his entourage in South Ossetia has been growing over time, to the extent that one of the leading possible contenders for the presidential position, Alan Kochiev, was arrested on 18 August for allegedly assaulting a deputy in the territory’s parliament. Aseev believes that tension is running so high in South Ossetia that if opponents of the Kokoity circle such as Kochiev are excluded from running for the presidency, there is a possibility of civil war in this tiny and conflict-prone territory.


Moscow’s ability to install the “right person” in South Ossetia is much more limited than it appears at first sight, despite the nearly absolute dependence of South Ossetia on Russia for its security, finance, and supplies. The international community’s vigilance, prompted by Georgia’s attention, are virtual guarantees against a unilateral move on the part of the Russians, such as installing the Kremlin’s chosen president by force or cutting the aid lifeline. South Ossetia’s population has grown used to extremes of deprivation since the 1991 war between separatists and the central government in Tbilisi.


Imposing any kind of economic sanctions on the territory would be a daunting task for Moscow. The move would not only undermine its own decision to recognize South Ossetia as an independent state in 2008 but would also be difficult to implement.


A significant portion of the prewar South Ossetian population now lives in Russian North Ossetia, so a blockade would face significant local opposition. 


Thus, while South Ossetia is very reliant on Russia, it surprisingly retains a large degree of agency in its internal affairs. On 1 August Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin floated the possibility that Russia could formally annex South Ossetia if such a step accorded with “the will of the Ossetian people.” One day later, South Ossetia’s official representative in Moscow, Dmitry Medoev, responded that the South Ossetian people in fact “had no plans to become part of the Russian Federation.” Medoev cautioned Moscow that the U.S. Senate had adopted a resolution condemning the Russian presence in the Georgian breakaway territories as an “occupation” and so Moscow should not aggravate the situation.


The Georgian breakaway territories would present hardly any challenge to Russian security, were it not for Russia’s North Caucasian republics with their formidable history of separatist ambitions. Ossetians live on both sides of the border, the majority in Russian North Ossetia, while the Abkhaz who make up the largest ethnic group in Abkhazia, following the exodus of ethnic Georgians during the 1990s, have close historical links to the Circassians living in several Russian republics. Over time, the North Caucasians may come to appreciate the attractive combination enjoyed by the South Caucasus territories – political leeway with significant amounts of aid still streaming down from Moscow. It is hard to see yet how this understanding will motivate the North Caucasian elites and what tactics they will employ to carve out more autonomy for themselves, but the conditions for such a transformation seem to be ripe.


Russia could either shed responsibility for Abkhazia and South Ossetia or formally annex them to solidify its control over these areas and curb the North Caucasians’ aspirations. However, both these outcomes are unlikely in the short and medium run unless drastic changes take place in the Russian top leadership. The need to reassure the world that the region is safe and stable as the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea town of Sochi draw nearer will further moderate any adventurism or attempts to break the status quo on Moscow’s part, so significant changes are hardly to be expected in the Russian approach to the region in the next several years. In the meantime the breakaway territories’ state institutions and bureaucracies may gain more strength and become even less vulnerable to Moscow’s attempts to encroach on their power.


Often described as “suitcases without handles” by Russian liberals because of the way they consume Russian resources but remain largely ungovernable by Moscow, Abkhazia and South Ossetia may not only become harder to handle down the road, but also set an example to follow for the volatile Russian North Caucasus republics. 

Valery Dzutsev is a freelance writer and Caucasus analyst in Arizona.

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