PRAGUE, 17 February, Caucasus Times. On January 21st Russia moved its border with Georgia on the Psou river eleven kilometers, further encroaching into Abkhazian territory. Earlier it had fortified the border between Georgia and South Ossetia with barbed wire which stretched out into Georgian villages. Georgia’s protests towards Russian military actions on both territories had been ignored by Moscow. Security concerns in the wake of the Sochi Olympics have been Russia’s core motif and justification for extending its geographic reach in the South Caucasus
Vladimir Putin’s return to power has been followed not only by rekindled imperial ambitions which modern Russia inherited from the Soviet Union, but also by numerous civil rights violations in Russia as well as in the countries that happened to be in Moscow’s geopolitical limelight. Among them, Georgia whose autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have de facto became Russia’s protectorates and Ukraine which is divided into two political camps of Eastern Ukraine seeking to join Russia’s Custom Union and Western Ukraine pursuing closer ties with Europe. Meanwhile, inside Russia civil society is under severe pressure from the government which has now legitimized repression against any dissent. The immediate targets are non-governmental organizations whose activities have been severely restricted by the “foreign agent” law, civil activists who have been hurt by the laws on public gatherings and extremism, and journalists who are being pressured in the framework of the new mass media law and censure.
Winter Olympics 2014 in Sochi has also served as a pretext to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical influence in the South Caucasus. In the wake of the Games official announcement, Moscow has deliberately enhanced its economic and military presence in the South Caucasus, particularly in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
After the military conflict in South Ossetia in 2008 which triggered wide international outrage Russian-Abkhazian relationships have seen a significant transformation. Peacekeeping troops were substituted by the army whose goal was to support Abkhazia’s ethno-political identification and not to end military action between Abkhazia and Georgia. Starting that moment, Abkhazia became a de-facto subsidy region of the Russian Federation. On April 30, 2009 Moscow and Sukhum signed an agreement on joint venture to protect the Abkhazian border. This agreement allowed Russia to deploy 3,500 military personnel and 1,500 officers of the Federal Security Service in Abkhazia. These numbers are cited from the International Crisis Group’s report “Abkhazia: A Long Road to Recovery.” It’s hard to gainsay that all efforts directed toward peace-building and not war are commendable. During the last couple of years Russian army has established a strong military grip not only on the Abkhazian ground but at sea. Russia’s Defense Ministry has equipped Abkhazia’s naval port in Ochamchir with modern tracking and monitoring systems. There are two military ships at bay in Abkhazia. In Sukhum and Gallsky region Russian military has built modern military settlements for the naval officers and their families. Such substantial efforts can only mean that Russia is settling in Abkhazia for the long term. At least, the latter can rest assured it is protected from outside invasion by the strong ally.
Georgian and Islamic factors became convenient excuses for Russia to suppress elites and activists in Abkhazia and the North Caucasus. Security concerns during preparation for the Olympics have been used by Moscow to formally deploy additional troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Terrorist and separatist threats became Russia’s justification for suppressing civic rights in Krasnodar region (Sochi) and the North Caucasus. Double terrorist attack in Volgograd only intensified the frenzy and pressure on the civil society. Immediately after the attacks in Volgograd, Vladimir Putin signed the law banning public gatherings. Also, on December 30th the President signed a law restricting information dissemination. According to the new law, websites can be blocked without legal proceedings if found in violation of the new rules, aka calling to participate in unlawful public gatherings. This law complemented a host of other recent laws on prohibiting homosexual propaganda, on extremism (the addendum to the main law now presupposes collective responsibility of family members for terrorists’ activities), etc. These policies are set out to have a long-term impact and are in line with Russia’s overall strategy of curbing rights and freedoms inside Russia and achieving its imperial ambitions.
Putin introduced his own plan to reconstruct former Russian borders inclusive of the CIS in the wake of such European initiatives as the Eastern Partnership which envisions closer ties and cooperation with the former Soviet republics. Russia’s Eurasian Initiative apparently included occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia and exerting pressure on Kiev and Erevan. Thus, Moscow twisted Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s arm to join the Custom Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan by threatening to renew military activities in the area of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russia went further to threaten Kiev with economic isolation were Ukraine to sign a cooperative agreement with the European Union. This brought the country to a de facto schism. At the same time, Russia used its puppet mass media outlets to feed the information about the possible military support of the protest in Ukraine by Western powers.
It is evident that fighting terrorism and addressing internal conflicts are being portrayed as main themes in Putin’s Russia to justify occupation of new territories and suppression of any opposition in these territories. Thus, under the banner of fighting extremism Moscow as good as created apartheid in the North Caucasus by equating all people in the region with international insurgency, restricting their freedom of movement and placing all the blame for the violence in the region on the population. The new law on extremism states that the relatives of the alleged terrorists are financially and socially responsible for the crimes of the accused. At the same time, the government ramped up the pressure on NGOs and mass media in order to minimize public oversight over government and law enforcement officials.
Mainstream Abkhazian, South Ossetia and Russian media is hard at work creating the image of a vile enemy represented by European countries and the United States that operate through civil society in Georgia and the North Caucasus to undermine stability in the region. This new framework paints America, its European allies, regional and local NGOs as well as Islamic extremists as partners waging uneven cunning war against Russia. At the same time, democratic values are being completely discredited. Such a framework is being introduced through Moscow-loyal media sources in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the North Caucasus and is unfortunately gaining ground and creating certain stereotypes. In this context Eurasian Initiative is being presented as the only solution, the so-called Noah’s Ark, and Russia is exerting substantial effort to bring it to life.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the pressures around the Olympics are being built up by various stakeholders including Russia itself as well as its opponents. However, despite different agendas, in reality Moscow is the only party benefiting from the complicated web of unraveling events and policies. It has already won one solid gambit by securing its military presence in the South Caucasus and with it the right to set the terms.