Thomas de Waal is a writer and analyst on the Caucasus, Russia and the Black Sea region and a Senior Associate with the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He is the author of “The Caucasus: An Introduction” published by Oxford University Press in August 2010. From 2002-8 he worked as Caucasus Editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. In the 1990s he was a journalist in Moscow for the Moscow Times, The Times of London, and the Economist, specializing in Russian politics and events in Chechnya. Tom is co-author with Carlotta Gall of Chechnya, A Small Victorious War, (Pan, 1997 and NYU Press, 1998) and sole author of the widely respected book on the Karabakh conflict, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War (NYU Press, 2003), which has been translated into Russian, Armenian and Azeri.
Caucasus Times.: In your recent review on the much-talked-of- book by Ronald Asmus you disagreed not only with the basic Author’s conclusions. You sequentially criticized the Bush administration approaches to Georgia and the Caucasus as whole. Aren’t you afraid to be blamed for alleged pro-Russian views?
T. W. In my review I was certainly critical of the Georgian government and the previous U.S administration, but nor did I support the Russian government either. It is my view that this was a conflict that could have been avoided and no one comes out of it looking well. The Bush administration has to face facts that it failed to prevent a war that many people were predicting. I have a fuller version of the August war in my forthcoming book, The Caucasus: An Introduction.
Caucasus Times.: Has the West made other mistakes in the Caucasus after the hot August of 2008? If yes, what ones do you consider as the most important?
T.W.: The last two years since the end of the war have been a time of “picking up the pieces” and there is not much that Western leaders can do to repair the damage that has already been done. My main criticism is that Western leaders are still using what I call “easy rhetoric” about the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Clearly, these two territories have moved even further away from Georgia and just reaffirming support for Georgian territorial integrity does not advance a solution of the problems. Much harder work and more creative thinking is needed if these problems are going to be solved rather than there just being a perpetual “agreement to disagree” about them.
Caucasus Times.: Now let’s turn to Russia. What Russia’s steps in your opinion played a provocative role 2 years ago?
T.W.: Throughout 2008, the Russian government was stirring up trouble and building up a military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That is not to say that they were planning the full-scale incursion into Georgia that they actually carried out in August, but they were certainly provoking the government in Tbilisi. It is my view that the Russian government was preparing some kind of operation of its own later in the summer of 2008, perhaps to depose pro-Georgian Ossetian leader Dmitry Sanakoyev but was able to do much more after the Georgian attack. As I wrote in my review of Ronald Asmus’ book, “Presented with a golden opportunity to take revenge on a foreign leader he loathed, Putin could extend his ambitions.”
Caucasus Times.: Russia’s leaders are frequently blamed for unilateralism in the process of Abkhaz and S.Ossetian independence? But let’s imagine on possible scenarios. What Russian decision on Abkhazia and South Ossetia could be the best scenario for the West?
T.W.: At the moment we are in what I call an “Alice in Wonderland” situation where one side calls something black and the other side calls it white. But the picture is actually rather grey. A more objective analysis leads me to make two rather contradictory statements. On the one hand, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are never going to become part of independent Georgia, as they were part of Soviet Georgia. On the other hand it is almost impossible to imagine them joining the United Nations as independent states. In terms of population South Ossetia is about twenty times smaller than North Ossetia, a small little known autonomous region of the Russian Federation. Abkhazia has more attributes of statehood but it suffers from a basic problem of legitimacy: more than 40 per cent of its ethnic Georgian population who lived there up until 1993 (with the partial exception of the residents of Gali) are denied basic rights. All that leads me to believe that a much more creative solution is needed and we should be looking for example at the model of Andorra, which has two heads of state in France and Spain but is nominally independent.
Caucasus Times.: Idea on the differences between Abkhazia and South Ossetia runs all through your texts and presentations. Could you define the basic ones?
T.W.: I have already mentioned the first difference which is that South Ossetia is much smaller. I don’t believe that South Ossetians ever thought of declaring independence or expected that four countries would recognize their independence. In the years up to 2004, many opportunities were missed to offer South Ossetia a deal that would give it elements of sovereignty inside Georgia. Up until that year it was completely part of the Georgian economic space and Georgians and Ossetians lived and traded together freely. There are still many Georgian-Ossetian mixed marriages. South Ossetia is also of little or no strategic importance to Russia in itself-only as a weapon to be used against Georgia. All this leads me to say that, although at the moment it seems much more hostile to Tbilisi, South Ossetia will eventually do a deal with Georgia.
Abkhazia has travelled much further away from Georgia and there is far less recent memory of co-existence. The Abkhaz and the Armenians and Russians of Abkhaz are much closer to the North Caucasus. Abkhazia has functioning institutions, including a parliament, independent newspapers and a lively political culture. And of course, Abkhazia with its Black Sea coastline is a much dearer place to the Russian elite. For these reasons I can see the two territories having very different futures.
Caucasus Times.: Now “the Georgian question” is marginalized inside both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Do you agree that in a mid-term prospective “the Russian question” will replace it and become the crucial point for both entities?
T.W.: Yes, I agree. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia has faded into the background. Now, if residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have economic or political problems they will not blame Tbilisi but their own governments and the patrons of their own governments in Russia. They are becoming part of the North Caucasus, with all the negative associations that that transition entails.