Friday, July 24, 2015

Russia’s Border Marking in Georgia Is Part of Broader Strategy

By George Tsereteli

Over the past two weeks the issue of Georgia’s so-called “border” with the Russian-occupied breakaway region of South Ossetia has again garnered attention. As reported by multiple sources and eyewitnesses, on July 10, Russian troops placed border markers even further into Georgian territory, again violating the country’s sovereignty (Civil Georgia, July 11). Reactions to this provocation have varied both nationally and internationally, but one thing is clear: these activities are a part of a broader Russian strategy of destabilizing Georgia from within.

The fact that the border markers have been moved is not a new development. Since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, there have been frequent reports of similar activities, though they have not always caught the attention of the media. A section of the Baku-Supsa pipeline falling under the Russian-occupied territory is likewise not a novel development; since the 2008 war, it was approximated that about a 1.4-kilometer section of the pipeline fell under occupied territory, while the outcome of the recent border marking has resulted in around 1.6 kilometers of the pipeline becoming inaccessible to Tbilisi. For now, Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze has stated that the pipeline has not had any disruptions and continues to operate as usual. If any problems were to arise, according to Kaladze, there is an alternative plan that could be put in place immediately, which would bypass that section of the pipeline (Civil Georgia, July 12).

Yet another cause of outrage, understandably, has been that the “border” is now within eyesight of Georgia’s highly important East-West highway, which currently passes less than a kilometer from the Russian checkpoints. This, indeed, has truly daunting implications (see EDM, July 20). But even before the most recent border-marking activities, if Russian troops had wanted to cut off the highway, they could have done it with about as much ease as they can now. According to eyewitness accounts including this author’s, the administrative “border” could have been seen with the naked eye from the East-West highway even before the most recent changes; the de facto boundary is now about half a kilometer closer to the highway than it was before (The Fifth Column, July 22).

The negative strategic, economic and psychological impact of the recent events on Georgia are undeniable. According to some estimates, as much as 53 hectares (130 acres) of Georgian territory has been newly swallowed up in recent weeks, with devastating effects on those living in the area (Pirveli Arkhi/1TV, July 21). However, perhaps even more significant in a long-term context is the internal strife that has come about as a result. In the week that followed the Russian actions, a group of Georgian activists and journalists from Tbilisi tore down a border sign and staged a small protest near the new administrative border, which led to minor clashes with Georgian police and the subsequent banning of access to non-locals to nearby towns in the name of security (Regional Dialogue, July 21).

While on a July 21 visit to Tbilisi and the administrative border region, European Council President Donald Tusk reaffirmed the European Union’s commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity and praised Tbilisi’s “responsible” reaction to the recent “provocations.” However, many Georgians have disapproved of their government’s lackluster response (Interpressnews, July 21). Just three days before Tusk’s visit, this disapproval was demonstrated as thousands of protesters gathered in downtown Tbilisi. The protest was mostly aimed against Russia’s actions, but those present were also highly critical of the Georgian government, claiming that the government’s reactions were inadequate and “cowardly” (Civil Georgia, July 18). These reactions, indeed, have consisted of little more than countless hollow-sounding statements.

Clearly, the recent border-marking activities of Russian occupying troops have led to frustration and internal divisiveness in Georgia. This is no accident on the part of the large belligerent northern neighbor. One need not look further than contemporary Russian military theory to see that the latest actions are a part of Moscow’s broader war-making strategy. According to the concept of sixth generation warfare, war does not stop, it occurs continuously in the form of preparation for war with varying intensity and centers of gravity (V. A. Vinogradov, “Trends in the Conduct of Operations in a Major War,” Military Thought, 2013 via Baltic Defence College Journal on Baltic Security, 2015, p. 62). More specifically, in his book General Theory of War, Russian Major General Alexander Vladimirov describes the evolution from the formerly clear distinction between peace and war, to the new, permanent war, where the boundary between peace and war becomes a hazy transitional state of fear and insecurity. He goes on to explain three aspects of the new eternal war: A shift from war about territory to a war of an existential nature; a transition from war to destroy and annihilate to the exertion of political, economic and cultural influence; and the transition from a war of direct military engagements to a contactless war (Alexander Vladimirov, “General Theory of War,” 2013 via Baltic Defence College Journal on Baltic Security, 2015, p. 66). These features can all be seen through Russia’s actions in Georgia prior to the outbreak of the 2008 war and ever since, as well as in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The strategy, according to Vladimirov, becomes the use of indirect action with the goals to create organized chaos, direct influence over an opponent, and eventually, internal collapse.

The Georgian public’s deep frustration with Russian actions and with the inability of the Georgian government and international community to prevent the loss of more Georgian territories is certainly understandable. However, protestors, members of the media, and opposition party members have a vital responsibility to voice their displeasure in a productive way, and not to engage in destructive behavior that will cause internal divisiveness and disunity. The government, in turn, is overdue in reviewing its strategy for how it approaches the issue. It would be beneficial for the authorities, together with opposition parties, to work energetically to form a comprehensive and cohesive plan on how to avoid any further territorial losses. Above all, Georgians will have to keep in mind that the Russian strategy is to destabilize their country from the inside out, and this must be avoided at all costs.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Russia Bets on China: Picking the Wrong Horse in the Short Term and Long

By Paul Goble

Russians are waking up to the fact that Vladimir Putin’s much-ballyhooed “turn” to China is not bringing Russia the benefits he promised or that they expected. Not only has Beijing refused to tow Moscow’s line on a variety of international issues at the United Nations and elsewhere, but Chinese direct investment in the Russian economy fell by 25 percent over the last year, a reflection of problems in the Chinese economy as well as in the Russian one (Kommersant, July 21).

Some Russian analysts are dismissing these trends as short-term issues and argue that Russia will ultimately benefit both politically and economically from its rapprochement with China. But other Moscow analysts suggest that China’s economic prospects are not nearly as rosy as many in Russia assume and that that country’s rapidly aging population faces a period of ever-slower growth. This negative trend will affect Beijing’s ability to invest in other countries, including the Russian Federation. And their conclusions suggest that Moscow under Vladimir Putin has picked the wrong horse on which to try to ride into the future.

In a detailed two-part, 40-page study published in Moscow’s “Demoscope Weekly,” Yevgeny Andreyev, a senior scholar at the Institute of Demography of Russia’s Higher School of Economics, says that “the economy of China depends on demography.” His report points out, in particular, that Beijing’s “one child” policy” is leading to a rapid aging of the population and that the expenses of dealing with an ever older population will suppress that country’s economic growth in the decades to come (Demoscope.ru, April 6–19, April 20–May 3; summarized at Opec.ru, July 13).

Indeed, Andreyev says, despite China’s lack of natural resources, this East Asian giant has vaulted to the status of the world’s second-largest economy (after the United States). But by the beginning of the 2030s, China may find its growth slowing significantly because of the burdens imposed on its workforce by an aging population and the demands for higher wages by its increasingly educated workforce. The combination of those two trends undercuts the low-wage, high workforce participation that have been the source of China’s growth in recent times.

Over the next 15 years, the aging of the Chinese population means that the number of pensioners that those working must support will approach the levels prevalent in Western Europe and the United States. And at the same time, the costs of supporting the elderly will continue to rise with advances in medicine. As a result, the Moscow scholar concludes, China will lose the demographic advantages it has enjoyed for decades—and its economic advantages will be at risk as well.


Beyond any doubt, Andreyev continues, Beijing will have to devote more attention to and spend more money on this demographic shift. But related to it are two other demographic problems with a likely negative economic impact: China’s one-child policy has not only reduced the rate of population growth but created a serious gender imbalance, and it has undermined the traditional relationship between children and their parents. The first of these means that Beijing will be under pressure to find wives for these extra men; and the second means that the state has to assume burdens that families had assumed earlier.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Estonians of Kabardino-Balkaria Maintain Close Ties With Tallinn

By Paul Goble

Given Vladimir Putin’s aggressive rhetoric about the Baltic countries, Moscow and Tallinn do not maintain warm relations. Despite that, Estonia has close and growing ties with the 70 Estonians of Kabardino-Balkaria, a community that descends from ethnic Estonians who came to the North Caucasus in pre-Soviet times and that has maintained its language and ethnic identity.

Indeed, an increasing number of the members of that community are taking Estonian citizenship, either to be able to more easily visit the graves of their ancestors in their homeland or to travel abroad—Estonia, as a member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has visa-free travel with more than 130 countries, far more than the Russian Federation does. They are sending their children to camps and universities in Estonia. And they maintain a cultural center where many work to both recover or improve their Estonian and display their cultural heritage to other nations.

Such small diaspora communities exist in many parts of Russia, although the Estonian ones in the North Caucasus are among the most active. They seldom attract much attention—the only exception to the media silence about the Estonians in that region was in the early 1990s, when 170 Estonians were evacuated from Abkhazia during the fighting there. That makes any report on them especially valuable, particularly if it is as detailed as the article by Yuliya Bernikovskaya in the current issue of “Sovershenno-Sekretno” (Sovsekretno.ru, July 9).

The Russian journalist attributes the vitality of this small community to five things: 1) the importance of the Estonian language for Estonians, 2) the programs Estonia has put in place for its compatriots abroad, 3) the efforts of the Estonian embassy in Moscow, 4) the tolerance, even support, of officials in Kabardino-Balkaria who have not opposed all these activities as their counterparts in other republics and regions of the Russian Federation might have done, and 5) the passionate commitment of a single Estonian woman:

·         Compared to other nations, Estonians ascribe particular importance to their language, and they work to maintain it even when, as in the North Caucasus, there are no schools or other government institutions that support it. Former Estonian President Lennart Meri used to refer to his national language as “a secret code,” which had allowed Estonians to survive.

·         The Estonian Republic has responded to this ethnic imperative with programs that offer summer language camps and free tuition to Estonians from Russia and other countries. It pays many travel expenses. And since the 1990s, it has offered dual citizenship to Estonians in Russia so that they can travel more freely to Estonia and the wider world.

·         These efforts have been promoted by officers of the Estonian embassy in Moscow who regularly travel to Kabardino-Balkaria to make sure Estonians, citizens and non-citizens alike, know about these programs and can take advantage of them.

·         Because the community is small, all this activity has been tolerated, even welcomed, by the Kabardino-Balkaria leadership as well as other peoples who view efforts by a small nation to maintain itself as something they can only benefit from.

·         But none of these factors might have mattered had it not been for the remarkable efforts of one ethnic Estonian woman, Bernikovskaya suggests. Maret Romani, on her own, used newspaper advertisements to convince Estonians living there to declare themselves, create a cultural center, and link up with Estonia.

As a result, a group that might have been expected to assimilate is now a proud diaspora community—although given its size, Tallinn’s welcoming attitude and opportunities, and Moscow’s hostility, ever more of its members may choose not only to take Estonian citizenship but to move back to their homeland.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Will Threat of Islamic State Push Georgia Closer to Russia?


By Paul Goble

As it has done in Central Asia, Moscow is urging Georgia and other countries in the South Caucasus to return to closer cooperation with Russia in order to counter the threat from the Islamic State (IS). And some defense officials in Tbilisi seem receptive to the idea that, as one Georgian journalist put it, “Georgia must deepen its cooperation with the Russian Federation as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran, both of which have no small experience in opposing terrorist groups” (Kavpolit.com, July 1).

If Moscow succeeds in using the Islamic State threat to restore some of its dominance over these countries, it will indicate, at a minimum, that the Russian authorities are cleverly making use of IS attacks in the Middle East and Europe while assuring everyone that no such attacks are imminent in Russia. And it may indicate that the Russian security services are playing a role in structuring IS operations, at least with regard to the post-Soviet space (see EDM, June 30). But regardless of which of these interpretations is correct, it points to the ugly possibility that the Kremlin plans to use the threat of terrorism to achieve its goals across the post-Soviet space just as Vladimir Putin has done within the Russian Federation itself.

According to Vasily Papava, who identifies himself as “an independent Georgian journalist,” Tbilisi has become more worried about the IS threat to its national security since leaders of the Islamic State declared that they had founded a new administrative unit in the North Caucasus and leaders of Islamic fighters in that region declared their loyalty to it. Major General Vakhtang Kapanadze, the chief of the Georgian General Staff, and Tina Khidasheli, the country’s defense minister, both said that IS was now a threat that Tbilisi would work to counter. At the same time, however, Khidasheli said that Russia should be more focused on this threat in the North Caucasus than in assuming it has a right to intervene in neighboring countries on whatever pretext (Kavpolit.com, July 1).

But Georgians have been worried about this for more than a year, Papava says, noting that the statement by Matthew Bryza, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, that “if no one stops ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—former name for IS], it in the end will launch a strike through Georgia,” had attracted a great deal of attention.

Now things are coming to a head, the journalist says, and Tbilisi is considering what it must do and what resources it can bring to bear. Obviously, many in the Georgian capital would like to rely on their own resources or those from the West; but increasingly, he suggests, they recognize that neither of these is going to be sufficient. As a result, he projects, “in the near future, there will arise among the Georgian leadership the necessity of revising its former stereotypes in thinking on issues of its foreign policy preferences.”

Papava argues that “while preserving partnership relations with Western countries, Georgia should deepen its cooperation with those regional states that have a great deal of experience in opposing terrorist groups. In the first instance, these are the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Given that Georgia has virtually no security ties with Tehran, that means, he implies, the only choice is to turn to Russia (Kavpolit.com, July 1)—something Moscow would very much like.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lezgin Areas in Southern Dagestan Seem on a Path Toward Radicalization

By Valery Dzutsev

Until recently, the Lezgin-populated areas of Dagestan—the most violent republic of the North Caucasus—were relatively quiet. However, the situation has recently reached greater volatility. For the past month, a special operation has been ongoing in previously calm Kurakhsky and Suleiman-Stalsky districts of southern Dagestan. In May, a large concentration of heavy military equipment and servicemen (estimated at 1,500) in Kurakhsky district was reported. The population of the affected area is about 60,000. The counter-terrorism operation regime was introduced there and the Suleiman-Stalsky district—both Lezgin-populated areas—immediately after the killing of a forester in southern Dagestan on May 17 (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 18). During the course of the counter-terrorism regime, several suspected rebels have reportedly been killed and a number of hidden workshops for manufacturing of explosives have been found (Onkavkaz.com, June 15).

Lezgins are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the most ethnically diverse region of Russia, Dagestan. The majority of Lezgins reside in southern areas of the republic, in and around the city of Derbent. Northern Azerbaijan is adjacent to Lezgin areas in Dagestan and this Azerbaijani territory is another traditional place of residence for Lezgins. So, if the population of Lezgins in Dagestan were to radicalize, this could have a spillover effect in neighboring Azerbaijan.

To many Lezgins, the counter-terrorism operation in the Lezgin heartland came as a shock. People in the area are now debating “what kind of Islam do we, Lezgins, need?” It appears that similarly to the situation in the Northwest Caucasus, Lezgin activists are now divided into nationalists and supporters of radical Islam. Some Lezgins, for example say, “We should support those religious activists who preach Islam native to Lezgin soil, not the one that is indifferent or even hostile to it.” But some Lezgin Salafis respond: “Why do you only bring up your customs when the conversation is about religion?” The Salafis say that Islam only contests ethnic customs that are incompatible with the religion, and so the Muslim faith does not undermine the ethnic identity of the Lezgins, as such (Onkavkaz.com, June 15).

In the absence of robust political mechanisms for resolving inevitable social conflicts, the land of the Lezgins, called informally Lezgistan, is likely to continue on a path toward radicalization. Along with Islamists, Lezgin nationalists are likely to become more active. But unlike the radicalization present in other areas of Dagestan, southern Dagestan’s growing extremism may have regional implications because of its proximity to Azerbaijan, the Lezgins’ cross-border ties, as well as the substantial population of ethnic Azerbaijanis in the area.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

ECHR Rules on Claims by Armenian and Azerbaijani Refugees

By Erik Davtyan

On June 16, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) adopted two resolutions based on a pair of claims that were separately put forward by Azerbaijani and Armenian refugees. The claim against Armenia was raised by Elkhan Chiragov and five other Azerbaijani Kurds, who lived in the former district of Lachin in the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. According to the applicants, “on 17 May 1992 they were forced to flee from the district to Baku. They have since been unable to return to their homes and properties because of Armenian occupation” (Case of Chiragov and others v. Armenia, June 16, 2015). Analyzing the material and facts related to the case, the ECHR decided that “from the early days of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia has had a significant and decisive influence over the ‘NKR’ [the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic], that the two entities are highly integrated in virtually all important matters and that this situation persists to this day.” The Court concluded that taking into account the military, political, financial and other support, “Armenia exercises effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories, including the district of Lachin.”

Simultaneously, a similar claim was raised by Minas Sargsyan, an Armenian national, on August 11, 2006 (Case of Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan, June 16, 2015). According to the applicant, “the denial of his right to return to the village of Gulistan and to have access to his property there or to be compensated for its loss and the denial of access to his home and to the graves of his relatives in Gulistan amounted to continuing violations of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 and of Article 8 of the [European] Convention [on Human Rights].” Moreover, Sargsyan mentioned that Articles 13 and 14 were also violated by the Azerbaijani Republic. The European Court satisfied the main claims and recognized that Azerbaijan has violated the 1st (property protection), 8th (right of respect for private and family life) and 13th (right for compensation) articles of the 1950 Convention (Armenpress.am, June 17).

Generally, the issue of refugees and internally displaced persons plays an important role in the Karabakh peace process. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan resulted in 400,000 ethnic-Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan (Unhcr.org, 2008). As to Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP), the UNHCR counts nearly 600,000 (Unhcr.org, 2009). In other words, the total number of refugees and IDPs reaches around one million. Therefore, this issue is of great importance both for Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In fact, from a legal perspective, the ECHR’s recent decisions are important for the peace process, especially in the context of legal qualifications. The case of “Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan” may serve as a successful precedent for Armenian refugees and IDPs to demand compensation from Baku in the same way. As to the case of “Chiragov and others v. Armenia,” it contained more positive clauses for Azerbaijan. Though the Court stated that Armenia implements effective control over Karabakh, it also ruled that Armenia is responsible for the occupation of the aforesaid territories, which was highly welcomed in Baku. According to the official statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, “the ECHR decision has put an end to Armenia’s denial of its own responsibility for illegal occupation and military presence on the territories of Azerbaijan” (Regnum.ru, June 21). Currently, Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities interact mainly under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship. But these kinds of legal rulings may contribute to the clarification and complete or partial solution of key components of the Karabakh conflict.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Alleged IS Recruiter Arrested in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge

By George Tsereteli

On June 14, the counter-terrorism unit of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs conducted special operations in the Pankisi Gorge, leading to the arrest of Aiuf Borchashvili as well as several other men. According to investigators, Borchashvili, a resident and imam of the village of Jokolo, is a representative of the Islamic State (IS) in Georgia and had been recruiting local youths to join the group’s fight in Syria and Iraq (Police.ge, June 15). Simultaneously, three individuals ages 18, 21 and 23 were arrested in Tbilisi, two of whom were detained at Tbilisi International Airport, allegedly en route to Turkey to join IS troops, on a trip that was organized by Borchashvili.  The latter is further implicated in using religious literature and social media to recruit two young males from Pankisi in early April and arranging for their trips to join IS in Syria (Police.ge, June 15).

While Borchashvili and the three young men arrested in Tbilisi remain in custody and have been ordered  to pretrial detention, the other men who were detained during the operation in Pankisi have since been released: among them, the alleged cousin of one of Islamic State’s top commanders Tarkhan Batirashvili, better known as Umar al-Shishani (EurasiaNet, June 16; Civil Georgia, June 18).  As for Borchashvili, he has been formally charged with being involved with recruitment for a terrorist organization as well as with joining a terrorist organization of a foreign country or providing support to it in terrorist activities. His defense lawyer has stated that the “allegations are absolutely groundless” (Civil Georgia, June 15, 18).  

The Islamic State’s influence in the North Caucasus has undeniably risen in the region over the past several months, and more and more individuals from southwestern Russia have either succeeded, or at least attempted, to join the ranks of the organization. These individuals range from preachers, to those who feel persecuted, to those desperate to ally themselves with the popular militant Salafist group (see EDM, May 28; EDM, June 4; EDM, June 5).  It is therefore neither surprising that counter-terrorism operations have greatly increased across the North Caucasus, nor that there are over 300 people working to fight against IS recruiters in Moscow alone (see EDM, June 12).  According to the State Department’s recently released “Country Reports on Terrorism 2014,” because of Georgia’s geographical location, “violent Islamist extremists continue[d] to transit through the country between the Russian Federation’s North Caucasus and Syria and Iraq.” Further, due to Tbilisi’s lack of control over the Russian-occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as a tense relationship with Moscow, Georgia has only a limited capacity to secure its northern border (State.gov, June).

The events of the last few days have amplified the increasing presence and influence of the Islamic State not only in the North Caucasus but also within the borders of Georgia.  According to varying and sometimes contradictory estimates, anywhere between 50 and 100 Georgian nationals from the Muslim-majority regions of the Pankisi Gorge and Adjara have been fighting in Syria and Iraq for either IS or al-Qaeda (State.gov, June). An incident in early April allegedly involving Borchashvili caused outrage in Pankisi, as one of the recruits was an underage 16 year old boy. Residents subsequently began voicing concerns about the local presence of a group whose members were actively recruiting Pankisi’s youth to join militants fighting abroad, and that the government had not effectively put in place any counter-measures (RFE/RL, April 21). Although details regarding the exact activities of Borchashvili and his collaborators are as of yet unknown, if the allegations prove to be true, the June 14 special operations will have been a major step forward for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Regardless, it has become abundantly clear that Georgia has no choice but to ramp up its counter-terrorism efforts and to do all it can to prevent the recruitment of young individuals by IS from within its borders.