Friday, January 17, 2014

Is Moscow Equating Kabardino-Balkaria and Abkhazia?

By Paul Goble

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state is creating problems for Moscow in the North Caucasus. On the one hand, Abkhazia has not received the international recognition that the Russian government said it hoped for and thus remains in the minds of many a Russian project. And on the other, Moscow often treats Abkhazia like one of its own North Caucasian republics, an approach that may be tactically sound but that has the effect of sparking expectations of greater independence among the latter, something Moscow does not want.

Almost a year ago, Izvestiya reported that Moscow was planning to create a defensive perimeter for the Sochi Games along the borders of Abkhazia and Kabardino-Balkaria, in effect, as a close observer in the region put it last week, placing the two behind the same border and thus treating them the same—at least for this purpose—and effectively equating their status (;

Given how careful Russian officials are about discussions of dividing lines—in Soviet times, the annual publication of guides to the administrative-territorial division of the country was one of the most politically sensitive of all government public documents—many will read Moscow’s decision to group Kabardino-Balkaria and Abkhazia together as significant. At the very least, this decision may indicate that some in Moscow are thinking about status changes in the future.

At the same time, however, mistakes or at least apparent mistakes in this realm do happen. Two of them are particularly noteworthy in this regard. In 2005, a Russian military mapping agency published an atlas showing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) “rose of the four winds” as part of the official shield of Kaliningrad, the non-contiguous exclave of the Russian Federation between Poland and Lithuania. Book dealers said at the time that the edition of 10,000 had immediately sold out and that copies had become “bibliographic rarities” (

A second and more intriguing “mistake” came in March 1990. At that time, Soviet generals told Philip Peterson, then a distinguished Pentagon researcher, that their defense planning maps for the year 2000 did not include the three Baltic countries as part of the USSR. They were certainly prescient: within two years, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had recovered their independence and in 12 years, the three had joined NATO.

But the way in which that Soviet judgment surfaced raised questions as to whether the generals’ comments were really a mistake. On March 12, 1990, The Washington Times reported on its front page the dramatic celebrations in Vilnius after elections there had allowed a newly formed parliament to declare the recovery of Lithuanian independence. The very same day, that paper carried on an inside page an article about the judgments of the Soviet generals as reported by Philip Peterson.

That conjunction had real consequences: it led some in Washington to fear that overt Western support for Lithuania at that time might be seen in Moscow as a tilt against the Soviet Union. One needs to ask: Is Moscow again sending a signal—and if so, to whom?

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