September 7, 2012

Thomas de Waal [2]

[GeorgiaRussia.jpg] Frontier post on the Russian-Georgian border.The
Caucasus has been burning this week.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are nearer to renewed conflict. In 2004, Ramil
Safarov, an Azerbaijani Army lieutenant, murdered an Armenian officer
during a NATO-sponsored course in Hungary. This week, returning to Baku
a convicted killer, Safarov was nonetheless pardoned and afforded a
hero's welcome, provoking an inevitable storm of fury in Armenia and
an outpouring of international concern.

Meanwhile, there has been the worst upsurge of violence on the
Georgian-Russian border since 2008, this time between Georgian
security forces and a band of North Caucasian fighters. The fighting
took place on Georgia's eastern border with the Russian republic of
Dagestan. Three Georgian servicemen and eleven of the fighters were
reported killed on August 28-29 in an operation that the government
in Tbilisi said was carried out to secure the freedom of a group of
villagers taken hostage.

The news dominated the Georgian media for three days, eclipsing
coverage of the October 1 parliamentary election.

At the same time, Dagestan itself was facing an even bigger crisis,
following the assassination of Said Efendi Chirkeisky, one of its
most respected Sufi clerics, by a female suicide bomber. Up to one
hundred thousand people (in a population of two million in Dagestan)
were reported to have turned out to attend the funeral of Said Efendi,
who was trying to mediate between different Islamic factions in
his republic.

The Georgian episode is dangerous for another reason, because of its
obvious potential to be politicized and turned into a new pretext
for Georgian-Russian confrontation.

So far that has been avoided. The main reaction in Moscow was a lack
of reaction, basically a silent admission that the Georgian forces
probably had indeed fought off a band of North Caucasian insurgents.

That was something for which they should feel grateful, but the words
"Thank you, Georgia," could never pass their lips.

In Georgia, much of the media has been abuzz with conspiracy
theories. Some commentators have speculated that this was a deliberate
attempt by the Russian authorities to provoke a crisis in Georgia. That
seems highly fanciful. The problem the Russian authorities have in
Dagestan is that they have too little control of the region, not too
much. It is unlikely that they would have been able to manipulate
the movement of a group of militants high in the mountains.

It has since come to light that several of the fighters who died
spoke Georgian and came from the Pankisi Gorge region, which has
close historical links to Chechnya. So it is also possible that the
Islamist group was trying to get into Dagestan, not out of there.

Most likely, this was a very local episode with local causes, a group
of fighters crossing a mountainous border for reasons very specific
to themselves. Dagestan is one of the world's most complex multiethnic
regions, home to at least fourteen main national groups.

Over the last decade and a half, it has turned into a smaller version
of Lebanon in the 1980s, the location of several overlapping conflicts:
jihadi, interethnic, sectarian, and over power and money.

The Russian website Caucasian Knot, which closely monitors the North
Caucasus, reported that 185 people had been killed and 168 wounded
in political and religious violence in the first half of this year.

Objectively speaking, Russia and Georgia, the latter of which borders
six out of the seven North Caucasian republics, have a strong interest
in working together to contain trouble in this turbulent region.

In former times, they were collaborators. Historically, Christian
Georgians were willing partners in the Russian imperial project to
subdue the Muslim tribes of the North Caucasus. One of the most
infamous episodes of the Caucasian wars came in 1854, when the
Dagestani Islamic leader Imam Shamil sent a small army to gallop into
the Georgian province of Kakheti (where this week's incident took
place) and abducted the family of the prince and imperial military
commander David Chavchavadze.

More recently, of course, Russians and Georgians have signally failed
to work together. Russia has accused the Georgians of at best failing
to deal with the North Caucasian insurgency or at worst of aiding
it-this was the source of two years of mutual recriminations about
who was residing in the Pankisi Gorge region in 2000-2001. In 2004,
anti-Georgian sentiment apparently trumped common sense, when the
Russians vetoed the continuation of the OSCE monitoring mission that
had been keeping watch over Georgia's border with Chechnya.

Georgian policy toward the North Caucasus could be described
as schizophrenic. On the one hand, there is a recognition that the
region to the north is a source of instability and needs to be handled
responsibly. On the other hand, there is a temptation to use it to
poke the Russians in the eye and remind them how vulnerable they are
(surely never a good tactic with Russia).

So the government in Tbilisi unveiled a perfectly sensible policy to
grant visa-free travel for North Caucasians to Georgia, thus giving
them an outlet from their claustrophobic region. But the Georgians
spoiled it by springing the policy as a surprise-provoking predictable
anger in Moscow. And last year, the Georgian parliament recognized
the mass deportations of Circassians from the Russian empire in the
mid-nineteenth century. Despite the genuine historical claims of the
Circassians, it was a highly politicized and not very clever jab at
Russia over a very sensitive issue.

The North Caucasus remains trapped within its seemingly endless cycle
of violence and repression. It would be nice to think that the tragic
events in Georgia last week could be a pretext for Tbilisi and Moscow
to consider working together on its problems-especially as it remains
likely that bloody episodes like the one this week in eastern Georgia
will recur. But that is almost certainly too much to hope for.

Thomas de Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace.

Image: Magomed Aliev/RIA Novosti archive [3]