Russian irredentism after the Georgian Blitzkrieg.
Ramifications of this Russian revanchism caught many in the West by surprise. But one has to understand that Moscow is not simply falling back into its 'unpredictable' and 'traditionally aggressive' international behaviour, let alone the 'imperial ambitions': there are essential reasons for Russia's revanchism. This is just the beginning of Russia's inevitable drive to regather its historic parts severed during the 1991 collapse and sudden disintegration of the USSR. I have predicted and explained the inevitability of this irredentist process three years ago in my study 'The Historic Significance of Putin's Revanchism' published in Contemporary Review (Summer 2006).
Instead of reiterating my assessment of the 'Russian Question' in this essay for lack of space, allow me to quote then-President Putin, who famously professed in 2005: 'First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory'. This is a quintessential explanation of the contemporary Russian stance. I can only add to his assertion that it was not the last word of history, as the reader can deduce for himself from the facts expounded below.
Blitzkrieg in Georgia and Contingencies for the Caucasus
The Kremlin has a concept of a Greater Caucasus (comprising Russia's North Caucasus and the three independent republics of South Caucasus) as an interconnected region. Historically, the Russian Empire established its dominion over Transcaucasia in order to pacify the restless tribes of North Caucasus. Russia's ability to control Transcaucasia has always been perceived as a key element for maintaining stability in its restive Caucasian provinces on both sides of the Caucasus Range. The establishment of NATO's foothold in Georgia could spark a domino effect across the Caucasus with particularly grave consequences for Russia's volatile North Caucasus autonomies. The two Chechen wars of 1994-1996 and 1999-2000 gave us a perfect example (see Contemporary Review. April-June 2005).
The Ossetians are an Iranic-speaking people whose ethnogenesis lies in the steppes of the Don River [Alania] to the north of the Caucasus. In the thirteenth century they were driven by the Mongolo-Tartar invaders out of their original homeland into the Caucasus mountains and settled in the territories known today as North Ossetia-Alania (part of Russia) and South Ossetia (part of Georgia) on both sides of the Greater Caucasus Range. Georgians (as well as the Abkhaz) are an autochthonous Caucasian nation and have always lived beyond these mountains in the valleys between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus ranges.
Ossetians and Georgians have a long and complex history of coexistence interspersed with violence. During the Russian Civil War after the 1917 October Revolution hostilities continued from 1918- 1920 between the Georgians and Ossetians, along with other Caucasian conflicts. With the creation of the USSR in 1922, the South Ossetian Autonomous Region [Oblast] was formed inside the Georgian SSR. while Northern Ossetia remained within the Russian Federation (RSFSR) as an autonomous republic (ASSR). Most Ossetians believe that the decision to split Ossetia and leave its southern part within Georgia was due to the dual origin of Stalin himself, who was born in Gori (a Georgian town just outside South Ossetia) to an Ossetian father and a Georgian mother.
In 1990, as the USSR was crumbling and the long-time Soviet dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia was emerging as Georgia's first independent leader, he promulgated a nationalist platform, dubbed 'Georgia for the Georgians', to the debasement of Ossetians (and other minorities, such as Azeris and Armenians) as newcomers to Georgia, and urged them to leave Georgia and return to their homelands. Unsurprisingly, soon a military conflict broke out in January 1991, when Georgian militants entered South Ossetia, killing more than 2000 people. The warfare ended with the 1992 cease-fire, when South Ossetia broke away from Georgia and Russian peacekeepers were stationed there.
The conflict remained frozen until 2003, when Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in Tbilisi in the wake of the Rose Revolution which ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili's government strengthened the failing state institutions, including the Georgian military. Restoring South Ossetia and Abkhazia (which also broke away in 1992) to Georgian control has been Saakashvili's supreme goal since he came to power. South Ossetia conducted an independence referendum in 2006 and proclaimed a de facto independence from Georgia.
On 8 August 2008 (when world attention was riveted on the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympics), after a massive and indiscriminate artillery and missile barrage that lasted all night, Georgia launched a ground and air attack on South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali. Russia responded by sending troops into South Ossetia and bombing targets further inside Georgia proper. One day later Russian and Abkhazian forces opened a second front by attacking the Kodori Gorge, held by the Georgians in Abkhazia, and intruding into western parts of Georgia's interior. Russia instituted a naval blockade of Georgia's Black Sea coast. Almost all Georgian vessels were scuttled by Russian warships at their Poti naval base. After five days of heavy fighting, Georgian forces were ejected from South Ossetia and Russian troops invaded Georgia proper, occupying the cities of Poti and Gori among others.
Following mediation by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, a ceasefire agreement was signed by Georgia and Russia on 15 August in Tbilisi and on 16 August in Moscow. By the terms of the agreement, Russia pulled out most of its troops from Georgia proper by 1 October and European Union monitors were deployed in the conflict zone. Russian troops remain in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including the areas that were under Georgian control before the war. The sixth and final point of the cease-fire agreement called for internationally mediated talks between Georgia and Russia on security guarantees for the two republics. The talks, however, broke down at their opening session in Geneva on 15 October as Georgian officials were categorically against inviting the two breakaway republics to participate.
The Russian government has long highlighted the similarities between Kosovo and South Ossetia. When Kosovo declared independence on 17 February 2008, Putin argued that this would embolden South Ossetia, as well as other separatist regions in the post-Soviet area, such as Abkhazia, Pridnestrovie and Nagorno-Karabakh. Since August parallels have also been drawn between Russia's military actions in Georgia and NATO's bombing campaign in Serbia during the Kosovo conflict of 1998-1999.
The analogy of South Ossetia to Kosovo is especially convincing if we take into account the adjoining republics of Albania and Alania (North Ossetia), where their ethnic kin enjoy a national statehood, and consider them as divided nations striving for reunification. If NATO's military action against Serbia for the separation of Kosovo was good, why then was Russia's military action against Georgia for the separation of South Ossetia bad? And why, in the case of Kosovo, has the West recognized its independence but, in the case of South Ossetia, its independence is not considered legitimate?
Therefore, the new Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev signed decrees on 26 August recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The statement based his arguments on the referenda and appeals by regional assemblies to Moscow to recognize the state sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia's State Duma voted in support of those appeals. So far, only Nicaragua, led by its Marxist president Daniel Ortega, has recognized their independence, despite the diplomatic effort by Russia to persuade its allies to grant them recognition.
Medvedev's decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states is unlikely to constitute the final word on the status of either. South Ossetia, in particular, has virtually no chance of surviving as a viable statelet without joining its northern kin, the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, which is a subject of the Russian Federation. In contrast, the Abkhazian Republic has an economic potential for developing both agriculture and tourism, and has a sizable Diaspora in Turkey that could provide the needed investment in addition to the already established Russian tourism industry. The Russian constitution provides for admitting new territorial entities with the mutual consent of both parties. Moreover, most of the population in both republics already hold Russian passports.
South Ossetia is almost certainly likely to be subsumed into the Russian Federation. Its president, Eduard Kokoity, has proclaimed that 'the primary aim of South Ossetia is unification with North Ossetia within the composition of Russia. We have never made any secret of this'. After meeting with Medvedev on 11 September in the Russian resort of Sochi on the Black Sea, Kokoity told reporters: 'Yes. we will be part of the Russian Federation. We will do so according to all the norms of international law. Now we are an independent state and we look forward to uniting with North Ossetia and joining the Russian Federation". The North Ossetian president Teimuraz Mamsurov, too, has described reunification of the Ossetian nation within a single territorial entity as righting an historic injustice.
Incorporating Abkhazia would pose a greater problem for Moscow as its president, Sergey Bagapsh, has staked his reputation on independence for Abkhazia and began to issue its own Abkhaz passports. While much attention has been paid to the South Ossetian front, less notice was taken of the actions in and around Abkhazia, which seized the opportunity and opened a second front against Georgia, retaking the Kodori Gorge--the last part of Abkhazia still held by the Georgian military since the expulsion of the Georgian authorities during the ethnic conflict of 1992-1993. With Russian support. Abkhaz forces dislodged the Georgian detachments from the Kodori Gorge by 12 August 2008. Following the Kodori operation, Abkhaz authorities announced a unilateral decision to extend the boundaries of Abkhazia to the Inguri River, which they claim is their traditional and natural border with Georgia. This demarcation encompasses even a portion of Georgia's Zugdidi district, as well as the Inguri hydroelectric power plant.
On 17 September 2008 Medvedev signed treaties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia that committed Moscow to defend these breakaway regions from any Georgian assault. The treaties also formalized their economic cooperation: both republics already receive substantial economic support from the Russian government and the Russian ruble is their local currency. Consequently, Russia announced a plan to station 7600 troops in the two regions (3800 men in each republic), more than twice the number based there before the Ossetian war, when Russia had a peacekeeping force of 1000 servicemen in South Ossetia and a contingent of 2500 in Abkhazia. They were operating under a peacekeeping mandate dating back to the 1990s.
The Georgian war and the recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence raised fears among former Soviet republics that Russia might also intervene in other separatist conflicts, particularly in Pridnestrovie [Transdniester], wedged between Moldova and Ukraine along the banks of the Dnestr River, and Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan. Medvedev himself has been quick to draw parallels with the frozen conflicts simmering in the post-Soviet space at the meeting with his Moldovan counterpart, Vladimir Voronin, on 25 August 2008 in Sochi, in a tacit warning against any attempt by Moldova to retake Pridnestrovie by force. 'This is a serious warning, a warning to all', he added, 'and I believe we should handle other existing conflicts in this context'.
Pridnestrovie has the oldest record of separatism among the post-Soviet entities: it broke away from the Moldovan SSR in 1990, even before the break-up of the USSR, and gained a de facto independence in the short armed conflict of 1992, when Russia sent peacekeepers there to protect Pridnestrovie against the Moldovan assaults. The South Ossetian conflict sparked fears in Moldova that Moscow could now move to recognize the independence of Pridnestrovie whose Russian population has long been pushing for integration with Russia. Most of Moldova's major industries are concentrated in this region.
Despite his conciliatory tone in Sochi, Voronin is still reluctant to accept a Russian-brokered deal that would grant Pridnestrovie broad autonomy--a move that could hurt the popularity of his Communist Party ahead of the 2009 parliamentary elections. He rejected a similar deal in 2003 under strong pressure from NATO. The eastward expansion of NATO has given this province a new strategic importance, since it borders Ukraine which, like Georgia, has angered Moscow by seeking NATO membership. Medvedev's decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia has raised hopes of independence in Pridnestrovie and radicalized the stance of its separatist leadership which announced it was breaking off all contacts with Moldovan officials until they denounced 'Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia'.
In these circumstances. Medvedev met Pridnestrovie's separatist leader, Igor Smirnov on 3 September 2008 in Sochi. Mr Smirnov, whose region depends on political and economic support from Russia, said after the talk that he was ready for a compromise. (His remarks contrasted with the statements by Ossetian and Abkhaz leaders who vowed to accept nothing less than full independence and refused to discuss any other options with Georgia). Under the compromise drafted by Medvedev, Pridnestrovie would re-integrate into the Moldovan Republic but enjoy broad autonomy and a Russian guarantee that it could leave the agreement should Moldovans decide to merge with their ethnic kin in the EU member Romania as both countries are populated by the same nation.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which is home to Armenians but lies within the titular boundaries of the former Azerbaijan SSR, differs from other post-Soviet conflicts. Unlike South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Pridnestrovie, the citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh do not hold Russian passports and do not seek a Russian patronage. Rather, their goal is reintegration with Armenia. Officials in both Baku and Erevan have been notably muted on Russia's actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Azerbaijan is eager to regain control over the disputed territory and has steadily built up its military, thanks to the windfall of petrodollars, in an implicit threat to retake the region by force. But Azeri officials have avoided any harsh statements on the Russian intervention in Georgia, wary of annoying Moscow.
Armenia, which maintains far stronger ties with Russia, has been slow to take sides in the Russia-Georgia conflict. Russia helped Armenian forces in the Karabakh war of 1988--1993 and has a military base in Armenia. Due to the joint Azeri-Turkish economic blockade, this landlocked country relies heavily on neighbouring Georgia, through which the bulk of its imports, including Russian oil and gas, transits. Siding with Russia and setting a collision course with Georgia could also prove disastrous for the half-million ethnic Armenians presently living in Georgia. (Half a million Azeris live in Georgia too.)
Medvedev's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is nonetheless bound to affect the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh since Russia, together with the USA and France, co-chairs the so-called Minsk Group, a body created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to foster a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Nevertheless, a quick resolution of this conflict is not on the cards in the present state of affairs.
The Struggle for Crimea
Except for territorial adjacency, Crimea has nothing in common with the Ukraine proper and has never been Ukrainian in its history before. The Crimean Peninsula was originally colonized by ancient Greeks who named it Taurida [the Latin Tauria]. After the Mongolo-Tartar invasion of the thirteenth century, the peninsula had been inhabited by the Crimean Tartars, who gave it the present name [Kyrym in Turkish, or Krym in Russian]. In 1478 their Crimean Khanate became an autonomous vassal of the Ottoman Empire. In the course of numerous Russo-Turkish wars Crimea was annexed in 1783 into the Russian Empire and remained there until 1921, when Lenin formed the Crimean ASSR within the RSFSR. In 1944 Stalin deported all the Tartars to Central Asia, for their collaboration with the German occupation of Crimea during the Second World War, and abolished their autonomy.
After the death of Stalin, however, his successor Nikita Khrushchev (an ethnic Ukrainian) ceded Crimea in 1954 from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR, ostensibly in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Russia and Ukraine. At that time, when disintegration of the Soviet Union was unthinkable, the formal detachment of Crimea from Russia was not a matter of concern for its Russian inhabitants. After the dissolution of the USSR though, when the independent Ukraine took with itself Crimea away from Mother Russia, this severance provoked disagreeable predicaments in the life of its Russian population.
The local Russians formed a political party named the Russian Bloc, whose leader, Vladimir Tunin, asserted: 'We categorically say that Crimea should--and I have no doubt shall be--a part of Russia. On this Russian territory the Ukrainian government is committing ethnocide by trying to force people to speak in Ukrainian, imposing Ukrainian schools, showing television programmes only in Ukrainian, and forcing the Russians to assimilate into their culture. But this is Russia! We want nothing to do with the Ukraine. Ukrainian officials oppress our people. They take orders from America. There could be fighting, but I am not worried if that is the way it has to be'.
Crimea has a special significance in Russian hearts as the place where the Russian Empire fought against the coalition of Britain, France and Turkey in the Crimean War of 1853--1856, and where the Red Army fought one of its bloodiest battles in 1941--1942, when German troops besieged the main Soviet navy base of Sevastopol. A magnificent building near the port displays a panoramic exposition of that epic. Local Russians speak proudly about the heroic defence of Sevastopol against the Turkish, British, French and German forces. And after so much blood shed by the Russian soldier for Crimea, they believe it belongs to Russia alone, and that Ukraine 'has stolen' this historic part of Russia.
Sevastopol has been home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet for 225 years. Since the annexation of Crimea in 1783, Sevastopol grew as the headquarters of the Russian Imperial Navy on the Black Sea vis-a-vis the Ottoman Empire. This naval tradition continued during the Soviet era, when Sevastopol headquartered the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, which was also active in the Mediterranean on a permanent basis. The presence of the Russian Navy reinforces the local Russian population's feeling that Crimea is part of Russia. Thousands of Russian sailors and soldiers stroll around the city, and huge Russian flags fly above the naval headquarters and other buildings.
The Mediterranean climate of Crimea, with its magnificent scenery of mountains, cosy coves and beaches, which inspired many Russian artists, made the peninsula a popular vacation destination for millions of Russians and a favoured place of retirement for the Soviet elite. This combination has created there, since 1991, a vitriolic blend of Russian nationalism and Soviet nostalgia among the local population. The level of hatred against anything Ukrainian there is astonishing: people are attacked in the street for merely speaking Ukrainian. Around the turn of the century, the holiday business revived in Crimea with an explosion of hotels, restaurants and other leisure industries. Many of these are owned by Russian businessmen and provide another, purely pragmatic, motive for annexation disguised in nationalist rhetoric.
One million ethnic Russians live in Crimea, along with 500,000 Ukrainians and 300,000 Tartars. This preponderance is reflected in the election of local authorities which are openly more loyal to Moscow than to Kiev. Although the Ukrainian government cracked down on Russian irredentism in the 1990s, Crimea remains autonomous, with a degree of self-government. Russia's intervention in Georgia rekindled the separatist sentiment in Crimea. When the Russian warships that took part in the blockade of Georgia returned to Sevastopol, thousands of Russians greeted them with gun salutes and fireworks, while smaller groups with Ukrainian flags called out that they were aggressors. On 17 September 2008, the local assembly in Crimea's capital Simferopol voted to urge Ukraine's national parliament, Verkhovna Rada, to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
This peninsula is not the only region of Ukraine where ethnic Russians outnumber Ukrainians, but it has long been a source of tension between the two countries. Most of the Crimean Russians and many prominent politicians in Moscow have never reconciled themselves to the notion of an independent Ukraine, let alone a Ukrainian Crimea. Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol is leased from Ukraine until 2017. But the Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko says he will not renew the lease, while Moscow has made it clear that it is determined to stay. Although Russia proceeds with the construction of a new naval base on Russian territory in the port of Novorossiysk, its harbour is less suitable and occupies a less favourable geographic position than Sevastopol: there is simply no better place for a naval base in the entire Black Sea.
Ukraine could be the next country, after Georgia, to feel the military might of a resurgent Russia. The Western-leaning Yushchenko has been strident in his support of Georgia and travelled to Tbilisi during the war to demonstrate publicly his solidarity. After the Russian navy vessels sailed from Sevastopol to attack Georgian ports, yushchenko ordered restrictions on Russian warship movements in Ukrainian territorial waters. The new regulations demand that Russia asks for permission ten days before its vessels enter or leave Sevastopol. That, coupled with Kiev's determination to join NATO and the European Union, has further enraged Moscow.
Yushchenko should not make threats that he cannot fulfill. The Ukrainian Navy, which is also headquartered in Sevastopol with its one serviceable battleship, is tiny and could not stop the Russians. Sailors in Ukrainian uniforms are often insulted and attacked in the city. Russia's Black Sea Fleet includes 50 warships and smaller vessels, the aircraft include 80 planes and helicopters. There are 13,000 of other Russian servicemen stationed in Sevastopol, and effectively Crimea is already occupied. Moscow is clearly looking for an excuse to annex Crimea, and the Ukrainian restrictions on Russian naval operations could well provide the reason.
Russian nationalists in Crimea and Moscow, led by the mayor of Moscow, Yuriy Luzhkov, have frequently called for the Kremlin to acquire the peninsula, and not only by military means, but through economic pressure on the cash-strapped Ukraine. Russia has been relentlessly ratcheting up the natural gas export cost for Ukraine in recent years, sparking a series of bitter pricing disputes between the two governments. Ukraine, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, was paying in 2008 $180 per 1000 cubic metres of gas, which was significantly less than the $450 for European Union members, leaving so much leverage for Moscow to dictate its terms to Kiev in further negotiations. After dramatic talks and cutting the gas supply to Ukraine in January 2009, Russia boosted the price of its gas for Ukraine to $360 per 1000 cubic metres for 2009, which is still 20 per cent less than the going European price. Yet as The Times reported on 20 February, a new gas crisis between Ukraine and Russia looms after a 'catastrophic' increase in payment problems by Ukrainian households.
On 2 October 2008, speaking after the gas price talks with his visiting Ukrainian counterpart, Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, Putin accused Ukraine of selling weapons to Georgia that were used against the Russian troops. Russian officials and media have long claimed that Ukraine armed Georgia in the run-up to the war, implicating personally Yushchenko in supplying Ukrainian air-defence systems and rocket launchers to Georgia. Putin said that Ukraine might also have dispatched military personnel to fight on the Georgian side during the combat. Timoshenko, who is engaged in a power struggle with her former ally Yushchenko, deflected responsibility for the arms sales. She said it was the President, not her own cabinet, that oversaw the deal, and pledged that a parliamentary commission would investigate.
The presence on the peninsula of Crimean Tartars, who are returning from their exile in Central Asia, makes the situation even more volatile. The local authorities in Crimea, dominated by ethnic Russians, are hostile to the returnees, most of whom live in shantytowns without electricity or running water. There have been bloody brawls between the Russians and Tartars, but no widespread violence so far. The danger is that some frustrated Tartars might acquire weapons from radical Muslims. If they attack the Russians, Moscow will have its pretext to annex Crimea by contending that Ukraine was unable to protect the Russian citizens or merely ethnic Russians.
The overwhelming majority of people in Crimea would like to have Russian citizenship. Reports that thousands of Russian passports have already been distributed alarmed Kiev that an Ossetian scenario is in the offing for Crimea. (Ossetians had Russian citizenship prior to the Russian intervention.) Ukrainian law forbids dual nationality and considers all of Crimea's population Ukrainian citizens, but the situation here is slightly different from South Ossetia, which had already been de facto independent before the Russian incursion. Russia has already amended its constitution to give itself the right to intervene on behalf of ethnic Russians wherever they might be harmed in a former Soviet republic. This evokes Hitler's pretext for helping the ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland as justification for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Speaking to a crowd in central Kiev on Independence Day, 24 August 2008, Yushchenko said: 'We must speed up our work to achieve membership in the European security system and raise the defence capabilities of the country. Only these steps will guarantee our security and the integrity of our borders'. Ukraine seems very vulnerable to a possible Russian aggression. It needs to attain membership in an organization that will give it strong international security guarantees. The United Nations and the Council of Europe are just a diplomatic palaver. Ukraine needs to join the European Union and NATO, but the prospect of that still looks distant.
At the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Yushchenko expressed his concern to Western leaders that Russia threatens to use force in settling its territorial disputes with Ukraine. However, on the matter of Ukrainian and Georgian membership, Germany, Italy and France (all of which are completely dependent on continued delivery of Russian oil and gas) were reluctant to give a clear signal that the two countries would be admitted into NATO. That decision emboldened Russia to strike against Georgia in August 2008. At the next NATO Council meeting in Brussels, the USA finally gave in, conceding on 3 December 2008 that NATO membership for both former Soviet republics is to be postponed indefinitely.
To formulate all the circumstances mentioned above, Moscow has three options for its justification of a possible annexation of Crimea:
(1) Enforcement by the Ukrainian authorities of their restrictions on the movements of the Russian Navy around Sevastopol and, ultimately, a military collision ensuing from Kiev's refusal to let the Black Sea Fleet stay in Sevastopol beyond 2017, which Moscow has already rejected;
(2) Coercive Ukrainization or any other instigation against the local Russians, who constitute the already existing Crimean autonomy, may provoke them to declare independence and ask for a Russian military intervention to protect the ethnic Russians or Russian citizens in a Kosovo/Ossetian scenario;
(3) Peaceful acquisition of Crimea in a possible bargain based on forgiving all Ukrainian debts incurred in the past and future Russian energy supplies, especially in the course of the current financial crisis, when Ukraine is on the verge of economic collapse.
Reclaiming the Russian North of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan also has its own separatist issue: the Russian irredentism in its vast northern expanses populated by Russians for 400 years and known to them as the Great Steppe--the immense tract of wilderness that stretches from the Caspian Sea to China along the 7000-kilometre Russia-Kazakhstan frontier. For centuries the Great Steppe was traversed by successive waves of nomads migrating from the East to the West: the Scythians, Sarmatians, the Huns, and the mighty swell of Mongolo-Tartars which left in its trail the Turkic tribes who became later known as the Kazakhs.
Historians believe that the self-appellation of the Russian Cossacks originates from the Turkic word Kazak [a free man], which is exactly how Cossack sounds in Russian, as opposed to Kazakh, referring to a native of Kazakhstan. Therefore, both words have the same root and even the same spelling in both languages [Kazak]. Historically, the Russian word Kazak [Cossack] pertained to a paramilitary Russian colonist settled on the Russian frontier to protect the Empire, while the name Kazakh (to distinguish from the Russian Kazak) applied to the nomads of the Great Steppe beyond the Cossack settlements.
The sparsely populated Great Steppe was seen by Russian settlers as a land of opportunity, to be tamed, colonized, developed and civilized exactly as the settlement of the Great Plains prairie was seen by American squatters in the nineteenth century. A further analogy (which is suppressed in academic literature as politically incorrect) might be drawn between the American Indians and the nomads of the Great Steppe. To stake Kazakhstan's claim to these northern territories, the first Kazakh president Nazarbaev moved in 1998 his country's capital from the southern city of Almaty northward to the Russian city of Akmolinsk in the forbidding steppe of Virgin Lands, and renamed the city Astana (which literally means the Capital in the Kazakh language).
There has always been a substantial Russian population in the steppes of what is now Kazakhstan since the seventeenth century. The first Russian traders and settlers appeared on the northwestern edge of modern Kazakhstan in the early 1600s (simultaneously with the Puritan colonists in North America), when the Ural Cossacks established on the Ural River the forts that later became the cities of Uralsk in the hinterland and Guriev on the Caspian Sea. In the eighteenth century the Russian Empire organized, along the perimeter of its Great Steppe frontier, the Ural, Orenburg and Siberian Cossack Hosts [Voyska in Russian], which gradually established themselves in Northern Kazakhstan.
In 1710- 1720 the Siberian Cossacks founded Ust-Kamenogorsk, Semipalatinsk and Pavlodar as border forts and trading posts with the nomad Kazakh tribes, which were organized in three Hordes [Zhooz in the Kazakh language]: the Junior Horde in the North, the Senior Horde in the South of Kazakhstan and the Middle Horde between them. In 1730 one of the khans of the Junior Horde sought Russian support against the stronger Kalmyks who were passing through the Great Steppe on their move from Mongolia to North Caucasus, and Russia, in exchange for help, gained control of this Horde. Then Russia conquered the Middle Horde by 1798, but the Senior Horde remained independent until the 1820s, when the expanding Kokand Khanate (in the Uzbek oasis region to the south of Kazakh steppes) forced the Senior Horde to choose Russian protection against the Uzbeks, which seemed to them the lesser of two evils.
In 1824, Siberian Cossacks from Omsk founded a fortress on the upper Ishim River named Akmolinsk, which is known today as Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. In the same year they founded the fort of Kokchetav, nowadays a northern Kazakh city. In the 1850s the construction of Russian forts began in southern Kazakhstan, including Verniy, renamed Almaty when it became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1929. In 1869-1879 the Orenburg Cossacks to the west founded the forts of Aktubinsk and Kustanay, which are now Kazakh cities. The only towns that existed on the modern territory of Kazakhstan before the Russian conquest were Hazrat-e Turkestan, Taraz and Chimkent, all of which belonged to the Khanate of Kokand.
In 1863 the Russian Empire created two administrative districts in Central Asia: the General-Governorship of Russian Turkestan, which included southern Kazakhstan, with its capital in Tashkent, and the Steppe Region [Stepnoy Kray] with its capital in Omsk, which included the lands of Siberian and Semirechensk Cossack Hosts in the modern North Kazakhstan. The north-west of Kazakhstan, including the lands of Ural and Orenburg Cossack Hosts, was at the time part of the Orenburg Gubernia. The first governor-general of the Steppe Region, Gerasim Kolpakovsky (and all his successors) was, at the same time, the Ataman [the chief] of the Siberian Cossack Hosts, thus symbolizing the important role the Cossacks played in the Russian colonization of the Great Steppe.
Christianity spread in this predominantly Muslim region together with the Russian settlers: in the 1890s non-Cossack Russian peasants began to migrate into the fertile lands of the Great Steppe. In 1906 the Trans-Aral railway between Orenburg and Tashkent was completed, further facilitating the Russian colonization: between 1906 and 1912 more than half a million Russian farms were started there as part of the agrarian reform by P.A. Stolypin, Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 1906-1911. By 1917 there were a million Russians on the modern territory of Kazakhstan, about 30 per cent of the total population.
The Russians of Kazakhstan suffered severely during the Civil War of 1917--1922. The Basmachi [Assailants in Turkic languages] insurrection of 1918-1926 against Soviet rule in Turkestan affected the areas of southern Kazakhstan in the form of ethnic conflict between the Russian settlers and native Muslims. Thousands of Russians were killed in that insurgency, which was followed by the equally bloody reprisals against the natives by the Red Army. During the Sovietization of the 1920s-1930s the Russians in Kazakhstan were discriminated against by the local authorities who promoted the Kazakh language and culture, and targeted many local Russians by labelling them as either the kulaks [prosperous farmers] or Cossacks (whose Hosts fought against the Red Army during the Russian Civil War).
In 1925 Stalin created a Kazakh autonomy within the RSFSR and, in spite of strong objections from the Russian population, transferred to the newborn Kazakh ASSR the overwhelmingly ethnic Russian provinces [oblast] from the Southern Ural and Siberian Regions of the RSFSR: Petropavlovsk, Kokchetav, Kustanay, Aktubinsk, Uralsk, Guriev, Akmolinsk, Pavlodar, Semipalatinsk and Ust-Kamenogorsk. The local Russians, who opposed these land transfers, were criticized by Bolshevik leaders as 'chauvinists'. On 5 December 1936, under the new Soviet Constitution, the Kazakh ASSR became a constituent union republic, Kazakh SSR, and formally withdrew from the RSFSR with all the Russian lands granted by Stalin in 1925.
Many more Russians arrived in the years 1953-1965, during Khrushchev's campaign to cultivate the Virgin and Fallow Lands in the Great Steppe of Northern Kazakhstan and Southern Siberia. The 1979 census showed that ethnic Russians numbered six million, almost half of the Kazakh SSR population, while Kazakhs made up only 30 per cent. Given the completely Russian character of Northern Kazakhstan, the Soviet government formed there in 1960 the so-called Virgin Region [Tselinniy Kray] which became, in fact, an autonomous Russian formation within the Kazakh SSR, with its capital in Akmolinsk, renamed then Tselinograd (and later Astana).
After the 1964 ouster of Khrushchev by Brezhnev and his associates in Moscow, the new Kazakh leader D. Kunaev, fearing the secession of the Virgin Region, abolished and dispersed that Russian autonomy in 1965 with an approval from Brezhnev (who briefly served before as the party boss of Kazakhstan). Kunaev was later condemned by Gorbachev as a Kazakh nationalist. Breaking with the tradition of ethnic Kazakh dominance in local administration, Gorbachev appointed in 1986 Gennady Kolbin, with no ties to the republic's natives, as the new chief of Kazakh SSR. Following several incidents of ethnic unrest in 1989, Kolbin was replaced by Nursultan Nazarbaev who became in 1991 the first president of independent Kazakhstan.
Although Nazarbaev is widely credited with the peaceful preservation of the delicate ethnic balance in Kazakhstan, many Russians left Kazakhstan in the 1990s due to economic hardships, as well as ethnic discrimination. By 1999 the number of Russians in Kazakhstan dropped to 4.5 million (from 6.2 million in the 1989 census), but now many are coming back, a smaller percentage, but they are returning. The Russians, once a majority in Kazakhstan, now account for a third of the 17 million population. Only the emigration of Russian-speakers since independence has made the titular nation a marginal majority in their own country.
The Russian community in Kazakhstan exists today not only in a narrow ethnic sense but as part of a larger Russian-speaking community which also includes the Russophone Ukrainians, as well as the local (Siberian) Tartars, Volga Germans (exiled there by Stalin during the Second World War), Jews and even a number of Russified Kazakhs in major cities. Given the fact that the natives are still a nation-building people, the Russians and Russophones remain an influential political group, which is active in Kazakhstan's public, military, cultural and economic life. However, notwithstanding the presence of some Russians among Kazakhstan's high-ranking officials, the Kazakhs are routinely preferred in career advancement.
Whereas open ethnic tensions have rarely surfaced so far, Russian nationalists have blamed Nazarbaev for discriminating against the Russian population and thus pushing them to emigrate. Their ideologues argue that Kazakhstan never existed in its present boundaries and that its northern regions are historically an integral part of Russia, being so much Russian-dominated that they merge imperceptibly across the border with Siberia. So far Moscow has made no territorial claims on Kazakhstan since the disintegration of the USSR in 1991. Russian officials only vow to protect the rights of Russians living there. However, despite the official pronouncements, the future of Kazakhstan's Russian population remains a divisive issue between the two countries.
Several measures by the Kazakh authorities against the Cossack leaders added fuel to the dispute. A number of Cossack activists, notably in the cities of Uralsk (northwestern Kazakhstan) and Semipalatinsk (northeastern Kazakhstan), have been sued or detained in recent years on charges of defamation. There are several Cossack revivalist movements on both sides of the border who want Northern Kazakhstan to be returned to Russia as they consider these lands an ancestral possession of their Hosts, according to all historic documents. At every convention of the All-Russian Congress of Cossack Communities since 1992 the delegates of five Hosts situated along the northern frontier of Kazakhstan lodged official demands to transfer their lands to the Russian Federation. These Cossack Communities [Kazachestvo] with territorial claims to Kazakhstan include Uralskoe Kazachestvo, Orenburgskoe Kazachestvo, Sibirskoe Kazachestvo, Semirechenskoe Kazachestvo and Altayskoe Kazachestvo.
In November 1999, Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) detained twenty-two Cossacks, including twelve Russian citizens, in the northeastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk. The KNB searched for the group after reading a report in a newspaper of the neighbouring Russian region, and alleged that the group's leader, Vladimir Kazimirchuk, was planning a terrorist campaign aimed at creating a Russian independent enclave in northeastern Kazakhstan. The group wanted to join the enclave to Russia. On 8 June 2000 a Kazakh court in Ust-Kamenogorsk sentenced thirteen of them to jail; Kazimirchuk received an eighteen-year prison term. The plotters were not sentenced for any concrete action: it was a show trial to send a message to all Russian irredentists.
Officials on both sides tried to play down the incident: Nazarbaev said the affair looked like a criminal incident, not a political plot. He also promised that it was not going to affect relations with Russia. Putin also dismissed the incident as not serious. When the sentence was announced, Russian diplomats in Kazakhstan appealed to Kazakh authorities to deport Russian citizens. The Russian government has only complained that its 'transparent' border with Kazakhstan is virtually open to smugglers, such as the drug dealers from Central Asia and Afghanistan, and bordering Russian regions have dispatched local Cossack militia to guard the border. Russia and Kazakhstan still have not formally agreed on their land border.
In my opinion, an official Russian territorial claim on the North of Kazakhstan is just a matter of the time when Russia feels strong enough to reclaim it, and Nazarbaev knows that. There are several possible scenarios, the most classical of which is predicated on the Kosovo/Ossetia pattern, when the local Russian population holds a plebiscite which affirms the creation of a Russian autonomy in the North of Kazakhstan. Then, if the Kazakh government does not accede, the Russian autonomy declares its independence and asks Moscow to intervene. The final stage of this secession process calls for Moscow's interference in any form leading to reunification with Mother Russia of the Great Steppe populated by Russians for four centuries.
Alec Rasizade holds a PhD in modern history from Moscow State University and works at the Historical Research Center in Washington.
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|Title Annotation:||RUSSIAN IRREDENTISM|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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