13 March Russian State’s Duma (lower house of the Russian parliament) came up with the range of recommendations for the Russian government in connection with the status of unrecognized territories Abkhazia, South Ossetia (both breakaway regions of Georgia) and Transdnestria (breakaway region of Moldova). Recommendations include retention of the existing negotiation formats with Russia being the mediator (that have not led anywhere in the past 15 years or so in all three regions). More importantly it was recommended to simplify passing the border between Russia and these territories to the maximum possible extent, open Russian savings bank branches in these territories, lift custom taxes for the goods produced in these territorie.
Even though reportedly a few members of the Russian parliament were saying that Russia has to recognise these territories in response to Kosovo’s recognition by the western countries, finally they decided not to. For those who do not know what current Russian State’s Duma is, I must say that it is anything but separate branch of power. In reality it does what it is told to do by the presidential administration. So essentially these recommendations (that are yet to be implemented or waived by the government) is another way of indecisive flexing of muscles to appease allies and to scare off the West.
There has recently been what seems to be a breakthrough in Transdnestrian dialogue, it appeared that Moscow would be willing to let Moldova to unify with its breakaway region in return for guarantees that unified Moldova is not going to join NATO any time soon. I must note here that in Transdnestrian case Russia has the capacity to do that almost instantaneously, because Russians absolutely artificially sparked the conflict there.
Russia has the same concern for Georgia, trying to prevent it from joining NATO by holding the strings in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, its breakaway territories. Obviously Russia would not like see Abkhazia and South Ossetia to become either completely independent or be incorporated into Georgia, because then Russians would lose the leverage in Georgia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia rely on Russian help, while Georgia is positioned as the western ally in the region. So the region has the potential of becoming a region where Russians and the West would be at loggerheads once again (they already are of course, but still in an unutterable mode). It may become especially relevant if Georgia (along with Ukraine) get NATO map of accession at NATO summit in Bukharest in April. I imagine, as Putin is travelling there supposedly in order to scare off NATO enlargement by his presence (the guy really thinks, he owns special skills needed to deal with the Russian adversaries, it’s an interesting phenomenon, that requires a separate talk, how authoritarian rulers finally fall victim to their own propaganda and start beleiving in it) – there may be a desire on the West’s side to “punish the bastard”.
However, it is not clear whether the West really need countries like Ukraine and Georgia in NATO. I mean, whether it is a rational choice for some serious purposes or just a symbolic grin for Russia. It is also unclear whether the West can afford now to engage in a confrontation with Russia over things like these.
On the other hand, it is clear that Russia currently prefers adversarial relations with the West, using NATO enlargement objections as a pretext for actually showing off its neighbors (Ukraine, Georgia, etc.) it has the capacity to influence their progress toward certain goals. So the issue at stake might eventually be that if Russia succeeds in convincing both NATO and these countries to back off, it will think of some kind of reincarnation of the Soviet Union, perhaps not in the form as it was, but in the form of acquiring Russian own circle of client states. It would be nightmare for everybody (including Russian people themselves) to see reincarnation of the USSR under auspices of authoritarian Russia. So the West has little choice but to advance into the post-soviet territory maybe not NATO-wise or maybe exactly in this way.
In this particular case with Georgian breakaway regions, it is clear the situation is deadlocked for foreseeable future with constant threat of large scale violence eruption (that fits Russians best). I think, it would be a good idea to pave way for a high profile international conference on the contentious issues in the region that would aim to redefine negotiations’ format. In the current negotiations’ format (that is practically not-working) there is Georgian side, South Ossetian or Abkhaz side and supposedly impartial mediator Russia, Russian peacekeepers are also engaged in peacekeeping operations in both areas. Obviously an attempt should be made to make the format more multilateral, i.e. to balance Russia in these negotiations. However, if the format becomes multilateral it will not necessarily solve the problem, unless Russian peacekeepers are replaced with other peacekeeper mission. To me all this looks next to impossible in current circumstances because the issue is obviously not on the top of the agenda of the West’s (and Russia is happy to see the situation to drag on as it is almost indefinetely). Still, the unstable situation in the region will have to be dealt with in a decisive, rationale and peaceful manner and my feeling is that it will be rather soon, than later.