Beginning of April NATO summit in Bucharest will decide about another round of the organisation’s enlargement. While it is widely expected that some small countries in the Balkans (like Albania and Croatia) will be given NATO membership, the big question is whether Ukraine and Georgia are going to get Membership Accession Plan (MAP). MAP normally sets out definite time and actions framework for a country to be given NATO membership.
In the particular case of Ukraine and Georgia Russia is fiercely opposed to the anticipated move. My suspicion is that Russians not so much fear NATO (that is what they state), as they grudge the fact that their former satellites are slipping out of their control. Even Vladimir Putin (as well as George W. Bush) is going to visit the summit. My guess is that Putin really thinks that he owns such a special kind of personality that he is able to scare off the West from giving MAP to Ukraine and Georgia by being present at the sammit and emanating fierce looks and speeches. My another guess is that the West is tempted to teach Putin a lesson, even though it does not really need either Ukraine or Georgia for military and security purposes much.
In the meanwhile Wednesday 19 March president Bush promised to support Georgian bid for NATO membership at the meeting with president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili. Immediately afterwards 21 March Russian state’s Duma issued a statement calling on the Russian government to consider recognition of Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary in the Department of State, has warned that such a move would lead to grave consequencies.
Some people (like Mr Fried above) paid a lot of attention to the Russian parliament’s statement. But one has to bear in mind, that Russian parliament is not a separate branch of power, moreover, it is currently not branch of power at all. It is just governmental body that carries out tasks set for it by president’s administration. Their message was very basic and clear this time, “if Georgia gets MAP, we will recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” However, as Russians have threatened to recognise these regions in response to Kosovo’s recognition by the West, but then did not, credibility of their threats have significantly diminished.
I have little doubt that even after Georgia gets MAP, Russians will not recognise Georgian breakaway regions, but will just continue trying to keep the uncertain situation there as long as possible.Only serious pressure from the West could make Russia go, but obviously the issue at stake for the West is still too small in order to apply much pressure (its significance might grow though over the next year or two). On the other hand Russians will be pushed to do something decisive by both internal hawks and western advancement, and their very undecidedness will contribute to the damage to their reputation.
Why Russians are so reluctant to do something decisive about these regions is also fairly clear. Until Abkhazia and South Ossetia are in an uncertain status, Russians can meddle in Georgian affairs and through Georgia actually try to influence the West as well (as it tried to use this factor in trade offs in the Balkans). As soon as Russians recognise these territories, they are going to lose this leverage, while receiving very little in return (South Ossetia and Abkhazia are rather poor territories with few resources) and as a supplement Russia will be viewed by the West and CIS countries as an aggressor. This will contribute to the country’s isolation almost inevitably. If Russians just leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is going to be understood as a sign of weakness inside Russia and in the Caucasus and will also have negative repercussions for the country. (I have written about this in more detail earlier: http://eng.kavkaz.memo.ru/analyticstext/enganalytics/id/1207071.html )
So this dilemma is a rather tough one for Russia’s leadership, especially as currently Russia has such aspirations for global leadership and so called quest for greatness. On the other hand, Russia’s quest for greatness should not necessarily be everybody’s concern. Help to keep up stability in the region comes from an unexpected side. China is creeping into Georgia as well, this might further curb scope of Russia’s possible actions in the region. In any case Georgia and its breakaway regions are almost certain to become sources of important news in the next 1-2 years and probably beyond.