May 31, 1999


by George Hewitt, Professor of Caucasian Languages (University of London)
Since at least the time of US President Woodrow Wilson, there has been much debate on how (or indeed whether) to accommodate the concept of self-determination in international relations. The First World War brought about the collapse of a number of empires, and the days of imperial expansion seemed to be over. However, the Soviet Union arose out of the ashes of the Russian Empire, and the eventual rise of fascism and its attendant expansionist tendencies led to the conflagration of World War II, from which the USSR emerged in control of the three Baltic States and with most of eastern and central Europe firmly in its sphere of influence.

The League of Nations had failed to prevent the conflict of 1939-45, and it was hoped that the replacement-body, the United Nations, which was founded in the late 1940s, would be a better guarantor of world-peace. America and the Soviet Union quickly achieved the status of the world's two super-powers, thanks to their ever-increasing nuclear arsenals, and during the four decades of their rivalry a plethora of proxy-conflicts (such as the wars in Korea and Vietnam) sprang up around the world; a direct legacy of this period is the ongoing strife in such countries as Angola and Afghanistan.

Western leaders often spoke of the values of freedom and democracy and were ever ready to supply those who claimed to be withstanding the forces of communism with at least one commodity (weapons), though another offspring of the Second World War, namely NATO, took no action itself when Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956 or into Czechoslovakia in 1968, just as the world remained inactive when that other communist giant China annexed Tibet in the 1950s. The sudden Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the USSR in 1991 (with a knock-on effect in Yugoslavia) faced the world-community with a dilemma: how best to react to a fragmentation of that part of the 'world-order' that had been established from the Balkans to the Sino-Soviet border at the end of the Second World War?

It seems to have been quite arbitrarily decided that as few new states as possible should be permitted to come into existence. In order to impose such a limit, it was the 15 constituent union-republics of the USSR and those of Yugoslavia which were to be entitled to independent status and the panoply of advantages that accompanies this (e.g. membership of the UN, aid from major donors, etc...). The principle of territorial integrity of states was then to be re-asserted, so that any further dismemberment was to be internationally recognised only if it occurred harmoniously with the agreement of both parties -- thus did the Velvet Revolution see the splitting of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This approach is fine, as long as there is a fair unanimity amongst the relevant populations that being allotted citizenship within new state- (as opposed to administrative) frontiers meets their true desires. The lesson of the last decade has, sadly, been that the underlying assumption behind the response of the international community to the momentous events at the close of the 1980s was and remains grievously flawed.

Clearly, it is in nobody's interest artificially to foster discontent within part of a state (possibly inhabited by a compactly settled ethnic minority) that might lead to civil disorder and perhaps even to secessionist demands. On the other hand, to ignore legitimate concerns of peoples who, through some accident of history, may find themselves locked inside what is effectively a homeland-turned-prison is a recipe for disaster, as we have witnessed. Germany's eagerness to recognise Croatia more or less compelled Bosnia to declare independence before adequate arrangements could be made to preserve the delicate balance between local Serbs, Croats and the Muslim Slavs. The horrors of the subsequent (and all too predictable) slaughter occupied the attentions of the world's media for much of the early 1990s and perplexed the politicians whose unhelpful meddling had contributed to the trouble in the first place. More recently Serbian atrocities against, and forced expulsion of, their Albanian minority (but actual local majority) in the province of Kosova led the West in the guise of NATO to take (albeit inappropriate) military action against the Serbian leadership. Although most informed observers would find it inconceivable that Albanians could ever again in the foreseeable future live alongside their Serbian neighbours, who either took a hand in committing atrocities themselves or perhaps supported those who did, the international community has reiterated ITS determination that the Kosovan Albanians must remain bound to the Republic of Serbia rather than be allowed to establish an independent Kosova or unite with Albania. It is probably because the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, is an unreformed communist with nothing to offer the West that his actions in Kosova have earned him such condemnation, though, as just stated, even for Kosova no separation from Serbia has been officially mooted, even if 'de facto' it already exists. And because of the mælstrom of headaches that the Balkans have thrown up, little or no attention has been paid by heads of Western governments to the even more intricate problems (in terms of the ethnic mix involved) that exploded in the Caucasus as the Kremlin's grip started to slacken.

The list of actual (not to mention potential) disputes in Europe's highest mountain range is bad enough: Karabagh Armenians vs Azerbaijanis; Lezgians now divided between Russian Daghestan and independent Azerbaijan; North Ossetians vs Ingush (over the ownership of the Prigorodnyj Raion); Cherkess vs Karachays over who controls their artificially imposed joint-territory of Karachay-Cherkessia; South Ossetians vs Georgians; Abkhazians vs Georgians; Chechens vs Russians. Tens of thousands of lives have been (needlessly) lost and well over one million people displaced by these (mostly still festering) conflicts. Wary of being dragged into unwanted involvement in Russia's 'backyard', the West largely continues to turn a blind eye and deaf ear.

A further motive for non-engagement in countries about which the decision-makers knew nothing was that they nevertheless did have some reason to care, but only about the local leaderships NOT the peoples themselves. No Western state, despite in some cases a significant Armenian lobby amongst the diaspora, was going to support Nagorno-Karabagh's bid to right Stalin's assignment of it to Azerbaijan in the early 1920s because Haidar Aliev, one-time member of Brezhnev's unmourned Politburo, controlled the (supposedly) lucrative oil-contracts that were in prospect for post-Soviet Caspian oil. The Chechens had been branded a nation of bandits more or less as soon as the Russians came into contact with them in their drive south (which necessitated taking control of all the proud and freedom-loving mountaineers across the North Caucasus), and an early recommendation had been that the only good Chechen was a dead one.

Georgians too have traditionally had no great love for their Chechen neighbours, and a Georgian it was in the shape of Stalin who packed the whole nation (along with others within and outside the North Caucasus) off to Central Asian exile in the 1940s, just as his Tsarist predecessors in the 19th century had been responsible for the bulk of the Abkhazians, Circassians and all of the Ubykhs finding themselves exiled to Ottoman lands, where their descendants still live in sometimes significant diaspora-communities. Boris Yeltsin returned to the global smear of a criminal nation to justify his 1994-96 genocidal assaults on the Chechens, just as his present Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hurls the same charge in defence of the current inhuman bombardment of this wretched nation. But did not Yeltsin mount a tank in Moscow to proclaim his democratic credentials during the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachëv in August 1991? Sadly, words are easily uttered, but actions regularly fail to live up to uttered sentiments. And some might justifiably argue that mounting the tank was Yeltsin's one and only praiseworthy act, given everything that has happened since and is happening now not only in Chechenia but in the investigations into possible Kremlin connections with corruption. It, therefore, comes as no surprise (though this is not lessen the shame of the statement) that it was that tank-incident that provided the then British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, with his excuse during a BBC radio-interview for continuing to give Yeltsin the benefit of the doubt as Russian planes were blowing innocent civilians to smithereens in Grozny at the height of the first Chechen campaign. In the case of Georgia, the legally elected first post-Soviet president but increasingly unbalanced and paranoid Zviad Gamsakhurdia was illegally ousted in a bloody coup in January 1992. The coup-leaders soon invited back to Georgia the most famous Georgian of his day, Eduard Shevardnadze, to head the still illegitimate Military (afterwards State) Council. Though elections were not due until the autumn, a most regrettable precedent was set when the international community recognised Georgia in April and granted it membership of the UN in July.

Shevardnadze promptly celebrated these privileges with his invasion of Abkhazia on 14 August -- whilst Russia can boast that certain leading figures were prepared to speak out against military action in Chechenia, not one individual of note chose to speak out against Georgia's resorting to arms against the Abkhazian minority. But had not Shevardnadze (metaphorically at least) torn down the Berlin Wall in his capacity as Soviet Foreign Minister? -- well, hardly, though this is what one would imagine from the adulation he has enjoyed ever since, particularly in Germany and America. With such a Western darling to keep happy, the grievances that the Abkhazians long voiced (even during the days of Soviet repression) against Georgian domination, arguing this to be wholly unjustified and to have been foisted on them first by military annexation during the period of independent (Menshevik) Georgia (1918-21) and then by 'fiat' of Stalin (1931), have been entirely ignored. One cannot help but wonder how different might the West's reaction have been to Chechen demands for secession from Russia, had they been vociferously voiced during the Soviet period!

Surely the 'raison d'être' of a modern state is (or should be) to provide a framework to protect the common good and facilitate the maximum realisation of the aspirations of its citizens? Where there is a permanently disaffected minority, especially one which owes its presence inside unwelcome boundaries to past imperial expansion, the viability of that state has to be called into question (at least vis-à-vis the minority in question). Only a die-hard Russian nationalist can argue that Chechenia (indeed the North Caucasus as a whole) is historically 'Russian' soil, and it should not be forgotten that at the end of his life the human rights' activist Andrei Sakharov described Georgia as one of the Soviet Union's 'mini-empires'. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that these problems can be solved without some further readjustment of frontiers or, at the very least, some radical constitutional rearrangements affecting the states concerned, whose 'territorial integrity' (a rather ignoble ideal when set against the lives lost or ruined in fatuous attempts to preserve it) the international community stubbornly persists in ritualistically championing.

But if Western leaders are sincere in their frequent pronouncements about the importance of human rights and at the same time are reluctant to see a proliferation of new states, it behoves them to act appropriately when the government of an already recognised state blatantly infringes the rights of parts of its citizenry. The precedents, of course, do not lead one to be optimistic: Pol Pot's murderous experiments in social engineering in Cambodia (Kampuchea), Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds, Indonesia's bestiality in East Timor both after annexation in the 1970s and more recently in the wake of the referendum on independence, and the UN's (universally acknowledged) shameful withdrawal of its small armed forces in Rwanda as the Hutu genocide of the Tutsis was getting underway (i.e. precisely at the moment when a significant shew of force just might have had a calming effect on mobs mostly armed with knobkerries and machetes).

In the case of the Caucasus, as we have suggested, wrong-headed policies were implemented because they were based not on essential facts but rather on vested interests (the expected Caspian oil bonanza) or cronyism, (misguided confidence in such individual players as Yeltsin and Shevardnadze). It was during Yeltsin's first attempt to crush General Dudaev's drive for an independent Chechenia that the Council of Europe, a body created in the 1950s to buttress human rights across the continent, took the monstrous decision to admit Russia to full membership -- one might also recall how Bill Clinton mind-numbingly drew parallels with the American Civil War, whereas the correct analogy would have been the slaughter by white settlers of the Red Indian native Americans. The argument, as always, in defence of Russia's admittance was that it would be easier to exert pressure on a member-state than on one outside the fold.

And now that the carnage is being pursued with renewed savagery, Russian representatives, with utter predictability, cry 'Foul! This is our internal affair', as soon as the matter is raised in Council meetings. A similar gross error of judgment was committed by the Council in 1998 when it admitted Georgia, the involvement of whose government in terrorist-activities carried out in Abkhazia by 'partisans' is fully obvious to those (like Amnesty International) who have examined the situation on the ground -- official Georgian forces were universally acknowledged to have participated in the large-scale incursion that was designed to wrest the southernmost Gal District from Abkhazian control in May 1998. This decision, thus, merely compounds the precipitate recognition awarded to Georgia in 1992, which could be argued to have led to the war in Abkhazia in the first place, for with these gains already in the bag Shevardnadze had absolutely nothing to lose by this reckless gamble -- in the event, it did not come off, and ever since his international friends have been doing their best to save him from the consequences of his own blunder.

It seems that Moscow 'justifies' its current actions in Chechenia by the need to eradicate terrorism, speciously linking the recent spate of explosions in Moscow that have claimed some 300 lives with Chechen terrorists. In fact, not the slightest proof has been adduced that Chechens were involved in these outrages. But, even if a link can be established, does this actually justify a state-launched terror-campaign of indiscriminately bombing ordinary villages, Grozny's central market or the regional maternity-hospital? Since the IMF can be argued to have essentially funded the 1994-96 war, what is needed now is Russia's immediate expulsion from the Council of Europe and the suspension of any further tranches of international aid. Anything less brings shame on all those who fail to act (and by extension all of us Europe whose representatives behave in this craven way), whilst the US administration lays itself open to similar charges by once again avoiding any strong condemnation of Russian actions because of the amount of personal support invested by Clinton and his vice-president, Al Gore, in their Kremlin crony. There is a widespread conviction that backing territorial integrity wherever it is threatened is the best way to underpin stability around the world. The lessons from the Caucasus surely give grounds to question this naive assumption.

An international 'community' worthy of the name must actively engage in pressuring states to behave in a civilised way towards disgruntled minorities wherever and whenever disputes arise and not automatically conclude that the minority is to blame or simply ignore that minority's right to a fair hearing, as has so often happened in the past -- in the case of Abkhazia, whilst the Abkhazians are pretty effectively prevented from travelling abroad to voice their arguments at international fora, even those on the Georgian side who openly advocate further resort to violence are free to travel the world to purvey such views, which in normal countries would land them in jail for incitement to racial hatred. If pressure does not lead to a resolution of the problem within the confines of established state-boundaries, then there simply has to be a greater willingness to act in favour of an oppressed and endangered minority's rights to self-determination. Drawing lines on maps to ensure that a people find themselves a permanent minority and then to shout that the democratic principle must prevail is never going to provide a solution as long as the in-built majority treat the minority with contempt (remember Northern Ireland). As we move into the new millennium, is it not time to put preservation of human life above the need to protect publishers from having to go to the awful trouble of redrawing state-frontiers on already published maps? If an ethical foreign policy means anything, it has to be predicated on the fundamental value of the inalienable right of a people to live in conditions where their language and culture can be guaranteed survival, and that may in many cases only come with independence.