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Echoes of 1930s in Russia’s sweeping annexation

Mart Laar
Tuesday, April 22

Vladimir Putin, the outgoing Russian president, on Wednesday accelerated Moscow’s creeping annexation of Georgian territories to sweeping annexation.

This is a victory for hardliners who pressed Mr Putin to give the order before he moves from the Kremlin to the Russian White House as prime minister. It comes as Georgian proposals for peaceful settlements in the territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, languish. The West must shake off its torpor, condemn Mr Putin’s gambit and support the Georgian proposals. Ignoring Moscow’s Soviet-style land-grab would intensify strife in the south Caucasus.

According to Mr Putin’s “instruction,” Russia will open “representations” in the two territories to protect the interests of Russian citizens there and to foster co-operation. Russia will claim that it has many citizens to protect in the two Georgian territories, after it illegally distributed its passports to anyone remaining after the civil wars and ethnic cleansing of the 1990s.

“Those who cannot learn from history,” said George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, “are doomed to repeat it.” In 1937, Hitler agitated for the rights of the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia; in 1938, he annexed Sudetenland into the Reich, purging it of non-Germans. In Abkhazia, most Georgians, Armenians, Estonians, Greeks and Russians—perhaps 500 000 in all—are already gone. Russia recognises Georgia’s international boundaries, but its actions belie its words.

Russia’s “representations” will be less than official consulates, although consular services will be offered from offices in neighbouring bits of Russia. “Representation” is a euphemism to soothe Western fears that Moscow may recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in tit-for-tat retaliation for Western recognition of Kosovo. However, in Moscow’s insidious gambit, the “representations” will be among the final steps toward annexation of the two Georgian territories.

The instruction allows Russian ministries and even Russian regions to open “representations” in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is a stratagem to install in two Georgian territories government apparatus typical of autonomous republics of the Russian Federation. Just as legal acts, corporate entities and documents of one autonomous republic are recognised throughout the Russian Federation, so too will be legal decisions, companies and papers of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This will incorporate the two territories into the Russian legal space.

Consider Moscow’s widening gait in the context of over a decade of creeping annexation. Russia maintains a near-total embargo on Georgia—no road, rail or sea links; no commerce, bank transactions or mail.

In March, Russia withdrew from the 1996 Commonwealth of Independent States restrictions on Abkhazia, including those that barred transfer of military equipment and assistance. Russia also opened to Abkhazian contractors lucrative contracts associated with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The net effect is to include Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Russian economic space while maintaining formidable barriers against trade with the rest of Georgia.

The threat of force is never deeply submerged. Last November, Georgia reported that additional T-72 tanks, Grad multiple launch rocket systems, armoured personnel carriers, howitzers and about 200 new Russian troops had appeared in Abkhazia.

The authorities in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali are Russian subsidiaries. Moscow is taking big steps during the lull afforded by America’s presidential transition and by the hope of many European leaders for improved relations with Dmitry Medvedev, incoming Russian president.

Meanwhile, the West appears deaf and dumb to Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s offer on March 28 of unprecedented autonomy for Abkhazia in Georgia. Georgia’s proposal of a new negotiating format for South Ossetia fares no better. Western political autism is irresponsible. The West must awake and unite, not to oppose Russia or support Georgia, but to stand up for its ideals. It must send Mr Medvedev a strong signal that the path to better relations lies only in repudiating the Putin instruction and engaging on the Georgian peace proposals.

“The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small state to the wolves is a fatal delusion,” said Winston Churchill just before Munich—we should have learnt the lesson 70 years ago.

The writer is former Estonian prime minister and an adviser to the government of Georgia.

This editorial was first published in the Financial Times on April 18.