For people above a certain age, there is something almost comfortingly familiar about the international politicking over Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its subsequent recognition of the ‘independence’ of the two separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. When US officials began talking about the risk of a new Cold War, it was supposed to be with a hint of menace. Instead, it came across almost as wistful, as harking back to the simpler international politics of a time when the world was neatly divided into two clearly demarcated imperial power blocs, when the enemy was known and its nature understood, largely because it was a mirror image of the West itself.
Since the end of the real Cold War, the world has – for US officials and policy makers – become much more complicated. Instead of a rival imperial power bloc whose motives and strategies could be analysed, anticipated and pre-empted, the West found itself confronted by a rising tide of resistance from below, from the poor, dispossessed masses of the Muslim world, determined to liberate themselves, their lands and their resources from imperial overlordship and exploitation. The post-colonial neo-imperialists found themselves confronted by neo-liberation movements inspired by Islam instead of the nationalism that had inspired the creation of the post-colonial nation states which were integral parts of the West’s neo-imperial system. Inspired largely be the successful Revolution in Iran, and based on local Islamic groups that had been discounted before the Revolution, Islamic movements emerged to challenge the Western-installed socio-political order in countries like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, the Arabian peninsula and countless other places. It has been the US’s increasingly desperate attempts to find ways to counter these resistance movements that have led it into ever deeper embroilment in the Muslim world, culminating in the current fiascos ofIraq and Afghanistan. And it has been the US’s failure to cope with this resistance that has weakened it sufficiently for its dominant position within the West to be challenged now by aRussia that aspires to inherit some of the imperial status of the old Soviet empire, and with it a degree of standing within the broad coalition we call the West.
Unlike the Islamic resistance movements or Islamic Iran, Russia can never be an “enemy” of the West because it is in fact an integral part of it. It does not seek to overthrow the West-dominated international order, only to rival the US for dominance within it. In fact, even that is unrealistic; it wants only to be recognised by the US and other Western states as a major player within the Western order; to move up the hierarchy of Western countries so it stands alongside Britain and France as part of the Western elite, instead of being treated as a minor Western state like Australia, Ukraine, Poland and Brazil, for example. Russia sees its traditional sphere of influence in eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia as the key to this; it would like this area to be a Russian-dominated subsystem within the larger Western system, rather than being broken up into individual states dealing with the US directly without reference to Russia. This is what it is trying to achieve now, taking advantage of the US’s current weakness (and specifically George W. Bush’s weakness) to reassert its hegemony – military and political – over Georgia, Poland and other states. The new Cold War is not about challenges to the Western-dominated world order, or even about challenging the US’s dominance within the Western world order, but about jockeying for position among the US’s jealous and resentful lieutenants.
Almost incidental to this international politicking, the Muslim region of Abkhazia has found itself being recognised as independent by Russia. The Abkhazians are a Turkic Muslim people living in what has been described as a “Black Sea paradise”, who have been much buffeted by the changing tides of geo-political fortune that have swept through the Caucasus since the emergence of Russian power in the region in the nineteenth century. Stalin’s largely arbitrary drawing of political boundaries in the region placed Abkhazia in the Soviet republic of Georgia, which became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Under Soviet rule, the region was also settled by large numbers of Russians and Georgians. After 1989, the Abkhazians immediately demanded full independence, fighting a war against Georgia that resulted in virtual independence by 1994, by which time few non-Abkhazians were left in the country. Since then Abkhazia has been semi-independent under Russian protection, but without any international recognition until now.
Russian recognition now is unlikely to change much. This recognition is itself a meaningless function of international political developments far above the heads of most Abkhazians. Like other Muslim peoples in the Caucasus – some of whom assisted in Abkhazia’s war against Georgia – the Abkhazians are a people whose fortunes are defined by forces beyond their control. All the Abkhazians can do is try to negotiate these treacherous currents as best they can.