Aleksandr Z. Ankvab, the president of the Russian-backed breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia, survived an assassination attempt last month. In an email interview, Svante Cornell, the research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, discussed Russian influence and political stability in the South Caucasus.
WPR: How effective has Russia been at influencing policy and public opinion in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Svante Cornell: Moscow has been relatively ineffective in both territories. In Abkhazia, Russia has repeatedly failed to handle the independent streak of the territory's leaders, who see their relationship with Russia as important, but certainly do not want to be absorbed into Russia. In fact, since the jubilant mood of 2008, when Russia garnered enormous goodwill for “recognizing” Abkhazia, the relationship has soured. The Abkhaz have felt increasingly concerned about Russia's high-handedness, not least fearing that the small territory would be economically absorbed into Russia and that it would be blanketed by Russian settlers. More surprising, perhaps, has been Russia's slipping grip on South Ossetia, a territory much smaller and even more dependent on Moscow. But then again, Moscow's inability to get its way in Abkhazia and South Ossetia must be put in context: If one compares these two territories to the ethnic republics within Russia itself, the situation is not much different. Indeed, just next door in the North Caucasus, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who came to power thanks to Russian support, has essentially marginalized Russian influence in his republic to such an extent that the erstwhile Chechen secular nationalists that fought against him have now come to embrace him, albeit reluctantly. Kadyrov is effectively building what amounts to a Chechen independent state for most practical purposes, if not in name. In this context, perhaps we should not be surprised that Moscow fails to control these entities -- Russia’s leaders are not as good at controlling events in the region as they would like us to think.