Sergey Markedonov: Partitioning the Soviet Legacy

Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

This August marks the fourth anniversary of the five-day Russo-Georgian war of 2008. As usual, there has not been any lack of commentary on this event. There is still a dispute over who fired the first shot. And the issue of responsibility of Russian and Georgian leaders is still very much alive. This time, Vladimir Putin’s feelings about Russia’s preparations for the war have been the focus. Even without Putin's comments, it is clear that Moscow was reacting to Georgian attempts to violate the status quo established in the 1990s and that the responsibility for "unfreezing the conflict" can’t be "awarded" to only one side.

Meanwhile, the debates about the "bad guys" and "victims of aggression" create serious obstacles for adequate understanding of the broader political processes that led to the five-day war, an event which was not unique and generated ill will among leaders in Russia and Georgia. It is time to stop looking at the complex phenomenon through the prism of great personal animosity between Putin and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, or vice versa. All speculations on this topic appear reminiscent of forgotten ruminations that without the failed meetings between Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev and Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Aslan Maskhadov could have reversed the contemporary history of the Caucasus. The consequences of the five-day war, the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts as well as other ethno-political quarrels should be examined in the context of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

A reset of the analytical optics allows us to answer more important questions. After the dissolution of the USSR, political science in the post-Soviet countries developed under the powerful influence of the research approach known as transitology. These studies usually are concentrated on changes from authoritarianism to democracy, thereby overlooking numerous regional, ethno-national and cultural nuances and restricting studies to linear and progressive development.

In reality, escaping the USSR to create newly independent entities has not meant a real transition from authoritarianism to democracy; the core of this process has been the formation of new nation-states on the ruins of the quasi-federalist state. The first tasks for post-Soviet states became the definition of their borders, the launching of nation-building efforts and the creation of new political identities. For these states, it was necessary to answer some principal questions: For whom could the new state be "ours"? Who would be considered citizens or aliens?..

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