How Moscow's Using Russian Citizenship as an Excuse for an Invasion

News Abroad

Dr. Andreas Umland teaches at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv, edits the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society,” and compiles the biweekly “Russian Nationalism Bulletin.” This article is a summary of an interview that he gave to the Russian-language information agency “Washington ProFile.”

One of the main justifications for Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia was that it had to protect its citizens from what Moscow’s leaders chose to call “genocide” by the Georgian army in South Ossetia. The reasons behind Russia’s embrace of this particular argument seems to be that the protection of one’s own citizens has been a common rationalization for military action abroad by many countries, including major Western powers. Russia thus apparently follows internationally-accepted modes of behavior: governments have to protect their citizens, using military means if necessary.

What is lost in this at first glance at the legitimate line of argument is not only that many South Ossetians became citizens of the Russian Federation relatively recently (imagine, moreover, Moscow’s reaction if Germany would start offering German passports to the inhabitants of the Kaliningrad Region and protecting these new Germans’ "rights and dignity”). Even more important is the fact that there is a subtle difference between, on the one hand, a state’s protection of the lives and dignity of its citizens merely living in another country, and, on the other hand, a government defending citizens who are engaged in creating their own independent state on the territory of another country. When in recent years many South Ossetians chose to become citizens of Russia, they, consciously or not, changed the nature of their political aspirations.

When they were still citizens of Georgia or stateless, they were involved in a dispute about the status of their territory with the government of Georgia. Thus their activities reminded many of the strive for independence by the world’s national minorities, such as the Basques in Spain or Kosovars in Serbia. Once most inhabitants of South Ossetia -- including members of the "government" of this unacknowledged state -- became official subjects of the Russian Federation, their political project of an independent South Ossetian republic transformed into a Russian imperialist enterprise, and changed the role of Russia’s "peacekeepers" in South Ossetia. Citizens of all countries should live safely and with dignity in other countries. But should a country’s government allow foreign citizens to create an independent state within the internationally recognized borders of its territory? And should a country’s government let such foreign subjects do so under the umbrella of an armed "peacekeeping" force sent by the same state that provided the separatists with foreign passports? Even the most ardent defenders of the rights of national minorities might not agree.

These distinctions may be seen as hair-splitting. In fact, they go to the heart of the problem. In various recent opinion polls in Russia, more than 50 percent of the respondents supported the "Russia for Russians" slogan. By “Russians,” these respondents mean not the citizens of the Russian Federation, but only ethnic Russians (russkie), preferably with a "Slavic face."

Cryptic or open racism has deeply infiltrated the Russian society. Racist arguments have made their way into both violent youth sub-cultures and prime-time television shows. Many Russians would see representatives of both ethnic Georgians and Ossetians as equally alien elements when meeting them within the ethnic Russian heartland. The idea that the ethnic Russian population is deeply sympathetic to the fate of the South Ossetians in Georgia, even if they are citizens of the Russian Federation, is unconvincing. Having been largely silent for many years about what the Russian federal armed forces have been doing to the Chechens since 1994, Russians should not take offense if the outside world does not give much credibility to their alleged humanitarian alarm about what is happening in the Caucasus these days.

What is driving Russian behavior with regard to South Ossetia, Abkhazia or Transdnestr is not only and not so much genuine concern for the peoples of these unacknowledged states. Moscow’s provision of Russian passports for the populations of these territories is designed to accelerate local conflicts, create a pretext for Russian involvement (including military), and – as in the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – provide a justification for territorial annexation. Moscow wants to use a gray area of international law – a state's right to protect, even by violent means, its citizens abroad – for revisionist aims. One could imagine the application of such a scheme not only in the former Soviet Union's "failed states" like Georgia and Moldova. Russian passports might be also handed out to people living on the Crimea, in Northern Kazakhstan, or at Narva – territories mostly populated by ethnic Russians whose "lives and dignity" may need Moscow's protection in the future too.

This comment appeared first on the web site "Russia Profile" ( on August 21st, 2008. 

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Arnold Shcherban - 9/13/2008

The author argues that the main reason behind Georgian aggression against South Ossetia, killing hundreds of civilians and utterly destroying their capital Tskinvali (and those are undeniable facts, not just opinions) was the distribution of Russian passports to those people.
First, this argument contradicts the history of strenuous, to say the least, relations between Ossetians and Georgians, and, as it well-known, the history in matters of ethnic conflicts, is the most essential thing to take into account.
The territory of today’s South Ossetia that historically belonged to Ossetians (along with Abkhazian territory) was included into the territory of the Soviet Republic of Georgia by Stalin’s (who was, not coincidentally, Georgian himself) orders, against the will of Ossetians (and Abkhazians.)
The most influential and prominent Western historians (conservatives and liberals alike) – fierce critics of the Soviet ethnical (and any other) policies - concluded (and still support that point of view) that it was just one of many episodes in Stalin’s “divide and conquer” imperialistic policy. They took that valid ideological and political stance… when they needed to accuse Soviet Union in all deadly sins. Now, when basically the same folks (along with the author of the article under discussion – Ukrainian ultra-nationalist), need to accuse new Russia in alleged imperialistic foreign policy, they factually sanctify even clearly nationalistic (what they then and now call “imperialistic”) orders of their greatest Nemesis, the communist superbeast Stalin.
The history of the conflict, of course, did not end with Stalin’s death. Later on, the Soviet authorities have
given South Ossetians (and Abkhazians) status of autonomy within Georgian Soviet Republic.
In 1970s, South Ossetians revolted against what they called “Georgian oppression.” To prevent the explosion of ethnic violence Moscow’s authorities invested $750M rubles into economic and social development of South Ossetian province.
According to the Soviet Constitution any Soviet Republic had the right of succession from the Union of
Soviet Republics at the will of its population majority and governmental representatives.
In 1991 Georgia exercised that right and became an independent country without any violent resistance on the part of Russia. Georgian independence, however, just aggravated the plight of South Ossetians (and Abkhazians), since Moscow was eliminated as a deterrent to and softener of ethnic violence.
In the same 1991 Ankhazians announced their decision to become independent from Georgia.
In response Georgian troops exacted military operation the results of which cannot be characterized otherwise than ethnic cleansing, i.e. genocide (one of many deadly episodes of that conflict: Georgian helicopters opened fire at people resting on Sukhumi’s beach.) Later on Georgian troops attacked South Ossetian towns and villages with the same deadly results, which prompted Russian interference. It was after those aggressive and genocidal actions of Georgian troops, which brought massive flood of refugees onto Russian soil and massive cry for help, that Moscow’s authorities offered South Ossetians, Abkhazians and other ethnic groups living on those territories Russian passports. When one looks at recent Georgian-South Ossetian/Russian conflict through the prism of historical truth doesn’t the “crime/provocation” of offering those struggling folks Russian passports look like a blessing and rescue?
Moreover, in 1994 in view of the recent waves of ethnic violence (under the presidency of a good friend of the West – drunkard, thief, and traitor Eltsin) Russia and Georgia signed an agreement for stationing Russian peacekeeping troops on the territory of South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) to prevent the future incidents.
Instead of renegotiating the peacekeeping agreement, and despite numerous invitations to negotiating table with the possible participation of the Western powers coming from Russia, Saakishvili’s regime nade the insidious decision to offer the West (US, especially) formal excuse for failing at the time Georgia’s attempt to get enlisted into NATO by provoking Russian forceful response. That’s is the main, and perhaps sole,
reason behind Georgian aggression against civil residents of Tskinvali and Russian peacekeepers.
As Russian president Medvedev mentioned in the phone conversation with president Bush, in similar circumstances the US would react the same way, just harsher.
What was lost in “translation”, so say, is the fact that the US did react much, much harsher… to no aggressions at all, and not once, but on many occasions.
At this point, I consider the case of recent Georgia-Russia conflict closed.
The investigation of the ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia committed by Georgian nationalists, however, will continue and is going to be proved.