Russia: Russia/Georgia conflict deepens

Journalist critic of Russia’s Caucuses policy, Anna Politkovskaya, murdered

Once again, the Caucuses is an unstable volcano, threatening to erupt out of control. This was brought to the world’s attention, last week, by the brutal gunning down, at the entrance to her Moscow home, of Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia’s high profile journalists and human rights activists. She was best known for her exposure of the brutality of the Russian army in Chechnya, writing two revealing books about these bloody events. It is widely believed that Politkovskaya’s murder was a contract slaying, and probably connected to her investigation into corruption at the top of the new pro-Kremlin Chechen government. President Putin’s promise to hold a full and thorough investigation into her assassination, and to bring to justice those responsible, sounds just as hollow as all the other pledges Putin made after similar killings.

Politkovskaya’s assassination resonated throughout the world and showed that in Russia being a journalist is one of the most dangerous professions. Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, approximately one correspondent a month was murdered, over half of whom were investigating corruption and the misuse of power within the ruling elite. Few of those responsible for the murders were ever apprehended.

But it is not only journalists who become victims of what the Russian police term “murders connected to professional activities”. In the past few months, high profile killings increased. Just weeks ago, Russian’s Deputy Chairman of the Central Bank was gunned down. Since Politkivskaya’s murder, another senior banker was killed.

Politkovskaya’s murder follows another crisis shaking Russia over the past weeks; tension between Georgia and Russia are rising dramatically.

Russian ‘spies’ crisis

According to the Russian press, the catalyst for the conflict was the arrest, in mid-September, of four Russian army officers based in Georgia, on the charge of “spying”. In response, during a meeting of the Russian Security Council, President Putin said Russia would not succumb to people who “talk in the language of provocations and blackmail”. Russia introduced an economic blockade of Georgia. Rail and air connections are cut, postal services suspended, and money transfers blocked. This blockade is in addition to the already existing trade sanctions against Georgian wine and mineral water, in place for several months.

An officially sanctioned campaign against Georgians living in Russia, which can only be described as the early stages of ‘ethnic cleansing’, also started over the last few weeks. Businesses in Russia, including restaurants and casinos owned by Georgians, were closed down by the authorities using the most frivolous excuses. A supermarket was closed after it was discovered that one of the Ukrainian staff was not properly registered to live in Moscow. Well known Georgians, in culture fields, including Russia’s best known statue artist, Zarab Tseretelli, suddenly found the tax police at their doors investigating their financial accounts.

But it is the poorest Georgians living in Russia who suffer the brunt of the state repression. Throughout Russia, a large army of “gastarbeiters”, mainly from the Caucasian states and Central Asia, work as cheap, often slave, labour, in markets and building sites. Over the past week, these workplaces were raided by police looking for Georgians with any discrepancies in their documents. Many Georgian workers were rounded up and put into holding camps, awaiting deportation. Hundreds were deported to Georgia, on aircraft controlled by the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Typically, in Moscow, school head teachers received letters from authorities asking for the names and home addresses of all children of “suspect” nationalities, so that the authorities can track down their parents. In Nizhny Novgorod city, police waited outside a school to ambush the parents of children. The head of the local human rights’ organization, quoted in the ‘Moscow Times’, said he could do little to help the victimised Georgians. “We human rights defenders are afraid ourselves to go out onto the street because if we do that, they’ll start to check our organisation”.

When the Western powers bother to raise this scandalous situation with the Russian leadership, it is implied the harassment of Georgians is due to over-zealous actions by the police and the immigration authorities. President Putin instructed that all food and commodity markets should be checked by the end of the year to ensure that the interests of the “native Russian” population are observed. This is widely interpreted to mean that people “with faces of Caucasian nationality” should be kicked out of the markets.

Significantly, this repression gets significant but not whole-hearted support from the population in Russia. According to an opinion poll carried out by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, 71 percent agreed with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s characterisation of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s administration as a “bandit government”. But only 40 percent back the economic blockade of Georgia. The poll said 37 percent supported deporting all “illegal Georgian immigrants”.

Racist attacks

Even according to official statistics, at least three “foreigners” are killed in racist attacks in Russia, every month, usually by fascist skinheads. Hundreds of others suffer assaults. In addition, there is a marked increase in arson attacks on synagogues, and violent ethnic clashes, such as a large anti-Caucasian riot, or pogrom, that took place last month in Kondopoga, on the Karelian peninsula, north Russia. The instigators of such attacks, like the fascist ‘Movement against Illegal Immigrants’, are only encouraged by police harassment of non-Russians.

Despite the Putin regime’s crude Russian chauvinism, many Russians have ancestral roots in one of the Caucasian republics or are natives of one of Russia’s Caucasian regions, such as Chechnya (in Russian, there are two words for Russian people – ‘russki’, meaning an ethnic Russian, and ‘rossiski’, meaning someone born in Russia, and including all ethnicities). Many of these people are caught up in the latest wave of repression. The case of Tamara, reported in one newspaper, is typical. A seller of garlic in one of the Moscow markets, Tamara said she went to Moscow, 15 years ago, after she was forced to flee Georgia during an ethnic conflict. Now, Tamara says she will end up fleeing Moscow, as a refugee again.

The recent increase in tensions between Russia and Georgia may have been sparked by the arrest of the Russian officers but it is the result of the continuing geopolitical conflict in the region in the post-Soviet period. Following the ‘Rose Revolution’, three years ago, Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvilli took firmly strengthening relations with Western imperialism, particularly the US. The main road from Tbilisi’s airport was re-named ‘George W Bush St’.

In part, Georgia’s Western-orientation is motivated by the construction of a new oil pipeline, which led to growth in Foreign Direct Investment, mainly by companies such as BP, the oil multinational. This led, as in other countries of the former Soviet Union, to one-sided economic growth, in particular a rapid growth in real estate. Other sectors of the economy lag behind. Unbelievably, Dr. Vladimir Papava, Georgia parliament’s Deputy Chairman of the Committee for Finance and Budget, described how (partly under his stewardship) “Much of the old economy had been mis-developed into a ‘necro-economy’; a dead economy of value detraction that is incapable of producing anything of value.”

The way workers are exploited in Saakashvilli’s Georgia is commented on by Irakli Petriashvili, head of the Georgia’s trade union confederation. “The situation is very bad. We had Italian guests and they were shocked that the workers were painting the facades in our streets without protection. There is construction near us; Sunday, Saturday, every day, these people are working. I accept the market economy and private ownership, but there should be frames limiting the wishes of employers. In our country many people having robbed factories and enterprises, becoming millionaires in the process. They behave as the French bourgeois or Spanish colonists of the Middle Ages. Hired people are slaves for them and unfortunately our state supports them in such acts. Today, when there are no jobs, people agree to work in unbearable conditions, but tomorrow it could be very difficult to stop the stream of protests.”

Georgia’s breakaway regions

Although Georgia turned headlong towards the West, with the stated aims of leaving the CIS [Confederation of Independent States – a loose alliance that replaced much of the Soviet Union], and joining NATO and the EU (the first likely soon, the second not likely in the near future), Saakashvilli also moved to bring Georgia’s two pro-Russian breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, under central control. These two areas account for a third of Georgia’s territory and slightly more of Georgia’s economic interests. In the early nineties, Abkhazia, in particular, was convulsed by a brutal ethnic conflict, which was only “resolved” after a 1994 peace agreement that left the area under the effective control of Russian “peace keeping” troops. This arrangement is not only humiliating to the central Georgian government but also provides Russian imperialism with a lever to try and maintain influence over Georgia. In recent months, Russia also attempted to use its control of energy supplies, and communication centres, to threaten the Saakashvilli government.

The Kodiri Gorge, in Abkhazia, is now the epicenter of new tensions. This region is defended by local militias, organised in the ‘Hunter Battalion’. This Battalion was set up during the 1990s conflict and now supposedly reports to the Abkhazian Defense Ministry. The existence of the Hunter Battalion in the gorge meant Russian peacekeepers did not occupy the area.

Recently, Saakashvilli moved to restore control of the Kodiri Gorge, beginning with attempts to disarm the Hunter Battalion. At the end of September, the Georgian president even led a government delegation, defended by Georgian troops, into the Gorge. This was condemned as a breach of the 1994 peace deal, by the Abkhazian and Russian governments. On several occasions over the last couple of months, the present very ‘cold war’ concerning this region threatened to break out into open ‘hot’ hostilities. The situation in South Ossetia is also been far from stable. Recently, a helicopter flying over the region, carrying the Georgian Defence Minister, Irakli Okruashvili, was fired upon, and forced to land.

The Russian regime asked the UN Security Council to condemn the Saakashvili government following the recent arrest (and release after a few days) of four Russian officer “spies”. The US blocked the move. Putin’s bellicose administration strongly condemns Saakashvilli’s pro-Western stance. Russian government ministers openly complain that NATO is behind every move by Saakashvilli, and Putin alleges the Georgian Prime Minister and other government ministers are paid large salaries by an unnamed Western-financed NGO. Russia’s fury at Georgia’s continuing attempts to join NATO could even lead to open armed clashes in the future. The Putin government pledges to send two ‘crack’ army regiments to the Georgian border, if NATO strengthens its influence in Georgia.

1,000 demonstrate in Moscow

These events are not going by without public protest in Russia. Two weekends ago, a large picket was held in Moscow. The demonstration, organised by human rights groups, was originally intended to protest against the attacks on Georgian immigrants in Russia. Inevitably, it was overshadowed by Ana Politkovskata’s murder. Over one thousand people attended, including a significant delegation gathered under the ‘Socialist Resistance’ (CWI in Russia) banner. We held up banners and placards with slogans like, ‘Stop the deportations, for self-determination of nations’ and ‘Working people unite’.

Foreign troops, whether NATO or Russian, should be withdrawn from all territories in the Caucuses. The Russian economic blockade and racist attacks must stop. The wealth and resources of the region, including oil and agricultural, should be taken out of private hands and democratically planned in a way that sees to the needs of working people of the region. Nations and republics should have the right to self-determination. Minority ethnic regions should be guaranteed the right to autonomy, with cultural and language rights, and the right to democratic, cross community self-defence against state attacks, repression and racist attacks.

But, on the basis of capitalism, whether of the Western-orientated or Russian variety, it is clear the situation in the Caucuses will only get worse. Independent workers’ organisations are urgently needed, to unite the working people of the region, in a common struggle against economic hardship and for democratic and social rights. A mass workers’ party can organise and lead the struggle against the elites and local clans that rule and exploit the region. This would prepare the way for mass class struggle by a united working class, to end capitalism in the region, and to establish a genuine, democratic and voluntary confederation of socialist states for the peoples of this long-suffering region.

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