Some 30 years ago, I published an essay titled “Russia’s Hidden Hand.”
In it, I attempted to expose Moscow’s deeply cynical, revisionist machinations to reclaim its fading sphere of influence in the newly defunct Soviet Union, with a particular focus on the post-Soviet Caucasus states of war-torn Azerbaijan and Georgia, with a nod at Moldova and Tajikistan and a hint at Estonia. My argument that Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin was using Russia-backed separatists and local agents of influence to seed misery and chaos in wayward former Soviet republics was dismissed by most western “Sovietologists” as alarmist if not naive, despite my frontline reporting, most of which was specific to the Caucasus.
Reborn Azerbaijan and Georgia were failed (or failing) states, the western Sovietologists said, and best left under the control of Moscow for their own good. U.S. and Western attention and support should be exclusively directed toward Yeltsin’s “new” Russia, despite evidence of massive corruption at home, and dark deeds against the new microstates on its new post-imperial frontier.
These included fomenting inter-ethnic conflict, coup-making with local proxies, false-flag operations and the dissemination of so much dubious disinformation and noninformation that it made one’s head spin — and kept my shoes warm from running to check on yet another hot-spot where intuition did not seem to jive with conventional cozy, pro-Yeltsin wisdom.
This was particularly true in Georgia, arguably the most vociferously anti-Soviet of all 15 so-called Union Republics that made up the Soviet Union, despite being the birthplace of Stalin. Notably, Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, had announced his country’s exit from the Soviet Union two years before the Soviet Union collapsed, and thus was deeply hated in Moscow and subject to unique disinformational treatment.
“Georgia for the Georgians!” Gamsakhurdia allegedly announced, discounting all minority ethnic groups in his kaleidoscope country from active participation in democracy. Then he was thoroughly denounced as a “fascist” in the newly independent Moscow press that became the feed for the world press.
Sound familiar? The problem is Gamsakhurdia never said those words.
After being driven from the presidential palace in the Georgian capital Tbilisi by Moscow-oriented “democrats” (allegedly with a truckload of gold from the state treasury), Gamsakhurdia then absconded to neighboring Azerbaijan for refuge before resurfacing in Chechnya, of all places.
While that was true (I attended his funeral in 1994), the intermediate stages of his alleged journey of exile variously included Turkey, a KGB dungeon in Moscow, obscure death-cum-suicide as well announcing the commencement of civil war from a balcony in the western Georgian city of Zugdidi. All were Moscow-generated lies.
I learned all this when I went to Zugdidi to find and exclusively interview Gamsakhurdia to ask him how it felt to be putsched from power and why he had declared the commencement of civil war. The problem was that Gamsakhurdia was not in Zugdidi at all and never uttered those words. But they paved the way for the return of Native Georgian Son and last Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze to power in Tbilisi, where he was generally celebrated as a savior by the West but loathed by the population as a post-Soviet-style Kremlin-backed stooge until his increasing independence from Moscow and dependence on the West made him a target of multiple (failed) assassinations, with all trails leading back to Moscow.
But for me, the most tragic and egregious of these New Post-Soviet Nation wrecking-ball events happened in the western Azerbaijani territory known as Mountainous (Nagorno) Karabakh and at the small city of Khojaly (Xocali).
It was the night of Feb. 25, 1992, when and where some 633 Azerbaijanis perished at the hands of Russian-backed Armenian separatists. In retrospect, the purpose of the Khojaly massacre was perhaps multifold: to ethnically cleanse ethnic Azerbaijanis from Karabakh in anticipation of annexing the territory to Armenia, or “merely” to foment war between Armenia and Azerbaijan and thus create ever greater dependency of both Yerevan and Baku on Moscow in the aftermath of a little war that left some 30,000 dead and shaved away some 15% of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory.
After another two years of bitter fighting and nonsensical Russian-brokered cease-fires, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a stop-killing document in 1994 that resulted in 25 years of Armenian occupation of Karabakh, only ended by the liberation of all/most of these occupied territories in November 2020 — with Moscow as the chief “peace-making” third party. The Moscow-brokered ceasefire included the reinsertion of Russian “peacemakers” into a conflict that Moscow had largely created.
As in the “liberated” areas of post-Soviet Georgian Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moldova’s Transnistria region and arguably Azerbaijani Karabakh the good “citizens” of the newly created People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the break-away Ukrainian Donbass are now the happy recipients of hundreds of who knows how many Russian passports, clearing the way for a Russian-style so-called “Right to Protect.”
Today, in eastern Ukraine I see all those familiar elements, with one exception: This time the irredentist Russian hand is ungloved.
• Dr. Thomas Goltz is an American author, academic and foreign correspondent best known for his book-length accounts of conflict in the Post-Soviet Caucasus — including the award-winning “Azerbaijan Diary” (Routledge 1998), “Chechnya Diary” (Macmillan 2003) and “Georgia Diary” (Routledge 2006). He is an adjunct professor at Montana State University and a contributor at the Pulitzer Center.
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