Interview with Paul B. Henze, August 2008

August 1, 2008 
Dear visitors,

The second  interview of the series which began with Prof. Paul Goble in March will continue with Paul Henze, who has a long-standing interest in, and publications-record on, the Caucasus. Over recent months the Caucasus has found itself even more than before in the spotlight. Abkhazia in particular has come into sharper focus following Kosovo's independence. The Circassians, who are close relatives of the Abkhazians and who have shared with them much of the same tragic destiny, are watching (whether we speak of those living in the North Caucasus or of those in the diaspora-communities) the unfolding of events with a sense of unease. Because of this we have decided to concentrate on Abkhazia for the purposes of this extended interview. acknowledges with thanks the insights Mr. Henze has shared with us.

The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Circassian World.

Profile: Paul Henze was a Resident Consultant at RAND’s Washington office 1982-2002, working on projects relating to U.S. foreign policy, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, Turkey, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.  A graduate of the Harvard Soviet Program in 1950, he had a 30-year career in government and government-related organizations.  He was a member of the original team that directed Radio Free Europe and served in Munich from 1952-58.  Subsequently he held positions in the Departments of Defense and State.  He served in the US Embassy in Addis Ababa 1969-72.  He served in the U.S. Embassy in Ankara 1974-77.  During 1977-80 he served with Zbigniew Brzezinski in the U.S. National Security Council.  Among other duties there he chaired the Nationalities Working Group, an interagency task force that focused on the non-Russian regions of the USSR. 

He was a Wilson fellow at the Smithsonian in 1981-82.  During recent years he has made frequent visits to the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992 he headed an international observer team to Chechnya and at the end of the year was a member of a team that went to Abkhazia.  In 1997 he participated in the Shamil bicentenary celebrations in Dagestan.  He was a member of a US NATO Association mission to China, Central and South Asia in 1998.  He has made 8 extensive visits to Georgia since 1991 and is Vice President of the American-Georgian Business Development Council.

CIRCASSIAN WORLD: In the 19th century the only people in Transcaucasia to fight against Russian encroachment were the Abkhazians, who battled alongside their cousins in Ubykhia and Circassia, whereas Georgia was already allied to Russia and thus helped the tsars to crush North Caucasian resistance. You have written eloquently about the Circassian struggle to preserve their independence; why do you treat with such disdain the parallel aspirations of the Abkhazians?

PAUL HENZE: The question implies historical judgments which are not widely accepted by historians.  Russian encroachment against all Circassian-related peoples which began as early as the 16th century reached its height in the mid-19th century and culminated in what can only, in current terms, be called ethnic cleansing.  The Abkhaz were not a primary target of the Russian advance, the major Circassian groups were.  Since ancient times Abkhaz history and politics had been closely intertwined with those of northwestern Georgia.  After 1864 at least half the Abkhaz population was either killed or expelled to the Ottoman Empire.

As Moscow's grip on the Soviet periphery was weakening, various places saw an explosion of nationalism. One such region was Georgia, where from late 1988 there was a huge amount of anti-minority rhetoric. The first ethnic clashes occurred in the Azerbaijani area of Georgia (Dmanisi-Marneuli) and in Abkhazia, both occurring in July 1989. Tensions remained high thereafter, as Georgia's first post-communist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia began his war in South Ossetia, and then, as Gamsakhurdia was ousted and a civil war began between his supporters in Mingrelia and the supporters of the military junta that ousted him, a junta that was eventually led by Gamsakhurdia’s long-time foe, Eduard Shevardnadze. If you had been advising the Abkhazians at this time (i.e. during the regimes of Gamsakhurdia and the junta that ousted him), what advice would you have given them, in the light of the anti-minority hysteria still then rampant amongst the Georgians?

HENZE: Zviad Gamsakhurdia was a disaster for Georgia and for the Caucasus as a whole.  His emotional extremism was a reflection of the intense ethnic strains two centuries of Russian domination of Georgia and contingent regions caused.  His efforts to maintain Soviet-period domination of minorities in Georgia exacerbated their attitudes and drove them into the arms of nostalgic communists and Russian ultra-nationalists who wished to maintain domination of Georgia, or, if that proved impossible, to exploit minority aspirations to undermine and complicate Georgian desires for full independence.  Anti-Russian Georgians fell into this trap.  The advice we* gave Abkhaz leaders in the fall of 1992 was to avoid letting themselves be used as tools of die-hard communists and Russian ultra-nationalists and seek compromise with the Georgians as a basis for future constructive relations within a framework of political autonomy.  We gave the same advice to Shevardnadze, who cannot be equated with Gamsakhurdia in any respect.  Unfortunately, events in Abkhazia had already escaped rationality--extreme nationalists in Georgia obstructed Shevardnadze's efforts to effect a moderate solution in Abkhazia.  Violence resulted in destruction of much of the region's infrastructure, its rich agricultural resources, and flight of more than 2/3 of its population including Armenians and Greeks as well as Georgians.  Abkhaz leaders, with a drastically reduced population, proved incapable of political creativity and let themselves be manipulated by their Russian-nationalist and ex-communist sponsors.  The result has been that Abkhazia, potentially one of the most productive and attractive regions of the entire Caucasus, was wrecked and remains a wreck to this day.

*We = the members of the International Alert mission which visited Georgia (including Abkhazia) in late 1992.

CW: The war began on 14th August 1992 and ended officially on 30th September 1993. On the Abkhazian side 4% of the population was killed. Essentially all that Georgia (whether under Shevardnadze or Saakashvili) has offered since is a return to the 'status quo ante bellum'. When a side starts a war and loses it, should it not have to pay some consequence? Why should the Abkhazians return to the selfsame status within Georgia that had led to war in the first place, which is what the international community seems to have been demanding of them for the last 15 years?

HENZE: Opportunities for political creativity on the basis of practical realism among both Georgians and Abkhaz have been repeatedly advertised and publicized during the past decade and a half by the international community and independent observers.  All Georgian efforts have been rejected by Abkhaz leaders who remain beholden to Russian nationalists.

As a citizen of a country founded on the principle of self-determination, do you not think that this principle should be afforded more importance than that of territorial integrity, which latter in essence merely enshrines someone's drawing of a line on a map at some point in history?

HENZE: ‘‘Self-determination’’ has never been recognized as an absolute international principle, though there is much to be said for it under realistic circumstances.

Given the present US administration's boast to have been conducting a 'war on terrorism' for the last 7 years, is it not embarrassing for Washington to be so supportive of a regime which over the years has given active support to terrorist activities inside Abkhazia by such organisations as The Forest Brethren and The White Legion, whose activities are strangely reminiscent of the bombings that have recently taken place in Abkhazia (Sukhum, Gagra and Gal)?

HENZE: No, Washington does not regard Georgia as having a ‘‘terrorist regime’’; neither do European countries or those of the Middle East.

What difference, if any, will there be in America's attitude towards Georgia (and specifically towards its conflict with Abkhazia) if (a) Obama is elected president, and (b) McCain is elected president?

HENZE: In all likelihood, whatever successor follows President Bush, there will be very little change in US attitude and policy toward the Caucasus.  The Caucasus is not a subject of partisan contention in Washington.  There is no evidence that a new President would change the basic US position toward Georgia, Azerbaijan or Armenia.  The US will continue to deplore Russian oppression in Chechnya.  It will continue to support Azerbaijan's efforts to maintain its control of its oil.  It will continue to encourage cooperation among independent Caucasian republics for their mutual advantage.

If you were advising the US president (or one of the presidential candidates), what policy with regard to Abkhazia would you argue for and why? Do you think it is possible for Russia and the US to cooperate in resolving the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict?

HENZE: Russia has shown no inclination to cooperate with anyone in ‘‘solving’’ the Abkhaz problem which it wishes to keep alive as a means of harassing Georgia.

Is it really in (a) Georgia's interests and (b) NATO's interests for Georgia to become a NATO member? How will the conflicts between Tbilisi and (a) Tskhinval and (b) Sukhum affect NATO's decision on Georgia's membership?

HENZE: Georgia strongly desires NATO membership.  The Abkhaz and Ossetian problems are obviously obstacles to NATO membership, for NATO is not eager to take responsibility for situations of this sort.  Russia clearly wishes to exacerbate these situations to hinder NATO expansion.  Barring a change in Russia's attitude--or a change among the Abkhaz and Ossetes  whereby  they  would recognize their true interests and no longer let themselves be political playthings of Russian nationalists--little change is likely to  take place.

For what purpose have America and its allies been giving Georgia such lavish military aid over recent years?

HENZE: The US and its European allies, in accordance with their basic international principles, have been steady supporters of Georgia's independence and development and will in all likelihood continue to be.  Expectations which some Abkhaz and Ossetes might have of basic changes in their policies are unrealistic.

You are known as an expert on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. What relevance, if any, does the Ethiopian experience have for the Caucasus? In particular, is there anything relevant to be learned from the ethno-federal regime set up by the Menawi regime?

HENZE: There is a great deal to be said for federalism as a principle of political organization.  Whether it is advantageous for federalism to be based entirely on ethnic structuralism remains an open question.  The Ethiopian experience with ethnic structuralism has so far been positive.  So, for the most part, has India's.  Federalism in the United States has no relationship to ethnic considerations.  Creative exploration of federalist solutions for problems of all parts of the Caucasus would be a constructive way out of current impasses which only exacerbate situations and inhibit economic and political development.

Moscow's policies for the North Caucasus often seem misguided and deleterious for the region's interests. What could the USA and the West do to alter these policies and help improve economic and social conditions across the North Caucasus?

HENZE: The US and its European allies have little basis for influence on developments in the North Caucasus, though they will undoubtedly continue to sympathize with  the desires of the peoples of this area to enjoy greater freedom and opportunities for development.  Independent and pseudo-democratic Russia has continued the same approach to the region which Imperial Russia developed from the 16th century onward: Divide and Rule, i.e. set one people against another.  This has not worked to anyone's advantage, least of all Russia's.

If Moscow fails to improve conditions across the North Caucasus, some believe that this region might one day slip out of Russian control.  If this were to happen, then Russia would still be nearby and perhaps even next door.  What sort of relations would an independent North Caucasus be likely to have with Russia?  Would the currently antagonistic relations between Georgia and Russia be a model or would the more client - patron one such as that existing between Armenia and Russia be more likely?

HENZE: Armenians show some indication of realizing the disadvantages of letting themselves be pawns of Russia.  In spite of long-standing Russian efforts to keep Armenians in tense relations with Turkey, when Armenians now flee, tens of thousands of them go to Istanbul and other parts of Turkey!  The same is true for North Caucasians--though they have, for the most part, always had a warm attitude toward Turkey.  Their chances of becoming independent, except within the framework of a collapse of Russia itself, are very slight.  Russia is not able to pacify the North Caucasus effectively, but it is able to continue to keep the region in a condition of economic, social and political confusion and turmoil.  Unfortunately there is little evidence that Russia will abandon this traditional course of action.  Russia is a long way from reaching the kind of conclusion France did in respect to Algeria, or that Britain did in respect to the Indian Subcontinent.  Continued domination of the Caucasus costs Russia heavily, both in immediate expense and in lost revenues and productivity, but oil- and gas-rich Russia goes onward on the same course.  A severe economic downtown in Russia might have the effect of causing a more honest assessment of the value of trying to hold on to the North Caucasus - and at the same time encouraging instability in the South Caucasus.  There is little likelihood of this in the near future.

How could Circassians act in order to unite and create a global national agenda? What should be the priority points?

HENZE: Circassians, both ‘‘at home’’ in the Caucasus and abroad in the US. Turkey, and other parts of the Middle East, display an encouraging sense of their history and the value of taking advantage of every opportunity for asserting themselves.  In contrast to the Abkhaz, who have let themselves become pawns of Russian nationalists, the Circassians have been skillfully opposing Russian efforts to limit their autonomy and restrict their contacts with their countrymen in other parts of the world.  Circassians have learned to benefit from the Internet.  If they can continue to maintain their strong spirit and motivate their young people to assert themselves, they stand a fair chance of reviving as an important element in the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Do you think that is there a possibility for Circassians to survive as possessors of their own language and culture in the diaspora?  What are factors that affect this process?

HENZE: So far, after almost a century and a half of dispersion, Circassians have managed to keep their language and their history alive among important segments of their diaspora.  Hopefully this can continue.

What can the North Caucasian, including Abkhazian, diasporas do to help improve conditions across the (North) Caucasus?  Could they play a role as a lobby in Moscow for the welfare of their cousins?

HENZE: Lobbying in Moscow in the Putin-Medvedev era is not a promising activity.  Lobbyists would not last long.  Circassians cannot gain much by associating themselves with current Abkhaz efforts because Abkhaz leadership is subjugating itself to Russian interests while Circassians have a clear vision of their own interests.

Do you think that there is a possibility that Russia will recognize the Circassian Genocide? If yes, please explain what kind of results would be likely to follow.

HENZE: The Circassian ‘‘genocide’’ was at least as drastic as the Armenian  ‘‘genocide’’ of the early 20th century which Moscow has publicized and exploited for the past half century.  But there is not the slightest evidence that Moscow - as opposed perhaps to individual Russians - might recognize that the ethnic cleansing after 1860 was ‘‘genocide’’.  Instead Moscow celebrates the conquest of the Caucasus and refuses to apologize for the ethnic cleansing.

What would be your ideal status for the Caucasus and its peoples (both north and south of the great mountain-range), and how realistic would be that ideal?

HENZE: A federalized Caucasus based on free association of all the peoples of the region and cooperation among them for economic and social development, would be ideal.  India might in some ways be an example for this kind of solution.  It is extremely unlikely now, only ‘‘pie in the sky’’.  If Russia should collapse and fragment, it could begin to come about.  Unfortunately, over the centuries Caucasians have become addicted to bad habits of contentiousness and uncooperativeness, so they will have to shed these.  That will take time.  Europeans, including Turkey, would not hinder this kind of evolution if Caucasians themselves took the initiative.  The prospect of closer association with the European Union should give incentive to Caucasians to bring themselves into an improved political condition, just as this prospect is having a positive effect on the extreme nationalism of Serbia now.

Who would have thought that a European Union was possible in 1938?  Who would have thought that the Baltic states, pawns of both Hitler and Stalin in 1939, would survive to become independent members of the European Union in 2008?  Dismal as prospects for the Caucasus seem now, the possibility of dramatic change in the future should be envisioned, discussed, and kept as an idealistic possibility for the future.  

-Thank you

Paul Henze, Washington, Virginia,  1 August 2008

Metin Sönmez, Circassian World