By Marlène Laruelle (09/03/2008 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Alexander Dugin, a famous proponent of neo-Eurasianism in Russia, is heavily involved in the crisis between Russia and Georgia. On August 26, he visited South Ossetia to celebrate the recognition by the Russian Duma of the independence of the small republic and to welcome the “long-awaited renaissance of the Russian empire”. The Ossetian issue is indeed steeped in history. From the nineteenth century wars in the Caucasus, the Ossetians positioned themselves as allies of Moscow in its conquest of the region. In the twentieth century, they served as intermediaries for Bolshevik leaders, who promoted Ossetian autonomy movements in order to weaken the first Georgian republic. The contemporary conflict thus has historical roots, even if it has been fueled by the contemporary geopolitical situation and has brought turmoil to Russian nationalist movements.

BACKGROUND: The neo-Eurasianist doctrine advances a multinational and multiconfessional Russia, in which the “little” peoples of Siberia, the Far East, Volga, and the Northern Caucasus accept Russian domination in exchange for respect for their national traditions and the maintenance of interethnic peace. In terms of doctrine, Dugin thus considers it legitimate for these peoples, dissatisfied with post-Soviet national borders, to seek to leave states where identity is based on that of the eponymous nationality and to join a federal Russia, arguing that their interests will be better represented there. This belief is not circumstantial. Dugin has always held such opinions, even when they ran counter to Kremlin policies in the 1990s, as well as during the two presidential terms of Vladimir Putin. He has, for example, challenged the Kremlin on the Chechen question, criticizing military operations there and calling for the development of a comprehensive Russian geopolitical strategy for Chechnya, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria.

But the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and likewise of Transnistria, are far from being merely theoretical; they are exceedingly political. Dugin has taken a position clearly in favor of the intensification of conflict with Georgia, arguing that the Caucasus is at the heart of American strategies to “destroy Russia”. His stance is therefore simultaneously based on geopolitical arguments (avoiding the encirclement of Russia by states defending U.S. interests), cultural arguments (preventing what he called “genocide” of the Ossetian people by Georgians), and territorial arguments (the rest of the Ossetian people, in North Ossetia, are already integrated into Russia). This is not to mention the religious angle, as Dugin enjoys appearing with Ossetian Orthodox leaders.

While Alexander Dugin seemed skeptical of the arrival to power of Dmitri Medvedev, neo-Eurasianist websites now celebrate the quiet strength of the new president, who has affirmed the historic greatness of Russia in the face of “Western threats”. Yet, the neo-Eurasianist movement concluded that the Kremlin should “go to the end” of its logic. By this reasoning, Dugin calls for unwavering support to all minorities in Georgia, dreaming of a simultaneous uprising in Mingrelia, Javakheti, and Adjara. He hopes that the Duma will also recognize the independent status of Transnistria, as it did for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that Moscow will put pressure on Estonia and Latvia, which still have large Russian minorities. But above all, Dugin thinks of Ukraine. He supports the partition of the country in order to return its eastern portion and the Russian minority who lives there to their historic place in the Russian fold. As a result of this position, Kiev declared Dugin persona non grata in 2007.

IMPLICATIONS: To influence public opinion, Dugin in 2005 formed the Union of Eurasianist Youth. This group is notable for its forceful actions, organizing the first “Russian March” on November 4, 2005, following with numerous forays into Ukraine and Estonia to destroy symbols of independence and protect symbols of the Soviet Union, particularly those related to the Second World War. In autumn 2007, it attacked the Ukrainian cultural center in Moscow, which then hosted an exhibition devoted to the famine of 1930.

This year, like many other nationalist associations, the Union of Eurasianist Youth invited young people to participate in the resistance in South Ossetia. In August, the movement organized an “Eurasianist camp” in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali just after the departure of Georgian troops. Some Eurasianist militants stepped up to reinforce the Russian troops and Ossetian militias, and participated in sporadic fighting. An “Eurasianist humanitarian mission” comprising mainly of pro-Russian Ukrainian activists also arrived in South Ossetia at the end of August.

To influence the presidential administration, Dugin put another card into play: the International Eurasianist Movement, which is less provocative than the Youth Union and more politically correct. Created in 2003, the group has recruited officials like Minister of Culture Alexander Sokolov, Vice-President of the Federation Council Alexander Torshin, presidential adviser Aslambek Aslakhanov, and Aleksey Zhafiarov, director of the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Political Parties. All are members of the supreme council of the group.

The president of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, is also a member of Dugin’s movement. In early July, he participated in the third congress of the Union of Eurasianist Youth, stating his support for the independence of his republic, then its entry into the Russian Federation. His argument is historic and legal, that South Ossetia never officially left the Russian Empire and that it can only exist within contemporary Russia, the internationally recognized legitimate successor of the Soviet Union.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Dugin appears to have a new ally in the Kremlin, Ivan Demidov. A former journalist who became one of the new engineers of patriotism through his “Russian Project,” Demidov took the lead of the pro-presidential youth group, the Young Guard (Molodaia Gvardiia). In May 2008, he was promoted to lead the ideological arm of the presidential party. Dugin and Demidov have known each other for several years since they worked together on the Orthodox-oriented television channel Spas and on television programs like “Russian View.” Demidov promotes ethnocentric and Orthodox nationalism, inviting the country’s elites to free themselves of the taboo associated with the russification of Russia. He supports the ideas of Vladislav Surkov on modernization without Westernization. Although Demidov is far from being the only leader of Kremlin doctrine, through him Dugin enjoys the means to use his initiatives to inspire officials who appear to ideologically legitimize the Russian sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space.

CONCLUSIONS: Even if the Russian-Georgian conflict could be resolved peacefully, August 2008 will be remembered as a turning point in relations between Russia and the West, but also as the moment of crystallization for Russian nationalist movements. The war that started in South Ossetia has helped to re-energize nationalist forces, especially the youth, to promote the idea of “battle” with the Georgians, and will probably announce a new wave of Russian nationalist actions in Moldova, Estonia, and Ukraine, and of tensions with Poland. Yet, in light of calls from the most Nationalist hardliners, some other Patriotic lobbyists have maintained a more moderate stance while supporting the idea that Russia should respond to Kosovo’s independence and the so-called threat of NATO enlargement. They recall that Moscow, drawn into Chechnya for nearly two decades, has every interest in seeing the situation in the region subside if it wants to avoid unrest in the North Caucasus.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Marlène Laruelle is a Senior Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. She is the author of the just published Eurasianism in Russia: The Ideology of Empire (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).