Twenty Years of Drifting Apart

20 december 2009

Nikolai Silayev is a senior researcher at the Center for Caucasian Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and head of the politics section at Expert magazine. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Resume: The logic of Realpolitik pushes Russia not towards defining for itself the limits to restricting the sovereignty of neighbors, but towards taking as much sovereignty from its neighbors as – using Yeltsin’s famous metaphor – it can swallow. This approach rules out long-term agreements.

April 9, 1989 became a pivotal date not only for Georgia. The dispersal of a demonstration on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue began the countdown for the last days of the Soviet Union. This was the first instance in which the use of the Soviet Army against ordinary Soviet citizens became a phenomenon of public politics with all the ensuing repercussions for the Communist regime. The events of 1962 in Novocherkassk or of 1986 in Alma-Ata were little known to the public at large, while the upheavals in Baku in January 1990 and Vilnius in January 1991 were still ahead.

Russian democrats happened to be the most influential allies of Georgia’s radical nationalistic movement headed by Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Anatoly Sobchak, the chairman of a commission set up by the Congress of People’s Deputies to investigate the events in Tbilisi, made a decisive contribution to turning the tragedy into a factor that eventually delegitimized the all-Union center, the CPSU and Mikhail Gorbachev personally.

Two years later, in spring 1991, Boris Yeltsin, then Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federative Republic, sided with the authorities in Tbilisi when the Georgian-Ossetian conflict was gathering momentum. Gamsakhurdia and Yeltsin signed a protocol that included a proposal for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from what was then Georgia’s South Ossetian Autonomous Republic. Officials in Tbilisi recall that Yeltsin also insisted that the Abkhazian issue was Georgia’s internal problem.

In the waning days of the Soviet Union, nothing foreshadowed that a military conflict between Russia and Georgia would erupt in twenty years, that Moscow would recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that diplomatic relations between the two countries would be broken, or that a “centuries-old friendship” would decay to a point where even toasts to it would not sound convincing.


Georgia differs from many other post-Soviet countries not only because it has a deeply rooted tradition of national statehood but also because this tradition was interrupted within a historically observable period, after the Georgian principalities had joined the Russian Empire. This factor sets a certain frame to construing the country’s contemporary political identity; specifically it prompts the Georgian political class to emphasize the value of sovereignty. On one hand, state sovereignty is the main guarantee for maintaining national identity and traditions (incidentally, Abkhazians view it in much the same way), but on the other sovereignty is a rather fragile thing, vulnerable to external encroachments, that is, attacks from Russia. Limitations on sovereignty are possible, but only as part of a “love match,” as the leader of the Georgian Republican Party, David Usupashvili, put it. Sovereignty cannot be a subject of rationalistic arrangements. That is why integration in NATO is desirable even though it implies some limitations on national sovereignty, while a union with Russia is ruled out.

Aside from external threats, there is also an internal threat to sovereignty. The Georgian political class inherited a poorly integrated country at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. Its territory was home to many ethnic minorities and noticeable differences existed within the core Kartvelian ethnos itself. The novel Moon Stealing authored by Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, the first Georgian President’s father, shows graphically the difference between life in Tbilisi and in the highlands of Svaneti province. Georgian political unity (in contrast to ethnic, historical or cultural unity) was a project rather than a reality at the time. Moreover, it was a project conceived by a thin layer of intellectuals and it was theoretical and excessively emotional.

In addition, the Georgian national independence movement faced the danger of symmetrical moves by the Abkhazians and Ossetes from the very start. The April 9 rally on Rustaveli Avenue began as an act of protest against the famous Lykhny appeal of March 18, 1989, in which the Abkhazians demanded that the status of their autonomous republic be raised to the level of a union republic. This bred apprehensions about the country’s integrity and mistrust towards regional and local elites. It also explains why the Georgian authorities rejected so vehemently all proposals that would suggest first a federative and then a confederative status for Abkhazia. Such projects were viewed as a menace to Georgia’s sovereignty and integrity. It was also during Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s presidency that the authorities outlawed the setting up of regional political parties. In Russia, a country that also has traditional apprehensions for its own territorial integrity, a legislative provision of this kind appeared only during Vladimir Putin’s presidency.

 “I dream of a time when foreign media mention Georgia only in connection with the quality of services in the tourist industry,” a Georgian politician told a group of Russian reporters once. I would venture to say he is in the minority at home. Georgia is an Eastern Orthodox country and the majority of the politician’s colleagues seem to feel bored if they have no sizable and – importantly – immaterial mission to accomplish. The game that Mikheil Saakashvili led prior to the Five-Day War in August 2008 and that he seeks to continue even now had a global perspective, whatever ironic remarks Moscow may make in this connection. Making a trump card of the contradictions between Russia and the U.S., imposing on the West the idea of the “containment of Moscow,” and making efforts to fit a strategy of regaining Ossetia and Abkhazia into this containment context was a very dangerous, if not irresponsible choice, and Saakashvili had to pay a dear price for it. Still, he revealed a taste for geopolitics, albeit incomparable to his country’s resources. Also consider the fact that the Georgians have no propensity for minute accounting of the balance of international forces, which is vital for the Russian political class.

Tbilisi looks at Moscow’s apprehensions about the prospects of NATO expansion into the Caucasus as an imperial whim of some kind, devoid of any rationale. The logic suggesting that NATO’s expansion to the entire European continent, excluding Russia, will inevitably propel the alliance towards a more active policy against Moscow does not find understanding in Georgia.

One can mock the statements about Georgia being an outpost for the West, which the incumbent Georgian President does often, but let us recall that Georgia was indeed one of the first Christianized states in the world and Shota Rustaveli’s works stand on a par with the best of works of his West European contemporaries. Let us also remember that the Crusaders fought under the banners of David the Builder who defeated the Seljuk Turks in the Battle of Didgori in 1121. The importance of the idea of Georgia’s return to Europe, as the essence of national history for Georgian society, should not be underestimated. Russia was valuable for Georgia in as much as it facilitated this return, for instance, by opening access to university education. The potential of Russia’s Europeanism, as seen by the Georgian elite, was exhausted during the Soviet and post-Soviet years, especially when opportunities arose to get an education at Western universities. This is one of the reasons for the rapid erosion of Russia’s positions in Georgia over the past two decades. Whatever references one can make to the times of Irakly II, today’s Georgia views Russia only as a strong and dangerous neighbor that holds controlling stakes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The “longing for Europe” has but a feeble relationship to the current Georgian political reality. It is clear that Georgia differs from the majority of former Soviet republics with super-presidential political regimes, conspicuous elements of authoritarianism, nontransparent mechanisms of decision-making and subjugation of courts by the executive only in that it has a more open atmosphere of public discussion. Yet it is not accidental that Eduard Shevardnadze, a typical post-Soviet leader, and Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to resemble his predecessor very quickly, made an unequivocal and demonstrative choice in favor of a pro-Western foreign policy. One should scarcely view this as an accomplishment of U.S. secret services and Western nongovernmental organizations – they worked no less actively in neighboring countries as well. It looks like both Shevardnadze and Saakashvili pragmatically responded to a fundamental demand of a considerable part of Georgian society as they sought to consolidate power and the ranks of their supporters.


The conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are usually classified as ethno-political ones. However, this view leaves out the fact that each of them entwines, apart from the obvious ethno-political contradictions (like quarrels around the status and rights of an ethnic minority, limits to the right to national self-determination and the essence of that right), a multitude of other controversies variegated in terms of level and character. These range from inter-communal frictions, evidenced in the plight of the ethnic Georgian population of both republics, to geopolitical ones such as the showdown between Moscow and Washington in the wake of Georgia’s attack on Tskhinval in August 2008, which encompassed issues that extend far beyond the borders of the region.

Russia’s policy towards the two former Georgian autonomous regions over the past twenty or so years is difficult to interpret unless one takes account of the fact that both conflicts have become factors of both foreign and domestic policy for Moscow. The resolutions that the Supreme Soviet and then the Russian State Duma issued on Abkhazia and South Ossetia over the years make one wonder that the Kremlin recognized the two republics’ independence only in August 2008 and not earlier. A significant part of the Russian political elite regards support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia as some kind of compensation for the breakup of the Soviet Union, all the more so since the titular nationalities of both republics voted for preserving the Soviet Union in the referendum of March 17, 1991. The international legal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has always been treated as a symbol of the independence of Russia’s foreign policy, its ability to disregard the indignant reactions of the West, and a sign of the country’s high geopolitical status. Sovereignty and a high geopolitical status have no smaller importance for the Russian establishment than the significance that the Georgian elite attach to Georgia’s independence and to the European choice.

In addition, the Kremlin could not but take account of the close connections that existed in the early 1990s between the Abkhazian national movement and similar movements across the North Caucasus. The Confederation of Mountainous Peoples of the Caucasus that was set up in November 1991 in Sukhum played a crucial role in recruiting and bringing volunteers to Abkhazia. The Confederation posed a serious challenge to the authorities in Russia’s North Caucasus autonomous regions and threatened to destabilize the entire region. Moscow was objectively interested in having the Confederation’s supporters implement their ideas outside of Russia’s borders, especially since the Russian government could not seal the border with Abkhazia reliably enough to prevent volunteers from getting into Abkhazian territory. The outcome was dubious. On the one hand, the outflow of volunteers helped reduce tensions in the North Caucasus republics with a Circassian ethnic component, but on the other hand Abkhazia became a place where many would-be Chechen warlords and field commanders received their first battlefield experience.

As for the foreign-policy dimension of both conflicts, Moscow was undermined by the lack of a strategic approach towards their settlement. It tended to defend Georgia’s territorial integrity as long as it faced the problem of separatism in the North Caucasus. This period produced a set of agreements to settle the conflicts. The documents envisioned that, in one way or another, Abkhazia and South Ossetia should return to the jurisdiction of Georgia.

In the early 2000s, when Moscow succeeded in securing a breakthrough in the situation in Chechnya, its priorities changed. Firstly, by that time Georgia had begun to be perceived as a failed state in Russia and in other countries. The collapse of that state was deemed to be just a matter of time. Secondly, Moscow was running out of tools for influencing Tbilisi. This fact became obvious when the Kremlin failed to get any substantial assistance from President Shevardnadze for counteracting the Chechen militants who had deployed their bases on Georgia’s territory. Abkhazia and South Ossetia then became areas where Russia could build up its influence in case the Georgian statehood collapsed, on one hand, and the critically needed levers for exerting pressure on the neighboring country, on the other. The latter must have been the rationale behind the mass issuance of Russian passports to the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In all these cases Russia acted on the presumptions of Realpolitik and this deprived it of room to maneuver with regard to the two republics. The population of both conflict regions consisted of Russian citizens and Moscow could neither “surrender” them nor overtly extend its protection over them, as previous agreements with Georgia forbade this. Besides, Moscow viewed its special relationship with Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and, prior to May 2004, with Adzharia – as an important instrument of control over the situation in the South Caucasus. It was not accidental that the leaders of the three former autonomous regions of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic gave a news conference in Moscow during the ‘revolution of the roses’ – they willy-nilly showed Georgia’s new leaders where the keys to the territorial problems were to be sought. In the summer of 2004 Mikheil Saakashvili sent troops into South Ossetia, thus making it clear that he intended to grab these keys out of Russia’s hands, and Moscow could not but view this as a threat. It responded by building up a “special relationship” with Sukhum and Tskhinval – including direct involvement in a military conflict and recognition of their independence.

For fairness’ sake one must mention the rumors in Russia and Georgia likewise suggesting that it was still possible to reach an agreement of some kind. For instance, the sides might have agreed on a gradual reintegration of South Ossetia into Georgia in exchange for the latter’s renunciation of accession to NATO. However, besides the moral aspect of such a deal (the unrecognized state and its population would have turned into a bargaining chip), its practical implementation would have inevitably run into a multitude of obstacles.

First, by 2004 mutual mistrust between Moscow and Tbilisi had reached a point where neither side could count on the other to abide by the agreements. In theory, trust might have been regained but this would have meant renouncing the strategies that Moscow and Tbilisi were implementing: Russia sought to build up special relations with the two unrecognized republics and Georgia intended to incorporate the re-integration problem into the context of the U.S. policy of deterring Russia. To renounce these strategies, in turn, the sides would have needed elementary trust in each other.

Second, the governments would have to somehow present the deal to domestic audiences. The Georgian leader would have found this difficult due to the aforesaid importance of his country’s “pro-Western choice.” By renouncing it under pressure from Moscow, Saakashvili would have immediately faced accusations of bartering with sovereignty. As for Vladimir Putin, he would have disappointed – at the very least – the people who deemed friendship with Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be a compensation for the collapse of the Soviet Union and a symbol of Russia’s independent foreign policy.

Third, as recently as late 2003, Moscow learned a bitter lesson with the collapse of a similar deal with Moldova. The signing of the Dmitry Kozak memorandum, which envisioned the return of the Dniester region under Moldovan jurisdiction and the maintenance of a Russian military presence in the region for a period of twenty years, was frustrated – not without the efforts of European and U.S. diplomacy. There were no guarantees that the situation with Georgia would not turn out the same way, and the price of failure in the Caucasus might prove to be much higher.

Fourth, the implementation of the deal would not have been as simple for Moscow as some in Georgia think, even if all the numerous obstacles had been eliminated. Throughout the 1990s, Russia had been trying hard to settle the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia through recognition of independent Georgia within the borders of the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, and these efforts particularly intensified during Yevgeny Primakov’s tenure as foreign minister. But both self-proclaimed republics offered fierce resistance to this model of peace settlement. If one takes South Ossetia in 2004, there would have had to be a change of power as a minimum and the development of effective mechanisms to ensure the rights of the Ossete minority, including formal and informal guarantees of security for the leaders of the unrecognized republic were it to return to Tbilisi’s jurisdiction. In other words, the deal did not eliminate the need to settle the conflict. There are virtually no historical precedents where such disputes have been settled by maintaining the territorial integrity of a split state. Not that a scenario in this vein is impossible in principle, but its implementation would require impressive resources, many years of effort and the presence of an unwavering political will.

Fifth, it is doubtful that the sides really heard one another when they discussed the prospects of the deal (if it was in fact discussed). Making decisions of this scale solely on the basis of information that the state leaders usually exchange at negotiations is no easy matter, while the level of contacts between Russian and Georgian experts was low. The two countries did not have an unofficial authoritative channel for discussing the problems of bilateral relations. The institutions that should have considered creating such a platform were preoccupied with fostering special relationships with the unrecognized republics to exasperate the Georgian leadership. If the experience of relations with Georgia over the past 20 years can teach us anything, it should be that the logic of Realpolitik, tough force and efforts by official state agencies are insufficient for building effective relations with neighbors.


Georgia met the 20th anniversary of the tragedy on Rustaveli Avenue in a condition of profound crisis. Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been lost de jure, the hopes for a speedy integration into NATO had collapsed, and the plans for European integration were ephemeral. The strict orientation of Georgia’s foreign policy towards the U.S. turned out to be far less effective for solving national objectives than had been thought earlier. At any rate, Washington’s assistance to Georgia in its standoff with Moscow was limited and insufficient for achieving any tangible results.

While economic and political reforms stalled, their social repercussions manifested themselves in full. Mikheil Saakashvili said in an interview in April 2009 that about 250,000 people had lost their jobs in the course of economic reforms and it was they and their relatives who had taken to the streets in Tbilisi waving demands for his resignation. It is difficult to say to what extent this figure reflects reality, but it definitely points to the high cost of the social upheaval that the country has endured in recent years. The President and opposition leaders failed to summon the courage to join together in honoring those who had died on Rustaveli Avenue. A societal split might be too strong a phrase for describing the situation – Georgian society is rather disillusioned and depressed than split – but the absence of a consolidated political class is obvious.

Generous foreign aid to Georgia is cushioning the impact of the global economic crisis. The U.S. alone has allocated a billion dollars to the country in the twelve months after the Five-Day War. This is slightly less than one-tenth of Georgia’s GDP (estimated at 12 billion dollars in 2008). Also, the Brussels conference of donor countries is to allocate 4.5 billion dollars to Georgia in the next three years, which is enough to keep infrastructure projects going, support the national economy on the whole and avert the growth of tensions in society. The real trouble is that the country remains poor. It is unclear whether or not after the crisis the authorities will succeed in setting into motion the previous model of economic growth, which was based on attracting foreign investment. This model was born in the pre-crisis world and no one can guarantee that it will work in a post-crisis environment.

In essence, August 2008 witnessed the failure of the nation-state project that Georgia embarked on at the end of the 1980s and that took final shape during Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency. In a very broad sense, its contours were to be as follows: a state (ideally a unitary one) within the borders of the former Georgian SSR furnished with modern democratic institutions and a market economy, integrated into Western security organizations (NATO) and having close links to the EU. If one ignores for the time being the territorial problem and the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (firmly rooted in symmetric nationalistic myths), the project is far from unique. A variety of East European and Central European countries, from Croatia to Estonia, have implemented it successfully over the past twenty years. Incidentally, most of these countries, too, have their ethno-political skeletons in the closet.

It is worth noting that the boundary between the countries that have proven to be successful with such projects and those which have not (so far?) coincides with the external border of the CIS. This very circumstance produces the question: Has the CIS a greater internal commonness than people think or is it more effective in promoting Russia’s interests than we have come to believe?

As for Georgia (which has quit the CIS), it made a fatal error and doomed the above project to failure when it made an attempt to reintegrate its territory and incorporate the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the context of the Russian-American security standoff. Had Saakashvili been less impatient and had he refrained from declaring NATO membership his prime foreign policy guideline, events could have taken a completely different turn.

The main outcome of the acute phase of Georgia’s internal political crisis (spring 2009) is that it has proved to be infertile. It has not brought the country to the discussion of a new paradigm of national development. The opposition’s ideas boil down to the demand for Saakashvili’s resignation, and the presidential team hopes for a new opportunity to recapture South Ossetia and Abkhazia by force while maintaining its previous foreign policy objectives and style of governing the country. Since such an opportunity will arise only if Russia slides into a deep internal political crisis that would push it to the verge of disintegration, Georgia seems to be living in anticipation of such a turn of events. It is not ruled out that Tbilisi is pondering options for exerting a destabilizing impact on the North Caucasus. But a collapse on such a scale is definitely not in the cards for Russia, despite all the complexities of the economic crisis and the instability in the North Caucasus territories. Furthermore, Tbilisi’s calculations that Russia would be plunged into international isolation after the Five-Day War have failed.

Should the Georgian political class be accused of a lack of ideas for overcoming the crisis? There is a strong justification for this lack. An update of the national development paradigm demands answers to a set of complex, intertwined questions. How can the government eliminate the marginalization of the section of society that has fallen victim to the “social engineering” of the presidential team? And how can one ensure political representation for this constituency’s interests and thereby consolidate the regime? How can a new wave of property redistribution be prevented following the inevitable change of state power? Is there a method for pulling Georgia’s foreign policy out of the detrimental context of the Moscow-Washington standoff? Finally, how can the process of building the institutions of democracy be rehabilitated amid a smoldering political crisis and with an apparently weakening leader? Questions of this sort puzzle even mature political elites and Georgia has been an independent state for less than twenty years.

Russia has a limited scope of influence on the choice that Georgia will have to make. We must take due account of the fact that any Georgian politician who dares declare his pro-Russian feelings will automatically arouse the suspicions of the majority of Georgians as an “agent of Moscow” or an “accomplice of the aggressor.” Although the groups within Georgia’s political class that see dialogue with Russia as a way to solve key national problems ought to be supported, one should keep in mind that once in power they will face the very same questions that Mikheil Saakashvili cannot find answers to today. A pro-Russian political stance per se will not bring about a solution to these problems, all the more so since Moscow will be unable to change the pro-Western drift of Georgia’s policies even if it revokes the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, since this drift has very profound root causes. Russia’s interest lies more in helping the “European” side of Georgia’s political identity to gradually squeeze out the “Atlantic” side.

There are some grounds to hope for such a course of events. Nicolas Sarkozy’s mediation efforts in August 2008 and the Heidi Tagliavini mission report that was endorsed both in Moscow and Tbilisi make the EU an important player in the South Caucasus. Yet two questions remain. The first is the degree to which the EU is prepared to assume the role of a global political player and conduct a serious dialogue on security problems with Moscow. The second is how Russia will come to terms with the European side of its own identity and to what degree it is prepared to accept growing EU influence in the Caucasus.

Frankly speaking, the August 2008 conflict showed that Georgia’s sovereignty in the current international configuration will be restricted by Russia in any case – either substantively (the inadmissibility of Georgia joining military and political blocs that Moscow finds to be hostile) or in territorial terms (recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia regards as its own territories). Or both, which is essentially what is happening now. It is not that none of Georgia’s politicians realized it or that none of them was prepared to overcome the unwillingness to discuss practical aspects of the problem with Russia. Yet practically no one believed in the possibility of reaching agreement. “It’s impossible to make deals with KGB people,” an influential Georgian politician said on the issue.

Even if we leave aside the very specific view on Russian reality that is common even among the upper echelons of the bureaucracy in Tbilisi, one thing is obvious: the Georgians do not know to what degree Russia is going to restrict their country’s sovereignty. For instance, does neutral status imply that all key appointments at ministries overseeing defense and security have to be vetted by Moscow – the way it was done during at least part of Eduard Shevardnadze’s term of office?

This question refers more to Russia than Georgia. The logic of Realpolitik pushes Russia not towards defining for itself the limits to restricting the sovereignty of neighbors, but towards taking as much sovereignty from its neighbors as – using Yeltsin’s famous metaphor – it can swallow. This approach rules out long-term agreements. In the absence of a definitive set of clear, open and attainable requirements for its neighbors, Russia’s foreign policy in the former Soviet Union risks getting stuck at the level of petty tactical games and opportunistic exchanges.

Last updated 20 december 2009, 15:54

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