16.11.2008
Regional Conflicts Reloaded
№4 2008 October/December
Sergey Markedonov

Ph.D. (History), is assistant professor at the Regional Studies and Foreign Policy department of the Russian State University for Humanities.

The long-simmering conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia
escalated to a five-day war in August to become the third armed
confrontation between Georgia and South Ossetia in the past 17
years. South Ossetia is legally a part of Georgia, a fact Russia
had acknowledged until August 26. However, the latest fighting
differed markedly from the two previous conflicts because it
directly involved Russian armed forces.

Unlike individual Russian servicemen who acted spontaneously in
the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-1993, Moscow did not merely
support the Russian army’s operation. The Kremlin called it “an
operation to compel Georgia toward peace,” aimed at saving the
Ossetian people from a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe. Unlike
previous Georgian-Ossetian confrontations (in 1991-1992, 1992-1993
and 2004), the United States and the European Union took an active
part in the conflict. Ukraine played a role as well: its tough
stance on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – which participated in the
operation – was an impediment to its movements.

For the first time Tbilisi was simultaneously fighting its two
separatist provinces – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – on two fronts.
The events in and around South Ossetia made international
headlines. At the onset of the five-day war the UN Security Council
met three times to discuss the situation in the Caucasus. For the
first time since the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan
over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991-1994, the mass media published
alarming forecasts regarding the possibility of the Caucasus
becoming a launch pad for a new large war.

But the most important consequence of the five-day war was
Moscow’s official recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia. Now the two autonomous republics of Georgia have
joined the group of partially recognized states, such as Taiwan,
Kosovo and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. They have not
become countries recognized by the UN, but have achieved
full-fledged relations with a country that is a member of the
nuclear club with veto power at the UN Security Council.

FROM LOCAL SKIRMISHES TO A CONFLICT OF GLOBAL SIGNIFICANCE

The Georgian-Ossetian conflict was the first ethnic
confrontation in post-Soviet Georgia that escalated into a
full-scale clash. The South Ossetian Autonomous Region within the
Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic – the precursor of the
unrecognized state the Republic of South Ossetia – was established
on April 20, 1922. The territory of this nation-state made up 6.5
percent of the total territory of Georgia (3,840 square
kilometers). According to the Soviet census of 1989, there were
98,500 people living in South Ossetia at that time (63,200
Ossetians; 28,500 Georgians; 2,100 Russians; and 900
representatives of Jewish ethnic groups). The number of Ossetians
in Georgia totaled 165,000 as of 1989, or 3 percent of the
population. Some 100,000 Ossetians lived in inland Georgia, with
the largest communities living in Tbilisi, Gori and Rustavi. The
legal status of South Ossetia in the pre-crisis period was
regulated by the law on the South Ossetian Autonomous Region,
adopted in 1980.

The conflict passed through several stages: from a local
confrontation that was little known and of little interest to the
world community, to an event of international significance.

The first stage (1988-1989) might be called
ideological. During this period, the conflicting parties identified
their claims against each other and composed plausible
ethno-political guidelines of a future conflict.

The second was a political-legal stage
(1989-1991) that marked two years of a law-making (“status”) war
between Georgia and South Ossetia.

On September 20, 1989, the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic
published draft laws infringing upon the rights of the South
Ossetian Autonomous Region. Two months later, on November 10, 1989,
a session of People’s Deputies of the South Ossetian Autonomous
Region promoted the region’s status to an Autonomous Republic
within Georgia. Tbilisi was furious at the move which unilaterally
gave South Ossetia a higher status. On November 16, 1989, the
Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian Soviet Socialist
Republic annulled the decision of the South Ossetian Autonomous
Region Council. A week later, thousands of Georgian nationalists
marched to Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, in a reprisal
that claimed the first casualties.

The event that followed next played a key role in the escalation
of the conflict. On December 11, 1990, Georgia’s Supreme Soviet
declared the South Ossetian Autonomy null and void. Simultaneously,
the Soviet authorities declared a state of emergency in the South
Ossetian Autonomy, while the Georgian leadership launched a
blockade of South Ossetia.

During the third stage, armed fighting broke
out between Georgia and South Ossetia (January 1991–July 1992). On
January 6, 1991, Soviet Interior Ministry troops left Tskhinvali
for their barracks and a six-thousand-strong unit of Georgian
militants entered the city, causing destruction and killing
civilians.

The capital of South Ossetia saw three assaults in the course of
the hostilities (in February and March of 1991, and in June 1992).
North Ossetia, a Russian region in the North Caucasus, was dragged
into the conflict. It was flooded with 43,000 refugees from South
Ossetian and Georgian districts. The Kremlin could not directly
control North Ossetia’s actions. Moreover, Vladikavkaz insisted it
would sign a federal treaty on the condition that Moscow supported
South Ossetia (in one form or another). In late May 1992, North
Ossetia blocked the pipeline running to Georgia.
On June 24, 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Georgian
President Eduard Shevardnadze signed the Dagomys (Sochi) accords on
the principles of settling the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict. A
peacekeeping operation began on July 14, as Russia, Georgia and
North Ossetia deployed their peacekeeping contingents in the area,
and the Joint Control Commission was set up to monitor the
ceasefire arrangements. One hundred villages were burned and more
than 1,000 people were killed in the fighting.

The armed conflict was thus “frozen” and this signified the
beginning of the fourth stage, which continued
until May 2004.

Unlike Abkhazia, South Ossetia never saw large-scale ethnic
cleansing of the Georgian population. Georgians and Ossetians lived
peacefully side by side until August 2008. The Constitution of the
self-proclaimed Autonomous Republic of South Ossetia recognized
Georgian as a minority language. Exchanges of fire, blockades and
provocations stopped, and a relative peace set in. There was a
direct bus link between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali until 2004; there
were markets where Georgians and Ossetians traded together, such as
Ergneti; and Georgia and South Ossetia mutually recognized license
plates on cars from both countries.

It should be noted that in the post-war conditions smuggling
made up the backbone of the economy of the territory with a
“deferred status,” and both ethnic groups were involved in
smuggling. This shadow economy strongly attached South Ossetia to
Georgia, and was also a major – albeit informal –
confidence-building measure for the two conflicting
communities.

North Ossetia’s President Alexander Dzasokhov, who was elected
in 1998, can be credited with playing a key role in easing
tensions, often through direct informal contacts with Eduard
Shevardnadze, who was a colleague of his from the former Politburo
and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union. Moreover, a considerable positive potential in the
settlement process was amassed during 12 years.

First, the peacekeeping mission was jointly performed by Russian
and Georgian battalions.

Second, important documents were signed providing for the
rehabilitation of the conflict territory. Of special note is the
Memorandum on the Security and Confidence-Building Measures Between
the Parties to the Georgian-Ossetian Conflict dated May 16, 1996,
and a Russian-Georgian intergovernmental agreement dated December
3, 2000, On Interaction to Rebuild the Economy in the Zone of the
Georgian-Ossetian Conflict, and On the Return of Refugees.

The fifth stage can be described as
“unfreezing” the conflict. It began with attempts by Tbilisi to
revise the balance of forces in South Ossetia and the
political-legal format of the settlement. The Rose Revolution in
Georgia in October-November 2003 and Mikheil Saakashvili’s stunning
victory in the presidential election in January 2004 (he got a
landslide 97 percent of the votes) were all mobilized by a
“patriotic resource,” as was the case in the 1990s. In their
speeches, Saakashvili and his associates called for rebuilding one
Georgia and taking revenge for “national humiliation” in South
Ossetia and Abkhazia.

On May 31, 2004, Georgia sent 300 special task force fighters to
South Ossetia under the pretext of combating smuggling, but without
consulting the Joint Control Commission (JCC). JCC participants
branded the move as a breach of the Dagomys accords of 1992.
Georgia then accused the Russian peacekeepers of ethnic bias and
crimes. On July 20, 2004, the Georgian president publicly stated
that he did not rule out a denunciation of the Dagomys accords: “If
the Georgian flag cannot be hoisted in the territory of the
Tskhinvali district within the framework of the agreements, I’m
prepared to walk out on them.”

Saakashvili’s statement indicated three goals he was striving to
achieve:

  • internationalize the Georgian-Ossetian conflict by involving
    the United States and European countries in its settlement;
  • reformat the conflict from Georgian-Ossetian to
    Georgian-Russian, and present it as a manifestation of Russian
    neo-imperialism;
  • reject Russia’s exclusive role as the guarantor of peace in the
    region.

It is the realization of these goals that became the
quintessence of the fifth stage of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict.
A second war began in South Ossetia from August 8-19, 2004. The
parties did not only use small arms in this confrontation, but also
artillery. Although the warring sides had stopped fighting briefly
by the end of the month, August (a fateful period in the conflict)
2004 marked the beginning of a new wave of shellings, attacks,
provocations and blockades of vital lines of communications. From
this time on, the tactics of “small incidents of overreaction
involving the military” became daily routine in South Ossetia.

This brief war (which has been forgotten and eclipsed by “the
hot August” of 2008) was a turning point in Russian policy in the
region. Until 2004, Moscow had been anxious to stay unbiased and
neutral, and keep the status-quo as the best way out. After 2004,
Russia, realizing that the security of the whole North Caucasus
depended on the situation in South Ossetia, de facto took the side
of the self-proclaimed republic.

First, Moscow began to view Tskhinvali as an instrument to
influence Tbilisi (which had started out by then not just on a very
pro-American, but also on an anti-Russian path).

Second, the loss of South Ossetia was seen as a threat to Russia
itself. The still unresolved Ossetian-Ingush conflict was closely
linked to the situation around the self-proclaimed republic.
In 2004-2006, the Georgian parliament adopted a range of
resolutions calling the Russian peacekeeping mission “negative,”
and Russia’s actions as “an undisguised annexation.” In the autumn
of 2006, Tbilisi launched the project of “an alternative South
Ossetia” by putting the Georgian flag into the hands of Dmitry
Sanakoyev, a former prime minister and defense minister of South
Ossetia. The purpose of the project was to reformat the negotiating
process (by actually giving up direct dialog with Tskhinvali).

In March 2007, Tbilisi created a provisional administration in
the territory of South Ossetia, a move which effectively ditched
the talks with Tskhinvali. Tbilisi tried to secure the
international legitimization of Sanakoyev (he took part in forums
in Strasbourg and Brussels, and was viewed as a “constructive”
representative of the Ossetian side, unlike Eduard Kokoity).

The policy of “unfreezing” culminated in the transfer of the
Georgian peacekeeping battalion under control of the Georgian
Defense Ministry (it was earlier subordinate to the joint command
of peacekeeping forces), and repeated calls by Georgia’s
Reintegration Minister Temuri Yakobashvili to withdraw from the
existing formats of peaceful settlement. In addition, in July 2006,
Georgia, in violation of the basic Moscow agreement on the
ceasefire and disengagement dated May 14, 1994, deployed army and
police units in the upper part of the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. The
Moscow agreement declared it to be a demilitarized zone. The status
quo therefore was breached there as well. The conflicting parties
stopped negotiating.

Georgia’s tough (and not always adequate) actions in 2004-2008
can hardly be explained without taking into account an external
factor, though it was not decisive. In 2003, a frustrated Georgian
society of the Shevardnadze era came up with a bid for a stronger
country which was understood as territorially integral. But support
of Tbilisi, first of all from the United States (military-technical
assistance, diplomatic patronage and rapprochement with NATO) led
the Georgian leadership to believe that the West would approve of
any of their actions.

Tbilisi was feeling increasingly confident as the United States
and its allies turned a blind eye to the violations of peace
accords with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and reacted half-heartedly
to backtracking from democratic standards inside the country: such
as a crackdown on the opposition on November 7, 2007, and the use
of administrative resource to fight the opposition during elections
in Adzharia in 2004 and at municipal elections in 2006.

In 2008, Moscow also contributed to the “unfreezing” of
conflicts in Georgia. On March 21, the State Duma adopted a
statement which outlined two conditions for a possible recognition
of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia’s
accession to NATO and use of force against the two self-proclaimed
republics). In April, Vladimir Putin, as the outgoing Russian
president, instructed the federal government to provide
“substantive assistance” to the people of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia. The instruction envisioned, among other things, the
establishment of direct contacts between Moscow and Tskhinvali and
Sukhumi. The West, whose response was immediate and tough, said
that Georgia’s territorial integrity was its priority.

Nevertheless, the status quo was disrupted in South Ossetia
before August 7, 2008, and, to a lesser extent, in Abkhazia as
well. During the armed clashes four years ago, some 70 people died
(today these casualties have simply been forgotten), while in
subsequent years the number of deaths on each side (according to
different estimates) totaled 100. Quantity evolved into quality in
August 2008. The tactics of the escalation of violence led to an
assault on Tskhinvali and a tough response from Russia (which
apparently was unexpected for both Tbilisi and the West).
Therefore, Saakashvili’s military-political adventurism and
Russia’s direct intervention in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict
stemmed from the preceding “conflict unfreezing” stage.

FAREWELL TO THE NINETIES

The new spiral of confrontation in South Ossetia not just
reconfigured, politically and legally, two hot spots in the
Commonwealth of Independent States and changed the setup of forces,
it seriously affected the entire ethnic-political situation in
Eurasia. According to Ukrainian researcher Vitaly Kulik, “the
system of regional security, which formed after the breakup of the
Soviet Union, is unable to effectively respond to new challenges.
Therefore, the territory of the former Soviet Union acutely felt a
lack of security.”

From this time on, the Caucasus (and possibly the entire Black
Sea region and even the CIS in general) saw the old rules of the
game cease to function. References to agreements and legal
standards, reached in the early 1990s, are absolutely unavailing.
Of course, these can and will be referred to, but they no longer
will have the legitimacy acknowledged by various players both
inside and outside the CIS.

Using the terminology of programmers, we can claim that August
2008 saw a final reloading of conflicts in Eurasia. A very
important precedent was created when legal and political agreements
that maintained the status quo and an unchanging situation no
longer apply. Neither Georgia (which fully rejected the Dagomys and
Moscow agreements on Abkhazia and South Ossetia), nor Russia, whose
leadership now takes a broader view of peacekeeping operations,
abide by them. A simple addition of naval crews in Abkhazia’s Black
Sea zone, involved in the operation to push Georgia to peace,
clearly shows that the quota of peacekeepers has been exceeded.

One cannot fail to notice the use of special task forces in the
conflict zones, who by definition are no peacekeepers; or the
advance of Russian troops beyond the geographic borders of the
security zones stipulated by the agreements of 1992 and 1994 (Gori,
Poti and Senaki). Of course, many Russian actions were a reaction
to the “unfreezing of the conflict” started by Georgia and,
moreover, to the escalation of the conflict. Anyway, they
objectively work against the earlier rules of the game.

In 2008, confrontations within the CIS attained a qualitatively
new level. Although they were primarily caused in the early 1990s
by the breakup of the Soviet Union, today they are motivated not by
past inertia, but by the current dynamics of the development and
construction of new nation-states. While clashes in the early 1990s
were “deferred payments” on the debts of the “evil empire,” the
present-day clashes are new claims of payment. “Frozen conflicts”
are a thing of the past decade, which disappeared together with
Yeltsin’s generation. Now conflicts are conceived and resolved by
the post-Soviet generation of politicians, who work out new rules
as the game progresses. We are going to see quite soon what kind of
configuration will develop.

In 2008, not only states in the South Caucasus, but also Ukraine
signaled their wish to walk out of earlier agreements. Kyiv’s
attempt to not allow Russian Black Sea Fleet warships access to
their base in the Crimea is a blow to the whole range of
Russian-Ukrainian accords. Obviously, the agreement on Russia’s
naval presence in Ukraine implied a dedicated use of Russia’s task
force, and in Russian national interests.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union the first revision of
borders of a once common state occurred. This was not necessarily
viewed as legitimate. The breakup of the Soviet Union along the
borders of the Soviet republics (which appeared logical) evoked a
controversial response within former autonomous areas, which never
viewed the independence of former Soviet republics as their ideal.
Thus, the ethnic conflicts with winners and losers.

A number of states, displeased with the “first revision”
results, were looking for a rematch, and so they attempted “a
second revision” with the help of various external forces. The
losers hated the status quo after the “freeze-up of the conflict,”
and changing it by any means necessary was seen as priority. The
political-legal groundwork guaranteeing this status quo was of
little concern.

Today, politicians and experts do not know the precise number of
casualties in South Ossetia from the five-day war. These figures
are political math for the interested parties. The war effectively
destroyed the infrastructure of “unrecognized citizens” rather than
“Kokoity’s regime.” Without Russian intervention, the former
autonomy within Georgia would have suffered the same fate as the
Republic of Serbian Krajina, which was smitten by Croatia (since it
was fighting for territorial integrity) together with the Serbs who
lived there in 1995. Southern Russia saw an influx of thousands of
Ossetian refugees (their numbers are estimated at 20,000 to
30,000). This makes up half of the population of the
self-proclaimed republic.

The five days in August became a veritable catastrophe for
Tbilisi as well. The “One Georgia” project ended up in complete
failure. The new spiral of violence (in South Ossetia in
particular) made a peaceful reintegration of the breakaway
republics impossible. After the war – the third in the past 17
years – “the unrecognized citizens” will not likely listen to any
of Tbilisi’s proposals. Moreover, Georgia got a new portion of some
20,000 refugees, this time from South Ossetia where, unlike
Abkhazia, even after the first war of 1991-1992, Georgians lived
side by side with Ossetians. Now the Georgian community of South
Ossetia suddenly found themselves the outcasts.

At the same time, one cannot fail to see that in 2004-2008 the
villages of the so-called Liakhvi corridor (four Georgian villages:
Tamarasheni, Kekhvi, Achabeti and Kurta, located on a 30-kilometer
stretch of the highway between Tskhinvali and Dzhava) were equipped
with stationary concrete fortifications and armed. Georgia also
installed radar equipment there. It is these villages that blocked
Tskhinvali, cutting it off from supplies, and the Trans-Caucasian
highway.

In 2008, the Georgian population of these villages had to pay
for Tbilisi’s adventurism. Alas, as it often happens, not only
those who attacked South Ossetia had to pay, but innocents as well.
The Georgian population of the former autonomy suffered the same
fate as Abkhazia’s Georgians. As one of Georgia’s opposition
politicians aptly noted, “it’s a misfortune that the life and
health of thousands of people were sacrificed to the adolescent
complex of the commander-in-chief.”

According to formal criteria, Russia looks like the winning
side. Its actions, taking into account the interrelation between
the security of the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia, were
justified in many ways. Russia succeeded in preventing the total
destruction of the military-political infrastructure of South
Ossetia. Furthermore, it blasted during the military operation such
strongholds of the Georgian threat to the self-proclaimed republic
as the villages of the so-called Liakhvi corridor.

Russia briefly controlled the town of Gori, the outpost for the
Georgian onslaught in the past two years. Tbilisi had built in Gori
a military hospital, a morgue with a capacity far beyond the needs
of the town in peaceful times, and logistics facilities. The
Georgian units were driven out from the upper part of the Kodori
Gorge, which they entered two years ago.

Moscow’s actions therefore also contributed to the “defrosting
of the conflict,” and the dismantling of the status quo. The
advantages from the confrontation with the West are not yet
obvious, while the losses are all too clear. International attempts
to interfere will step up as security collapses in the Caucasus.
The success of the military campaign may create an illusion in
Moscow that complex problems can be resolved in stride, without
protracted negotiations or complicated procedures. (Was it
difficult to convene the Federation Council to legalize the actions
of Russian troops?)

Recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will
create a precedent that can be used against Russia. U.S. Republican
presidential hopeful John McCain has suggested revising the
approaches of Washington and its allies toward the
self-determination of Chechnya and republics of the North
Caucasus.

SILENT NEIGHBORS

Russia took military actions beyond its territory for the first
time in years. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian
military and borderguards took part in containing two civil wars in
Tajikistan (1992-1997) and Georgia (1993). Later, the Russian army
only fought on its own territory. In 2008, the format of the
Russian army’s operations abroad differed dramatically from the
experience of both the imperial and Soviet periods.

Russian troops did not want to resolve ideological tasks (as was
the case with the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1849;
and during the events in Budapest in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in
1968). The purpose of the operation was not to expand territory,
which Tbilisi keeps insisting was Moscow’s objective. The action
“to compel Georgia toward peace” was meant to ensure in the first
place the safety of the North Caucasus. Had Russia kept silent
during the attack on South Ossetia, some forces in the North
Caucasus might have tried to replay, for example, “the conflict
over North Ossetia’s Prigorodny district.”

The Kremlin’s ineptitude and unwillingness to spell out its
national interests (for fear of looking weak and vulnerable) is
another matter. In any case, Moscow staked out its role in the
post-Soviet terrain in a similar way to the U.S. role in Latin
America, the Israeli role in the Middle East, Australia’s in
Oceania, and France’s in the former colonies of “Black Africa.” It
was an entirely new designation of a zone where Moscow had vital
and legitimate interests.

The CIS project apparently failed, which was also one of the
most important results of the five-day war. It is not just a matter
of Georgia’s withdrawal from the CIS and Ukraine’s readiness to
follow suit. It is a matter of how CIS members feel about this
alliance.

Even Kazakhstan, which has a reputation of being Russia’s main
Eurasian partner, “refrained” from any clear opinion on this issue.
Armenia, Russia’s other ally, also took a break. Representatives of
the Armenian Defense Ministry hastened to state on August 10, 2008
that air raids against Georgian air bases had not been launched
from the Russian base in Armenia. Uzbekistan did not say much
despite Russia’s support during the events in Andijan in 2005, nor
did Tajikistan, whose territorial integrity Russia defended in
1992-1997. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said that “conflicts
such as the one that happened between Russia and Georgia should be
resolved solely on the basis of international law and only through
political and diplomatic means.”

The Council of Defense Ministers of the Collective Security
Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Yerevan on August 21, 2008 was unable
to come up with a consolidated view of the situation in the South
Caucasus. A majority of CIS members have their own “separatist
skeletons in the closet,” and so fear Russia’s excessive
strengthening, seeing in it a hypothetic threat to their unity. It
follows that the CSTO is no good as an instrument for working out
common approaches and common methods of settling conflicts.

Admittedly, GUAM – an alternative to the CIS made up of Georgia,
Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova – also failed to show effectiveness
and unity in their positions.

Ukraine, through its president, took a pro-Georgian position
although opinions within the country differed greatly. A statement
by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry on August 8, 2008 in support of
Georgia’s territorial integrity was hailed by Georgian diplomats.
It contained general phrases on the conformity of the Georgian
operation to “international law,” but did not have a follow-up.
Baku, unlike Tbilisi, has not built its foreign policy on a tough
confrontational basis: rather it views Russia as counterweight to
the West, with which Azerbaijan’s relations are not as unequivocal
as Tbilisi’s.

Baku is also afraid of being dragged into the Iranian game, in
which it would play the role of a runway, or a territory used to
accommodate a retaliatory strike by Iran. Hence the drive to
appreciate relations with Russia, which are mostly friendly, albeit
complicated. The same caution underlies the position of Moldova,
which is ready to accept important Russian conditions for the sake
of establishing control over the self-proclaimed Dniester Moldovan
Republic, such as refusing to join NATO, neutrality and recognition
of Russian property in its territory.

A special issue raised by the five-day war is self-determination
of the self-proclaimed republics. In the early 1990s, they were
viewed as an annoying burden for Russia. But, seeing a correlation
between these breakaway regions with security in the North
Caucasus, the Kremlin adjusted its positions. Having frozen
conflicts in the early 1990s, Russia gave its consent to the
existence of these regions as the main result of these conflicts.
The “frozen status” envisioned delaying a solution to the conflict
until things got better; such as a more advantageous political
situation or a compromise between the parties.

In such a situation it would have been unwise to talk about the
status of disputed territories. Therefore, the tentative status of
the de-facto states reflected the political reality of the previous
decade. The reality implied keeping the status quo and the lack of
active military action (however, such attempts were made in
Abkhazia in 1998 and 2001, though their scope never matched
Tskhinvali-2008). It gave hope that the parties might reach an
accord in one form or another.

Mikheil Saakashivili dramatically upped the ante in the “land
collecting” game, having forgotten that the cause of Georgia’s
“territorial castration” was not the territories per se, but the
people living there. Self-determination of the unrecognized states
henceforth became another instrument of Russian influence, which
cannot fail to evoke apprehension in its neighbors.

The territory of the former Soviet Union changed on August 26,
2008 with the creation of a precedent in redrawing the borders of
former Soviet republics. The groundwork of the post-Soviet world,
functional since December 1991, has collapsed. Two new states have
appeared on the map of the former Soviet Union. The argument that
only Russia has recognized them essentially does not change
anything. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was only
recognized by Turkey back in 1983, yet for 25 years it has been a
factor in Black Sea-Mediterranean policy. This de-facto state
recognized the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria,
and it was a much tougher opponent than Turkey in 2003 to the U.S.
decision to begin its military operation in Iraq.

One might say Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to recognize South
Ossetia and Abkhazia was too emotional. Admittedly, he might have
waited until he had found at least a couple of allies before making
his statement. Perhaps Moscow should have taken into account the
possible repercussions, such as attempts to turn the
Abkhazian-Ossetian precedent against Russia. But Medvedev had
little room to maneuver after the “hot August of 2008.” He could
either show weakness – and provoke political instability in the
North Caucasus – or legally fix the new reality and Russia’s
legitimate interest. The Russian president chose the second
option.

Finally, the United States, the countries of Old Europe and the
European Union’s new members have no consolidated position: the
limits of the West’s resources to adequately influence the
situation are too obvious. They have shown many emotions, and still
more ideological and old stereotypes, but not enough
pragmatism.

As Russian political scientist Andrei Ryabov rightly said about
the different political potentials of the West in the Balkans and
the Caucasus: unlike the Balkan policies, “the Western community
has ideas regarding the South Caucasus, and these ideas are
increasing in number, but their resources – diplomatic, political
and economic – are apparently insufficient to influence the opinion
of the parties to the conflict and to make them agree with the
West’s view of the problem.” Instead, they have excessive ambitions
and inadequate ideas about how we should handle the Caucasus.
In any case, we got an entirely new South Caucasus with a totally
new agenda in August 2008. The work to realize this agenda is just
beginning.