Just three years have passed since the brief Russia-Georgia war, yet it seems like a fact of our distant past. This and other post-Soviet conflicts have been overshadowed by the many subsequent upheavals of international magnitude, such as the worldwide financial crisis, the advent of a Democrat administration in the United States, the solvency crisis in several euro-zone economies, the wave of popular uprisings that swept across North Africa and the Middle East, rising tensions in countries of East Asia, and the faltering anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan. All these events have sidelined the confrontation between the “budding Georgian democracy” and the “Imperialist Russia.” Yet, the issues that led to that five-day war still remain. And it would be wrong to claim that Moscow has taken action to solve them.
On the upside, Russia-Georgia tensions seem to have subsided now and it doesn’t look like they will rise again any time soon. And that status quo establishes some clear, albeit unwritten, rules of conduct for the two nations. Even European Union inspectors monitoring developments on the Russian-Georgian border concede as much in private.
That said the situation remains complex. Moscow underestimated the resilience of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s position. Right after the war, there was a sense that Georgian history would repeat itself, engendering yet another spiral of political turmoil and the overthrow of the incumbent president, the third one since the small Caucasus state gained its independence from the Soviet Union.
But those expectations have been proven wrong. Once the shock had passed, the Georgian leader turned his audacious politicking into a lucrative business.
Georgia has managed to secure both the West’s political support, and a sizeable recovery package of $4.5 billion. Whatever they think of his actions, Western leaders cannot abandon their ally at a time like this.
Georgia’s authorities have created both the convenient post-conflict image of Russia as a belligerent villain, and an ideal excuse to persecute domestic political dissent, whether or not it is related to Moscow.
In the year that followed the Russia-Georgia war, especially after Barack Obama took over from George W. Bush as U.S. president, Saakashvili found himself somewhat isolated by the West, which tried to steer clear of grand gestures. But after a while the chill gave way to a thaw. Admittedly, the new rapprochement is a far cry from the 2004-2008 period, when Saakashvili, as a darling of the Bush Administration, enjoyed such generous American support. But at least it is “business as usual” now between Tbilisi and Washington.
Moscow, by contrast, opted to ignore Georgia all those years, and has not yet formulated any clear-cut policy vis-à-vis the whole array of related problems. Its activity in the area has been limited to efforts to boost support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s sovereignty through recruiting some distant developing countries. The feasibility of this bid, however, is disputable as it makes little real difference. It does, however, place Russia and the two breakaway Georgian republics in a ludicrous position.
When Russia unilaterally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, there was perhaps no other option. Had the self-proclaimed republics not received that quasi-legal status, there would have been the continued risk that Russian-Georgian hostilities could resume.
It was clear from the very start that Moscow’s move would create long-term political problems. These problems are less to do with the recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian sovereignty, and more related to the fact that no world power, whatever its attitude to Russia and Georgia, can approve borders changed by force.
This issue will continue to resurface in the most uncomfortable moments, and sure enough, Tbilisi will take care of that.
Russia may find itself in international isolation if it does not support its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with appropriate information campaigns and efforts to secure real (not formal, as has been the case with Vanuatu) legitimacy for the two young nations. It is unlikely that any world power will recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the foreseeable future, but Russia should work to step up informal contacts between these two republics and the international community.
The unresolved conflict in the South Caucasus creates a number of practical difficulties for Russia. First of all, Armenia, a Russian ally, now finds itself in even deeper isolation, especially in terms of military and technological cooperation, as Georgia does not want to see Russia enhance its presence in the region.
Secondly, Abkhazia wants to be independent in both the de facto and de jure senses and is seeking full sovereignty. Friction is therefore inevitable.
Thirdly, Georgia is not standing idly by. It takes calculated risks, trying to further destabilize Russia’s volatile North Caucasus. That region is likely to become increasingly unstable in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
I am deliberately choosing to omit the problem of World Trade Organization accession because at this point, Georgia’s opposition is not the only obstacle to Russia’s WTO bid. Yet this seems to be the only Georgia-related topic currently under discussion in Russia. We should not lose sight of the fact that Tbilisi is adept at pulling Washington’s political strings and that it will attempt to use the U.S. election campaign to its benefit. The popular Russian image of President Saakashvili as an unpredictable psychopath or puppet manipulated by the White House is a comforting delusion and a direct obstacle to objective analysis.
We should acknowledge that the incumbent Georgian president is a strong politician who has an excellent understanding of his objectives and how to achieve them, but who does not always correctly assess his risks. This is why in the next couple of years we are likely to see Tbilisi raise its profile across the international scene. In fact, this process is already underway in the UN and in U.S. Congress. Russia’s position, that as long as this war criminal is in power we’re going to sit back and do nothing, carries with it the risk that solutions will be found, once again, in extremis.