There are two features of the current crisis between Moscow and
Tbilisi that differentiate it from the many difficulties between
the two in the past.
First of all, this crisis has broken out of the
narrow framework of Russian-Georgian relations and onto the global
Secondly, a serious, if risky, calculation can be
discerned behind the actions taken by Georgian President Mikheil
Saakashvili, which have been labeled as impulsive and purely
In the international context, the issue at stake
is the situation in the Balkans. The international contact group is
close to reaching a decision on the status of Kosovo, which has
been at the center of attention all year. The Kosovar Albanian
administration has made its position clear: If the Western powers
do not satisfy its demand for a defined status by the end of the
year — by «defined» the Kosovars mean «independent» — the
situation will spin out of control.
Representatives of the U.S. State Department and
the head of the UN mission in Kosovo, Joachim RЯcker, are hurrying
to reach a verdict. Statements that the negotiations in Vienna are
senseless and that the differences between the two sides are
insurmountable are becoming more common. This leaves only one
option: to impose a solution worked out by the contact group.
Experience suggests that this will mean independence.
As the deadline approaches, it becomes clearer
that the contact group has little choice but to agree to the
Kosovar Albanians’ demands. The fact is that no one has any idea
how to assure security in the region if it doesn’t.
Everything taking place in the Balkans has a
direct influence on the situation in Georgia. If Kosovo is granted
independence, the chances that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will
accept their status as provinces of Georgia will be greatly
This is not simply the result of Russia’s policy
in the region. Should Kosovo be granted independence, no legal or
political arguments will remain that could convince the residents
of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that they do not deserve the same, as
European specialists have already begun to note.
Russia is pressing for the universality of the
Kosovo model. But if the Western powers decide to treat Kosovo as a
unique case, this works for Russia as well. Russia can argue that,
since every case is unique, there should be different solutions for
the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia (for example, granting it
independence), South Ossetia (having it become part of Russia) and
Transdnestr (for example, creating some sort of protectorate).
Tbilisi understands all of this and is trying to
take the lead. Its first goal is to demonstrate that the separatist
enclaves haven’t been permanently cut off from the rest of the
country and that controlling them from the center is still
possible. This is why Tbilisi is defending the Kodori Gorge by
setting up a sort of local government in exile in the area, which
it has labeled «Upper Abkhazia.» Whether Tbilisi will be able to
project its power into the rebellious zone is the key question. If
not, external actors will probably end up recognizing the current
reality and rid themselves of the headache.
The second and more important goal is to
demonstrate once and for all that Russia cannot be considered a
normal participant in regulating the situation in Abkhazia and
South Ossetia, because it is actually one of the sides in the
conflict. To do this, Tbilisi has to push Moscow into more
aggressive and unacceptable actions against Georgia. If Tbilisi is
successful in this, it will automatically receive the support of
the international community and, at the same time, provide a strong
argument for its quick entry into NATO. The alliance will no longer
be an abstract symbol, but instead a means of defense against a
Nonmilitary but severe measures taken by Moscow,
including the blockade, serve Tbilisi’s purpose as well. They
provide the opportunity for Georgia to demonstrate to the whole
world that it is an innocent victim in the conflict. In particular,
it shows Russian leaders emulating the type of boorish behavior of
which their neighbor accuses them. They would also provide the
government with a rallying cry for Georgian society.
Russia should understand the logic behind the
game Georgia is playing. Despite the unprecedented harshness of the
statements made by the Russian side over the last week, Moscow has
avoided taking any irreversible steps. Further, while drawing a
comparison between Saakashvili and Lavrenty Beria, President
Vladimir Putin told the world the removal of Russian troops from
Georgia would continue. The strong psychological pressure from
Moscow seems to have achieved its objective, as the arrested
officers were released and this was greeted in Moscow as proof that
taking a hard line had been the right choice. This could turn out
to be a cruel joke, however.
Tbilisi sparked the conflict masterfully,
arresting the Russians but avoiding long-term responsibility for
them by handing them over to the OSCE. As long as its citizens
remained behind bars, Russia could use this as an excuse for
imposing sanctions. The West, and the United States in particular,
would have understood, since they would have done the same thing in
But now that Georgia has demonstrated some
magnanimity, Russia is not answering with the same civility. This
plays right into Tbilisi’s hands.
Georgia, meanwhile, was able to catch its U.S.
partners in a trap. After Russia tightened the screws, the United
States increased its support for Georgia. Moscow believes that the
Georgian leadership doesn’t lift a finger without getting the OK
from Washington, so it assumed that the United States was behind
the arrests. As a result, relations between the three countries
have been twisted into a single knot.
Georgia is demonstrating its tactical acumen. But
the strategic results of the whole affair are still difficult to
predict. The simultaneous exacerbation of the situation in Kosovo
(as the deadline draws near) and the unrecognized regions in
Georgia will have reciprocal effects, threatening to destabilize
the situation in both cases.
What is the solution? It is important to
understand that the current Russian-Georgian standoff is different
from the skirmishes we have grown accustomed to. It is an
international problem and must be taken seriously. Most of all,
greater involvement is required from the United States, which is
presently focused on other regions of the world.
It’s time to put aside the traditional hypocrisy
and accept that what has developed around Georgia is a sort of mini
Cold War. This calls for responsible behavior from all sides, just
like the original Cold War. Then, everyone involved had a pretty
good idea of what the cost of a mistake would be. Here we have to
be able to see local conflicts in their global context,
significantly raise the quality of policymaking, untie knots very
carefully and, most importantly, work on these issues at the
highest political level.
A zero-sum game by international powers using
Georgia as a playing field could produce a paradoxical result:
These powers could end up hostages of weaker players whom they had
considered their marionettes. This is already evident with regard
to Kosovo and could be the next step in the case of Georgia as