Twenty Years of Drifting Apart
No. 4 2009 October/December
Nikolai Silayev

А 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.

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


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

 “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

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

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

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

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.