Russia and Georgia’s clash over South Ossetia happened five years ago, but today it feels like an age away. Much has changed since then in Georgia and Russia, as well in all the countries that were indirectly involved in the conflict.
Georgia was the first post-Soviet republic to engage in a direct military clash with Russia, certainly an extraordinary event. Georgia has changed politically since then, with a new government coming to power last fall. The five-day war did not topple Mikheil Saakashvili, as many in Moscow had hoped it would, but it did seriously mar his moral and political image.
Saakashvili’s government little by little abandoned its pro-reform policy and turned into a repressive regime that wanted only one thing: to remain in power at all costs. When a strong political rival appeared three years later, it turned out that Saakashvili’s chair was much shakier than many thought.
Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream, which won the parliamentary elections last fall, has promised to examine the causes of the military conflict and the role of Tbilisi in it. Some members of the current Georgian government have said the country had made gross mistakes, but Georgia is unlikely to do a U-turn on its attitude toward the war. Major damage has been done, and if a leading politician tries too abruptly to change the idea that Georgia was a victim in the events, the political consequences may be unpredictable. It is unclear whether this should be done at all, although such a positive change would be of truly revolutionary importance for relations with Russia and a breakthrough in relations.
The new Georgian authorities are grappling with many problems. But most predictions agree that the Georgian Dream will easily win the presidential election in October and that Saakashvili’s United National Movement is losing weight. But first, Georgia still heavily depends on the West, which sees the Georgian Dream’s attempts to restore political order as a persecution campaign, even if there may be very serious reasons behind it. So the government should move slowly and act prudently.
Second, people heaved a sigh of relief when the previous government’s pressure eased, but they soon became aware of drawbacks in the new democratic rule. Georgians are heatedly discussing their problems, and political life is in full swing, but there have been few practical results so far.
Furthermore, with the United National Movement discredited and no other serious political forces in the country, the government is in a dangerous position, with no opposition to keep it in check. Life without opposition corrupts, as we know from history. But it looks like Georgia has learned its lesson and is unlikely to act opportunistically again.
The West has taken its warning from the Georgian example. The August 2008 war put an end to the idea of NATO’s eastward expansion, which has not been discussed in the West since, at least not in practical terms. Only a major change in US policy would bring this issue back in focus. But so far events have been moving in the opposite direction. NATO’s extensive development, which masked the lack of a strategy in the 2000s, has given way to attempts to adapt the bloc to the more practical tasks at hand. These tasks have very little connection with the Caucasus, and the bloc is no longer enthusiastic about the post-Soviet space as a whole.
The five years after the South Ossetian war were a time of quest for Russia. The defeat of Georgia was seen as a major landmark and a psychological resurgence after more than 20 years of geopolitical retreat. At the same time, it became clear that Russia would not pursue an expansionist policy to regain the losses it sustained after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which the West and some neighboring countries feared would be the case.
Moscow is gradually abandoning the post-imperial mentality rooted in the Soviet Union’s collapse and related feelings in favor of a new vision of itself and its interests in the neighboring countries. The Customs Union idea proposed several months after the war was a major improvement on all previous plans. It is focused on economic expediency and the logic of mutually beneficial integration rather than reunion for the sake of reunion.
Russia’s most controversial postwar move was the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the five years since, Russia has not convinced any major country to do the same and is unlikely to succeed any time soon. Moscow had to make the decision because the situation was rocky and needed to be stabilized. But it has not resolved the problem. The political and diplomatic conflict has been put on ice, and it is a fact that what is frozen sometimes melts. The case will be settled only when a solution that suits all sides is found, which means that aggravation is still possible, even though the status quo is stable and no one wants an escalation.
The South Ossetian war, which is deeply rooted in the USSR’s dissolution, can be described as the closing page in a long chapter. The global financial crisis, which broke out a month later, put in question the results of an era that began in the 1990s and was a time of triumph for the West and its market ideology. It also engendered processes that have made things even more problematic. The situation was further complicated by the Arab Spring, which began two and a half years after the South Ossetian war.
There will be many more such events before a new world order emerges from the chaos. Russia paid a high price for being a lead actor in 20th-century history. It has had its share of shocks and would rather be a spectator from now on, unless a new play develops in direct proximity to its borders.