About Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield is emeritus professor of Russian in the school of modern languages, Queen Mary College, University of London. His latest book is Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia (Reaktion, 2012). His other books include Stalin and His Hangmen (Random House, 2005); (as editor-in-chief) A Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary (Garnett Press, 2006); and The Literature of Georgia: A History (Garnett Press, 3rd edition, 2010)

Articles by Donald Rayfield

This week's editor

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Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom.

Bidzina Ivanishvili and the new-old Georgia

The election victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili has reconfigured Georgia's political landscape, dominated by Mikheil Saakashvili since the "Rose Revolution" of 2003. But there are already concerns over what the billionaire leader is doing with his power, says Donald Rayfield.

Georgia, two years on: a future beyond war

A vicious short war between Georgia and Russia erupted on 8 August 2008 over one of Georgia's “occupied territories”, South Ossetia. Two years on, Mikheil Saakashvili remains in power, surrounded by another cluster of ambitious young colleagues. Tbilisi’s construction projects are transforming the city’s public spaces and social customs. A new realism governs foreign policy and economic ambitions, with Turkey an increasingly prominent neighbour. But amid the flux, the key to Georgia’s future relationship with Russia may lie in the distant past, says Donald Rayfield in a richly textured portrait.

The Georgia-Russia war, a year on

It may appear that any attempt to provide a definitive assessment of Georgia's war with Russia on 8-12 August 2008 is premature, for the very good reason that the broader conflict of which this disastrous eruption was a part is itself far from over. A year on, political and military tensions continue to swirl around Georgia; parts of its territory remain occupied by Russian forces, its opposition forces sustain a near-permanent campaign to unseat President Mikheil Saakashvili, and its lost territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are further than ever from its grasp.

Donald Rayfield is emeritus professor of Russian in the School of Modern Languages, Queen Mary College, University of London. Among his books is Stalin and his Hangmen(Random House, 2005). He is editor-in-chief of the Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary (Garnett Press, 2006), a work of 1,440,000 entries and nearly 1,800 pages in two volumes

Also by Donald Rayfield in openDemocracy:

"Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

"Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)

"The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

"Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 2008)

In these circumstances, the potential for new events to become part of an unfolding story that requires constant updating is ever-present. A case in point is the forthcoming report by the European Union's Commission of Investigation into the true sequence of events around the conflagration in Tskhinvali  on 7-8 August 2008 which sparked the war, due (after delays related to perceived time-sensitivity) to be published on 7 August 2009. This will be followed by demonstrations in the centre of Tbilisi (one anti-government, one anti-Russian), where the opportunity for serious clashes is evident.

The story of the 2008 war, then, is one of unfinished business. Yet where Georgia is concerned, a fairly resilient profit-and-loss account may still be feasible; for the overall shape of what has resulted seems to be clear even if many details about the war itself are still to be established.

Georgia's four deficits

In this light, the perspective of a year suggests that Georgia has experienced four clear losses.

The two territories

First, the loss of a fifth of Georgia's former territory to Russian-backed separatists now looks irretrievable. What population movement there was from what might be called "Georgia proper" (or "Georgian Georgia") to Abkhazia and South Ossetia is now down to a tiny trickle of pedestrians (and, in the case of South Ossetia, even that movement has in both directions been halted as the war's anniversary nears).

The support for Georgia's territorial integrity from the United States and European Union has proved to be empty verbiage, and arguably have proved more damaging than a frank reassessment of the situation would have been.

Abkhazia has reconciled itself to its revised constitutional and political status (de jure as a protected pariah, de facto as a part of the Russian Federation); it  restricts its hostility to denying Georgian villagers' access to their hazelnut plantations, or to insisting that Georgian workers on the shared hydroelectric station on the Inguri river (which forms the border with Georgia) take out Russian citizenship.

The educated elite that leads the Abkhaz government from the capital, Sukhumi, permits discussions between Abkhaz and Georgian intellectuals on the future of the territory and its relations with Georgia to take place; these are conducted under the auspices of the Berghof Research Centre, and in safely remote places where the issues between them have obvious relevance (such as Kosovo).

South Ossetia's condition is rather different, reflecting the variations that (despite their being often lumped together) always existed between the two "breakaway" statelets.  The South Ossetian government is much more a puppet-theatre of Russian thugs and ex-security men; the new prime minister is Vadim Brovstev, a construction magnate from Cheliabinsk, a figure who has as tenuous a connection to Ossetia as most of its previous rulers.

The leadership in Tskhinvali maintains a spectacularly aggressive stance towards Tbilisi. It demands that Georgia cede to South Ossetia areas that were never in the region (such as the glacial Trus valley, which sixty-five Ossetian families regard as their ancestral home). There is little doubt that occasional mortar-fire from the Ossetian side of the border and continued ethnic cleansing of the Georgian villagers who remain will persist in the hope of provoking serious conflict.

The America-Russia factor

Second, Mikheil Saakashvili's political calculation that a combative stance towards Russia would earn him greater support from the United States has seriously backfired. If Georgia's president really thought (or worse, if his American advisers intimated) that provoking Russia would result in a conflict so bloody that the avowed Georgia-lover and Republican presidential candidate John McCain could use it as a launch-pad to the White House, his judgment is even more erratic than was always feared. 

Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region, including the war of August 2008:

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces" (8 January 2009)

Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again" (30 January 2009)

Tedo Japaridze, "A Georgian chalk circle: open letter to the west" (12 May 2009)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia on the brink - again" (20 May 2009)

Nino Burdzhanadze, "A Georgian appeal: open letter to the west" (12 June 2009)

Ilia Roubanis, "Georgia's pluralistic feudalism: a frontline report" (3 July 2009)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia: between war and a future" (8 July 2009)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: social chasm, political bridge" (21 July 2009)

Ivan Krastev, "The guns of August: non-event with consequences" (30 July 2009)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports and analyses

The sight of Barack Obama's deputy, US vice-president Joe Biden limply shaking Saakashvili's hand during his visit on 22-23 July 2009 - almost as reluctant as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei awkward receipt of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's kiss - spoke louder than any words of how far Georgia had receded from the forefront of American political thinking.

More broadly, the sense that Georgia is a country of great strategic importance to Washington, not least as a transit-route for the west's energy supplies, has been overshadowed by larger considerations. The US needs Russia far more - for example, to overfly central Asia on the way to Afghanistan, and to help in the efforts to restrain Iran's nuclear programme.

The economic fallout

Third, Georgia's economy and infrastructure was hideously damaged by the August 2008 war. Russia's forces destroyed a substantial amount of Georgia's military equipment and physical capital (including bridges, buildings, and roads); they also displaced around 20,000 Georgians, who - in addition to the many thousands more forced into flight by the conflicts of the early 1990s - need to be rehoused and provided with the means of access to food and healthcare.

The replacement and repair work is ongoing, but what is less straightforwardly healed is the shattered confidence of foreign investors and of international and local business. This, after all, is already a period of economic difficulty, which only accentuates the problems of the nearly 40% of Georgia's population that live in poverty (including the estimated 30% who are undernourished).

In this respect, two sets of figures are genuinely alarming. First, in January-June 2009 only 600,000 tourists visited Georgia, compared to 1.3 million for the same period in 2008 (it is worth noting that Tbilisi classifies all foreign visitors, the American colonel and the Turkish minibar-salesman alike, as tourists). For a country with population of 4 million, the loss of so many visitors represents a major source of income.

Second, the planned railway between Tbilisi and the Turkish eastern border-town of Kars - announced with fanfare in 2005, and with a scheduled opening-date of 2010 - no longer reports its progress. The Turks are languidly building their own 80 kilometres to the Georgian frontier and the city of Akhalkalaki, while the Georgians are talking about modernising their narrow-gauge line onwards to Tbilisi. But as of 30 July 2009, the railway's financial backers - Azeri, reflecting the fact that the line's construction was meant to benefit Baku even more than Tbilisi - had paid out only $25 million of the promised (and required) $200-million loan.

The attraction of embarking at London's Kings Cross and alighting days later in Tbilisi (itself dependent on the completion of the Bosphorus tunnel) may always have belonged more to touristic fantasy than humdrum reality (especially given the state of the Ankara-Kars line and arduous Georgian border-procedures that include gauge-transfers) was probably always overstated. But the railway, like the Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, had a symbolic importance far greater than its economic potential. The indicators of its stalling are significant indeed.

The political carousel

Fourth, the deterioration in Georgia's public and political life has accelerated to cast further doubt over its prospects of democratic progress. Mikheil Saakashvili's once-charmed political reputation had already been greatly tarnished by the closure of an independent TV station and then (in November 2007) the brutal suppression of opposition demonstrators; but it has suffered even more from the combined recklessness and callousness of his conduct of the August 2008 war.

The legacy of the calamitous assault on Tskhinvali - which involved shelling a city inhabited by civilians, while failing to block the Roki tunnel (the only access-route available for the enemy's intended counter-invasion), the flood of blatant misinformation poured over foreign politicians and journalists, all justified by Saakashvili's near-hysterical public appearances - has been the alienation of the president's political allies as well as much of the Georgian electorate.

The results are everywhere, and in some cases alarming. The former parliamentary speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, the third of the "rose revolution" triumvirate (along with the mysteriously deceased Zurab  Zhvania and Saakashvili himself), now seeks directly to replace the president, using street-protests as a vehicle. More disturbing are some of the candidates for the presidency who have emerged: among them Alexander Ebralidze (a godfather of St Petersburg's mafia) and Giorgi Targamadze (the pro-Russian Christian Democrat leader and former aide to Aslan Abashidze, one-time boss of Georgia's southwest Adzharia region).

The most reputable figure in Georgian public life is Sozar Subari, the country's ombudsman and public defender; Subari is also a former journalist and deacon of the Orthodox church, who was beaten up by Saakashvili's thugs in 2007). Now he is to relinquish his post on 16 September 2009, which is to be filled to by the yes-man Giorgi Tughushi. This is just the most worrying example of the dizzying cabinet merry-go-round in Tbilisi, where ministers are sacked and hired with abandon and in a way that can only reinforce the erratic and counterproductive nature of the Georgian government's policy-making.

The examples are legion. The abrupt decision of the economics ministry to raise (and by a vast amount) the transit-charges for shipped containers - one of Georgia's main sources of income - added to unconscionable port charges that make Poti three times as expensive as Shanghai to use; the result was a strike by international heavy-goods haulers that lasted a week. This, like other parts of the Mikheil Saakashvili circus-act - confessing his disastrous miscalculations to the Wall Street Journal then denying his words, dispatching his foreign ministers with ludicrous abandon - makes clear to the world that Georgia no longer has any consistent or calm voice.

Georgia's four gains

It may seem absurd to say that Georgia achieved anything from what was so clearly a military debacle. It is possible, however, to make the case that Tbilisi has accrued four benefits from the war of August 2008.

The new realism

First, the very clarity of defeat means that Georgia can in principle - rather like an amputee who has lost a beautiful but gangrenous pair of legs - now concentrate on the process of national rehabilitation. If the pain of removal is yet to become fully accepted, at least it can be said that the endless, dangerous and febrile rhetoric about recovering lost territory has died down.

Indeed, to a limited extent a lesson seems to have been learned. Another fractious minority, the around 250,000 Armenians who live (mostly in poverty) in the southeast Javakheti region no longer have to endure arbitrary arrest or beatings for asserting their rights and views. Georgia's often embittered relations with Armenia (in which the Tbilisi-Kars railway project, designed to bypass Armenian territory, was another irritant) have considerably improved.

In addition, the very presence of heavily armed Russian troops on Georgia's northern borders - enough indeed to overwhelm and paralyse the country within hours - has provoked Tbilisi to launch a flurry of strategic projects that could be of longer-term benefit. These include the opening of a new airport at Batumi, used also to serve by Turkish citizens travelling to or from Hopa and Rize; the building of a new east-west line of communication further to Georgia's south, rehabilitating the currently dreadful route connecting Bolnisi to Akhalkalaki and Batumi; and the plan to make Kutaisi, the true centre of Georgia, into a joint capital city (including a relocation of the national parliament there).

Such initiatives, if guided by a genuine decentralising purpose, will revive the provinces and their agricultural production; if they are combined with a championing of good ethnic relationships (in conditions where, for instance, tens of thousands of Ossetians live in harmony with Georgians in towns and villages all round Tbilisi), the result could be a genuine restoration of civic life. 

The Russian mirror

Second, Georgia loss in the war of August 2008 does not translate into a Russian victory. Moscow's declared aim of regime-change in Tbilisi achieved the opposite: it saved Mikheil Saakashvili from what would otherwise have been his humiliating rejection by an angry populace. At most, Russia managed to steal the title-deeds to territory it had already in effect appropriated.

The war vaporised any illusions that Russia was moving in a democratic or Europe-oriented direction. The brutality of Ossetian irregulars and Ramzan Kadyrov's Chechen contingents exceeded the war-crimes committed by Georgian forces in Tskhinvali. The Georgians as a result were awarded the sympathy due to victims; and though denied any support whatsoever in pursuit of the reclamation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they have been supplied with much of the necessary finance and materials for reconstruction. These are being applied with some vigour, in financial conditions where the Georgian lari has held up well against the dollar and inflation is minimal.

The opening door

Third, a certain space of political and civic freedom has opened in Georgia's public life. There have been fewer extra-judicial detentions and assaults on  opponents. Georgia's journalists are bolder. Even in 2007 they dared to screen a film to 3,000 people in Tbilisi's Vake park which proved that Zurab Zhvania's death (allegedly through a faulty gas-heater) must have been murder; now such subjects can be aired in print.

There have even in the wake of the August 2008 war been apparent improvements in Mikheil Saakashvili's notorious (if under-reported) behaviour. There are no recent photos or accounts of harassment on a scale that even Silvio Berlusconi might have shunned; his official car no longer brakes at the sight of a pretty young woman so that he can get out and invite her to join the presidential secretariat (in scenes reminiscent of Lavrenti Beria's odious example).

Georgia is still more authoritarian than it was in 2003: people are careful about what they say on cellphones or write on the internet, and researchers for foreign firms are now hard to find. But the cultural scene has been transformed. Many satirical novels, poems and plays are published; some of them - like Lasha Bughadze's story The First Russian - so scurrilous that it was condemned by both patriarch and parliament; while Kote Qubaneishvili's short lyrics (koteclasms and kotestrophes) reveal a fresh political wisdom:

"Once again bullets begin to fall,

the Russian language remains on the air,

Barley and bran have gone up in price,

Nato cannot come to liberate ..."

The bitter lesson

Fourth, and most important of all, Georgians have relearned a bitter political truth - one they have needed to be reminded of in almost every century of their long history. It can best be conveyed by example and precedent:

* In the 12th century, King David Agmashenebeli ("The Builder") sent troops to the crusades, only to find King Baldwin of Jerusalem confiscating the Georgian churches in the Holy Land

* In 1240, a mission to Pope Gregory IX earned the response that relations with the Mongols were too valuable to endanger, and that Georgia would have to submit to the Mongol yoke

* In 1492, the Georgian king sent a delegation to Queen Isabella of Spain, offering to adopt Catholicism in exchange for support against the Ottoman Turks, only to be told that trade with the Ottomans was too important to sacrifice

* In 1715, a mission to Louis XIV-XV by King Vakhtang VI's uncle was told that trading relations with Iran were more important than the political and spiritual salvation of the Georgians

In 2009, Barack Obama's offer to press the "reset" button with Russia has been rightly understood in Georgia as representing the same type of strategic calculation and true guide to their situation.

The realities are unavoidable. Most of the European leaders who expressed fervent support for Georgia expressed during and soon after the war have gone quiet. The strategic context (including Europe's gas-supply requirements) is plainer than it once seemed; Britain's Conservative leader David Cameron, for example, no longer declares that Russian shoppers cannot anymore expect to go on "marching into" London's up-market Selfridges store. Georgia can no longer expect its notional ideological allies to be prepared to sacrifice litres of blood or billions of dollars: Realpolitik prevails.

The experience and advice of the other "limitrophe" states (i.e. those bordering on Russia such as Estonia and Latvia), which have learned to oppose Russian aggression with cool cunning, are now being absorbed in Georgia. A number of opinion-polls suggest that most Georgians no longer support the country's search for Nato membership. They are, moreover, increasingly disenchanted with politicians' slogans and rhetoric.

The most visible sign of the opposition's protest-wave - the elaborate structures of reinforcing steel bought by Nino Burdzhanadze and welded by her supporters into rows of "cells" along Rustaveli Avenue, implying that Georgia was a police-state - have now been dismantled; the crowds that threatened to force the president's resignation have dispersed. The compensatory gain may be a growing political maturity. The only problem is the lack of new political talent in Georgia - the much-heralded emergence of former United Nations ambassador Irakli Alasania - to assume the mantle.

The Georgian prospect

What does this profit-and-loss account of the August 2008 war suggest about Georgia's likely future direction?

The hardline stance of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin towards Georgia contributes to the tense overall situation in the region on the war's anniversary; but on Georgia's own part there is no expectation that Georgia will undertake or invite renewed aggression.

The logic of Tbilisi's current course is to move towards economic self-sufficiency. The current trading conditions render the "silk-road"-style ambition of turning Georgia into a great crossroads of international trade less plausible than homegrown solutions: for example, using Georgian brainpower and education to revivify its industries and national services.

In political terms, Georgia must now be seen to meet minimal European standards, even if European Union accession is now almost as unlikely as Nato membership. That will mean reforming the judicial system, which still bears a worrying resemblance to that of Putin's Russia (judges may no longer take bribes, but they still take instructions from government ministers).

The question of leadership is ever-present. My guess is that Mikheil Saakashvili will hold on to power, for at least three reasons.

First, he cannot afford to lose it: he would need an impossibly wide guarantee of immunity against prosecution for so many suspected crimes, including the violent removal of opponents and colleagues.

Second, he remains - for all his serious faults - the most intelligent, energetic and adaptable figure in Georgian politics. He is not (in contrast to most of his rivals) a member of the communist-nomenklatura-turned-monopolist-élite who thrived under Eduard Shevardnadze's régime, and can communicate fluently with Europe's politicians (even if he has long ceased to enchant them). He has also major domestic achievements to his credit: for example, creating the unlikely outcome (where the Caucasus is concerned) of a customs-service and police-force that do not extort cash-bribes, and a higher-education system in which entry to university and appointments are based on standard qualifications and merit.

Third, and above all, every rival - with the possible exception of the outgoing ombudsman, Sozar Subari - has serious drawbacks. Salomé Zurabishvili, however intelligent and reasonable, was born in France; Irakli Alasania, an internationally respected diplomat, cannot take the heat (voted by the readers of one newspaper as Georgia's "most constructive politician", he is literally sickened by the abuse any politician must expect and by the character of those he must ally himself with); Nino Burdzhanadze may model herself on Margaret Thatcher and dress well enough to feature in Vogue, but has never said or done in her entire career a single thing of note (and is compromised by family connections to the old Komsomol and by enormous, unaccountable wealth).

Joe Biden on his visit to Tbilisi met a selection of four possible presidential candidates: Giorgi Targamadze, Nino Burdzhanadze, Irakli Alasania and the businessman Levan Gachechiladze. It is a reasonably sure guess that after doing so the United States vice-president will have concluded that the Americans should stay with the devil they know.

The Abkhazian proposal

A single outstanding issue - and the original casus belli - could yet upset all calculations: the fate of the territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A realistic stance and policy by Tbilisi here is even more desirable than presidential continuity. Since Eduard Kokoity's South Ossetia has no resemblance to or potential to become a viable state - which Abkhazia has - what happens in relation to Sukhumi is vital (see Neal Ascherson, "A Chance to Join the World", London Review of Books, 4 December 2008).

Here, then, is a proposal. If the European Union and the United States could boldly offer Abkhazia recognition of its independence, but with the demand that it be free of Russian forces and the guarantee that Georgia would not be allowed to attack and an offer of direct connections by sea to Turkey and by air to Europe - then Georgia's initially furious reaction should eventually change to acceptance. For Georgians would come to see that a genuinely independent Abkhazia  - which many Abkhaz want, but which Russia will almost certainly not permit - would be a far better neighbour to them than an Abkhazia which is just another region of Russia's destabilised Caucasus.

Is this going to happen? Dream on...

Georgia and Russia: the aftermath

The Georgia-Russia war of 8-12 August 2008 has left a host of issues unresolved. The future of the contested territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia,  the resettlement of the expelled and displaced, the fate of Georgia's aspiration to join Nato, and the ambitions of an emboldened Russia are just a few. The bitter fallout of a vicious conflict means that it will be some time before the longer-term impact of the war in these and other areas will become clear.

Donald Rayfield is emeritus professor of Russian in the School of Modern Languages, Queen Mary College, University of London.

Among his books is Stalin and his Hangmen (Random House, 2005).

He is editor-in-chief of the Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary (Garnett Press, 2006), a work of 1,440,000 entries and nearly 1,800 pages in two volumes

Also by Donald Rayfield in openDemocracy:

"Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

"Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)

"The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008

It is far too early to talk of a return to normality, even were such a notion to apply to the Georgia-Russia relationship and the pre-war political situation in the region. A cautious return to diplomatic dialogue - from the European Union-Russia summit in Nice on 14 November (which emerged with a proposal for a new "security architecture" in Europe) to the resumption of talks between Moscow and Tbilisi in Geneva on 18 November - may at least offer some signals about the prospects for movement on the core tensions that the war revealed.

But in order for more substantial progress to be possible, the outstanding questions surrounding the August conflict itself - how it began, who is to blame, and what are the implications of answers to these questions - must also be faced. These continue to be matters of intense dispute, in an atmosphere overlain by politically-driven public-relations campaigns on all sides. What follows is an assessment based on current knowledge about the circumstances of the war and its possible consequences, which builds on earlier contributions in openDemocracy (see, for example, "Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions" [24 August 2007], and "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" [13 August 2008]).

A chain of responsibility 

It is famously said that truth is the first casualty of war. In this case, however - thanks to the careful work and independent research of journalists and other observers - it can also be the first to recover from its injuries. 

Seven points can be made about the circumstances of the war:

The first is that the full-scale attack by Georgian forces on South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali on the night of 7-8 August 2008 - involving indiscriminate artillery-fire from Grad rockets - was not provoked by any Ossetian forces' shelling of Georgian villages in the enclave. A number of sources - including three observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of whom only one was from the former Soviet Union, and two experienced British military observers in the area at the time - report that there was no immediate provocation that would justify the Georgian escalation of what had hitherto been a low-key conflict. This conclusion is supported too by the evidence of a number of Georgian inhabitants of South Ossetia, and has been reinforced by the findings of the journalist Tim Whewell in meticulous reports featured on the BBC World Service and other outlets.

Moreover, reports of Russian forces making their way through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia on 7 August (rather than 8 August) are not backed up by any satellite or other confirmed intelligence. The conclusion must be that blame for the death of over 100 Ossetian civilians and Russian "peacekeepers" in the Georgian assault belongs to Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his military commanders; and Saakashvili, even if he has convinced himself of the truth of his version of events, needs to be confronted with the disparities between his allegations and the verifiable facts.

The second point is that it would however be quite wrong to follow Russia's president and prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin (and their western acolytes such as Silvio Berlusconi) in blaming Saakashvili, his army and their United States advisers for initiating the war.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August 2008:

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Mary Kaldor, "Sovereignty, status and the humanitarian perspective" (26 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war.
True, Russian forces may have taken no special action on or just before 7-8 August to justify the Georgian army's attack on Tskhinvali. But Russian forces were clearly prepared for and expecting such a conflict: their armies were in place in North Ossetia, their battleships were ready to reach Georgian ports within a day or two; the Ossetians, whose government and armed forces are effectively controlled by Russians, had for several weeks escalated the usual petty violence of kidnappings, shootings, blockades and banditry to a point where the death-rate among Georgian police was more than worrying. Saakashvili's attack, if it can be justified at all, can be called a pre-emptive strike.

The third point is that the Georgian army had at least 130 American advisers who answer to the US authorities. It is difficult to believe that the move north from Tbilisi of the most heavily armed, motorised forces of the Georgian army went unnoticed by these Americans. Did they remonstrate; and if not, why not? Worse, did they, as Putin alleges, actively encourage the Georgians out of cynical curiosity to see how the Russians would respond - or out of even more cynical political calculation in seeking to boost John McCain's election chances? The answers to these questions will eventually leak out, whether from Tbilisi or from the Langley (Virginia) headquarters of the CIA.

The fourth point is that the Russian army could not have failed to repel the Georgian attack, even if it were to keep to its fiction of being merely a "peacekeeping" force. But it must be blamed for its actions in two areas:

* deliberately destroying Georgian infrastructure and severely damaging the economy by cutting the only east-west railway line and the only motorable east-west road, and bombing near enough the airport to deter commercial aircraft from landing at Tbilisi

* embarking on an orgy of looting and allowing Ossetian and Chechen "irregulars" (a more polite word than they deserve) to steal, rape, kill and drive out Georgian villagers from South Ossetia (see Tanya Lokshina, "A month after the war", 16 September 2008).

The background of Chechen hatred for Georgians (which reached its height in 1944 when Stalin used Georgian detachments of the NKVD to deport the entire Chechen nation to central Asia) makes it as as cruel a decision to use Chechen forces in South Ossetia as it was to let them fight with the Abkhaz against the Georgians in 1992.

The fifth point is that the Russians are guilty of the sheer hypocrisy of pretending to be neutral peacekeepers in the region, when since 1992-93 they have been seeking gradually to integrate both South Ossetia and Abkhazia into the Russian Federation by a variety of means: common currencies, introducing pension and healthcare rights, issuing Russian-citizenship passports to the inhabitants.

The Georgians may have been originally to blame for their cavalier treatment of Abkhaz and Ossetian nationalism in the 1989-92 period, but in later years have watched with increasing frustration at seeing their country dismembered while the outside world remained all but indifferent. This helps explain if not justify the crime of shelling Tskhinvali - a crime which gave the Russians the long-awaited pretext to "recognise" the breakaway territories' independence and thus effectively absorb them for good. In addition, the Russians lied even more brazenly than the Georgians in the first stages of the war, in proclaiming a "genocide" of Ossetians with as many as 2,000 victims, when the verifiable total is far less. 

The sixth point is that western politicians, particularly ambassadors and donors, failed in their duty to make clear to Mikheil Saakashvili - in terms that he could not pretend to misunderstand - that they would in no way support a "war of liberation" aimed at recovering the lost territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Any diplomat in Georgia soon realises that, regardless of reality and common sense, every Georgian politician has had to promise his electorate that they would meet next year in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. The inevitable danger of such rhetoric is that at moments of despair, the irresponsible politician - whether Eduard Shevardnadze or Saakashvili himself - gambles on an attempt to turn it into reality. Georgia's economic resurgence since 2004 has depended on tranches of grants and investments which should have been absolutely conditional on conforming to basic ground-rules (see Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy", 3 September 2008). 

The seventh point is that some western politicians made culpable errors at the outset of the war by laying total blame on Russia for its outbreak, then compounded this by reversing Theodore Roosevelt's advice and "talking hard while carrying a soft stick". They included the hapless John McCain, the leaders of the Baltic states, and two callow British politicians (foreign minister David Miliband and opposition leader David Cameron).

Cameron's threat to stop Russians shopping at Selfridges was clearly neutralised by a few phone- calls from west London stores, casinos, estate agents and schools who rely on the big spenders from Moscow; while Miliband's subsequent reticence is no doubt attributable to briefings on the complexities of the issues, and the political and economic price Britain would have to pay for taking a stand on principle against Russia's Machiavellian policies (see Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict", 30 September 2008)

The post-war situation

The immediate consequences of the brief, nasty war are threefold.

The first is that of all the states involved, the overall situation has substantially changed only for Georgia (and to a degree the other states and regions of the south Caucasus). The damage to Tbilisi, economically and politically, is severe. Much of the destruction - of roads, installations and army bases, and the loss of housing by some 20,000 ethnic Georgians - can be compensated by the $4.55 pledged by the United States and European Union at a conference in Brussels on 22 October 2008. But the more definitive loss of the two territories (for even to the most nationalistic Georgian politician, they must now seem irrecoverable) is less easily quantifiable or repairable.

Indeed, the permanent alienation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia could appear to be salutary, like the amputation of gangrenous limbs, but for two factors (see George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution", 18 August 2008). One is that in both cases, regions inhabited by ethnic Georgians (or in the case of Abkhazia, Mingrelians, who consider themselves first cousins to Georgians) have now been cut off from Georgia. Since soon after the end of the Abkhazia war of 1992-93, the Mingrelians of the Gali region of southern Abkhazia have been able to cross over into Georgia with minimal formalities, obstructions or violence. Now, however, the Russians are controlling the new frontier and introducing very strict controls over the bridge over the Inguri river. Thus the Mingrelians are effectively faced with the choice of being imprisoned in Abkhazia as second-class citizens, or becoming homeless refugees in Georgia.

In similar fashion, two areas of South Ossetia (notably the town of Akhalgori) which were never either geographically or administratively accessible to Tskhinvali have now been taken over by Russian-Ossetian forces; their Georgian inhabitants are presented with the dilemma of being aliens in their own home or refugees among their own people.

The other factor - that Russia now controls the most vital areas of Georgia - makes the situation for its southern neighbour even worse. It is a mere hour's drive from the South Ossetian frontier to Tbilisi; Georgia's capital can be shelled from Akhalgori; at any moment eastern and western Georgia can be isolated, and a strategic railway, road and pipelines cut. Georgia's energy supplies, too, are now under threat. Throughout the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict the hydroelectric generators on the Inguri river were kept working by Georgians and Abkhaz for their mutual benefit. Now, however, Abkhazia can join the Russian electricity grid, and no longer has an interest in allowing Georgia its share of this major energy source.

Moreover, investment in the new railway from Tbilisi to Kars in Turkey (which would in principle allow trains to travel from Baku in Azerbaijan to London - with some technical changes at the Georgian-Turkish frontier) now looks very unattractive, given the railway's new vulnerability to attack. The same is true for the Baku-Poti (on the Black Sea) or Baku-Ceyhan (on the Mediterranean) pipelines. More and more oil importers will prefer to pay extra to use a pipeline through Russia to Novorossiisk on the Black Sea than risk transporting oil through an exposed route.

The building boom in Tbilisi and other Georgian cities, financed by foreign businesses hoping to ride on Georgian economic growth, is also facing a slowdown, if not a bust (even if the aid-pledges from the country's western backers will provide a temporary transfusion). Mikheil Saakashvili's hopes of reviving Georgian industry and agriculture - particularly viticulture, which has made enormous strides recently - are looking more deflated.

The war's second consequence is that it signals a transition from one era to another (see Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap", 19 August 2008). The post-cold-war period - marked at its outset by a George Bush presidency whose gratitude to Eduard Shevardnadze for helping to demolish the Soviet Union was expressed by exceptionally generous and uncritical support of Georgia, and at its end by a George W Bush presidency who showered the same support on Mikheil Saakashvili - has ended. The prospect now is of a far more sober period. There is no reason to suppose that Barack Obama will abandon Georgia, but every reason to suppose that he will attach more stringent conditions to United States backing for Georgia; and the country's roadmap towards Nato is unlikely to survive wider geopolitical considerations (see Aviel Roshwald, "Nato, the west and Russia: from peril to progress", 23 September 2008).

The third consequence, a matter of some small consolation to the Georgians, is that Russia has shown how ruthlessly it can act and with how little regard for its image in the rest of the world without winning it much of the way of diplomatic benefit. It has, for example, failed to get recognition for Abkhazian and South Ossetian statehood from anyone except Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua and a leader of Hamas, while alarming China and other states by the precedent it has set for cultivating and appropriating neighbouring countries' rebellious minorities. Russia has resumed the unhappy isolation of which Alexander III complained in the late 1880s when he declared Montenegro to be Russia's only friend in Europe. Even Armenia, its other friend in the Caucasus, has been badly affected by the war with Georgia, and is physically cut off from Russia for the foreseeable future by the closure of the Abkhaz-Georgian border.

South Ossetia's "independence" is a fiction: nobody believes that it will be anything but a dependency of Russia. The addition of 70,000 more Ossetians to Russia's Caucasian empire is already exacerbating an undeclared and unreported civil war now fermenting, if not raging, between Ingushetia and Ossetia. The Ingush, exiled like the Chechens in 1944, came back after the second world war to find many of their homes occupied by Ossetians; the tensions continued for decades after the war, and were intensified by Vladimir Putin's stupidity when (in 2002) he replaced the Ingush leader General Aushev with a KGB pawn, Murat Zyazikov. The latter was himself sacked by Dmitri Medvedev on 30 October 2008. This conflict will escalate.

Abkhazia, in contrast, may be considered a positive acquisition for Russia. It is probable that property prices will rise, to the joy of all the Russian officials and businessmen who have bought up empty villas and hotels on the Black Sea coast; and there is now cheap concrete and stone for the winter Olympics site planned for Sochi in 2014. The Abkhaz writer Fazil Iskander's novel Uncle Sandro from Chegem conveys better than any tract how the Abkhaz feel they can manipulate their Russian overlords skilfully enough to maintain de facto independence - a game which is much harder to win if the overlord is a fellow Caucasian, i.e. a Georgian. Even so, there are in Abkhaz ruling circles a number of nationalists who want genuine independence, which it is certain Putin and Medvedev have no intention of granting. Over the years it is thus likely that the Georgians will be consoled by the sight of some Abkhazians resisting Russian colonialism.

An exit from impasse

Georgia may have emerged the greater loser from the August 2008 war, but there is as yet no Georgian politician - even in opposition, far less in government - who has shown the intellect, character or set of ideas to persuade any significant force inside or outside the country to support him or her as a replacement for a tarnished Mikheil Saakashvili (see Robert Parsons, "Georgia: the politics of recovery", 23 October 2008)

Saakashvili is a mass of contradictions: a man of mendaciousness and violent impulsiveness, even lawlessness, whose flaws are compensated by his quick wits, understanding of how other politicians think, and determination to act on decisions, all leavened by the remnants of his original charisma. Dependent as he is on foreign support, with greater supervision and accountability he could still bring Georgia out of its present mess. The country is both small and under-resourced enough (depopulated by emigration, for example) to absorb its refugees; and, if finance is made available for structural changes, it could produce enough food, energy, services, and even manufactured products for prosperity. When it rebuilds its military forces it will have less reason to buy expensive weaponry for an aggressive war and can spend money more effectively on intelligence and equipment for interception and defence.

It is probably too late to salvage anything from the loss of the territories (see Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia", 15 August 2008). Here too however, a certain flexibility backed by strong advice might offer a way forward: if Georgia and its western allies offered a guarantee of non-interference and a recognition of a genuinely independent Abkhazia, free of Russian armed forces, some Abkhaz might still be tempted, even though most would be suspicious and continue to side with their Russian protectors.

A necessary political reorientation is, however, already taking place. What western powers have tried in vain to achieve - namely to persuade the three south Caucasian states that they have more interests in common than in conflict - may be achieved from another direction: Turkey. The Turks have skilfully managed to develop relations with Georgia without supporting the Georgian aim of reconquering Abkhazia, and financed part of Tbilisi's education system and economy.

It may even be that the railway linking Tbilisi to Kars will no longer be of strategic importance: for the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, marked by President Abdullah Gül's attendance at a football match in Yerevan in September 2008, may end with the opening of the border and the restoration of the Soviet-era railway from Kars to Yerevan (and thence to Tbilisi). For some time there have, in fact, been scheduled flights between Turkey and Armenia; buses regularly go from Yerevan to Istanbul via Georgia, and Armenians are given visas on the Turkish border. Turkey has the diplomatic skills to keep Azerbaijan assured of its fraternal support, particularly over the Nagorno-Karabakh question, and at the same time bring Armenia in out of the cold, weaning it from its dependence on Russia and Iran (see Fred Halliday, "Armenia's mixed messages", 15 October 2008).

If Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan agree to set aside some of their differences, recognise the benefits of cooperation and look for access to the west through Turkey (rather than Russia), then the net benefit to Georgia of the August 2008 war might even begin to exceed the net losses. If western politicians can take measure of the gap between their rhetoric and their capabilities when dealing with Russia - and either tone down the former or step up the latter - the overall outcome could in the end be more positive than seemed conceivable when the rockets started to rain down on Tskhinvali.

The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation

The embers of the five-day war between Georgia and Russia of 8-12 August 2008 are not quite extinguished, but the ceasefire agreement skilfully negotiated by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and agreed with his counterparts Dmitry Medvedev (Russia) and Mikheil Saakashvili (Georgia) gives hope for an end to this intense, destructive and tragic conflict.

Donald Rayfield is emeritus professor of the school of modern languages, Queen Mary University of London. Among his books is Stalin and his Hangmen (Random House, 2005), which has appeared in five other languages. He is editor-in-chief of the Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary (Garnett Press, 2006), a work of 1,440,000 entries and nearly 1,800 pages in two volumes

Also by Donald Rayfield in openDemocracy:

"Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

"Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)

More broadly, when the citizens displaced and wounded by the war have been able to regain a modicum of security and humanitarian relief in rebuilding their shattered lives, the space must be made for a thoroughgoing investigation into its background, causes and lessons. It may be appropriate at this early stage to offer some preliminary notes to this larger project.

Much of the media reporting of the "short and nasty war" has been strong and detailed, with a good dose of scepticism in questioning the tendentious (and often downright mendacious) versions of events relayed by Russian and Georgians spokespersons alike. This is in contrast to the lack of attention among commentators to the essential task of exploring the roots of the conflict; indeed, a lot of the opinion-flood persists in ignoring completely the local and regional factors in favour of an instant resort to high geopolitics, as if South Ossetia and Abkhazia - which lie at the heart of what has happened - do not in themselves even exist.

South Ossetia: the fire this time

South Ossetia, the small territory legally inside Georgia but beyond its control since the longer but equally nasty war of 1991-92, was the immediate trigger of the five-day war. The deeper background of this area demonstrates that indeed this was a conflict that did not have to happen (see Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy", 12 August 2008). The 40,000 or so Ossetians who live on the southern slopes of the central Caucasus have mostly developed separately from the main body of Ossetians on the northern slopes (and in Russian territory), to the point of speaking a different dialect. For some 700 years they have lived in villages interspersed with Georgian villages: intermingling peacefully, sharing the same religion, and marrying into Georgia's royalty and intelligentsia.

The serious clashes only began when the half-demented first president of post-Soviet Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, espoused (before and during his brief period of rule in 1992) an extreme chauvinist form of nationalism which declared all citizens who were not ethnic Georgians to be "guests" on the republic's territory. Gamsakhurdia abolished the autonomy and even the very name of South Ossetia, and allowed one of his ministers (Vazha Adamia) to lead a crusade on Tskhinvali.

After hundreds were killed, Georgia's Ossetians took what appeared the only option open to them: to separate. They rapidly found Russian protection in the guise of "peacekeepers", and continued in their newly constrained circumstances to eke a living from their poor soil and from smuggling goods across the Caucasus. By the late 1990s, the Georgian government of Eduard Shevardnadze (who had come to power after Gamsakhurdia's death) was tolerating this trade, which was fuelled by the reasonably peaceful coexistence of black marketeers centred on an enormous car-boot market on the Georgia-South Ossetian border.

Mikheil Saakashvili, who in turn succeeded Shevardnadze in the "rose revolution" of 2003-04 has - like almost all Georgian politicians - pledged to recover (by force if necessary) all the territory lost in the years of post-Soviet chaos and violence. This promise, and the rhetoric which accompanies it (its horizon, for example, is always the very near future), traps its makers. In the effort to fulfil it where South Ossetia is concerned, Saakashvili's government has tried a series of stratagems: installing a rival pro-Georgian puppet government to counter the Russian-backed South Ossetian administration led by Eduard Kokoity; manipulating water and power supplies; closing off trading posts; and escalating these measures (which the South Ossetian rulers willingly matched and even outdid) to kidnapping, mine-laying, and occasional bursts of gunfire.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region:

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008)

Nikolaj Nielsen, "A small bomb in Gali" (8 July 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)

Boris Dolgin "Liberal Russia reflects on the war" (12 August 2008)

Evgeny Morozov "A user-generated conflict" (13 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)
In face of these "provocations" (to use a word promiscuously hurled by both sides), the South Ossetians - already armed and trained by Russian peacekeepers - received more and more support, to the point that it became impossible to identify the perpetrator of anti-Georgian acts: the Russian military, or local Ossetian lads. The Ossetians' military gurantors have in any case been assiduous in their routines: undertaking overflights (and sometimes "dropping" missiles), and reinforcing troops with units who are unusually heavily trained for peacekeeping.

On a political level, moreover, there is no doubt that Russia's salami-slicing tactics (issuing South Ossetians with Russian passports, then integrating them into the Russian pension, health and education systems) has amounted to a covert process of assimilating first the population, and then the actual country, into the Russian federation.

In itself, Ossetia has little attraction for Russian acquisition: nobody builds villas there, and there are no tourist resorts or prospects of building facilities for visitors (as there are in Abkhazia). More than 20,000 (and perhaps up to 30,000) Georgians - who would not wish to be Russian citizens - also live there among a total population of 70,000. It is in principle possible that if South Ossetians had been left in peace - next to a Georgia which was beginning to show impressive economic growth and to integrate with the western world - might eventually have agreed to an understanding: if not to rejoin Georgia, then to live as if they were a part of it, and not a part of Russia (to which in any case they are joined only by a long, dark and dangerous road-tunnel).

It did not happen and perhaps could not have happened, given the nature of Russian ambitions and Georgian political leadership. Mikheil Saakashvili, to those who have got to know him closer, is - behind his multilingual fluency and American lawyer's education - a dangerously unstable and sometimes ruthless politician. Even his role as an anti-Russian maverick is not quite what it seems: there is much evidence to suggest that his success in riding the wave of the rose revolution in 2003-04 was more tangled with Russian interests and personalities than either side might care to recall (which might too help explain the ferocity of the personal abuse exchanged between the two sides).

An entangled and shadowy story indicates that when the revolution was in its infancy and Shevardnadze was clinging to his tottering throne, Saakashvili was engaged in indirect dialogue with Vladimir Putin via one of the then Russian president's less savoury intermediaries, Grigory Luchansky. The ambitious Georgian saw an early chance to gain advantage over his elder rival by exerting pressure against the local warlord Aslan Abashidze, who ruled the southwest Georgian province of Adzharia as his fiefdom.

Putin obliged by removing Abashidze's Russian security force (it helped that Abashidze was an ally of Putin's own rival, Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow). An added incentive was that Shevardnadze had earned the hatred of Putin's KGB and the Russian military because of his role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By the time the foundations of Abashidze's rule had been undermined and Adzharia returned to rule by Tbilisi, Saakashvili was Georgia's president and could take the credit for this first step in a would-be national-reintegration project.

The turnaround is complete. Vladimir Putin's (and Dmitry Medvedev's) loathing of Saakashvili is reflected in Medvedev's use of the vulgar term otmorozok (something between "imbecile" and "scum"). The Georgian president has earned the mantle in the Russian leaders' eyes by political decisions and economic policies that have taken him as far away as possible from Russia's orbit - including heavy reliance on American military aid.

Mikheil Saakashvili returned the rhetoric of abuse in full. But beyond the insults and the nationalist bellowing, it is still not clear what induced him to think that he could use his army to stage a blitzkrieg in South Ossetia that the Russians would accept as a fait accompli. Where were his American military advisers, who should have heard about this wild scheme and been able to avert it? These are just some of the questions that surround Saakashvili; others include his role in the unexplained death of his prime minister and ally Zurab Zhvania in 2005, and in subsequent extraordinary deaths.

The true death-toll in Tskhinvali, and the extent of Georgian responsibility, is a further shadow over Saakashvili; even if it proves to be less than the figure of 1,500 circulated widely, the action remains a monstrous and (to use one of Saakashvili's favourite words - but only of his enemies) barbarous outrage committed by a national army trying to retake a separatist provincial town. All this is good reason why - despite all the embraces and handshakes, and the doubtless smiling welcome given to Condoleezza Rice when the United States's secretary of state visits Tbilisi - many of Saakashvili's western allies are now as anxious as the Russians to find a more reasonable man to replace him.

When his political obituary is written, the least that can be said is that his actions in South Ossetia have meant that any prospect of reincorporating South Ossetia into Georgia is now even more faint than it was before his misguided misadventure. As so often, the projection of zealous Georgian nationalism defeats its own intended purposes.

Abkhazia: the waves recede

In one respect at least it was surprising that the open conflict between Georgia and Russia broke out over South Ossetia rather than Georgia's other lost territory, Abkhazia - in that the issues dividing Georgia and Abkhazia are far more deep-rooted and serious (and because Georgian military forces had held part of Abkhazia, the Kodori gorge region, since July 2006 - until their retreat amid the August 2008 war).

If South Ossetia was integrated with Georgian kingdoms and republics for centuries, of Abkhazia it can only be said that it was certainly an integral part of a unified Georgian state for only a fraction of the latter's history: between about 900 and 1225 (the "golden age" of the Georgian kingdom), and from 1936 to 1992 (from the murder of the Abkhaz leader Nestor Lakoba by Lavrenti Beria to the separation and war under the leadership of Ardzinba).

At various periods, Abkhazia was ruled by the rulers of Mingrelia, very often under Ottoman suzerainty. Only after forced demographic changes in the 1930s did Abkhazia acquire a Georgian population that outnumbered the native Abkhaz (whose population was severely depleted in 1864, when Russia expelled half of them to Turkey). Georgia's claims to sovereignty over Abkhazia rest, therefore, on the modern post-1945 principle of inviolability of borders, rather than long historical association.

More important, Abkhazia with its productive soil, its once attractive seaside and mountain resorts is genuinely coveted by its neighbour. Russian officials and businessmen have been buying up property - from Stalin's old villas to abandoned Yugoslav-built hotels - on the assumption that when Abkhazia's status is eventually redefined, their purchases will be both legal and profitable. Abkhazia also has running through it the main road and railway that join pro-Russian Armenia to the rest of the world.

Russia's "peacekeepers", after their not-very-covert support of a war of separation in 1992-93, have strong vested interests in staying; and the Abkhaz, who have never forgiven the Georgians for their violence and bullying - in the 1930s and 1970s, as well as in the brutal, destructive 1992-93 campaign - have decided that Russian overlordship is far preferable. (Anyone who reads Fazil Iskander's novel Uncle Sandro from Chegem will find Abkhaz attitudes to their imperial rulers, and their confidence that under Russian rule they can go on living as they wish, fully explained there). The only vulnerability for an Abkhazia that wishes to be independent or a part of the Russian federation is the existence of its southern Gali region, where the Mingrelian population is ethnically and linguistically close to Mingrelians in western Georgia and indeed to ethnic Georgians too.

After the routing of Georgia in Tskhinvali and the total failure of the Americans and Europeans to back up their verbal and economic support for Georgia with any military action or effective political sanctions, the Abkhaz can now be sure that nobody will now attempt to encourage their reintegration with Georgia. European Union peacekeepers may possibly be added to Russian peacekeepers as a result of Nicolas Sarkozy's (and the Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb's) negotiations, but they are unlikely to be effective or even respected by Caucasians (who recognise the propensities of the Russian army to extreme physical violence as a sign of authenticity and will laugh at the inhibitions of any other type of blue-caps).

The legacy

Where then does the short war with Russia leave Georgia itself, within its now ever-more-clearly diminished size? Perhaps Georgian politicians and their public may begin to listen to the quiet, unpopular advice that their more realistic allies have been giving, but which has so far been ignored:

* first, look at the Czech Republic (which manages fine without Slovakia, and vice-versa) and at Hungary (which, an extremist fringe apart, has given up aspirations to regain Transylvania) - and accept that territory can be lost, and that a nation can survive and even benefit from a more homogeneous ethnic make-up (as long as this is combined with the cultivation of a civic rather than an ethnic nationalism)

* second, Georgia should concentrate entirely on economic and social development, so that it becomes a visibly richer, freer and more secure neighbour which a resident of Abkhazia or South Ossetia might conceivably wish to live in

* third, Georgians should realise that there are more than two options: an impossible one of reconquering lost territory, and a likely one of losing it to Russia. There is a third option: to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and offer diplomatic relations and open borders, so that these two regions can look outwards - to Turkey and to Europe as well as to Russia.

This advice is for the "west" too. Nato and European Union advisers should make all assistance to Georgia conditional on these three rational principles being accepted, and refrain from any more meaningless verbiage or public embraces.

I don't know of any Georgian politician with the courage to say anything along those lines, or with the self-assurance not to believe he or she will be killed for saying it. But if one does not appear, then what has happened in August 2008 will happen again. Moreover, there will be even worse consequences next time, for Russian foreign policy is based exclusively on the principle that it is better to be feared than loved; and Russia's Putin-Medvedev-FSB-military regime seems firmly established as the world's leading blackmailer, at least until its oil runs out. If Georgia needs any further incentive, it is that the continuation of its hardline stance will alienate other minorities - notably the 200,000 Armenians neglected by Tbilisi and living in poverty in Javakheti (southeast Georgia) - who might well decide to fight for integration with Armenia.

The history of Georgia is one of centuries of dismemberment followed by decades of unity. Any responsible friend of Georgia must think more radically and more realistically on how this process can be reversed, and offer clear and frank advice. Meanwhile, it can be hoped that the new generation of Georgians, particularly those who have lived and worked abroad, will share and preach such radicalism and realism in the months and years ahead.

Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions

The second alleged incursion of a Russian aircraft into Georgian territory during August 2007 has further heightened tension between the two states. An already difficult relationship is mired in accusation, denial, rumour and suspicion over the sorties (the Georgian deputy defence minister Batu Kutelia claims there have been nine in the last three months). The fact that such incidents, minor in themselves, can provoke such heated reactions confirms that something has gone badly wrong in a once almost familial bond. What is it, and can it be repaired?

Georgia and Russia: with you, without you

The current quarrel between Georgia and Russia - which started with the arrest of an alleged Russian spy-ring on Georgian territory, and quickly intensified via embittering mutual accusations towards the imposition of a range of severe sanctions by Russia on its small southern neighbour - is based on more than a conflict of interests; it has all the viciousness of a love affair gone sour, which is why it seems so hard to see an end to the ever-escalating series of recriminations between the two countries.

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