only search

About Vicken Cheterian

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He teaches at Webster Geneva's faculty of media communications, and lectures in international relations at the University of Geneva. His latest book is Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide (C Hurst, 2015). His other books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)

Articles by Vicken Cheterian

This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

The European Court of Human Rights violates my rights

The EHCR has upheld the right of the Turkish politician Dogu Perincek to deny the Armenian genocide. It's a bad decision with dangerous implications.

Young Turk, Arab spring: a parallel

The experience of the late-Ottoman revolt of 1908 is relevant to the cycle of uprising and violence in the region today. 

Armenia, memories of the land

A century after the genocide of the Ottoman Armenians, Vicken Cheterian goes in search of its living traces on the modern borderlands where Turkey, Syria and Lebanon meet.

European vs Arab revolutions: regimes, ideas, violence

Why did east-central Europe find a non-violent freedom path in 1989-91, while the Arab world failed to do so after 2011?

Armenian genocide, a century on

A hundred years after the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman empire, widening acceptance of the crime is shadowed by Ankara's continual evasion.

Charlie Hebdo and the blasphemy of censorship

The massacre in Paris spreads fear and reinforces the retreat from free expression in Europe. It also sharpens an unavoidable choice over legal and political order.

Turkey and the "Islamic State”

Turkey is notably reluctant to join a military campaign against ISIS. In fact, Ankara's ambiguity towards the radical Islamist group has deep political as well as historical roots.

Azerbaijan: a dual offensive

Azerbaijan’s strategy over the disputed, Armenian-held territory of Karabakh is also aimed at eliminating domestic opposition. But the country's rising troubles make this a self-defeating strategy.

Central African Republic: genocide in our time

The failure of the international community over events in the CAR reflects a wider retreat from its promises over human rights, says Vicken Cheterian.

Syria: Kessab's battle and Armenians' history

The takeover by anti-Damascus rebels of an Armenian village in northern Syria, near the border with Turkey, has triggered a propaganda war which focuses on the position of Syria's Armenians. This highlights core aspects of Armenians' experience since the 1915 genocide, says Vicken Cheterian.

Syria's Kurds, hopes and fears

The civil war in Syria has put great strains on the country's Kurdish population. The Syrian Kurds' most powerful politician, Saleh Muslim Mohammad, talks to Vicken Cheterian about their position and future.

Turkey’s "race codes" and the Ottoman legacy

The revelation that modern Turkey continues secretly to classify its citizens according to religious criteria reflects the weight of the Ottoman past. It also has implications for those in the middle east seeking a state based on equality before law, says Vicken Cheterian.

Syria's activists: politics of anger

The hopes of Syria's opposition for external support are turning into bitter suspicion of the west's real motives in refusing to intervene in the war, says Vicken Cheterian.

Syria: neo-anti-imperialism vs reality

Much leftist analysis of Syrian events is trapped by a dogmatic outlook that combines a warped view of geopolitics with inattention to local realities, says Vicken Cheterian.

Turkey and the Armenians: politics of history

A new generation's encounter with the Armenian genocide of 1915 is producing fresh understandings of Turkey's - and the middle east's - modern history, finds Vicken Cheterian.

Libya: oil, the state and the revolution

The surge of political expectation in post-revolution Libya contrasts with the lack of realistic assessments of the country's economic - and therefore democratic - prospects, finds Vicken Cheterian.

Tunisia: a year of all dangers

Tunisia is both the pioneer of the Arab spring and its greatest success so far. But even here the political and economic tests are acute, says Vicken Cheterian.

Armenia-Turkey: the end of rapprochement

A diplomatic process designed to normalise relations between Armenia and Turkey led to the signing of two protocols in 2009. Its failure is rooted in the miscalculations of both sides, says Vicken Cheterian.

Torture and the Arab system, old and new

The Arab awakening of 2011 raises hope of an end to the torture and other human-rights violations that have long been endemic in Arab states. But it will be a tough legacy to overcome, says Vicken Cheterian.

9/11, and the hijacked decade

The al-Qaida strategy of attacking the United States created its own form of blowback. But the triumph of militarisation after 9/11 exacted a deeper cost on the world, says Vicken Cheterian.

Egypt, the Nile and the revolution

The fate of Egypt across the centuries is indissolubly linked to the river which gives it life. Today, a range of problems - environmental, political, economic - threaten the provision and the quality of the Nile waters. They present another challenge for the young post-Mubarak order, says Vicken Cheterian 

Syria’s broken spring: a Damascus report

A seething revolt across much of Syria is being met with ferocious repression by the Ba’athist government’s security forces. But so far, the two cities where close to half of Syria’s population lives - Damascus and Aleppo - are relatively calm. In this evolving situation, what are the prospects for Syria’s regime and people? Vicken Cheterian reports and reflects.  

The Arab revolt and the colour revolutions

The fate of the popular insurgencies in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere in the early-mid 2000s could offer guidance or warning to the middle-east uprising of 2011 - and to western states, says Vicken Cheterian. 

The Arab crisis: food, energy, water, justice

Tunisia’s popular uprising is reverberating across the Arab world. But such movements face problems that go far wider than dictatorship to encompass the whole range of human security, says Vicken Cheterian.

The Armenia-Turkey protocols: a year on

The process of dialogue between neighbours locked in an enduring dispute over the events of 1915 is already in trouble. But in assessing what has gone wrong, Vicken Cheterian sees history still on the move.

Kyrgyzstan failing, and an arc of crisis

The violent descent of parts of Kyrgyzstan into communal conflict since the overthrow of its president in April 2010 leaves a security vacuum whose dangerous effects could be felt across central Asia, says Vicken Cheterian. 

Armenian genocide and Turkey: then and now

The destruction of the Ottoman Armenians began on 24 April 1915. Almost a century later the contemporary political relevance of the "great catastrophe" remains undiminished, says Vicken Cheterian.

Armenia-Turkey: genocide, blockade, diplomacy


A process that began with "football diplomacy" between Armenia and Turkey has developed into the real thing, as the countries' foreign ministers signed two protocols on their future relationship at a ceremony in Switzerland on 10 October 2009.

Georgia: between war and a future

A new war in and over Georgia may be in the making. For over two decades, local conflicts have spiralled to make the south Caucasus region a new frontline of east-west proxy wars - most recently in the Georgia-Russia conflict of 8-12 August 2008. The confusion between local political dynamics and international intervention has been at the heart of this process; as long as it lasts, a bad situation will be made worse.

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva. He is the author of War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia's Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009)

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

"Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

"Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)

"Armenia's election: the waiting game" (19 February 2008)

"Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Barack Obama's visit to Moscow on 6-8 July 2009, notable for bilateral agreement on Afghanistan and nuclear weapons, was also touched by a note of concern over Georgia: the United States president felt it necessary to reaffirm support for Georgia's "sovereignty and territorial integrity", and Tbilisi's freedom of choice in joining Nato.

There are warning-signs in the region of a possible resumption of conflict . Russia has effectively pushed two international missions out of Georgia: the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), and the Organisation for Security and cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to Georgia. The first was the international community's effort to regulate the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, while the second was mandated to handle the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict.

When Russia vetoed the extension of the United Nations mission to Abkhazia on 15 June 2009, Moscow's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin was emphatic. He said that the mandate "was built on old realities", and added "only a new security system on the Georgian-Abkhaz border could guarantee non-aggression by Georgia."

By removing the two international organisations from the conflict-zones, Russia has underlined once again its will to change the rules of the game in the south Caucasus. Yet the Russian move will only increase insecurity in an already volatile region. True, the international efforts failed to bring a peaceful solution to the local conflicts despite being in the region for a long time (the OSCE mission dates back to 1992, the UN mission to 1993) - something that these organisations needs seriously to reflect on. But these missions do have long experience on the terrain and intimate knowledge of past negotiations: very valuable experiences that will now be discarded.

Tbilisi saw the moves as a "scandal", but could not change the outcome of the Russian veto. More significantly, the Abkhaz authorities themselves would have preferred to maintain the UN presence in their republic. The president of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, said after the 15 June vote that his administration was looking for "alternative contacts" with the UN; the Abkhaz foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, followed by commenting that the UN mission had played a positive role as a "buffer" between the conflicting sides.

In fact, the Abkhaz authorities are worried that Moscow's unilateral recognition of the Abkhaz independence, the new Russian military bases on its territory, and the withdrawal of the UN from Abkhazia, together carry the risk of Russian domination over Abkhazia - and of postponing or cancelling the possibility of Abkhaz independence. Neither do these trends bring a guarantee of security. Even the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), a police force from EU countries with a mission to ensure the implementation of the Russia-Georgia ceasefire agreement of August 2008, has not been safe: a bomb-attack on one of its units on 21 June was described as "a deliberate attack" by an EUMM spokesperson.

Who is the enemy?

In a wider perspective, the conflicts in the south Caucasus over the last two decades suggest a deep misunderstanding on the Georgian side. This is clear from the very start, when the Georgian national movement  in the 1980s defined its struggle against the Soviet empire as being fought in the name of Georgia's independence. But on its way to independence, the Georgian elite did not take into consideration the political aspirations and existential fears of its own national minorities (such as the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians). This attitude - which continued, most disastrously, into the post-independence period - meant that while the Georgian national movement was busy undoing Soviet institutions and rules, it did not notice that it was increasingly antagonising these minorities.

When, for example, the Georgian parliament passed a new language law in August 1989 making the Georgian the country's only official language, it was meant as an act of resistance against decades of Russification. But such laws - and the annulment of the Soviet constitution as a whole - meant that South Ossetia, Abkhazia, or the unsettled southwestern area of Adzharia lost their autonomous character. And they mobilised to resist. For the Georgian national movement at the time, such resistance was seen as part of KGB manipulations to impede Georgia's achievement of independence. In other words, from Tbilisi's perspective, the Abkhaz or Ossetian political movements were not in themselves independent agents or political subjects. They were simple expressions of a will originating from Moscow, from the Kremlin (see War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia's Troubled Frontier [C Hurst, 2008]).

Abkhazia was an especially sensitive point, since inter-ethnic struggle there punctuated the decades of Soviet rule (though in fact the first post-independence conflict in Georgia was to erupt in South Ossetia).  The widespread Georgian indifference to the grievances of these regions and peoples had become rooted by the early 1990s and still applies today.

The argument has been heard often in Tbilisi: "In case Moscow stops intervening we can easily solve our differences with the Abkhaz and the Ossetians." Such an attitude disregarded both the political realities in the two republics and the existential fears of the Ossetians or the Abkhaz. The political consequence is that Georgia imposes on itself a very narrow political space, unable to manoeuvre between the nuances and the differences. Its policy also pushes the Abkhaz and the Ossetians towards Russia, whether they like it or not. Georgian leaders may have consistently declared that their struggle was against Russia alone; but when the Georgian army entered Tskhinvali on 7-8 August 2008 they expected to fight only the Ossetian militia, not the Russian army.

Russia, very much like Georgia, has a problem in choosing targets. Its invasion of Georgia in 2008, its subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states - and more recently its attempts to marginalise Georgia - are conditioned by more than its regional security needs. The decade-long Nato eastern expansion and the exclusion of Russia from international decision-making processes (such as recognition of Kosovo's declaration of independence) are among the factors that have made Russia react in Georgia to defend its interests and influence, and more broadly to turn the tables of the Caucasus "great game".

The Caucasus is a highly sensitive region for Russia, one where Russia has fought two ferocious post-Soviet wars. The "pacification" of Chechnya happened simultaneously with the spread of instability in a number of regions in the north Caucasus, including Daghestan and Ingushetia. At the same time, Russia saw Georgia as a test of its strength in what it sees as western encroachment into a highly sensitive zone of its traditional influence. But by fighting the west on Georgian territory, Russia is - against its own interests - increasing the instability in a region where its own national interests demand stability.

The arc of conflict

The Georgian authorities under Mikheil Saakashvili tried to solve the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in two ways. The first was by strengthening and replenishing the Georgian armed forces (see "Georgia's arms race" [4 July 2007]). The second was by weakening Russian influence over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These efforts were underpinned by the Saakashvili administration's core calculation: that Russia's influence could be counterbalanced or even neutralised if western interests and the west's direct presence in Georgia were increased.

The August 2008 war proved that this strategy was wrong, even tragic, for both South Ossetia and Georgia. The United States - as in the early 1990s - did not intervene directly, which this time caused great bewilderment on the Georgian side.

The west nonetheless did intervene diplomatically to prevent Russian tanks from reaching Tbilisi; it followed in October 2008 by pledging massive financial aid ($4.5 billion), without which the Saakashvili administration's stability and even existence might have been put in doubt. But it is unlikely that such support from Washington and the European capitals will be permanent or unconditional: the European Union-commissioned study on the causes of the August 2008 war that places much blame  on Georgia for initiating the hostilities indicates the degree of scepticism that surrounds attitudes towards Tbilisi.

The Georgian opposition launched a major protest campaign on the symbolically sensitive date of 9 April 2009 (the anniversary of the Tbilisi massacre in 1989) and has embarked on a campaign to invite foreign powers to intervene in the near-permanent domestic power-struggle. The leading figures in the opposition even addressed western diplomats after a mutiny on 5 May in the Mukhrovani military base, when servicemen refused to take part in the suppression of opposition activists. on 5 May; the leaders called on the diplomats "to use all means at your disposal and establish monitoring over the investigations process ... as well as over alarming processes ongoing in the Georgian armed forces".

Levan Gachechiladze, a key opposition figure, then provoked a huge row when he declared to protestors outside the parliament in Tbilisi on 19 June that he had returned from a trip to European capitals "with very optimistic pledges" (though without revealing the sources of his putative new funds). This is part of a pattern. After each minor clash between activists demonstrating in central Tbilisi and the police forces, the opposition coalition releases a statement calling on western diplomatic missions to intervene. The Georgian opposition seems to have lost hope of overthrowing the Saakashvili leadership, and is thus increasingly appealing for western support to do so (see Nino Burdzhanadze, "A Georgian appeal: open letter to the west", 12 June 2009).

But the Georgian opposition and Mikheil Saakashvili's administration are alike mistaken in thinking that foreign powers will solve their local problems. It is enough to look at the recent, and not so recent, Georgian past to be convinced. In 1783, as Georgia was under the threat of Persian invasions, King Erekle II signed with Russia the treaty of Georgievsk to guarantee the sovereignty and integrity of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli and Kakheti. This demand for protection led to the incorporation of Georgia in the Russian empire. More recently, the refusal by the Georgian elite to attend to the concerns of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has led to the internationalisation of these conflicts.

After all this, the Georgian political elite still appears seriously to believe that it is up to Brussels or Washington to solve the question of government-opposition relations in Georgia. The reality is that they can't, and won't. Georgia's problems may be a regional and international issue, but the heart of the solution lies at home. 

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Georgian politics:

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

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: progress, interrupted" (16 November 2007)

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

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvii'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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 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)

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)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 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" (3 July 2009)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports

Georgia's forgotten legacy

The mark of a leader is how he or she responds to tough rather than favourable circumstances. By this standard, Mikheil Saakshvili has so far managed well his military defeat in South Ossetia and the subsequent Russian onslaught. Even the continuing presence of Russian troops on the soil of "Georgia proper" - that is, excluding the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, almost all of which were outside Georgian control before the war of August 2008 - has not put into question his legitimacy as the president of Georgia.

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva. He is the author of War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia's Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2008)

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

"Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

"Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)

"Armenia's election: the waiting-game" (19 February 2008)
True, there was widespread criticism of his leadership in Georgia before the war and there is more immediate discontent about his decision to engage in an armed confrontation with Russia over control of South Ossetia. The latest national crisis may inevitably have muted political opposition, though there are increasing signs that the post-war political arena will see fresh challenges to Saakashvili's almost five-year reign (see Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape", 26 August 2008).

In addition, Russia's rhetorical barrage as well its military pressure has been constant - including Dmitry Medvedev's description on 2 September of his counterpart in Tbilisi as a "political corpse". Yet amid all this, Saakashvili has - again, so far - not wilted; he even seems on occasion to thrive on the challenge (and is himself no mean performer in the art of political abuse).

The response of the Georgian people has in the main been to rally to the flag, providing their president with further much-needed breathing-space. A massive demonstration in Tbilisi and other cities and towns across Georgia on 1 September, for example, brought up to one million people onto the roads and squares of the Georgian capital to express their "unity" and oppose "Russian aggression". Indeed, for any political force to articulate a pro-Russian position would be political suicide in Georgia today. Russia's actions in and after the war have if anything consolidated Mikheil Saakashvili's position, to the extent that - most unlike the period of protest before the election of January 2008 - there are at the moment no significant forces calling for the president's resignation.

The dynamic

After the impact of the Russian version of "shock and awe" fades away, however, a full political accounting of what happened in the war will follow. Mikheil Saakashvili is bound to face tough questions. As early as 18 August, the former speaker of the Georgian parliament, Nino Burdzhanadze, said that while unity was paramount in times of war there would need to be once Russia withdrew a thorough analysis "of what happened, and why it happened". These words are even more potent as they come from one of the three leaders of the "rose revolution" of November 2003-January 2004 which propelled Saakashvili to the presidency (the other is Zurab Zhvania, a confidante of Saakashvili who became Georgia's prime minister, and whose death in 2005 remains unexplained).

These comments of Nino Burdzhanadze, and the wider political repositioning that (as Robert Parsons suggests) they may be part of, augur the coming contest for Georgia's future. But the country needs more than another domestic crisis out of which another leader emerges: it needs needs a serious internal debate about "what happened" not just in August 2008 but over the whole period since the rose revolution. What is the legacy of this event for Georgia today, and does it offer resources for the betterment of Georgia - with or without Mikheil Saakashvili?

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

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)

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

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

Evgeny Morozov, "Citizen war-reporter? The Caucasus test" (18 August 2008)
The rose revolution that brought Saakashvili to power was a reaction to the failure of his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze to modernise Georgia, which was understood by the Georgians effectively to meand bringing the country closer to the west and away from its Soviet past. The most obvious and visible part of this failure was corruption. It was this issue that dominated Georgian politics in the months before the great protest-wave of November 2003. By contrast, little attention at the time was given to the de facto independent entities of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that had since the wars of 1990-92 and 1992-93 been outside the Georgian political framework. The tension over Adzharia, a rich Black Sea province ruled in feudal style by Aslan Abashidze - who had much influence over internal Georgian politics - was far higher on Tbilisi's agenda; but this was as much to do with corruption as with "separatism".

This is an indirect but real signal of the real priorities of the young revolutionaries who came to power via the rose revolution. They looked at the problem of the three (at the time) ‘breakaway" territories and saw the same colour as that of "Georgia proper" under Eduard Shevardnadze displayed: the colour of corruption, resulting from rule by remnants of the old Soviet nomenklatura.

The internal dynamic of the revolution thus led to less of a focus on "reclamation" of the three statelets and more on attending to Georgians' immediate material and social needs: raising living standards, fighting corruption, reforming the economy, beginning modernisation, orientating the country to the west. All this, a large and ambitious programme even for already semi-modern states, was an even bigger challenge for an impoverished and war-torn country like Georgia. But the strategy was clear, and it posed the question of territorial reunification in a singular way - as part of a political project, not a military one.

Mikheil Saakashvili at the time articulated this strategy by pledging that the new Georgia would make the country so attractive to the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians that there would be no need to force them to return to Georgian rule. This aspiration drew on the most important legacy of the rose revolution: its non-violence. Many feared that the political crisis of late 2003 which followed contested parliamentary elections would plunge the country again into civil war. Instead, the revolution took an honourable course as an inspiring example of peaceable protest, civic unity and self-discipline leading to non-violent regime-change.

The cycle

Many articles in openDemocracy have tracked the course of Georgian politics since that tumultuous period (see, for example, Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" [15 July 2005], and Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" [8 July 2008]). Yet it remains unclear when the internal dynamic of the political strategy underpinning the rose revolution changed. Perhaps, again, Adzharia offers a clue. This was Saakashvili's first stage for territorial reunification, where - in May 2004, before the substantive effects of his reforms had been widely felt - his supporters organised a mini-revolution which ousted Abashidze (who fled to Moscow). The president's good news continued when the Russian leadership agreed to disband its old Soviet military bases at Batumi (on the Black Sea, in Adzharia) and Akhalkalaki (in the southern region of Javakheti).

These successes encouraged Saakashvili to a repeat performance. He prepared a second mini-revolution in South Ossetia in summer 2004, this time supported by interior-ministry troops. This time, it was a disaster: around twenty-four Georgian fighters (and even more Ossetian militamen and civilians of various ethnic origins) were killed, and the fighting brought Russian tanks through the Caucasus mountains. Saakashvili wisely declared a ceasefire before the fighting spread.

This was a moment when the Georgian leader could in principle have turned back, and reclaimed the non-violent and progressive legacy of the rose revolution. Instead, he reinforced the new military approach in a striking way (see "Georgia's arms race", 4 July 2007). The Georgian defence budget rose from the equivalent of $50 million under Shevardnadze to $567m in 2007, and almost $1 billion for 2008. This huge increase in expenditure has been an integral part of Georgia's strengthened military (and political) alliance with the United States, reflected in the deployment by Tbilisi of up to 2,000 soldiers to Iraq.

Saakashvili was emboldened by his alliance with the "last remaining superpower", a bond symbolised by the frenzied welcome of George W Bush to Tbilisi in May 2005. The extent of Saakashvili's departure from the rose revolution's best promise showed too in his readiness to challenge Russia. Again, the president was drawing the wrong strategic conclusions, and seemed unaware that in the international arena Washington's power and reach was diminishing not growing.

The accumulation of shiny hardware, training programmes and grandiose titles that accompanied Tbilisi's military drive proved to be no substitute for noticing which way the wind was blowing. Nato's summit in Bucharest on 2-4 April 2008 - when, over Washington's insistence, Nato member-states denied Tbilisi (and Kyiv) entry into the roadmap to membership - was a turning-point. Georgia might have learned from the experience and advice of its Israeli allies too. The Israeli army had been unable to crush Hizbollah in the war of July-August 2006, and Hizbollah confirmed its domestic power by crushing the United States's Lebanese allies in Beirut in May 2008. More broadly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had stretched US capacities to their limits. What advice was Georgia receiving, or not receiving; who was it listening to, or ignoring; and where were its internal, independent sources of strategic thinking?

Gérard Chaliand, the French expert on military history, once told me that there is big difference between the military and warriors. The military are people who have jobs in armies, wear uniforms, classify documents, and follow orders. Warriors love making war. After spending $3 billion, Georgia had a modern military, but no warriors. In response to Mikheil Saakashvili's misjudgment of ordering an attack on Tskhinvali, Russia unleashed on the Georgian army its war-hardened kontraktniki from the Chechnya war-zone, as well as former Chechen resistance fighters (the special-purpose battalion Vostok) who have of late joined the Kremlin's cause in Chechnya. It was no contest.

The loss

The result of the war is a catastrophe for Georgia. Its young military is shattered, with over 200 soldiers dead from an army of 25,000 (even though Givi Targamadze of Georgia's ruling party reported a lower figure to parliament on 3 September) ; the two newly built, Nato-standard bases in Senaki and Gori have been occupied by Russian troops, then looted and burned; the army has been practically incapacitated. Moreover, the war has led to ethnic cleansing of villages in South Ossetia inhabited by Georgians, and the flight of thousands of Georgians to Tbilisi and other cities. For the foreseeable future, Tbilisi will have even less to say about or offer South Ossetia or Abkhazia than before the events of August 2008; the war has brought them closer to Russian control (notwithstanding the formal recognition by Moscow of their independence) than ever.

The war was also a huge blow to efforts to modernise Georgia's infrastructure and economy. In the month of the conflict, Georgia's central bank sold almost 13% of its foreign-currency reserves to preserve the value of the lari, the national currency. The aspiration of the rose revolution, Georgia's bid for modernisation, is at risk here too.

The return

What comes next for Georgia? The autopilot-path is to continue to challenge Moscow, an approach symbolised by Saakashvili's promise to "bury Russian imperialism". A number of American politicians are lobbying to rebuild the Georgian armed forces; two senators, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, write that "the Georgian military should be given the antiaircraft and antiarmor systems necessary to deter any renewed Russian aggression" (see "Russian Aggression is a Challenge to World Order", Wall Street Journal, 26 August 2008) The logic here - to push Georgia into a conflict it cannot win (against Russia, or indeed against the Caucasian mountaineers) - is easy to follow and hard to fathom. It promises a repeat of the 1990-93 and 2008 experiences - only much worse.

Today, Georgia cannot afford both to follow the path of modernisation and democratisation and pursue a military build-up designed to allow the forced reintegration of the "lost" territories What it can do is to decide to embrace a strategy of non-violence towards South Ossetia and Abkhazia by accepting the current status quo; it could even go further, by recognising their independence in exchange for the return of ethnic Georgians to their homes (see Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and South Ossetia", 15 August 2008).

An approach of this kind - and as important, the evidence of creative and imaginative thinking that discussing it in today's Georgia would represent - could open a new page of relations with the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians. It would also enable Georgia to retrieve the legacy of the rose revolution, and once again offer the world an example of inspiration rather than militarism, rancour and enmity. Whether Mikheil Saakashvili or indeed his possible next rivals for the country's leadership are able to accomplish this task, at some point Georgia will be faced with the choice of following such a path.



Armenia’s election: the waiting game

The campaign for the presidential election in Armenia reaches its climax on 19 February 2008. The weeks of activity reflect a nation that has come a long way since the early days of independence in 1991, yet still seems blocked in its internal politics by the dominance of the leading figures of the "Karabakh Movement" that have held sway in Armenian politics for the last two decades.

Lebanon: short memory, system failure

Lebanon has approached the opening of its two-month presidential election period, scheduled to begin on 25 September 2007, in a troubled mood. The atmosphere of foreboding is intensified by the assassination on 19 September of the member of parliament Antoine Ghanem (along with six other people). Ghanem was a critic of Syria, and many at his funeral three days later were convinced that Syria was responsible for his death.

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

"Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

Georgia’s arms race

Since the "rose revolution" of 2003-04, Georgian defence spending has effectively been increased by over forty times. The official explanation is that Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze had practically no army, and according to the official goal of joining Nato, Georgia needs to modernise its army, train its soldiers, and build facilities for them. But observers in Tbilisi point that out patterns of spending suggest that Georgia has other projects apart from its Nato ambitions.

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva.

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

Serbia after Kosovo

Serbian views about the prospect of independence for the territory it lost in 1999 are more complex than they often appear, finds Vicken Cheterian in Belgrade.
Syndicate content