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Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option

Robert Parsons
13 May 2008

What does it take to persuade the European Union that what Russia is doing in Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia merits more than a gentle reproach?

Robert Parsons is international editor of France 24. He earned a doctorate at Glasgow University for a thesis on the origins of Georgian nationalism. He was the BBC's Moscow correspondent (1993-2002), and worked at RFE/RL as director of its Georgian service, senior correspondent and chief producer for multimedia projects.

Also by Robert Parsons in openDemocracy:

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

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

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

"Mikheil Saakashvii's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

Moscow has been escalating its efforts to bring these territories - which broke free of Tbilisi's control in the wars of 1992-93 - even more closely under its wing. But the best Brussels has been able to muster is a brief statement from Dmitrij Rupel, the foreign minister of Slovenia, which holds the European Union's rotating presidency until July 2008. The EU, it said, would not take sides in the conflict but would work towards a peaceful solution.

Georgians can only react to such equivocation with incredulity. For since March 2008, Russia has intensified the pressure on Georgia with a series of moves that Tbilisi interprets - almost certainly correctly - as an attempt to provoke it into hasty action.

Moscow has unilaterally lifted trade sanctions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia imposed under the rubric of the post-Soviet regional body, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); it has come within an ace of recognising the two territories' independence; it has increased its troop presence in Abkhazia without consulting Georgia (as it is obliged to do by the Moscow ceasefire agreement of 1994); one of its Mig-29s appears to have shot down a Georgian drone over the Black Sea; and it has threatened Georgia with military action.

Out of touch

Russia's pretext for these aggressive measures is that it is obliged to protect its citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But its concern here is fictive, for this Russian "diaspora" is an artificial creation: Moscow has spent the last few years distributing Russian passports in both areas to virtually anyone who wants one.

In any case, what would Russia protect these people from? The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has accused the Georgians of reinforcing its forces on the Abkhaz border - a claim contradicted on the ground by the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (Unomig), which said there was at present no evidence of such a build-up along the border or in the Kodori gorge, an area inside Abkhazia which is under the control of Georgian forces.

In light of all this, there can be little wonder that Georgia feels betrayed by Europe. The government of Mikheil Saakashvili - who won a second term as Georgia's president in the election of January 2008, four years after the "rose revolution" that swept him to power - is far from perfect; but, encouraged by the west and under the most trying of circumstances, it is seeking to lay the basis for western democratic values. In doing so, it has earned the relentless enmity of a Russia committed to its very different ideological vision of "sovereign democracy".

Europe, faced with this reality, might have been expected to offer Georgia resolute support. Instead, it is prevaricating, troubled by its conscience perhaps more concerned not to offend the Kremlin.

The United States's support for Georgia and its president means that it has taken a firmer line. It said that a pattern of Russian provocation had significantly and unnecessarily heightened tensions; and that Russia's actions ran counter to its own status as a mediator in Abkhazia. On a visit to Tbilisi, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Matthew J Bryza, described Russia's actions in relation to Georgia as "provocative" and as "working against the cause of peaceful settlement" of the Abkhaz conflict - comments denounced by the Russian foreign ministry on 12 May.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Georgian politics:

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

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

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

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

Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007)True, the US's acting under-secretary of state Daniel Fried has criticised the heated rhetoric on both sides. But he also made an obvious point that Europe nevertheless appears to have ignored: "... there is a difference between a very small country and a very large country that we have to keep in mind. Even though we counsel restraint on the Georgians, they are the vulnerable party and it is their territory that is under threat."

From the heart

The mood in Tbilisi meanwhile is febrile. Indeed, in government circles it is close to desperation. The European Union and the United States are urging restraint, but Russia continues to push at what must increasingly seem like an open door. Every time the Russians get away with a provocation, they press a bit harder the next time.

Saakashvili calls it "creeping annexation" and is sufficiently familiar with his country's history to know that there is a precedent here. What Moscow is doing now under the eyes of the European Union bears an uncanny resemblance to what it did in 1921 under the impotent gaze of the League of Nations. The Red Army's invasion terminated Georgian independence for the next seventy years (see Donald Rayfield, "Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions", 24 August 2007).

There are three factors in the current situation which reinforce Russia's pressure on Georgia:

* Vladimir Putin's visceral dislike of Mikheil Saakashvili

* the recognition of Kosovo's independence by the US and several EU member-states. Putin, no longer Russia's president but still wielding great power and influence, has linked Kosovo to Abkhazia and South Ossetia and argued that recognition has set a precedent - a case that has been gleefully embraced by much of the Russian media (see Zeyno Baran & Thomas de Waal, "Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?", 2 August 2006).

* The Nato factor. Putin was incensed by Nato's statement at its Bucharest summit on 2-4 April 2008 that it wasn't a question of whether Georgia would one day join the alliance, but when (even though this was partly an effort to mollify Georgia after its application for an immediate path to membership was denied). Sergei Lavrov's remark on 3 May, after a meeting with US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to discuss the tensions in Abkhazia, was in the manner of a warning: "Tbilisi and those capitals that are pulling Georgia into Nato (should) make appropriate conclusions and not create artificial problems in this very sensitive region".

On the edge

Thus, Georgia today finds itself caught in a pincer. So far, it has followed the west's urge for restraint but has had to watch Russia slowly undermine its sovereignty. The EU, which sent a five-strong delegation of foreign ministers to Tbilisi on 12 May with no noticeable result, has been particularly ineffectual.

It is not surprising then that a note of cynicism has crept into Georgian discourse about Brussels. Tbilisi feels it can no longer rely on the EU for support in its conflict with Russia.

This is where it gets truly serious. It is a measure of Georgia's desperation that Mikheil Saakashvili's government appears to be actively considering the possibility of war - even though it also suspects that every step the Russians have taken in these two months has been designed precisely to provoke the Georgians into military action (see Dmitry Avaliani, "Fears of War with Russia", IWPR, 7 May 2008).

The consequences would be catastrophic on all sides - for Abkhazia, where most of any fighting would take place, for Georgia and for the west. A war with Russia could not be won, but waging it would have devastating human, economic and political consequences.

War would, moreover, end any prospect of Georgia ever joining Nato - not just because it would undermine trust in the country's reliability but also because war could well spell the end of Georgian unity and independence. The ensuing vacuum could turn the southern Caucasus into another region of terror and instability, and demolish the west's hopes that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline could provide an alternative to Russian energy.

In short, a war between Georgia and Russia would be a disaster. Yet it is a measure of Russia's ambition, and of western diffidence, that such an outcome is becoming conceivable.

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