Georgia: between war and a future

Vicken Cheterian
8 July 2009

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

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