The guns of August: two years later

The bitter conflict over South Ossetia in August 2008 has turned to post-war stalemate. But just as the war and the current impasse involve more than Georgia and Russia, says Rein Müllerson, so progress in the region and beyond requires bold diplomatic thinking on all sides.
Rein Müllerson
17 August 2010

In the hot summer of 1994, I was part of a United Nations mission in the Caucasus. The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan was boiling, and countless stories of mutual animosity and differential victimhood were circulating. In search of a broadly impartial study of the origins of the conflicts in the region, I asked my guide in Baku for advice. The next day this well-educated man brought me a book by Vasili Velichko called The Caucasus: Russia’s Affair and Inter-Tribal Issues (published in 1904, and republished in Baku in 1990; an English translation - Kavkaz - is now available on the website of Azerbaijan’s ministry of national security).

The Russian author’s characterisation of some of the region’s mountainous tribes is replete with (by today’s standards) shocking prejudice. The 1990 edition warns on its back cover that the reader will find “some unjustified and unpleasant statements about the Azeri people”. The reader has to look inside the book to find that its portrait of Armenians (“even more vulgar than the Jews”) is uniformly negative. But Vasili Velichko does treat one nation more kindly. The chapter Georgians - our brothers emphasises the spiritual and religious affinities between the Russians and Georgians - two Orthodox peoples who have united “voluntarily, unconditionally, and forever”.

The reference is to what in comparative terms indeed comes closer to a non-coercive union than most so-called “voluntary adherences” to the Russian empire (or indeed the Soviet Union): the process that started with the Treaty of Georgievsk (1783). True, Georgia’s choice was never unadulterated, and always shadowed by great powers (Persia, the Ottoman empire and Russia) surrounding it. Yet this and subsequent periods of history make what happened later between Georgia and Russia all the more striking - to the extent that, if someone had asked me years ago which neighbouring former Soviet republics would be least likely to engage in armed conflict, these two would have topped my list.

But it happened and has, in mutual cold bitterness, continued. A hostility that grew in the mid-2000s and erupted into war in August 2008 shows both how quickly relations between states can break down and how hard it can be to restore confidence and good neighbourliness.

The roots of war

The guns of August were the consequence of a long gestation. The ingredients of disaster are widely shared: they include the post-Soviet Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s arrogant, thoughtless and criminal response to calls for self-determination among the state’s minorities (principally Abkhazians and South Ossetians); the self-interested ambitions of some of the figureheads of those minorities; Russia’s selfish and incompetent interference; and deep inadequacies of leadership on all sides.

An atmosphere of hostility between Georgia and Russia intensified after  the “rose revolution” in Tbilisi in late 2003. By 2007-08, it was possible to read premonitions of war in some of the more authoritative media outlets, not least openDemocracy (see for example, Donald Rayfield, “Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions” [24 August 2007]; Robert Parsons, “Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option” [13 May 2008]; and Thomas de Waal, “The Russia-Georgia tinderbox” [16 May 2008]). In the end, the shift from animosity to armed confrontation was above all due to the impatience and erratic judgment of Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili’s eagerness to “restore constitutional order” in the “breakaway territories” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia using “all means necessary”, and his unqualified support of the regional policies of George W Bush’s administration (which looked to Russia very like encirclement), led him to order a rocket-assault on South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, on the night of 7-8 August 2008. It was a gift to those on the Russian side who had been waiting for a pretext to punish an inveterate enemy. In the gruesome short war that resulted, all the parties involved acted in neglect of international law, especially of international humanitarian law.

The first instinct among western leaders and publics was to blame Russia for the conflict. But a number of authoritative sources suggested otherwise. Der Spiegel in November 2008 reported: “One thing was already clear to the officers at Nato headquarters in Brussels: they thought that the Georgians had started the conflict and that their actions were more calculated than pure self-defense or a response to Russian provocation. In fact, the Nato officers believed that the Georgian attack was a calculated offensive against South Ossetian positions to create the facts on the ground, and they coolly treated the exchanges of fire in the preceding days as minor events. Even more clearly, Nato officials believed, looking back, that by no means could these skirmishes be seen as justification for Georgian war preparations” (see "Did Saakashvili Lie? The West Begins to Doubt Georgian Leader”, Spiegel International, 15 November 2008).

The Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, set up by the Council of the European Union and published on 30 September 2009, reached a similar conclusion: “Open hostilities began with a large-scale Georgian military operation against the town of Tskhinvali and the surrounding areas, launched in the night of 7 to 8 August 2008”.

What happened during the war involved unforgivable violations on both sides. The legacy of suffering and bitterness, amid a wider political impasse, leaves the most difficult challenge to policy-makers and peacemakers.

The promise of reset

In the immediate post-war context of what it perceived to be a victory, Russia took the fateful step on 25 August 2008 of recognising both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. The decision by the United States and leading European Union countries to recognise Kosovo’s own declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008 played a part in this, but Moscow’s choice was both contrary to international law and - as I wrote at the time in openDemocracy - politically shortsighted and counterproductive (see “The world after the Russia-Georgia war”, 5 September 2008).

At the same time, recognition even if illegal is difficult to reverse (as hard as to put toothpaste back into a tube once squeezed out); and it is almost impossible to force an entity that has tasted the fruits of independence (however bitter or meagre) back into the fold of previous masters.

The "advisory opinion" delivered by the International Court of Justice on 22 July 2010 stating that Kosovo’s declaration of independence "did not violate general international law" is at once formally correct, anodyne in content, and potentially explosive in its consequences (see Florian Bieber, "Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia: after the ICJ", 28 July 2010). Even if I were to declare my house with a small plot of land in Tallinn independent from Estonia, I wouldn’t be in breach of general international law. However, if a neighbouring state were to recognise my extravagant declaration, it for sure would violate general international law; for this would be interference in the internal affairs of my country.

The ICJ should have reformulated the question and rules on third states’ reaction to independence declarations, not on the legality of the Kosovo declaration (since it is well established that international law is indifferent on the issue of secession). However, such minutiae are of little interest either for the public or for prospective independent territories - such as Nagorno-Karabakh - where the ICJ opinion is seen as an encouraging precedent.

Where Abkhazia and South Ossetia are concerned, the probable and feasible future status of these territories following the August 2008 war has been well analysed from various perspectives by a number of openDemocracy authors (see Donald Rayfield, “Georgia, two years on: a future beyond war” [5 August 2010]; Neal Ascherson, “Abkhazia and the Caucasus: the west’s choice” [6 August 2010]; Alexander Rondeli, “Sakartvelo: a political prospect” [11 August 2010]; and George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: two years of independence" [13 August 2010]).

The very diversity of views shows that is hardly possible to find a short- or even mid-term solution to a situation concerning Georgia’s breakaway territories that would satisfy all the parties involved. Any such outcome could only follow substantial changes in international order - and not only in the Caucasus (see Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap", 19 August 2008).

Much here depends on the evolution of relations between Russia and its key partners or interlocutors: the United States, the European Union, and Nato. It is clear that an overarching solution (if one is conceivable at all) cannot be found against Russia but only together with her.

In my openDemocracy article of autumn 2008, I suggested that the just-concluded war was (as indeed a revealing remark of President Saakashvili had it) not so much a Georgia-Russia one as a Russia-west one. In a wider perspective it was indeed a proxy war where both Georgians and South Ossetians were also pawns in a geopolitical rivalry.

Stephen F Cohen, one of the most incisive of America’s Russia experts, has written: “I think we've had an omen: the so-called ‘Russian-Georgian’ war in August 2008. It's called the ‘Russian-Georgian’ war, but was also a proxy American-Russian war. Washington created Saakashvili's Georgian regime and continues to support it. Washington created his fighting force and supplied it with American military minders” (see “US-Russian Relations in an Age of American Triumphalism: An Interview with Stephen F. Cohen”, Journal of International Affairs, 63/2, Spring-Summer 2010).

The “reset” of relations between Washington and Moscow under the presidencies of Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2009-10 is a positive move in this context. But in addition to good bilateral links and sensible decisions (such as over arms reduction), more radical thinking that reflects contemporary realities is needed. The changing global balance of power, the risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the continuing threat of terror attacks and other transnational crimes, environmental and demographic problems - all demand imaginative and bold responses.

The benefit of boldness

One such possibility, unthinkable as it still seems to many, is that Russia itself should become a member of Nato. The suggestion provokes a reflexively negative attitude among many of Russia smaller neighbours, thanks to historical memories and modern unease alike. But there are potential benefits of such a course as well as risks in not following it. Charles Kupchan argues that Nato could be damaged by “excluding Russia from the Euro-Atlantic order”; and that Russia’s inclusion is in the interest of her closest neighbours, whose leaders however “have their own hard work to do in toning down the Russophobia that continues to animate politics in the region” (see Charles Kupchan, “NATO’s Final Frontier”, Foreign Affairs, May/June, 2010).

In this respect the warming of Poland-Russia relations following the “second Katyn” plane-crash disaster  on 10 April 2010 which killed Poland’s president and many members of the state elite is a positive sign. President Medvedev’s reference (in a speech to Russian ambassadors on 16 July 2010) to “joint efforts with Poland to overcome our complex shared historical heritage” indicates that the post-disaster mood of reconciliation may last (see Krzysztof Bobinski, “Poland’s second Katyń: out of the ashes”, 13 April 2010). 

Russia’s inclusion in Nato could help move Russia’s domestic politics in a better direction and have  a favourable impact on the Kremlin’s policy both towards the west and its immediate neighbours - including Georgia, whose own Nato aspirations were a factor in the momentum towards war, but whose own security would be far better guaranteed by a Russia that is a close partner with the west than a suspicious onlooker.

But even if in the long run this potential is realised, it would not automatically lead to Georgia’s breakaway (or lost) territories becoming again part of the Georgian state. The local interests and aspirations that drew Abkhazia and South Ossetia to seek an absolute separation from Georgia may prevail even over international efforts; but it could be that, in a different international and regional setting, the precise status of these territories may come to matter less than it does at present. Either way, larger changes in the international order that creative thinking could achieve could advance solutions to these intractable disputes. 

Vasili Velichko’s book of 1904 has successors a century later, even if their language is more careful, that also use (and abuse) history for political purposes. Where history becomes too often servant or a master and  not enough a teacher - a lesson of Philip Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ - the way is opened to grievance-drenched politics, accusation-filled discourse, stereotype-driven media and fear-exploiting leadership. The Caucasus is one of those places where the past is too often selectively used to justify present interests of political elites, which control the past that is looming over the future. The peoples of the region, and of the countries on all sides great and small, deserve better.

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