Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Georgia-Russia Conflict: Origins of the Conflict and Georgian and Russian Motives

Part 1 of a 6 part essay on the recent conflict in Georgia, its causes, and its potential implications.

Russia’s retaliatory bombing and invasion of Georgia last month and the ongoing aftermath has developed into one of the most troubling international episodes of this decade. Russia’s belligerent response to Georgian operations in South Ossetia, a Georgian breakaway province, confirmed what had already been Russia’s scarcely hidden intention to dominate its neighbors, particularly those in the Caucasus and in Eastern Europe. The anemic Western response in the face of Russian aggression against one of its newest allies underscores the significant leverage Russia has attained this past decade over Europe and America, and such inaction bears disturbing similarity to the feeble Western response to Hitler’s aggression preceding WWII. In the following months, the United States and Europe would do well to punish Russia in a more meaningful manner than they have so far, or else resurgent Russia will be only further emboldened to bluntly wield its hard power over its weaker neighbors.

Of all of its comparatively weak Caucasus neighbors, perhaps none have been more of a thorn in Russia’s side lately than Georgia, particularly in the four years since the election of President Mikheil Saakashvili. Under President Saakashvili’s liberal economic reforms, the once poor Georgian economy is showing signs of life, experiencing 10% growth in 2007 (although unemployment and poverty could have been lower).[1] In addition, President Saakashvili rooted out much of the corruption that had existed within the government under its previous president – the former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.[2]

Worse yet for Russia, President Saakashvili has consistently taken a defiant stance towards its giant neighbor. From the very beginning of his Presidency, President Saakashvili has strived to reestablish Georgian control over the country’s several breakaway provinces: indeed, in the first months of his Presidency he succeeded in regaining control over the Southwestern breakaway province of Ajara.[3] In addition, President Saakashvili has reached out to the West, particularly the United States: Georgia had as many as 2,000 troops in Iraq as part of the coalition forces, and U.S. President George W. Bush received an exceptionally warm welcome from President Saakashvili and the rest of Tbilisi in 2005, among other things.[4]

Most critical of all, Georgia has increasingly sought membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a move that Russia has repeatedly stated it would not tolerate, and it is easy to see why: for a Russia that seeks to have a strong influence over its neighbors, the idea of a Western alliance being extended to include one of its bordering countries, particularly one in an area that Russia has long considered to be in its sphere of influence, is unacceptable.[5]

Conveniently for Russia, though, Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have presented a relatively easy opportunity for undermining the increasingly pesky Caucasus state. These two separatist regions won de facto independence in the first few years after the independence of Georgia itself after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although no country recognizes either region’s statehood (except for Russia, which formally recognized the areas a few days ago), their autonomy has been preserved for over a decade, thanks in large part to significant Russian aid and a ceasefire arrangement monitored by Russian “peacekeepers.”[6]

The Georgians claim that both regions are integral parts of Georgia and that there would be a Georgian majority in both territories if it were not for the forced deportation of Georgian citizens, and so they have been outraged at the regions’ autonomy, viewing it as an unacceptable violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity, not only by the Abkhaz and Ossetian separatists, but also by the Russian “peacekeepers” that have been stationed in the regions. The Abkhaz and the Ossetians, meanwhile, argue that their distinct languages and cultures should give them the right to self-determination.[7]

Like other ethnic issues in the Caucasus, though, the question of the legitimacy of either of these claims has no easy answer. It is difficult even today for historians to agree on when exactly the Georgians, the Abkhaz, and the other numerous Caucasus tribes gained their present identity. It is true that for part of history, including during much of the Middle Ages, the Abkhaz and Ossetians were part of a Georgian kingdom, but this kingdom itself was a multiethnic entity consisting of various tribes; indeed, the very concept of a Georgian race takes into account several different tribes. Numerous migrations and resettlements of populations have also complicated each ethnicity’s historical ties to the areas each one claims.[8]

The Russians, though, have clearly not reached out towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia because of any sympathy for either region’s aspirations for statehood. Indeed, the Russians have played a complicated game of their own in bolstering these two Georgian breakaway regions, since Russia too rules over several Caucasus regions and peoples that also warm at the idea of statehood, particularly the Chechens. In supporting Abkhazia and South Ossetia, then, the Russians have in fact undermined their authority inside their own borders.[9]

Evidently, though, Russia does not seem to care about promoting such double standards as long as Georgia is weakened as a result; indeed, Russia has gone to great lengths to support the two breakaway territories at Georgia’s expense. In conjunction with imposing several rounds of sanctions on Georgia, Russia has not placed any sanctions on Abkhazia or South Ossetia, allowing movement of people and goods across its borders with the two areas. Russian financial aid helps to keep the regions’ economies and governments afloat, and Russia has even distributed Russian passports to much of the population in each region.[10]

Although Georgia technically initiated last month’s violence by sending troops into South Ossetia, such a conflict seems to compliment Russia’s interests and past support of South Ossetia and Abkhazia too well for one not to be suspicious of a possible Russian instigation of hostilities. The presence of Russian “peacekeepers” and passport holders gave Russia a possible excuse to justify a Russian intervention to the West in the event of Georgian operations. The speed at which the Russian military mobilized and invaded Georgia in response to Georgian military action in South Ossetia seems to suggest that Russia was too ready and prepared for retaliation for it not to have had a hand in the initiation of violence; indeed, with Russian “peacekeepers” already in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, egging on the separatist forces does not seem so hard for Russia. With West-backed Kosovo recently independent from Russian ally Serbia, Georgia up for potential NATO admission in a few months, and much of the world focused on the Beijing Olympics, the timing seemed all too perfect for Russia to strike a blow against its defiant neighbor and send a resounding message to its other neighbors and the West.

Perhaps President Saakashvili was met with a significant enough provocation from Ossetian separatists to justify sending Georgian troops to the region; perhaps he was bent on retaking South Ossetia while the rest of the world was distracted by the Olympics in order to cement his legacy. Whatever the reasoning, though, President Saakashvili should have known better. Instead, he played right into the bear’s hands.


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