by Donald Rayfield
Both sides are guilty of lies and miscalculations, but a mix of vision and realism could still help stabilize the region.
The Georgia-Russia war of 8-12 August 2008 has left a host of issues unresolved. The future of the contested territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the resettlement of the expelled and displaced, the fate of Georgia's aspiration to join NATO, and the ambitions of an emboldened Russia are just a few. The bitter fallout of a vicious conflict means that it will be some time before the longer-term impact of the war in these and other areas will become clear.
It is far too early to talk of a return to normality, even were such a notion to apply to the Georgia-Russia relationship and the pre-war political situation in the region. A cautious return to diplomatic dialogue - from the European Union-Russia summit in Nice on 14 November (which emerged with a proposal for a new "security architecture" in Europe) to the resumption of talks between Moscow and Tbilisi in Geneva on 18 November - may at least offer some signals about the prospects for movement on the core tensions that the war revealed.
But in order for more substantial progress to be possible, the outstanding questions surrounding the August conflict itself - how it began, who is to blame, and what are the implications of answers to these questions - must also be faced. These continue to be matters of intense dispute, in an atmosphere overlain by politically driven public-relations campaigns on all sides. What follows is an assessment based on current knowledge about the circumstances of the war and its possible consequences, which builds on earlier contributions in openDemocracy (see, for example, Russia vs Georgia: a war of perception and The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation).
CHAIN OF RESPONSIBILITY
It is famously said that truth is the first casualty of war. In this case, however - thanks to the careful work and independent research of journalists and other observers - it can also be the first to recover from its injuries.
Seven points can be made about the circumstances of the war:
The first is that the full-scale attack by Georgian forces on South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali on the night of 7-8 August 2008 - involving indiscriminate artillery-fire from Grad rockets - was not provoked by any Ossetian forces' shelling of Georgian villages in the enclave. A number of sources - including three observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of whom only one was from the former Soviet Union, and two experienced British military observers in the area at the time - report that there was no immediate provocation that would justify the Georgian escalation of what had hitherto been a low-key conflict. This conclusion is supported too by the evidence of a number of Georgian inhabitants of South Ossetia and has been reinforced by the findings of the journalist Tim Whewell in meticulous reports featured on the BBC World Service and other outlets.
Moreover, reports of Russian forces making their way through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia on 7 August (rather than 8 August) are not backed up by any satellite or other confirmed intelligence. The conclusion must be that blame for the death of more than 100 Ossetian civilians and Russian "peacekeepers" in the Georgian assault belongs to Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his military commanders; and Saakashvili, even if he has convinced himself of the truth of his version of events, needs to be confronted with the disparities between his allegations and the verifiable facts.
The second point is that it would however be quite wrong to follow Russia's president and prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin (and their western acolytes such as Silvio Berlusconi) in blaming Saakashvili, his army and their U.S. advisers for initiating the war.
True, Russian forces may have taken no special action on or just before 7-8 August to justify the Georgian army's attack on Tskhinvali. But Russian forces were clearly prepared for and expecting such a conflict: their armies were in place in North Ossetia, their battleships were ready to reach Georgian ports within a day or two; the Ossetians, whose government and armed forces are effectively controlled by Russians, had for several weeks escalated the usual petty violence of kidnappings, shootings, blockades, and banditry to a point where the death-rate among Georgian police was more than worrying. Saakashvili's attack, if it can be justified at all, can be called a pre-emptive strike.
The third point is that the Georgian army had at least 130 American advisers who answer to the U.S. authorities. It is difficult to believe that the move north from Tbilisi of the most heavily armed, motorized forces of the Georgian army went unnoticed by these Americans. Did they remonstrate; and if not, why not? Worse, did they, as Putin alleges, actively encourage the Georgians out of cynical curiosity to see how the Russians would respond - or out of even more cynical political calculation in seeking to boost John McCain's election chances? The answers to these questions will eventually leak out, whether from Tbilisi or from the Langley (Virginia) headquarters of the CIA.
The fourth point is that the Russian army could not have failed to repel the Georgian attack, even if it were to keep to its fiction of being merely a "peacekeeping" force. But it must be blamed for its actions in two areas:
- deliberately destroying Georgian infrastructure and severely damaging the economy by cutting the only east-west railway line and the only motorable east-west road, and bombing near enough the airport to deter commercial aircraft from landing at Tbilisi
- embarking on an orgy of looting and allowing Ossetian and Chechen "irregulars" (a more polite word than they deserve) to steal, rape, kill, and drive out Georgian villagers from South Ossetia.
The background of Chechen hatred for Georgians (which reached its height in 1944 when Stalin used Georgian detachments of the NKVD to deport the entire Chechen nation to central Asia) makes it as cruel a decision to use Chechen forces in South Ossetia as it was to let them fight with the Abkhaz against the Georgians in 1992.
The fifth point is that the Russians are guilty of the sheer hypocrisy of pretending to be neutral peacekeepers in the region, when since 1992-1993 they have been seeking gradually to integrate both South Ossetia and Abkhazia into the Russian Federation by a variety of means: common currencies, introducing pension and health-care rights, issuing Russian-citizenship passports to the inhabitants.
The Georgians may have been originally to blame for their cavalier treatment of Abkhaz and Ossetian nationalism in the 1989-1992 period but in later years have watched with increasing frustration at seeing their country dismembered while the outside world remained all but indifferent. This helps explain if not justify the crime of shelling Tskhinvali - a crime that gave the Russians the long-awaited pretext to "recognize" the breakaway territories' independence and thus effectively absorb them for good. In addition, the Russians lied even more brazenly than the Georgians in the first stages of the war, in proclaiming a "genocide" of Ossetians with as many as 2,000 victims, when the verifiable total is far less.
The sixth point is that western politicians, particularly ambassadors and donors, failed in their duty to make clear to Mikheil Saakashvili - in terms that he could not pretend to misunderstand - that they would in no way support a "war of liberation" aimed at recovering the lost territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Any diplomat in Georgia soon realizes that, regardless of reality and common sense, every Georgian politician has had to promise his electorate that they would meet next year in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. The inevitable danger of such rhetoric is that at moments of despair, the irresponsible politician - whether Eduard Shevardnadze or Saakashvili himself - gambles on an attempt to turn it into reality. Georgia's economic resurgence since 2004 has depended on tranches of grants and investments that should have been absolutely conditional on conforming to basic ground rules.
The seventh point is that some western politicians made culpable errors at the outset of the war by laying total blame on Russia for its outbreak, then compounded this by reversing Franklin D Roosevelt's advice and "talking hard while carrying a soft stick". They included the hapless John McCain, the leaders of the Baltic states, and two callow British politicians (Foreign Minister David Miliband and opposition leader David Cameron).
Cameron's threat to stop Russians shopping at Selfridges was clearly neutralized by a few phone calls from west London stores, casinos, estate agents, and schools who rely on the big spenders from Moscow; while Miliband's subsequent reticence is no doubt attributable to briefings on the complexities of the issues, and the political and economic price Britain would have to pay for taking a stand on principle against Russia's Machiavellian policies.
THE POSTWAR SITUATION
The immediate consequences of the brief, nasty war are threefold.
The first is that of all the states involved, the overall situation has substantially changed only for Georgia (and to a degree the other states and regions of the south Caucasus). The damage to Tbilisi, economically and politically, is severe. Much of the destruction - of roads, installations, and army bases, and the loss of housing by some 20,000 ethnic Georgians - can be compensated by the $4.55 billion pledged by the United States and European Union at a conference in Brussels on 22 October 2008. But the more definitive loss of the two territories (for even to the most nationalistic Georgian politician, they must now seem irrecoverable) is less easily quantifiable or repairable.
Indeed, the permanent alienation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia could appear to be salutary, like the amputation of gangrenous limbs, but for two factors. One is that in both cases, regions inhabited by ethnic Georgians (or in the case of Abkhazia, Mingrelians, who consider themselves first cousins to Georgians) have now been cut off from Georgia. Since soon after the end of the Abkhazia war of 1992-1993, the Mingrelians of the Gali region of southern Abkhazia have been able to cross over into Georgia with minimal formalities, obstructions, or violence. Now, however, the Russians are controlling the new frontier and introducing very strict controls over the bridge over the Inguri river. Thus the Mingrelians are effectively faced with the choice of being imprisoned in Abkhazia as second-class citizens, or becoming homeless refugees in Georgia.
In similar fashion, two areas of South Ossetia (notably the town of Akhalgori) that were never either geographically or administratively accessible to Tskhinvali have now been taken over by Russian-Ossetian forces; their Georgian inhabitants are presented with the dilemma of being aliens in their own home or refugees among their own people.
The other factor - that Russia now controls the most vital areas of Georgia - makes the situation for its southern neighbor even worse. It is a mere hour's drive from the South Ossetian frontier to Tbilisi; Georgia's capital can be shelled from Akhalgori; at any moment eastern and western Georgia can be isolated, and a strategic railway, road, and pipelines cut. Georgia's energy supplies, too, are now under threat. Throughout the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict the hydroelectric generators on the Inguri river were kept working by Georgians and Abkhaz for their mutual benefit. Now, however, Abkhazia can join the Russian electricity grid, and no longer has an interest in allowing Georgia its share of this major energy source.
Moreover, investment in the new railway from Tbilisi to Kars in Turkey (which would in principle allow trains to travel from Baku in Azerbaijan to London - with some technical changes at the Georgian-Turkish frontier) now looks very unattractive, given the railway's new vulnerability to attack. The same is true for the Baku-Poti (on the Black Sea) or Baku-Ceyhan (on the Mediterranean) pipelines. More and more oil importers will prefer to pay extra to use a pipeline through Russia to Novorossiisk on the Black Sea than risk transporting oil through an exposed route.
The building boom in Tbilisi and other Georgian cities, financed by foreign businesses hoping to ride on Georgian economic growth, is also facing a slowdown, if not a bust (even if the aid-pledges from the country's western backers will provide a temporary transfusion). Mikheil Saakashvili's hopes of reviving Georgian industry and agriculture - particularly viticulture, which has made enormous strides recently - are looking more deflated.
The war's second consequence is that it signals a transition from one era to another. The post-cold-war period - marked at its outset by a George Bush presidency whose gratitude to Eduard Shevardnadze for helping to demolish the Soviet Union was expressed by exceptionally generous and uncritical support of Georgia, and at its end by a George W Bush presidency who showered the same support on Mikheil Saakashvili - has ended. The prospect now is of a far more sober period. There is no reason to suppose that Barack Obama will abandon Georgia, but every reason to suppose that he will attach more stringent conditions to United States backing for Georgia; and the country's roadmap toward NATO is unlikely to survive wider geopolitical considerations.
The third consequence, a matter of some small consolation to the Georgians, is that Russia has shown how ruthlessly it can act and with how little regard for its image in the rest of the world without winning it much in the way of diplomatic benefit. It has, for example, failed to get recognition for Abkhazian and South Ossetian statehood from anyone except Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua and a leader of Hamas, while alarming China and other states by the precedent it has set for cultivating and appropriating neighboring countries' rebellious minorities. Russia has resumed the unhappy isolation of which Alexander III complained in the late 1880s when he declared Montenegro to be Russia's only friend in Europe. Even Armenia, its other friend in the Caucasus, has been badly affected by the war with Georgia and is physically cut off from Russia for the foreseeable future by the closure of the Abkhaz-Georgian border.
South Ossetia's "independence" is a fiction: nobody believes that it will be anything but a dependency of Russia. The addition of 70,000 more Ossetians to Russia's Caucasian empire is already exacerbating an undeclared and unreported civil war now fermenting, if not raging, between Ingushetia and Ossetia. The Ingush, exiled like the Chechens in 1944, came back after World War II to find many of their homes occupied by Ossetians; the tensions continued for decades after the war, and were intensified by Vladimir Putin's stupidity when (in 2002) he replaced the Ingush leader General Aushev with a KGB pawn, Murat Zyazikov. The latter was himself sacked by Dmitri Medvedev on 30 October 2008. This conflict will escalate.
Abkhazia, in contrast, may be considered a positive acquisition for Russia. It is probable that property prices will rise, to the joy of all the Russian officials and businessmen who have bought up empty villas and hotels on the Black Sea coast; and there is now cheap concrete and stone for the winter Olympics site planned for Sochi in 2014. The Abkhaz writer Fazil Iskander's novel Uncle Sandro from Chegem conveys better than any tract how the Abkhaz feel they can manipulate their Russian overlords skilfully enough to maintain de facto independence - a game that is much harder to win if the overlord is a fellow Caucasian, i.e. a Georgian. Even so, there are in Abkhaz ruling circles a number of nationalists who want genuine independence, which it is certain Putin and Medvedev have no intention of granting. Over the years it is thus likely that the Georgians will be consoled by the sight of some Abkhazians resisting Russian colonialism.
EXIT FROM IMPASSE
Georgia may have emerged the greater loser from the August 2008 war, but there is as yet no Georgian politician - even in opposition, far less in government - who has shown the intellect, character, or set of ideas to persuade any significant force inside or outside the country to support him or her as a replacement for a tarnished Mikheil Saakashvili.
Saakashvili is a mass of contradictions: a man of mendaciousness and violent impulsiveness, even lawlessness, whose flaws are compensated by his quick wits, understanding of how other politicians think, and determination to act on decisions, all leavened by the remnants of his original charisma. Dependent as he is on foreign support, with greater supervision and accountability he could still bring Georgia out of its present mess. The country is both small and under-resourced enough (depopulated by emigration, for example) to absorb its refugees; and, if finance is made available for structural changes, it could produce enough food, energy, services, and even manufactured products for prosperity. When it rebuilds its military forces it will have less reason to buy expensive weaponry for an aggressive war and can spend money more effectively on intelligence and equipment for interception and defense.
It is probably too late to salvage anything from the loss of the territories. Here too however, a certain flexibility backed by strong advice might offer a way forward: if Georgia and its western allies offered a guarantee of non-interference and a recognition of a genuinely independent Abkhazia, free of Russian armed forces, some Abkhaz might still be tempted, even though most would be suspicious and continue to side with their Russian protectors.
A necessary political reorientation is, however, already taking place. What western powers have tried in vain to achieve - namely to persuade the three south Caucasian states that they have more interests in common than in conflict - may be achieved from another direction: Turkey. The Turks have skilfully managed to develop relations with Georgia without supporting the Georgian aim of reconquering Abkhazia, and financed part of Tbilisi's education system and economy.
It may even be that the railway linking Tbilisi to Kars will no longer be of strategic importance: for the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, marked by President Abdullah Gül's attendance at a football match in Yerevan in September 2008, may end with the opening of the border and the restoration of the Soviet-era railway from Kars to Yerevan (and thence to Tbilisi). For some time there have, in fact, been scheduled flights between Turkey and Armenia; buses regularly go from Yerevan to Istanbul via Georgia, and Armenians are given visas on the Turkish border. Turkey has the diplomatic skills to keep Azerbaijan assured of its fraternal support, particularly over the Nagorno-Karabakh question, and at the same time bring Armenia in out of the cold, weaning it from its dependence on Russia and Iran.
If Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan agree to set aside some of their differences, recognize the benefits of cooperation, and look for access to the west through Turkey (rather than Russia), then the net benefit to Georgia of the August 2008 war might even begin to exceed the net losses. If western politicians can take measure of the gap between their rhetoric and their capabilities when dealing with Russia - and either tone down the former or step up the latter - the overall outcome could in the end be more positive than seemed conceivable when the rockets started to rain down on Tskhinvali.