Special Report

History Returns to the Caucasus

It already may be too late for Georgia.

By 8.11.08

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In his 1953 collection of political essays, The Captive Mind, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz described a visit by a Soviet journalist to Silesia in the aftermath of World War II. Mistaken for an Englishman, the journalist "was embraced on the street by a man crying: 'The English have come.'" The apparatchik wryly responded: "That's just how it was in the Ukraine in 1919." According to Milosz,

This recurrence of sterile hopes amused [the journalist] and he was flattered to be the representative of a country ruled according to infallible predictions; for nation after nation had indeed become part of its empire, according to schedule. I am not sure that there wasn't in his smile something of the compassionate superiority that a housewife feels for a mouse caught in her trap.

There is a Russian word for this sort of attitude: naglost'. A blend of condescension, arrogance, and brazenness, naglost' has always been associated with political power in Russia, and lately has been a defining characteristic of its revanchist foreign policy with respect to the democratic states of the post-Soviet "near abroad." The gas shut-offs in Ukraine, the bronze soldier mayhem in Estonia, and the combative rhetoric from the Kremlin concerning NATO Central European missile defense initiatives were relatively irenic, however, when compared with the unfolding crisis in the Georgian region of South Ossetia. As the young democracy of Georgia grapples with its gigantic adversary, with the world looking on ineffectually, we can see Robert Kagan's notion of an "end of dreams" and a "return of history" in action in the volatile region of the Caucasus.

When Georgia definitively slipped the Russian leash after the Rose Revolution of 2003, bringing the pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement party to power, an escalation of tension with Moscow was inevitable. Georgia, since gaining independence in 1991, had been torn asunder by ethnic conflicts and the proliferation of de facto states within its borders. Yet the government of Eduard Shevardnadze (Saakashvili's predecessor) had managed to bring about rapprochement with the breakaway province of Javakhetia, while Saakashvili had brought the region of Ajara to heel, one of the first victories in his quest for territorial integrity. Two open sores remain: the Black Sea separatist state of Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, with both receiving vital support from the Kremlin. It is in the latter province that an increasingly less localized war has broken out between separatists, now fighting alongside their Russian backers, and the sovereign state of Georgia. Meanwhile, as of August 9 the Abkhaz authorities are opportunistically attacking Georgian forces in disputed regions in northwest Georgia.

THE ORIGINS OF THIS CONFLICT are relatively simple to understand. "All multi-ethnic landscapes," the historian Neal Ascherson has written, "are fragile. Any serious tremor may disrupt them, setting off landslips, earthquakes and eruptions of blood." Georgia's move towards independence between 1989 and 1991 produced hard-line policies that attempted to forestall the establishment of autonomous regions that would undermine the integrity of the nascent state, but these moves only encouraged ethnic strife. A vicious 1991-1992 war gave South Ossetia, with its predominantly Ossetian population (linked culturally to North Ossetia across the border with the Russian Federation, and politically by gratuitous Russian grants of citizenship beyond its own borders) de facto statehood, but also led to the region devolving into little more than a racketeer state, run until 2003 by the infamous Tedeyev brothers and to this day a rabbit warren of illicit smuggling.

The Saakashvili administration has consistently sought to return the region to the Georgian fold. After all, Georgia has never accepted complete South Ossetian autonomy, and most Georgians refer to the region as "Shida Kartli" or "the Tskhinvali region" instead of "South Ossetia" (and the most nationalistic Georgians even go so far as to call it "Samacahblo" after a historical Georgian aristocratic family that resided in the area). In recent months and years, Georgia has had some success in this project, fostering a South Ossetian administration, headed by Dmitry Sanakoyev (nearly assassinated on July 3) and controlling some one-third of the province, all the while exploiting the unstable nature of the region to allow Georgian products to reach Russian consumers despite repeated blockades.

These modest gains led to an inevitable reaction. Roadside bombs targeted Georgian police patrols, and bombardment of Georgian villages began in earnest (as opposed to the often merely symbolic shelling of previous years). An August 7 unilateral ceasefire on the part of Georgia only brought about intensified shelling, and Georgia's subsequent intervention, followed by Russia's counter-intervention, ensued. This rapid escalation comes as little surprise, however, since Russia had been rattling its sabers for some time, as evidenced by regular summits with Ossetian and Abkhaz leadership, constant Russian intrusions on Georgian airspace, a propaganda campaign that made absurd claims about Georgian toleration of entirely chimerical terrorist chemical weapons facilities in the tiny Pankisi Gorge (near the border with Chechnya), and the seemingly anachronistic mobilization of Cossack groups willing to fight on behalf of their Ossetian comrades.

VLADIMIR SOCOR of the Jamestown Foundation has astutely pinpointed Russia's four strategic goals for the mounting war: (1) "to force Tbilisi to acknowledge a leading Russian role as 'guarantor' of an eventual political settlement," (2) "to capture Georgian-controlled villages in South Ossetia" (thereby reducing "the Sanakoyev administration's territory to insignificance or even remove it from South Ossetia altogether"), (3) "to dissuade NATO from approving a membership action plan (MAP) for Georgia at the alliance's December 2008 or April 2009 meetings," and (4) "to bleed Georgia economically through protracted military operations."

If anything, the situation is more dire now that Georgia has challenged the Kremlin's traditional foreign policy naglost'. Russia, given its vast advantages in size and resources, could replicate a similar strategy in nearby Abkhazia (as seems to be happening with the widening of the conflict), the better to secure its Georgian footholds. However this situation plays out in the coming days, it is clear that Russian actions have put paid the hopeful assessments of analysts like Dmitri Trenin, who had previously stated that a Russian "enlightened self-interest approach would call for further steps towards conflict-resolution in Abkhazia [and] South Ossetia," since "it is in Russia's interest to continue to support the domestic stability and territorial integrity of its neighbors." Trenin, it turns out, had it precisely backwards. "Enlightened self-interest" carries little value in an increasingly sultanistic nation whose security is traditionally defined by the insecurity of its neighbors.

International reaction to the outbreak of war in the Caucasus has been entirely predictable. International organizations have called for a ceasefire while sympathetic nations like Poland, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan have insisted on Georgia's right to territorial integrity, declaring the anti-separatist campaign to be in compliance with international law; US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice likewise called on Russia "to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles, respect Georgia's territorial integrity, and withdraw its ground combat forces from Georgian soil."

Yet it already may be too late for Georgia. If Tbilisi loses control of the South Ossetian territory held by its interim administration, Russia will indeed have imposed itself as the guarantor of a political settlement over the region (the fight over the now obliterated regional capital of Tskhinvali now has immense symbolic importance). If Georgia's allies do not offer civil and military aid, it will perforce be bled dry by the ongoing conflict, and it is unlikely that the U.S. and its NATO allies would wish to in effect engage in a proxy war with Russia over an obscure province in the Caucasus.

Moves towards Georgian accession to NATO would heretofore have had a prophylactic effect against Russian revanchism, but a membership action plan now seems more than unlikely, as NATO constituent states would never offer an Article 5 collective security guarantee to a nation recently locked in combat with the Russian Federation (and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's statement that "Georgia's aspiration to join NATO...is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures" indicates that such reluctance on NATO's part is a hoped-for result). Ultimately, though the developing situation on the ground remains tenebrous at best, it may be that all Georgia can hope for is the status quo ante bellum.

IT IS A STATE of affairs worthy of a threnody that the territorial integrity of Georgia, a sovereign nation and a burgeoning capitalist democracy to boot, has been so imperiled. It is equally troubling that many observers have viewed Saakashvili's Georgia with such derision. Anne Applebaum, for instance, writing in the Washington Post about the public unrest that followed the machinations of the pro-Kremlin media mogul Badri Patarkatsishvili back in November 2007, referred to Saakashvili as having done "more damage to American 'democracy promotion' than a dozen Pervez Musharrafs ever could have done," this after comparing an understandable Georgian response to civil disturbances to the French Revolutionary Jacobins and the Soviet Red Terror. It is unclear what Saakashvili, who brought necessary democratic reforms to a foundering nation and whose 2005 joint Borjomi Declaration with Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko (an attempt to create a "Community of Democratic Choice" in the Baltic-Black-Caspian Sea region, wherein a "sea of democracy, stability, and security" could exist in Europe and the "Democratic and Atlantic community") was an innovative but overlooked attempt to bring peace to a troubled region, did to deserve such calumny. It is likewise unjust that Georgia, a key contributor of by all accounts heroic peacekeepers in the reconstruction of Iraq (currently being withdrawn to defend their own country), should be hung out to dry, but such is the "return of history."

There may be some consolation for Georgians in the fact that, as Dio Chrysostom quoted Phocylides in Borysthenitica (an ancient description of the Black Sea region) as saying, "The law-abiding town, though small and set/On a lofty rock, outranks mad Nineveh." Yet as Russia, in gross contravention of the law of nations, invades sovereign Georgia, the international community will likely stand by idly as previous assurances of Georgian western integration serve only to give rise to another "recurrence of sterile hopes" like the ones CzesÅ'aw Milosz observed in those threatened by Russian aggression so many decades ago. It should not be so.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.