August 26, 2008
The three-day armed encounter between Georgia and Russia has significantly unbalanced the current world order. The event did not come out of the blue, but it would have been possible to avoid the escalation. Yet, it seems, that either the Georgian government lost its temper or that it was trapped in a tangled web woven by Russia. Some of the actions came as a surprise: Georgia’s attack on Tskhinvali and its suburbs; Russia’s attack on Georgia in which the country’s infrastructure was bombed and destroyed; and the strict condemnation of Russia’s actions by virtually all democratic countries.
Presently none of the parties involved is willing to compromise its positions. The balance of power makes Georgia the weakest link and the other players do not greatly care for its wishes. All decisions are being made between the EU, the United States, and Russia. The democratic countries, though, are at a disadvantage: Democratic decision-making is slow and thus powerless against Russia’s authoritarian policy of fait accompli. This imbalance means that at present Russia is able to set the agenda and dictate policy according to its wishes.
South Ossetia is not the cause
The conflict, sparked off by Georgia’s adventurist policy, became a set piece for Russia, a showcase for its new imperial ambitions. Revenge played a role, too. Many in Russia hold that the country’s decline was caused by a conspiracy of the West, a masterminded ploy to sideline Russian power. Accordingly, the present policy is seen as revenge for the defeat suffered in the Cold War. In order not to escalate the present crisis the US and EU have to understand Russia’s motives.
Furthermore, it has to be understood that the conflict over South Ossetia is part of a greater Russian strategy to control the entire Caucasus – be it through economic leverage, be it through military domination. It is against this background that the decision of the Russian State Duma of August 25, 2008 to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has to be seen. The Russian President Medvedev will attempt to use this decision against the EU and US: Should they not stop to put pressure on Russia, he will make use of the Duma’s mandate.
The EU and US are faced with a dilemma: They can either persist with their efforts to arm Georgia and integrate it into NATO, thus leading to Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Or they can recognise the Caucasus as Russia’s sphere of influence, upon which Russia might reconsider its stance on the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Whatever the outcome, Georgia will be a pawn in a greater game.
Independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
The political consequences of Russia’s recognition of the independence of the two territories would probably be similar to what happened in the case of Kosovo – with some important differences. While the independence of Kosovo was recognised by 43 states, in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia it may be as few as seven or eight states that will go along with Russia. Still, it is not unlikely that Russia will try to strike a bargain and offer recognition of the independence of Kosovo, if the West, in its turn, recognises the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
For Georgia, the only way out of this, is in the long-term. The Georgian people will have to create a sustainable and stable democratic state. This in turn may attract the interest of the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to get involved in a similar process, thus creating a form of government under which their identity is protected by law and not by the vagaries of a more or less kindly autocratic ruler. Only if Georgia succeeds in building a dynamic and attractive democracy, the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will have a real choice – between a democratic Georgia and an authoritarian Russia.