The Georgian Conflict: More than a US-Russia Showdown

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By Nicole Zdrojewski – On August 8th, the first night of the Olympics, conflict erupted in the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — just 15 miles away from the site of the 2014 Games. Most of the media discussion has focused on the US-Russia relationship and recent US attempts at encircling Russia with missile defense systems and NATO.[1] However, this is not a new issue; the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has been in limbo since the dissolution of the USSR. Ignoring the complexities associated with minority enclaves, western policymakers focused upon finding solutions allied with their interests. However, as in Kosovo and Kashmir, all parties cannot be winners. Invoking Kosovo and their indignation towards the West, Russia acted.

There are striking similarities with the situation in Kashmir: both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have strategic significance and complicated historical ties to their neighbors.[2] Trust is practically nonexistent due to numerous political, socio-economic, and cultural factors, suggesting a very long process towards peace similar to Kashmir, where there is no solution pleasing to all parties. Kashmiris want self-determination while India and Pakistan favor solutions that meet their needs. Negotiations to prevent conflict and build a long-lasting peace, although laborious, are important when addressing minority enclaves so as to prevent future conflict. Not everyone will be winners, but all will remain neighbors.

Since 1992, Russia has supported the South Ossetian and Abkhazian cause, but only this week formally recognized their bids for independence. In 2004, although Russia agreed to respect Georgian territory, it began asserting its duty to protect Russian citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In response to the August 2008 Georgian offensive, the Kremlin declared that it was through respecting Georgian sovereignty and it was up to South Ossetia and Abkhazia to decide their future. In finally recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia invited the criticism and concern in most quarters. Russia is perhaps preventing another Kosovo by providing a similar example that is unpalatable to the West and challenges the West’s legal and moral ground for recognizing Kosovo.

Based upon disputed history, Georgians question the legitimacy of South Ossetian and Abkhaz rights and presence. Georgian troop assertions that they were taking back their land are plausible in this context.The independence declarations and referendums are not recognized by the West and Georgia because they are considered invalid due to a lack of Georgian participation. The resulting violent conflicts in the early 1990s led to atrocities and human rights violations on all sides. The lack of legitimacy accorded to Abkhaz and South Ossetian identity and independence in the West underlie Georgian efforts to bring the regions back under Georgian governance.

Different understandings of history underpin the conflict between Georgia and the breakaway regions. According to historical accounts, both South Ossetians and Abkhaz migrated to the region long ago. Despite periodic upheaval, Orthodox Christian Ossetians have long been allies of Russia against the Chechens and others. The Georgian view of history is that Ossetians and Abkhaz migrated to the area well after the Georgians were well-established. When the Bolsheviks annexed the region into the USSR, degrees of autonomy were given to Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The conflicts resulting from the drive to regain independence have resulted in mass displacement of Georgian and minority populations, drastically changed the landscape, making the breakaway republics largely ethnically homogenous.

While Georgian fears of annexation have come to pass, the international community cannot only focus upon the Russian role. Nationality and democracy are historically tied together in Georgia and that the South Ossetians, Abkhazians, Georgians and Russians have long, complicated, and often tense histories.

Once the spectacle settles down and the primary concern is on managing refugee return, reconstruction, and increasing stability, it will be interesting to see the Ossetian and Abkhaz response to Russia’s protection over the long-term. Both regions have unique histories and experiences, and like Kashmir, solving this situation in reality might be a far-off goal. This isn’t a simple game of chess, in which the players can move back and forth across an empty field devoid of complex societies with deep-rooted histories and identities with many winners and losers which must live together.

[1] Much is being said about how Russia has become emboldened due to their coffers being flush with oil and natural gas revenues coupled with the desire to exercise power and dominance in its sphere of influence, as well as US democracy promotion efforts in the former Soviet Union, the looming threat of the missile defense system, the ramifications of the denial of Georgia NATO bid, and the lack of US and European response due to preoccupation with other conflicts and domestic issues.

[2] Abkhazia is the southern terminus of the Sukhumi Military Road, and South Ossetia is the southern terminus of the Georgian and Ossetian Military Roads. They are traditional Russian ground routes into the Trans-Caucasus Region.

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