The most important event marking the third anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war was the interview Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave on August 4 to three media outlets: the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, the TV company Russia Today, and Georgia’s First Caucasian (PIK) TV channel.
The Russian president’s missive was taken unequivocally in Tbilisi as meaning that the cold war between the two countries is not over and there is no sign that it will end soon. And when there is no hope for an end to a cold war, the main question is whether it could develop into a hot one.
The two countries’ positions are diametrically opposed. Russia proceeds from the assumption that both Georgia and the international community have no choice but to accept the “new reality” resulting from the August 2008 war and the subsequent recognition by Russia of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The “intransigence” of Georgia and of the West (as exemplified by the recent U.S. Senate resolution protesting Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) merits only disparaging sarcasm.
For Georgia (and not just for President Mikheil Saakashvili), the point of departure is the rejection of that “new reality.” Consequently, the sole problem in Georgia’s relations with Russia that is worthy of serious discussion is that of occupation, or more precisely ending it.
‘Intolerable Influence’ Of The West
The essence of the problem is not just the loss of jurisdiction over 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. The overwhelming majority of Georgians consider that situation unacceptable, but at the same time people understand that is not likely to change in any way in the foreseeable future, and they will have to go on living with it.
Georgia’s Western-leaning President Mikheil Saakashvili
A far more serious problem is whether there will be a new war with Russia. The Georgian leadership and most experts proceed from the assumption that Russia is not satisfied with the outcome of the war three years ago because it had hoped to oust Saakashvili.
For that reason, they assume that Russia still wants to “finish off” a Georgian leadership that embodies the intolerable influence of the West in Russia’s legitimate “sphere of responsibility.”
And so the danger of a new war persists. The fact that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are stuffed with Russian military bases constitutes a problem not only because Georgia cannot control territory that it considers its own.
Those military bases are a potential launching pad for a new blitzkrieg against Georgia, and a symbol of Russia’s readiness for such a war. They make it possible for Russia to occupy the rest of Georgian territory literally within a few days, i.e. before the “international community” wakes up to what is happening.
This does not mean that Georgia lives in constant anticipation of war. That scenario is improbable, at least in the immediate future. Moreover, it would be wrong to keep people in a constant state of fear, if for no other reason than doing so would have a negative impact on economic growth.
In principle, however, the war scenario is plausible. One cannot rule out the possibility that in the event of a political crisis in Moscow (or in the North Caucasus), someone in Moscow will opt for a “small victorious war,” and everything is there in place to invade Georgia.
What would be extremely dangerous for Georgia would be if a military conflict erupted elsewhere in the region (between Armenia and Azerbaijan, say, or between the U.S. and Iran). The Russian leadership could decide to do any amount of damage “on the quiet” in a crisis situation where all powers involved want Russia on their side.
Since that scenario is both rational and foreseeable, it cannot be discounted entirely. And that is why the only thing that currently matters to Georgia in terms of its relations with Russia is the military-political factor.
Contempt For International Opinion
Proposals to “restore economic ties (for example, allowing the import into Russia of Georgian wine and mineral water) in return for lifting the Georgian veto on Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization do not interest Georgia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Bilateral economic ties still exist and were even quite intensive until a few years ago. But economic cooperation did not forestall a war in 2008 and will not do so in future if Russia is dead-set on a new war.
From that point of view, Medvedev’s interview created neither new fears nor new hopes.
His response to a direct question about the possibility of a new war with Georgia was interpreted in Tbilisi as a veiled threat.
To the Saakashvili admnistration, he appeared to be saying: nothing can be ruled out, especially if the Russian leadership construes some Georgian move as “an act of aggression.”
Medvedev’s studied contempt for international public opinion could also be construed as part of that threat: there is no point in you Georgians pinning your hopes on the Americans and the Europeans because we pay no attention to them anyway. Georgians hope all the same that Medvedev’s contempt was largely feigned.
The threat of a new confrontation with Russia hangs over Georgia like the sword of Damocles. Today Georgia has no alternative but to move that threat to the back burner and try to strengthen its partnership with the West and continue to develop under current conditions.
Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL