The International Institute For Strategic Studies
Georgia’s attempts to create a ‘united Caucasus’ will be met with indifference in Abkhazia
The crisis that broke out into the Georgian-Russian war of August 2008 significantly changed the geopolitical nature of the Caucasus. But besides ushering in a new regional statusquo, which Georgia and the other players have to address, the crisis demonstrated the following:
- the fragility of the contemporary world order, where the force of law has not yet become a universal and binding principle in relations between countries;
- the changes in the balance of power among the main geopolitical players in the Caucasus (the USA, Russia and the EU);
- the adherence of the leading Western countries to a policy of double standards (export of tension, managed chaos, etc.);
- and the readiness of Russia to be an active player in its own right in international relations, including those of the South Caucasus.
The emergence of the two new states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, recognised by Russia and some other countries, is the logical consequence of their long struggle for independence, the post-Soviet geopolitical situation in the Caucasus, and the policy pursued by Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for over a century.
But under these new conditions the situation in the region remains extremely tense. Georgia is the main destabilising factor, as it even refuses to sign non-aggression treaties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is clear that Georgia could reinstate its territorial integrity within the boundaries of the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic by force alone. However, resorting to force could turn out for Georgia to be another and even more ruinous catastrophe. That is why it is extremely important for Georgia that it change the post-2008 geopolitical realities in its favour. It sees a possible means of doing this by way of an information war, which has become its foreign policy priority. Despite its economic backwardness, Georgia spares no expense and spends a considerable amount of its resources in financing this war. But it is not meeting with much success.
The information war is aimed against Russia, rather than Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Considering Russia to be its main adversary, Georgia is trying to find allies both in the West and in the Caucasus. It is in this context that Georgia is seeking to create an image of Russia as not only an anti-Georgian but as an anti-Caucasus state. In its stand-off with Russia Georgia likes to position itself as the protector of the interests of the North Caucasus nations, as a political force advocating a ‘united Caucasus’.
The Georgian establishment has harboured such ambitions before. They became evident after Georgia became part of the Russian empire and the latter sought to make Georgia its outpost in the Caucasus. Georgia performed this mission of outpost in the Soviet times too. However, Georgia never acted on its own and could never suggest to the nations of the Caucasus how the Caucasus might be united politically. Georgia experienced considerable difficulties because of the raids by the North Caucasus nations and, in seeking the protection of the Russian empire, its leaders tried to protect their country not only from Sassanian Iran and the Turkish Sultanate but also from its immediate neighbours. Was this not why Georgia fought on the side of Russia in the nineteenth century Caucasus war? Was Georgia itself not participating in the ‘Circassian genocide’, which it now uses as a political trump card against Russia? In the information war waged by Georgia, though, what is important is not the reliability of the facts but the lies people are ready to believe.
It is in this spirit of the Russian-Georgian stand-off, exacerbated by the 2008 crisis, that we can better understand Georgia’s position. It has become hostage to Russophobic politics. Georgia’s actions are directed by this Russophobe mood, rather than by its own national interest. There is no national project more important to Georgia than that of being an anti-Russian state.
This extreme radicalism in Georgia’s relations with Russia meets with understanding and support in certain political circles of NATO. Without such backing Georgia could hardly be so ‘independent’. Moreover, these circles need an anti-Russian Georgia. They are not particularly concerned with the territorial integrity of Georgia and other issues of interest to Georgian society. To them Georgia’s anti-Russian foreign policy and its potential for communicating with the rest of the Caucasus are of greater importance. It is, therefore, vital for NATO to preserve Georgia as a lever with which it can control regional processes and, if necessary, interfere in them. That is why the NATO countries and the EU refuse to recognise the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It is clear that the struggle between the main geopolitical players for the resources and communicative potential of the Caucasus is not over yet. NATO has only suspended implementation of its eastern project in the South Caucasus, it has not abandoned it. Its interest in minimising Russian influence in the Caucasus and in ousting Russia from the region in the future remains. For NATO, Russia has always been, and continues to be, the main competitor in the struggle for the Caucasus. The nature of the struggle in future depends largely on how the balance of forces changes between them. That will determine the situation in the region and the configuration of the South Caucasus countries.
The situation also depends on the nature of relations between the territories comprising the region, including Nagorny Karabakh. Relations between the region’s countries could be hardly be considered neighbourly, with the exception, possibly, of those between Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh, whose interests coincide. But the potential for conflict is considerable. That is why, after the August 2008 crisis, Russia had to take a number of new initiatives. In particular, it began to pursue a preventative, circumspect and pragmatic policy in relation to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. This led to the signing of the Declaration on Regulating the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in September 2008 in Moscow, which had the positive effect of bringing the positions of Armenia and Turkey closer together. South Caucasus issues began to take greater priority both in the Russian-Turkish relations, on the one hand, and in Russian-Iranian relations on the other. There are grounds for believing that none of these countries have a national interest in destabilising the South Caucasus.
Russia did not stop at formal recognition of Abkhazia’s independence. Shortly afterwards the two countries concluded a Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance and signed a number of agreements that served as testimony to the inter-state and legal nature of Russian-Abkhaz relations. In accordance with these agreements, the security of Abkhazia is ensured and Abkhazia is provided with material and technical assistance with which to restore its social and economic infrastructure destroyed by the war. In essence, Abkhazia, very much like South Ossetia, has become a Russian project, of which the main feature is the creation of conditions for safe and stable development. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the people of Abkhazias have an opportunity to use their potential for the social and economic development of their own society instead of having to counter a threat from Georgia.
The positive, if tentative, changes that have occurred in Abkhazia since Russia’s recognition of its independence inevitably influence the attitude of the outside world towards it. Many countries have started to show greater interest in it and consider the possibility of its recognition. Even the EU, which only wanted to see Abkhazia as part of Georgia, is moving towards a new format of ‘engagement without recognition’ as proposed by Peter Semneby, the former EU Special Representative to the South Caucasus. Furthermore, Abkhazia is taking part in the Geneva talks not as a party to the conflict but as a separate country. Abkhazia has real prospects of becoming a democratic, dynamically developing country; co-operation with it on an equal basis would be of benefit to all sides.
Oleg Damenia is Head of the Strategic Studies Centre at the Office of the President of the Republic of Abkhazia