Audi alteram partem

Remarks on the Georgian – Russian conflict of August 2008 and on Abkhazia (1995), by John Colarusso

John Colarusso
Professor in the Anthropology Department of McMaster University, Ontario

It is an honor to have my old paper, “Abkhazia,” (from Central Asian Survey (1995) vol. 14, pp. 75 – 96), posted on Abkhaz World by Metin Sönmez.  I extend my gratitude to him for his efforts in this.  He has suggested that I offer a few remarks regarding the Russo-Georgian Conflict of last August, an opportunity for which I am also grateful.

The fighting between Russian and Georgian troops in August of the past year was almost universally seen by the West as an alarming resurgence of Russian ambition and might.  Whether this interpretation deserves credence or not is a matter that only future events will determine, though the elites in the West should take care not to wallow in self-fulfilling fears.  Ostensibly the Russian diplomatic and military actions were seen as appropriate by the Kremlin.  The former was a reciprocal reaction to the recognition of Kosovo by the West.  The latter was a response to Georgian actions in South Ossetia.  President Mikheil Saakashvili clearly misinterpreted the gestures of support that had been extended to him by the United States and the European Union.

While Russian willingness to assert her interests in her near abroad are clearly resurgent, it is still plausible to view the Georgian conflict as a unique local event.  It is even possible that by the de facto redrawing of Georgia’s borders Russia has brought some degree of stability to the Caucasus, much as the West’s recognition of Kosovo may have brought stability to the Balkans.

Russia’s agenda of reasserting her national interests and image may have been inevitable, but the conflict over South Ossetia and Abkhazia  this past August was not.  From the time of my involvement with Washington in January 1993 I argued that the United States specifically and the West generally should support the sovereignty of Georgia, but that to support Stalin’s borders, that is, to support Georgia’s territorial integrity was to leave Georgia chronically vulnerable both to Russia and to her own worst nationalist proclivities.  Seventeen years later the diplomatic establishment that was willing to recognize Kosovo and thereby to ignore the territorial integrity of Serbia still insists on the territorial integrity of Georgia.  It is not hard to understand how the Kremlin would see this as hypocritical.  Even in the Postscript of the original article, dated to November 1994 I took note of Georgia’s insistence on its territorial integrity (second paragraph under Problems), which then, as now, was merely a reflection of the West’s support for Georgia.  This insistence on abstract principles which I termed in the same Postscript “the present principled character” of international diplomacy led ineluctably to this second round of bloodshed.  If a more functional approach had been adopted toward Georgia and the Caucasus, if an approach had been adopted that was based on the particulars of the problems of Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, this round of fighting and bloodshed could have been avoided and the shock of Russian resurgence would have lain still in the future.

Clearly breaking up a country that is torn with internal strife is not inherently an easy or bloodless task.  This is of course the reason given by adherents to principled diplomacy.  Yet, adhering to territorial configurations that often are arbitrary or even designed to foment strife, as is the case for many of the regions of the post-Soviet realm, merely for the sake of principle is dysfunctional to put it politely.  Part of the problem of a diplomacy that is based on abstract principles, such as territorial integrity, is that what is done in one region should be done elsewhere as well – as a matter of “principle.”  The fact that the diplomatic community has waived a principle in the Balkans, but not in the Caucasus, implies a weakening of that principle, a retreat from its universal application.  This is a good sign.  Perhaps peace will come to the Caucasus yet, as it may have come already to the Balkans.

The best course now for the West is to support vigorously Georgian sovereignty in all its dimensions, except the more bellicose and ambitious aspects.  Concurrently the West must engage Russia in matters of mutual concern, such as the spread of WMDs, narcotics, and terrorism.  One of these matters will be Russia’s nationalistic domestic policies and her renewed image as a regional, if not a world, power.  Russia will see these as her business, but the fighting in August proved that Russian identity is evolving in a way that can manifest her domestic self-conception as tangible actions beyond her borders.  Whatever the full implications of Russia’s August actions may prove to be, the South Ossetian and Abkhazian problems are de facto over.  It is time for all concerned to move on.



Professor in the Anthropology Department of McMaster University, Ontario

Paper prepared for the conference. ‘The contemporary North Caucasus’ held at SOAS on 22-23 April 1993.
0263-4937/95/010075-22 © Society for Central Asian Studies Ltd.

Central Asian Survey (1995), 14(1), 75-96

The full article in PDF can be downloaded by clicking here (314 Kb)




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