On October 11, 2006, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a meeting entitled “Crisis in Georgia: Frozen Conflicts and U.S.-Russian Relations” with Bruce Jackson, the founder and President of the Project on Transitional Democracies, Charles King, Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University, and Dmitri Trenin, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment and Deputy Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Mark Medish, Vice President for Studies of the Carnegie Endowment, chaired the discussion. The participants’ remarks are summarized below.
Causes of the Conflict
Opening the discussion, Jackson argued that the current conflict is a devolution of the soft power contest between the West and Russia in the post-Soviet space. Russia is uncomfortable with Georgia’s democratic nature and the West’s close ties with a country in its “legitimate sphere of influence.” In Trenin’s view, the issue is not Georgia democracy, but its foreign policy orientation. Russia is pursuing its geopolitical and economic interests. The real causes of the crisis were Georgia’s intensified talks over NATO membership and President Saakashvili’s pro-western stance.
King highlighted the domestic causes of the conflict. The overreactions on both sides—the Russian crackdown on the Georgian diaspora and the public humiliation of Russian officers during the Georgian spy row—stem from growing nationalist sentiment in both Georgia and Russia. There are mounting anti-Caucasus and anti-immigrant trends in Russia as evidenced by the recent riots in Karelia. Meanwhile, according to Jackson, Georgia’s nascent democracy is still struggling to fully protect the rights on minority nationalities.
Goals and Strategies
The panelists agreed that the long-term goal of Saakashvili is the repossession and reintegration of “wayward provinces.” According to Trenin and King, to achieve this end, Saakashvili is trying to provoke Moscow into taking heavy-handed actions, necessitating a response from the US and the international community. As an illustration of Georgia tactics, King offered Saakashvili repeated attempts to cast the frozen conflicts as a purely geopolitical struggle between Georgia and Russia, not simply a secessionist struggle. According to Trenin, it is Saakashvili’s hope that Russia will embarrass itself, and the international community will pressure it to remove its peacekeepers and replace them with an international force.
King added that Saakashvili used the current crisis to inject the frozen conflicts into domestic politics. Polls taken throughout the 1990s showed that the public ascribed very little importance to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since coming to power, Saakashvili has put these struggles on the top of his agenda, and Russia’s overbearing reaction to the Georgia’s “provocation” has increased the importance of the issue in the eyes of the public. Simultaneously, according to Jackson, it has solidified support for the President’s Nationalist Movement, whose popularity had been slowly dropping since the Rose Revolution.
Trenin outlined Russia’s three aims in the conflict. First, Putin wants to avoid armed conflict in order to discredit Georgia’s portrayal of Russia as a belligerent aggressor. His second, medium-term goal, is to destabilize the Saakashvili government and replace it with one more amenable to Moscow. Finally, in the long-term, he hopes to derail Georgia’s “NATO train”, returning it to Moscow’s sphere of influence in the CIS. Putin’s tough stance against Georgia plays into anti-Caucasus sentiment, solidifying his support at home as he prepares to name a successor.
To achieve his ends, Putin has applied economic sanction to Georgia and cracked down on illegal immigration, trying to send a message to the Georgian people that it is in their interests to install a new president. Jackson added that Russia is simultaneously sending a warning to Kiev and other Western-leaning states in the region, and also trying to prove that NATO is a destabilizing force in the region by laying blame on it for the crisis.
Trenin feels that Russia’s strategy is largely failing, while Georgia’s is largely succeeding. Despite Putin’s initial calm, Saakashvili has succeeded in making Putin lose his cool and has drawn a “disproportionate” reaction. Meanwhile, Saakashvili’s domestic support has solidified—not diminished as Putin had hoped.
Implications for EU and US
Jackson maintained that the current row shows the inadequacy of the Western institutions aimed at integrating and stabilizing the former soviet states. Both the NATO Membership Program and European Neighborhood policy may be useful in the long term, but in the mean time, do not adequately integrate states that are still going through rough transitions such as Georgia. The West needs to create an “intermediate” security system for these transitional states.
King built on this point, adding that if the West recognizes Kosovo’s independence, it will make it more difficult to deal with frozen conflicts in the future. Throughout the 1990s, the West maintained a policy of recognizing only the highest level of federal entity in former communist federations. Recognizing Kosovo’s independence will represent a departure from this policy and make it increasingly difficult to distinguish between Kosovo’s case and those farther east in Eurasia. The West also hurt its ability to serve as a neutral arbiter in these cases by immediately taking sides in the 1990s.
To the discussion about the Kosovo precedent, Trenin added that Kosovo is neither a unique case nor a model for other situations. Each case should be dealt with on it own merits, with just attention given to the arguments presented by parties on all sides. Abkhazia might fall into the “Kosovo category”, but only if the Gali district goes to Georgia. South Ossetia, however, presents a fundamentally different case and should be dealt with differently.
Trenin also spoke of the role of the US and EU in resolving the current conflict. The US has a choice between a policy of restraint, ensuring that Russia and Georgia “do not come to blows”; and a much riskier policy of fully backing Georgia, expediting its integration into NATO. The Bush administration has thus far stuck to the former policy, seeking to bolster its friendship with Georgia while not angering Russia. If at some point Washington reverses it policy, it will signal the beginning of a new policy of containment of Russia, substantially altering the world’s geopolitical landscape.
The panelists all felt that the crisis was not over and could escalate. Jackson pointed out that both Putin and Saakashvili benefit from brinkmanship. Putin wants to further isolate Georgia in the region and to prove that NATO is a destabilizing force. King added that neither side wants to enter into an all-out armed conflict, but a sort of “perfect storm” is brewing as each step makes it more inevitable that violence will erupt. Russia, according to Trenin, should stop its anti-Georgian campaign and launch a new, serious plan to resolve the secessionist conflicts in Georgia.
Q: This question is for Mr. Trenin. Can you elaborate on how Russia’s actions are aimed at preventing war? Secondly, given Moscow’s sensitivity to recent events in Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere in the FSU, do you feel that there is a point of “no return” in the US-Russian relationship?
Trenin: The Russians are afraid that Saakashvili might fire a few shots in order to push them into a minimal armed conflict. If the Russian engage in an armed conflict, it will damage their international image. Thus, the Russians are trying to achieve their ends using any means other than armed force.
US-Russian relations are in “hot water” at the moment. It would require another seminar to talk about the their status.
Q: I like the “perfect storm” analogy. Things are really brewing with the upcoming NATO meeting in Riga and the approaching independence referendum in South Ossetia, but the question I want to ask is about the succession struggle in Russia. The succession struggle is talked about very openly these days. Top members of Putin’s entourage were very frank about the struggle during the Valdai discussion club’s tour. What role do you see this conflict playing in this struggle? Is it making the situation more volatile?
Trenin: The succession struggle is about more than just transferring political power. It is also about property and whether or not there will be a redistribution of wealth. Obviously, there is a lot going on behind the scenes that the public does not know about, and thus, any analysis is pure speculation.
That said, the problem I see with the Russian leadership’s approach to handling frozen conflicts is that they have largely been delegated to the power ministries, the so-called siloviki. It is, therefore, very possible that they have ulterior motives, some of them related to succession struggle, in the conflict with Georgia.
Q: Would the establishment of a permanent US force in Georgia be a stabilizing or a destabilizing force?
Jackson: This relates to what I said earlier about there not being a place for “teenage democracies” in our current collective security system. How do we provide these small “self-determining” countries a halfway house before they are ready to join the EU or NATO?
The problem, however, is not purely about security. It is also a "geo-economic" problem as Russia has a problem with self-determining countries on its border. Once Georgia develops economically, the frozen conflicts will disappear. The South Ossetians will start begging for Georgian passports, and Russia will be less likely to bully its neighbor.
King: Establishment a permanent US force in Georgia would be destabilizing, but the idea is also irrelevant. It would be destabilizing because of its political and public relations ramification. However, I agree with Bruce that security is not the main issue. The nature of the police force and border guards are much more important.
I would also like to comment on the referendum in South Ossetia scheduled on November 12 because it is indeed a very important issue. South Ossetia has declared independence three times, but the current referendum is different. It is more about declaring dependence on a third party, namely Russia. In a way, this means that the international community has wasted its time for the last fifteen years. It rushed to support the territorial integrity of Moldova and Georgia, without recognizing the situation on the ground. The international community has now lost some of its ability to deal with these unrecognized states because they no longer want to be independent states, but rather, regions of a different state.
Q: What are the policy options of the United States?
Jackson: The administration is split on its policy toward Russia, making it difficult to for it to maintain continuity in its Russia policy and its policy in the FSU. That said, I do not foresee any changes in the US policy toward Georgia or Russia, but I would also say that we need to increase our engagement with Russia.
King: The current situation is not so bad: frozen is better than unfrozen, and it is possible that most of these conflicts will stay frozen for at least 20 years. However, as the unrecognized states begin to rethink their relationship with Russia, US policy toward these “phantom republics” will face new challenges.
I advocate more engagement with these unrecognized states. Any solution to these conflicts that does not end in tragedy will require more institutional integrity on the local level. This integrity can only be achieved with the help of the international community.
Trenin: Russia is largely neglected in US foreign policy, and this neglect has led the US-Russian relationship to deteriorate. The US must form a consistent policy to Russia before these conflicts can be resolved.
Meanwhile, Russia views the FSU as its legitimate sphere of influence, and will continue to struggle to maintain its grip on the region. However, this does not mean that it wants to reconstitute its former empire. The Russian leadership accepts that it is living in a post-imperial world. That is why I find many of the analogies likening Russia to Germany of the 1930s very misleading.
Comments by H.E. Vasil Sikharulidze, Ambassador of Georgia: Thank you for organizing an interesting discussion, but I feel that the conversation has focused more on US-Russia relations, forgetting Georgia’s point of view.
Russia’s talk of regime change is not new. Russia has never liked Georgia’s leaders, and has constantly tried to destabilize Georgia’s government. However, it is the right of the Georgian people to elect their leader, not that of the Russian leadership.
I would also like to debunk the myth that Georgia is preparing for war. We have the smallest military in the region, and the best part of that military in currently engage in Iraq and Kosovo.