Can Saakashvili preserve borders of the Georgian SSR?

Agency WPS
October 6, 2006 Friday


by Yevgeny Umerenkov

Moscow maintains that its main priority is to avoid any renewed
bloodshed in the conflict zones. Yet the situation in this region is
clearly heating up. Tbilisi’s priority is to preserve Georgia’s
territorial integrity. But is this a realistic goal?

The "spy crisis" has strained Russian-Georgian relations to the
breaking point. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and his
cohorts get all wound up when speaking of Russia, and hardly seem
capable of taking appropriate steps. Moscow is striving to remain
calm and collected, stating that its main priority is to avoid any
renewed bloodshed in the conflict zones. Yet the situation in this
region is clearly heating up. Tbilisi’s priority is to preserve
Georgia’s territorial integrity. But is this a realistic goal? We
have attempted to analyze potential developments.

Scenario 1: Military

Russia is unlikely to permit Saakashvili to draw it into a direct
military conflict with Georgia. But the Georgian authorities might be
driven into a tight corner by their own reckless statements (like
Defense Minister Okruashvili’s promise to celebrate New Year’s Eve in
Tskhinvali), as well as facing pressure from the growing discontent
of Georgia’s impoverished population. This could make the Georgian
authorities desperate enought to attempt a military solution to the
conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A war could provide
justifications for everything: economic hardships and brutal
repression of the opposition.

The idea that such a scenario could happen is supported by Georgia’s
intensive military build-up, its acquisition of offensive weaponry,
and Saakashvili’s objective of "creating a comprehensive defense
mechanism" (is anyone about to attack him?).

Yet Georgia has already fought and lost wars against Abkhazia and
South Ossetia. Naturally, Russia would not maintain "complete
neutrality" in the event of an armed conflict on its borders; it
would find various ways to support the victims of Georgia’s new
aggression. So Tbilisi’s chances of a military victory are
practically zero – barring direct military participation by the
United States or NATO. And no matter how much Washington likes
Saakashvili, it’s hard to imagine the Americans getting involved in a
hot conflict with Moscow over Tbilisi. This would generate new
conflicts, with unpredictable consequences. It’s too high a price to
pay for the Saakashvili regime’s ambitions.

If Tbilisi goes ahead with the military scenario, it can forget about
any possibility of retaining its rebel provinces. A drastic
escalation in the Caucasus situation would trigger explosions not
only in some of Russia’s "problem regions," but also in areas where
Saakashvili’s Western sponsors don’t want any trouble. Yet another
military defeat for the national authorities could plunge Georgia
into chaos and make it fall apart.

Scenario 2: Evolutionary

The only way to keep Georgia’s borders consistent with those of the
former Georgian SSR would be to make it economically attractive for
the unruly autonomous regions to return to the fold. The first step
here is to maintain stability and rebuild trust between the opposing
sides. Then, as a result economic contacts and doing business
together, the "separatists" might develop the necessary preconditions
for wanting to be part of Georgia.

The key factor here is Georgia’s economic prosperity. But this is
impossible unless relations with Russia are normal – and there seems
little chance of that as long as Saakashvili remains in power.

Judging by Tbilisi’s latest actions, the Georgian president isn’t
even considering this scenario.

Scenario 3: Revolutionary

Saakashvili takes pride in describing himself and his cohorts as
revolutionaries. But revolutionaries of a different kind could also
emerge in Georgia. A tradition of replacing regimes by
unconstitutional means is the only tradition Georgia has developed so
far. So it can’t be ruled out that the Georgians, having experienced
a Rose Revolution, might create some other kind of revolution. Its
color may be uncertain as yet, but the techniques of organizing mass
protests are well-practised. The opposition still isn’t organized
enough for such a scenario, and it lacks strong leaders – but this is
just a matter of time. The most important factor is support from
foreign sponsors.

Who might become such a sponsor? Unlikely as this may sound, it might
be the United States again. The leaders of Georgia’s largest
opposition parties have already contacted the Bush Administration,
accusing the Georgian government of abandoning the ideals of the Rose
Revolution and asking "the friends of democratic Georgia" to restore
law and order. Saakashvili is swearing eternal friendship for the
Americans – but Eduard Shevardnadze did the same, and it didn’t save
him. The unrestrained anti-Russian escapades of Georgia’s current
revolutionaries are certainly a burden for Washington. It does need a
loyal junior friend in the Caucasus, but not at the cost of
partnership with Moscow. So a new group of revolutionaries, not
burdened by the present regime’s errors and broken promises, might
become necessary.

In this scenario, the "separatists" would find themselves in a much
stronger position. If the Georgians can’t even resolve their own
domestic problems non-violently, how can they aspire to govern those
who wish to exist separately? Moreover, there is also the possibility
of new problems arising in Svanetia and Dzhavakheti (South Georgia).

The Svans, like all freedom-loving highlanders, don’t like it when a
new government and new ways are imposed on them. Svanetia is unlikely
to become a full-fledged "separatist," but the task of keeping it
under Tbilisi’s effective control will divert a substantial part of
the Georgian government’s energy. Ethnic Armenians, who make up the
majority of residents in the Akhalkalaki and Ninotsmindi districts,
have long been demanding autonomy. Tension has risen there during the
process of withdrawing a Russian military base from Akhalkalaki.

Saakahsvili, like Sheverdnadze before him, can only control the
situation in Dzhavakheti with the help of the Armenian government.

Scenario 4: Inertia

This scenario assumes that Saakashvili’s weapons of choice –
anti-Russian rhetoric and acts of provocation – fail to work. The
West does not support Georgia’s plan to internationalize the
peacekeeping effort. It’s too risky, in both military and political
terms, to send peacekeepers into regions where local residents don’t
want them; not to mention the fact that Moscow’s opinion is unlikely
to be ignored in the process of weighing up all the pros and cons.

The conflict remains frozen. The militant attitudes of Georgia’s
leaders start to work against them: it becomes increasingly evident
that "peaceful reintegration" isn’t part of their plans. The West
prefers to restrain Saakashvili from taking any fateful steps (and
he’s incapable of disobeying Washington).

Some time later, there are further precedents of the map of Europe
being redrawn (Kosovo) and the West recognizing other
still-unrecognized states (the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,
for example). Five to seven years down the line, it becomes
conclusively clear that Tbilisi’s aspirations to rule the
"separatist" territories are unfeasible. This provides grounds for
Russia and some other CIS countries to recognized Abkhazia and South
Ossetia. The danger of this scenario is precisely what is making
Tbilisi act so nervously and hastily, engaging in ill-judged acts of

The burdens of NATO membership for Georgia

If Georgia joins NATO, it should remember that America’s assistance
in Atlantic integration demands substantial gratitude in return. What
kind of gratitude?

– For NATO’s new recruits from the former socialist camp, America’s
guardianship effectively means a partial loss of their national
sovereignty, once US military bases are stationed on their territory.

– NATO membership candidates are compelled to undergo the Iraq test,
and must participate in NATO military operations unconditionally in

– The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are turning into a
"gray zone" where the Americans station secret CIA prisons and other
special facilities which remain outside the jurisdiction of host
nations. Georgia is likely to become part of that zone.

Source: Izvestia, October 4, 2006, p. 4

Translated by Elena Leonova

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