An Uneasy Peace, a Foundation of Sand

Uncle Volodya says, "Hey, Mikheil; maybe I never went to Columbia, but I'm not stupid"

The Russian Flag, speaking for itself

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty asks poignantly, “Is There a Foundation for Peace Between Russia and Georgia?” Unlike some features, this one appears to be serious, and at least starts off with reasoned dialogue and fairness. It cites Director of the Moscow Carnegie Center Dmitri Trenin’s proposal for peace, in which both countries would get something – and have to give something up – from the situation which prevails. It proposes full independence for Abkhazia, to be recognized by Georgia. It proposes South Ossetia receive some unspecified but special status that borrows from both independence and Georgian control, and that Russia assume a significant security role, but that Russia should withdraw militarily. Mr. Trenin does not say how Russia would guarantee the security of South Ossetians by withdrawing, although he does recommend a joint police force to keep the peace. Peacekeeping and security on a national scale are not the same thing, although they are often confused.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, the article is entitled, “How to Make Peace With Georgia”. It may be semantics, but this sounds like Georgia was the victor in the conflict, as it is the obligation of the conquered to beg terms of the victorious. By no stretch of the imagination did Georgia “win” the brief war: it was described in many press sources as having been “routed”, and it is not Russia’s responsibility to be a supplicant for peace – although peace is inarguably in everyone’s best interests. That said, any peace agreement reached should not strengthen Georgian president Saakashvili in any way, real or perceived.

It is noteworthy also that, although ethnic Russians make up only about 5% of South Ossetia’s population, about 90% of the residents claim Russian citizenship. South Ossetia elected to join the Soviet Union in 1918, and clearly indicated disinterest in becoming part of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.  Russia has a stronger prima facie case for supporting a South Ossetian independence bid – based on citizenship – than a similar Abkhaz initiative. The USA has declared its intention to retain military forces and a military base in Georgia on a permanent basis, at Krtsanisi – about 50 miles from Tskhinvali. Thus far, the USA has shown unswerving support for Georgian interests.

So, let’s review what South Ossetia would look like, if the agreement was concluded on these terms. It would be de facto independent, under Georgian control. Its population,  – 90% of whom are Russian citizens – would rely on a few Russian police to safeguard them, supplemented by a presumably equal number of Georgians. An American military base would be located 50 miles from the national capital. Russia would have a security role, but no troops or military forces in the country.  I won’t resort to sarcasm, but I’m afraid I can’t see how Russia gets anything out of abandoning its claim to this strategically located region. It would be, however, of abiding interest to the USA to gain a foothold where it could contain the regional power of China and Iran in the Caspian Basin, influence energy interests and – as a bonus – be a thorn in Russia’s side.

Leaving South Ossetia for the moment, let’s take a look at the proposal for Abkhazia. Russia would retain a paternal interest, and Abkhazia would achieve full independence with broad recognition of same, including that of Georgia. However, ownership of the agriculturally significant Gali district would be ceded to Georgia in a “land-for-peace” deal that would pay Georgia for recognizing the independence of a region it currently does not control or influence.

Russia’s claim here is weaker, at least based on citizenship, as there is a strong Georgian component; mostly Mingrelian. The Abkhaz population has in the past made vigorous efforts to either expel them – including measures that qualify as ethnic cleansing – or force them to assimilate by citizenship (coincidentally, the opposite of Stalin’s vision, which saw the Abkhazi being absorbed by the Georgians), under which provision they might be eligible for obligatory service in the Abkhaz armed forces.

To look at this bargain from a skeptic’s perspective, then, Russia would be granted sponsorship of a new nation-state with a restive population in which serious conflicts would likely persist, requiring frequent intervention and perhaps imposition of martial law. This would be difficult to apply from a sponsorship viewpoint, as the peace proposal envisions Russian military presence “becoming less relevant and perhaps reduced”. Russia would relinquish control of the Gali district with its rich agricultural land, water, and control of the electrical grid for the entire region in the form of the Inguri hydroelectric power station. Georgia would be rid of a serious nationalist enforcement problem, while receiving control of the richest agricultural land, substantial water resources and the ability to shut down power to the entire nation-state. Gee….sounds like a sweet deal to me.

I mentioned at the beginning that the article started off with a reasonable tone, and I commend its firm insistence that Saakashvili not remain in any significant leadership role following the end of his term in 2013 – for the sake of his people he must go, as Moscow will never negotiate with him. Saakashvili’s mouth got his face in trouble already, not to mention his countrymen, and there’s no indication it taught any kind of lasting lesson. There is considerable evidence the cocky Saakashvili believed his military forces more than a match for Russia in the months leading up to the invasion; such as in March, when he warned that Moscow was “playing with fire” in even making verbal statements supporting South Ossetian/Abkhazian independence, and informed reporters that Georgian civil unrest was evidence of the success of his democratization efforts, since people felt more inclined to speak their minds.

That’s a novel approach – take note, Russia. Protests in the streets are testament to how well you’re doing.

The war itself obviously taught him nothing, as only a year later he was demanding the U.S. supply him with even more advanced weaponry, contending that failure to do so would encourage a Russian invasion. Apparently impervious to irony, he capped this performance with the suggestion that furnishing Georgia with advanced weapons systems “would make any hotheads think twice about further military adventures.”

There’s also no indication that America has grown tired of holding his hand – the commitment of Georgian troops to the madcap desert adventure in Iraq and future deployments to Afghanistan causes a world of sins to be overlooked. The United States/Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership of 2009, released by the State Department, affirmed the intention to “undertake a program of enhanced security cooperation intended to increase Georgian capabilities…”, and promised “…the United States supports the efforts of Georgia to provide for its legitimate security and defense needs, including development of appropriate and NATO-interoperable military forces.” Although American training leading up to the 2008 war was billed as concentrating on “peacekeeping and policing” skills, the American former military trainers in Georgia under private contract in 2004 were quite candid that their training focused on “seizing and defending an objective”.

Finally, enough about who started the war. Russia sought a United Nations Security Council meeting at the height of the attack, to seek a resolution renouncing use of force. It was blocked.  Saakashvili’s own defense minister conceded the attack had been planned well in advance, as I discussed in an earlier piece.  Only hours after agreeing to talks with South Ossetia and declaring a unilateral cease-fire, Saakashvili’s artillery was shelling Tskhinvali.  Before the war, Saakashvili showcased his military judgment and leadership failures by assessing that Russia’s forces were spread too thinly, and would not likely counterattack. When Russia counterattacked, Saakashvili bleated that Georgia was being invaded. When it ended badly, Saakashvili blamed his American allies for failing to come to Georgia’s assistance.

America, this guy is a piece of work. He’s like that guy who can’t keep his mouth shut after a couple of drinks and, whenever you go out, gets the whole group involved in a bar brawl. And then blames you afterward because he got his lights punched out. How long are you going to hang around with somebody like that?

Let’s recap. Mr. Trenin’s peace proposal, if adopted without revision, would see Russia hand South Ossetia back to Georgian control in exchange for its pseudo-independence and some kind of security role for Russia, plus the right to keep a few policemen there. Abkhazia could be fully independent, so recognized by the international community – except Georgia would get to keep the best part of it, and control the whole region’s electrical grid. Russian military presence there would eventually become irrelevant, reduced and be finally eliminated.

I am absolutely confident Russia’s leaders will decide in the national interest, as does every nation. It would be surprising if they behaved otherwise. However, I have to say I can’t imagine them accepting an accord that would see Russia bringing peace proposals to Georgia – thus implying Georgia had acquitted itself honourably rather than getting its ass kicked – and strengthening Saakashvili’s hand. I can’t imagine Russia going along with a deal that would see the greater part of the two republics returned to Georgian control, while Russia was left with the portion that can’t get along and would require constant nannying to prevent the principal occupants from killing each other.

In his article, Mr. Trenin contends that “It will eventually dawn on everyone that there can be no return to the status quo ante.” That’s an accurate assessment, no doubt. However, President Saakashvili knows, or should know, that “a continuation of the policy of unitarianism may result in further disintegration of the Georgian state”. The peace proposal is a template for Saakashvili to box clever, whereby all the best of the autonomous regions will be returned to Georgian rule while Russia gets to pacify the most violent. Saakashvili would be afforded an opportunity to regain credibility and mend his tattered legacy before riding into the sunset in 2013.

That would be fine, if his performance argued for it or if he showed the slightest sign of remorse; of having learned something from his disastrous mistake. Unfortunately, his every word and deed shout the opposite.

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57 Responses to An Uneasy Peace, a Foundation of Sand

  1. Misha says:

    Thanks Mark for addressing this article.

    Russia going back on its independence recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia serves as bad PR for the Kremlin. On the other hand, the decision to recognize South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence is problematical from the point of view of Russian interests (excluding the neolib and neocon spin of Russia’s best interests).

    The greater number of countries recognizing Kosovo’s independence to South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s is propagandistically highlighted in some circles. This situation has much to do with the great clout of the combined advocacy of the US, UK, Germany, France and Turkey, plus the decades of Albanian nationalist lobbying in the West (especially the US).

    The bottom line is that the differential is a propaganda talking point against Russia. In addition, the recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence makes Russia less popular in Georgia. I’ve come across debate including the views that Russia has written off Georgia as a lost cause and the counter-view that Russia feels that somewhere down the line pro-Russian sentiment in Georgia will increase at some point. On that last thought, consider a poll on Georgian attitudes towards Russians:

    Historically, Russo-Georgian relations have relatively good. The dispute over the former Georgian SSR boundaries is a messy one. Instead of having a nationalist like Gamsakhurdia as Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, what might’ve happened with a Georgian government that took a loose federalized union of republics approach?

    • marknesop says:

      Hey, Mike; I’d like to think Russia put considerable thought into recognizing the two republics, and anticipated it would not gain worldwide acceptance. I predict they will not retract it. I thought about citing Kosovo, but decided against it – the similarity of the situations (brought about by direct military action) as well as the double standard (western military intevention vice Russian, objected to by Russia) is well known. My contention is that it is not Russia’s obligation to gain popularity in Georgia; it’s unfortunate – to say the least – when the population is punished for the recalcitrance and poor choices of its leader, but it happens all the time. In my view, it’s Georgia who should be bringing peace terms to Russia for consideration, not the other way around. Any initiative Russia introduces to relax tensions will be jumped on by the west as recognition by Russia that they were in the wrong. This will allow Saakashvili to play the vindicated benefactor, magnanimous in victory. He may be a shitty military leader, but he’s a natural at politics, projection and spin.

      It’s perfectly true that Georgia and Russia, as demographics, have historically gotten along well. There’s no reason that shouldn’t continue, and I hope it does; improved relations would benefit both. But I can’t see it happening under Saakashvili: he’s becoming predictable, and he would spin it as testimonial to his statesmanship, which might translate to a continued voice in the leadership after his term expires. The west has been and continues to be disproportionately patient with Saakashvili’s playground-tantrum leadership, perhaps more so than any comparable leader would merit. I don’t believe that would be the case, were the potential rewards not perceived to be great.

  2. Misha says:

    Hi back Mark,

    As one Russian put it elsewhere, the issue isn’t so much between Russians and Georgians as the matter of certain foreign influences in Georgia. Towards the end and shortly after the Soviet Union’s demise, Russia wasn’t in a good position to nurture up and coming leaders in its “near abroad, ” unlike the Western folks who embraced the Yushchenkos and Saakashvilis.

    This view addresses part of the matter. The former USSR space involves a number of unique situations. Russia didn’t create the heightened tension among some of the former Georgian SSR peoples. Some in the West downplay Russia’s concern for having unstable neighbors which can include a mass refugee exodus into Russia.

    On one of your thoughts, there were a number of prominent Russian observers in Moscow who were surprised by Russia’s decision to recognize Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence. Someone privately communicated the view that this was an example of Medvedev playing a major role in foreign policy decision making. The suggestion being that someone not as experienced in foreign policy would be more prone to make such a decision. I’ve a tough time buying into the suggestion that Medvedev would overrule Lavrov and Putin on a decision involving the independence recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It’s obvious that the Russian government understandably became quite annoyed with Saakashvili.

    There’s a reasoned aspect to Russia’s position on the disputed former Communist bloc territories. In the 1990s, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Serbia and Moldova were involved in significant military action to takeover the contested lands they claim. Since the 1990s, Georiga has been the only one of these countries to launch a substantial military operation on disputed territory. The Russian independence recognition came shortly after that armed action.

    I’m not sold on the belief that Russia and/or South Ossetia set Saakashvili up by instigating a series of skirmishes that provoked the Georgian government’s strike. If true, what does that say of Saakasvili to be suckered like that? Since the 1990s, Armenians and Azeris periodically have limited back and forth fire fights with each other in manner that falls short of a significant attack. Like yourself I’ve noted that Russia promptly took the matter of Georgia’s strike to the UN Security Council.

    • marknesop says:

      For me, the key statement in your final paragraph is “If true, what does that say of Saakasvili to be suckered like that?” Precisely. During any land action, soldiers both in the combat zone and among the peacekeepers who follow cessation of active hostilities are baited on almost a daily basis to take action that might result in accusations of war crimes. Giving in to such temptations is rare. If the individual soldier, who sometimes has little education and usually little or no practical experience in his present circumstances, is possessed of enough presence of mind and self-discipline to avoid such pitfalls, why should a dramatically diminished standard be acceptable from the nation’s leader?

      It’s also worth noting that the purported series of provocations preceded the Georgian government’s agreement to engage in talks and announcement of a unilateral cease-fire. That’s very unusual for someone who’s going to lose it just a couple of hours later and launch a full-scale attack complete with artillery and heavy armor. Coordination of those elements with infantry usually suggests considerable attack planning and perhaps even rehearsal, as sending in the troops and then firing over them is a recipe for disaster if conducted spontaneously. This strongly suggests Saakashvili well knew the cease-fire was worthless when it was issued.

      I’ve seen suggestions that Russia solicited a UNSC resolution on the renunciation of force before the action started, but I couldn’t find any substantiation in any source that could fairly be called non-partisan.

  3. Yalensis says:

    Seems to be that stability in South Caucasus can only be ensured by:
    1.) Independent Abkhazia, allied with Russia and Turkey,
    2.) South Ossetia incorporated into Russian Federation as province (not imperialistic, this is what majority of Ossetians themselves want),
    3.) Gruzia do whatever they please in their new borders, just mind their own business and no more starting wars,
    3.) Americans extreme destabilizing force who should be punched on snout and driven out of region. (Easier said than done, I realize).

    • Igor, AU says:

      That, probably what is going to happen – as long as (1) Russian political system survives unchanged – if it changes, anything is possible (2) American economy gets on the right track (otherwise they will have problems other than subsidizing their Georgian outpost). Just IMHO.

      And Mark, thank for pointing to an interesting article. (although I feel that your reference to “playing with fire” was taken out of context).

      • marknesop says:

        I agree that some form of independence will probably happen, and that’s precisely why political leaders of all stripes try, during their tenure, to put in place changes that will be irreversible once they’re gone. Saakashvili overreached in an attempt to reunite the rebellious provinces with Georgia, so now he’s trying to get the best deal possible before his term ends. He failed to get Georgia into NATO, although he’s secured a promise Georgia will be accepted “eventually”. This must be seen as his greatest failure, and one which must make his American allies gnash their teeth with rage, because acceptance would likely have been fairly simple had Saakashvili not shown himself to be a hothead who would not hesitate to drag his new NATO partners into a war with Russia. It may well happen eventually under a different leader, but priorities change with new leadership. The next ruler of Georgia might well decide it’s in the national interest to be more closely allied with a regional power. I hope this will be the case, because if Georgia attains NATO membership the United States (also under future and unpredictable leadership) may well push for expanded basing privileges and perhaps even a future variant of missile defense to be located in Georgia.

        I don’t see how else Saakashvili could have intended his remark about Moscow “playing with fire”, in light of the extensive buildup and training of Georgian forces by the USA and the strong assurances of American support in the months leading up to the war. I remain convinced Saakashvili believed that if he started a war, America would join him, and it’s a matter of record that they did consider it. Maybe he’s just a lover of inflammatory rhetoric, but if so, it’s yet another undesirable characteristic in a leader.

        • Igor. AU says:

          Oh, there is no doubt about Saak’s intentions and him having the assurances of support- that issue was widely discussed in some narrow circles couple of years ago.

          As for the “playing with fire” – the full quote is this :
          “Saakashvili added that Moscow should recognize that it is “playing with fire” in even making verbal statements in support of these regions’ independence. Such “political talk” could easily reinforce separatist aspirations in Chechnya and the other Russian-controlled regions of the North Caucasus.”
          i.e. it was not a military threat to Russia from mighty Georgia, but rather a veiled threat to (increase) support (of) separatists inside Russia. Not important, though – just “quality control” 🙂

          • marknesop says:

            OK, I get your point, and I guess you’re right. He could have been speaking of the resolve Russia might inspire in its own backyard. But if he has not yet noticed Chechnya’s “separatist aspirations”, he spends way too much time playing Minesweeper. And I guess I didn’t need that anyway, to highlight Saakashvili’s cockiness – he wouldn’t have launched a surprise attack if he thought Georgia would likely lose. I wish I could find that reference again where he said Russia had spread itself too thin, and would likely not react. That has to stand as an excellent example of military analysis as practiced by a pumpkin.

  4. marknesop says:

    I agree South Ossetia should be incorporated, based on the people’s will – something liberals hold up as the ultimate truth when it’s being used to substantiate a colour revolution or something like that, but not when it is the foundation for a decision they don’t like. “Liberal” means something quite different in our two countries, for in my own I am as liberal as they come. The current government is conservative, but I can’t find much in it to complain about, and you won’t see me out there every day trying to overthrow it. I’m a little less enthusiastic about Abkhazia, and I hope I’m not being unfair to them, but they seem like a hotheaded bunch and – in my limited knowledge – unnecessarily hostile to Georgians who wish to live in the region without being assimilated. But that’s something for Russia and Georgia to work out in consultation with Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders. Helping new countries/republics stand on their own and achieve self-determination when it is plainly the will of the majority is the very foundation of democratic principles, after all.

    However, I can’t think of a single instance when a leader presided over a shrinking of his country, and left office as popular as he entered. This must be of concern to Saakashvili, as he’s still very young to be retired but pretty old to be learning to be a bricklayer, for instance. I’m sure he wants to be in politics until he’s toothless and blind, and he is not off to an auspicious start.

    The best scenario in my way of thinking is the election of a very different leader after Saakashvili, who will give him a job where he can’t do any damage – maybe Undersecretary to the Minister of Dairy Products, or Cheese Inspector; something like that. The new leader would recognize natural regional influences, and be a reliable trade partner to Russia with mutual benefits. Georgia is a beautiful country with tremendous potential, and not all of Saakashvili’s ideas were bad ones. Unfortunately, the war was an indescribably bad one, but ordinary Georgians shouldn’t be blamed for that. Saakashvili is a smart guy and a persuasive speaker, and people were just taken in by his promises. There’s no reason the two countries can’t be friends.

    The Americans, though, will be difficult to dislodge. It’s not without precedent, but if it is in their national interest they will stay as long as they can find someone who will invite them. This isn’t an accusation of imperial behavior, because Russia would do the same. Georgia is an excellent stategic position for the USA, and they will be very reluctant to give it up. They certainly won’t while Saakashvili is president.

    • Misha says:

      All things considered, Georgia has Russia in its neighborhood, whereas Western neocons and neolibs can (somewhere down the line) have a change of heart in their geopolitical priorities.

      On another point raised, South Ossetia’s referendum (like Pridnestrovie’s) calls for an eventual linking up with Russia. The flags and coat of arms of South & North Ossetia are identical.

      On whether Russia should’ve recognized South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence, some points to consider if that move wasn’t made:

      – No bad PR comparison with the greater number of countries recognizing Kosovo’s independence.

      – Playing a principled consistency card on all of the disputed former Communist bloc territories.

      – Not ticking off Georgia as much in a way that serves to increase the likelihood of improved Russo-Georgian relations.

      – It’s not like South Ossetia and Abkhazia have anywhere else to go.


      The neolib and neocon claim that the Russian independence recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia can backfire in republics of the Russian Federation hasn’t (so far) shown any significant results. Note how neolibs and neocons comparitively downplay how recognizing Kosovo’s independence can backfire against some of the countries who’ve supported that position. Meantime, there’re territories outside Russia which would like to become part of that country.

    • Yalensis says:

      Mark: I cannot claim to be expert on Abkhazia, I don’t even speak their language (which I understand is extremely difficult to learn!) However, even a cursory reading about this people shows a very interesting culture and history. Is a modern, moderately Muslim but mostly secular state, with strong ethnic ties to Turkey. Were deported by Stalin several times, as a result has strong diaspora. Abkhazian claim to independence is very solid. The irony is, if European Union had been more balanced and less partial to Gruzian side, Abkhazia could have been great friend of Europe and maybe even eventually joined EU. Abkhazians are not as pro-Russian as Ossetians; it’s just that, given the choice between Russia and Gruzia, majority seem to pick Russia as lesser of two evils. You are right, of course, that hostility between these two Caucasian tribes (Abkhazians and Kartvelians) is a bad thing. This is one of those horrid tribal blood feuds that cannot lead to anything except mutual genocide. Solution for near future is to try to hold things in stasis as long as possible until final regional treaty can be signed. This cooling off period might take years, maybe decades. It is Russia’s job to keep the peace in that region. America’s job apparently is to foment further conflict. Along those lines, please read online article about Condoleeza Rice going off to visit Saak.
      Last time that particular person went calling on Saak, war broke out a few days later. Coincidence? I think not!

      • Misha says:

        Some others besides Ariel Cohen have made it a point to stress that before the 1990s era war over Abkhazia, the Georgians out-numbered the Abkhaz in that territory.

        When stating such, Cohen doesn’t mention that the:

        – Georgians were under 50% of Abkhazia’s population

        – how some non-Georgian and non-Abkhaz residents in Abkhazia didn’t take the Georgian side in that dispute

        – previous history like the 1930s influx of Georgians into Abkhazia and another instance around the mid-1800s, when the Abkhaz say that many in their population were forced out of Abkhazia (a view supported by some outside sources as well).

        • Yalensis says:

          Right, but it’s not all just about history, population migrations, and demographics, it’s also about which side wins on the actual battlefield. Since the 1990s the Georgians have started three wars, and lost all three. If they had won so much as one scuffle, their territorial claims would have more weight. The Abkhazians proved themselves on the battlefield especially in the first war. The Ossetians also proved their manhood in 2008 when their irregulars managed to hold off Gruzian spetznaz and American Blackwater mercenaries for 2 whole days and nights while awaiting Russian 58th army to arrive and rescue them. Without that effort, Georgians might have been able to blow up Roki Tunnel. These battlefield heroics have to count for something in the final peace process?

          • marknesop says:

            Yes, you’re right about that, too. Ossetians would consider being handed back to Georgia on a silver platter a betrayal, and so it would be. I’m curious what it is about Georgia that makes America put up with its repeated failures – beyond the obvious, that is. Most other allies that behaved in such an embarrassing fashion would have been cut adrift long since. Is there a weed in Georgia that turns urine into gasoline, perhaps?

        • marknesop says:

          Hi, Mike; sorry I’m so late in responding. Well, Eugene already straightened out the issue of how the population in Abkhazia shakes out, numbers-wise, and at least as recently as the 80’s, Georgians did outnumber Abkhazi. However, you’re probably right that they were less than 50% of the population, since it appears to be a very diverse mix. I think I understand your point also, that some Georgians in Abkhazia and some other residents who were not Abkhazi did not support Georgia in it’s military effort.

          Religious differences often make uncomfortable bedfellows, and my point was that Abkhazia is going to be – if not ungovernable – somebody’s disciplinary problem as they try to sort out the fractious elements. I don’t see why that should be Russia, unless Russia gets to be regional control of all of it including the Gali district.

          I didn’t react to the author’s (Ghia Nodia) infantile statement that “one must first imagine a Russia that is capable of genuinely recognizing Georgia’s right to choose its own government and its own political course. But no such Russia is anywhere in sight. The very fact that Moscow refuses to talk to Saakashvili proves that Moscow believes Georgians do not have the right to choose their own government. ” Moscow believes no such thing, and Saakashvili was perfectly free to trample on his people’s human rights, shut down their television stations and spend many times more than his closest opponent in getting himself reelected even though his is one of the world’s poorest countries. What annoys Russia, and why they will not deal with Saakashvili, is that he started a war with Russia, screamed for help, got his ass handed to him by the Russian army, accused his American allies of being partly responsible and still came out smelling like a rose. According to the west, Saakashvili can do no wrong while Russia can do no right. Entering into a deal with him that would basically make it look like Georgia got the upper hand, then, is off the table. How surprising.

          • Misha says:

            Mark what you bring up are the main reasons why IMO Russia chose to recognize Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence.

            A number of folks stress the limited recognition of Kosovo’s independence as opening up a “pandora’s box” in relation to the other disputed territories. I don’t think Kosovo has as much to do with the Russian independence recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia when compared to Saakashvili’s manner and the Georgian government’s strike on South Ossetia.

            The timing of the Russian recognition came right after the Georgian government’s strike on South Ossetia. During the short war that promptly ensued thereafter, I recall a Russian official saying (on CNN) that the Georgian military act made it doubtful that Georgia could ever rule South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

            Up to that point, Russia was discussing the possibility of recognizing Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence.

            Had the Georgian government not launched a military strike on South Ossetia, I’m not so sure that Russia would’ve taken the recognition route that it did.

            On the Kosovo “pandora’s box” bit, note that the number of countries recognizing the independence of Nagorno-Karabkah, Pridnestrovie (Transnistria) and the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” hasn’t changed since the Albanian nationalists in Serbia’s southern region (a pointed characterization) declared independence.

  5. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I’m admittedly very late to this great discussion, but just a few of points.

    To what Misha says: true, Abkhazis were a minority in Abkhazia at least at the times (late 70s-early 80s) I traveled to Sukhumi regularly. The majority were Georgians, followed by Armenians (!), then Russians, then Abkhazis (some, however, claimed that they were outnumbered by ethnic Greeks, making the Abkhazis only the FIFTH largest ethnic group). I’m not sure what Misha meant by saying that “… some non-Georgian and non-Abkhaz residents in Abkhazia didn’t take the Georgian side in that dispute…”, but take into account the fact that Abkhazis are Muslems, whereas the rest are Orthodox.

    Mark, you might be underestimating Saakashivili’s real influence on Georgia’s politics. In fact, he’s extremely popular outside Tbilisi. It’s Georgian “elites” who have problems with him – despising his arrogance, Columbia law degree, Dutch wife, etc. – but in the countryside, they just love him. So, as much as I like your idea of Cheese Inspector (I’d even suggest Assistant Deputy Cheese Inspector :), I’m afraid (I really am!) that Saakashivili isn’t going anywhere in 2013. Exactly because like Putin’s, his REAL weight in Georgia’s politics won’t allow him to just disappear.

    The last thing, there is no – and can’t be – a contemporary Georgian politician (pro-U.S., pro-Russian, pro-whatever) who’d agree with A&SO indepencence. Period. There must be a generational shift, a new generation of Georgians growing up and maturing alongside with de facto independent A&SO, in order to get to any serious discussion on political settlement. So, we’re for a VERY LONG haul. Mark, I totally agree with you that Trenin’s solutions won’t work. But I credit him with his article because he’s sending a message not to Georgians or Russians, but to the American elites (including HRC with her “occupation”) that A&SO aren’t the Baltics (as many here believe) and they’re GONE forever. This is a worthy message.

    • Misha says:

      Hi Eugene

      My understanding is that most Abkhaz are Orthodox Christian. Upon a quick follow-up, this link jives with that understanding:

      Some other interesting missives are there as well, albeit with a take that can be considered partisan.

      On another point raised, in Abkhazia, a large percentage of the population is non-ethnic Abkhaz and non-ethnic Georgian. Among this grouping, there’ve been a good number who haven’t sided with the Georgians. I understand this to be true of the Armenian population.

      Your pont about the mood among Georgians on Abkhazia and South Ossetia is very true and a main reason why I think it was arguably better for Russia to hold off from recognizing Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence, in conjunction with the other reasons I give towards the top of this discussion.

      We’ve discussed this before at your blog. I bring it up again for the purpose of seeing what new replies there might be.



    • Yalensis says:

      Eugene, I agree with you that Saakashvili isn’t going anywhere. When his presidency ends, he will probably appoint himself premiere, and the new constitution will endow him with more powers, while the new president (his преемник) will become a figurehead; so Saak will probably rule Gruzia until he dies of old age, toothless and writhing in dementia.
      After August war, Russian pundits engaged in some wishful thinking that Gruzian population would uprise against Saak on the grounds that he is coward and loser. They hoped maybe someone more reasonable like Nino Burjanadze would take over. But alas, was not to be.
      There was that incident during the war when Russians sent “silent” drone overhead, but either drone malfunctioned and made a whirring noise; or Saak has supernatural hearing; because he heard the noise, panicked, and went running screaming down the street. His physical cowardice was captured on video and posted on you-tube. According to pop psychology (and people who have read too much Lermontov), “Caucasian” type peoples are so macho that they would never tolerate coward as leader; ergo, Saak was kaput.
      What pop psychology doesn’t take into account is that power is derived from “he who controls the security forces”, not necessarily “he is who is physically brave”…
      Also, I agree with you that Saak is inexplicably popular in the Gruzian countryside. Why is that? I have no idea, since the guy appears to be clinically insane!

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:


    Thanks for the link. I agree: I was overboard calling all Abkhasiz Muslems. The numbers in the article you quote give perhaps 50-50 Sunni and Orthodox (a split we both can arguably live with :). In any case, I wasn’t about to say that Abkhazia is a Sharia state. My point was more that ethnically, Abkhasiz are different from the rest of the groups, and that, as it happened often in the Soviet Union, the “title” ethnic group wasn’t in majority.

    True, right now, Abkhasiz are a majority, but that happened by creation a large group of refugees, primarily Georgians. And I have to admit that I always had a soft spot for refugees, no matter where these refugees came from.

    A small point: IMO, the major reason Russia recognizied A&SO independence was that it allowed Moscow to “legally” abandon the Sarkozy-Medvedev agreement.


  7. Eugene Ivanov says:


    I was among those “pundits” who back in 2008, predicted that Saakashvili would be soon gone. The only difference was that I never bet on Burdjanadze and/or Alasania. My “scenario” was that there will be a back-room deal sending Saakashvili into retirement and replacing him with his close ally, the Speaker of the Parliament David Bakradze. Well, this didn’t happen either.

    On the power of secret services, you’re right: we should pay much more attention to Saakashvili’s longest standing minister, Minister of Interior Vano Merabishvili. His influence and mode of operandi more and more invoke the images of the famed Lavrenti Beria.

    I don’t know Georgia enough to explain you the inexplicable popularity of Saakashvili in the countryside. I once asked about that a good friend of mine, a Georgian. His response was a bit vague: “Misha is a nice guy!” What it means is that Saakashvili travels around the country non-stop, drinks wine, sing songs, promises things and takes credit for everything positive that happened. In contrast to the leaders of the opposition like Burdjanadze who travels only between Tbilisi and Moscow.


  8. Misha says:

    Eugene, on your last point, I note the politically incorrect reality of might making right – without meaning to say that it’s an ideal approach.

    Just look at how UNSCR 1244 relating to Kosovo has been disrespected.

    In the hypothetical instance of the continued non-recognition Abkhaz and South ossetian independence, Russia could’ve said that:

    – the Georgian government strike dramatically changed things in a way which necessitated a greater Russian military presence in the disputed parts of the former Georgian SSR

    – at the same time, Russia mintains a consistent stand on disputed territories

    – such a position arguably serves to better Russia’s standing among Georgians, with South Ossetia and Abkhazia not being able to ditch Russia.

    As is, how “legal” is the Russian position when the overwhelming majority of nations don’t recognize Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence?

    “International law” is open to a good deal of legal gymnastics.

    • marknesop says:

      It’s quite possible Russia did say that in some forum or other, as the country is no more backward in its understanding of international law than any other – note that the United States feels free to disregard international law when it suits. However, the general public would never hear about it. In fact, it plays to the entire “uncivilized” meme; that Russia feels constrained by no earthly force and is a nation of lawless savages, like Attila’s ruthless hordes. Everything Putin does and says is cast as despotic cynicism, while Medvedev’s every effort is portrayed as well-intentioned but ineffective fumbling, expected of a nice-guy dunce who is really only there to keep the seat warm. The positive economic metrics that one would think would be undeniable (interest rates, inflation, cash on hand, paydown of national debt, etc…) prove to be very deniable, in that you have to search hard for them and they are generally derided as government fiction when you do.

      It’s like they say – if it were easy, everyone would do it. That’s part of what makes argument in Russia’s behalf – without illusions as to its shortcomings – rewarding.

  9. Eugene Ivanov says:


    It’s not that I’m fundamentally disagreeing with you…

    But try to answer this question. Which course of action is easier to justify: A&SO declare independence, Russia recognizes it, signs a security treaty with both and upon an “invitation” from both governments, builds military bases (whose significance, let’s face it, goes beyond protecting A&SO from Georgia). Or, Russia stays withing Sarkozy-Medvedev and tries to explain why it boosts what it promised to withdraw — from the territory that even by Russian standards would be considered “occupied.”

    Sure, UNSCR 1244 has been raped, but not by Russia, and Russia still has a point by saying: we warned you, guys!

    I agree, ““International law” is open to a good deal of legal gymnastics.” By why doing triple vaults when you can just jump over 🙂


    • Misha says:

      Eugene, the independence recognition can be viewed as Russia making that unnecessarily risky extra move which it need not have.

      Without meaning to go in circles, what “legal” good is independence recognition when just about everyone else isn’t doing likewise? Never mind the negative PR as mentioned earlier.

      In the hypothetical non-recognition instance, Russia says:

      – Saakashvili’s manner inclusive of the Georgian government strike on South Ossetia changes the prior understanding

      – this being done with Russia noting how it has chosen a principled position of consistency on disputed territories unlike some others

      – while leaving open the option for the Georgian authorities to come to their senses.

      On a related note, later with the neolib/neocon mumbo jumbo about international law. Like it or not, the politically incorrect might making right is reality. On the one hand, Russia can’t fly in aid and peacekeepers to Kosovo because several countries (at the request of the US government) denied air space use for such a stated plan. Never mind that the Clinton administration led bombing of Yugoslavia didn’t include getting air space permission.



    • marknesop says:

      In spite of efforts to portray South Ossetia’s opting en masse for Russian passports and citizenship as underhanded Kremlin manipulation, I can find no evidence that it is anything other than public interest in a regional alliance. Western powers are quick to jump all over any comparative effort on the part of a small country to ally itself with the west as “a yearning to breathe the air of freedom”. Look at how they pat Saakashvili fondly on the head for trying to get Georgia into NATO. Is it because they can’t wait for Georgians to breathe the air of freedom? Of course not – they’ll breathe the same air they always did. However, the American base at Krtsanisi would grow exponentially, and a lot of the nonsensical justifications for its necessity would be dropped. It would be billed for what it was – an American foothold on Russia’s doorstep, from which to keep an eye on the flow of oil and the ambitions of China and Iran. Saakashvili would probably be gifted with an ambassadorship or something of that nature following his presidential term, to reward him for being a faithful vassal of American foreign policy. Most importantly, Georgia would fall under the umbrella of mutual defense policy – an attack on Georgia would be an attack on NATO. This is what Saakashvili foolishly tried to jump-start in 2008.

      It’s much easier to make something like that happen when you can make everyone believe that Russia is the last great cancer, the final sickness in the world that once eliminated, will see us all breathe the air of freedom.

      Here’s the way the reasoning looked in 2002.

      Note that the threat was al Qaeda and terrorism, and the stationing of American troops – while temporary – was just in everyone’s best interests, including Russia. When the al Qaeda myth was shown to be largely fabricated, the troops stayed, and the rationalizers went into action.

      • Misha says:

        You bring up reason to caution against expanding NATO, while underscoring an existing facet of that org.

        Once in NATO, a country might be better able to promote its geopolitical view to the leading Western nations. There was no “humanitarian intervention” and strongly stated opposition to Turkey’s policies towards the Kurds and its independence recognition of northern Cyprus.

        Note how the criticism of Turkey has increased since Ankara has shown some signs of taking a more different course from neocon and neolib stances.

        • marknesop says:

          That’s certainly true in the most ideal of situations, and doubtless it lies in Georgia’s power – once accepted as a NATO nation – to influence and agitate for a far more accepting view of Russia on the part of NATO. However, I can’t see that happening with the present leadership, because Saakashvili is a cookie-cutter replica of his sponsor’s foreign policy interests.

          I don’t think Russia can afford to let down its guard, or its suspicions, just yet.

  10. Misha says:

    Besides the might making right reality, two other sayings suddeny come to mind.

    One having to do with moving the goal posts back.

    The other that the rules are there’re no rules.

    • Yalensis says:

      There are no rules when there is no referee. America can’t pretend to be the referee when it is also a player in the game. The United Nations was supposed to be the referee, but has become irrelevant.

      • marknesop says:

        Ha, ha!! Do you remember that scene from “Judge Dredd” (Sylvester Stallone; if you didn’t see it, you are lucky, because it was certainly the worst movie he ever made and a candidate for worst movie ever), where he shouts, “I am the law!!”?

        The United States could as easily shout, “I am the United Nations”. Despite the catty things that became fashionable in America to say about the United Nations during the Bush years – especially after John Bolton said the U.N. headquarters in New York could lose the top 10 floors and nobody would notice or care – the U.S. still wields enormous power at the U.N. It throws a hissy fit whenever upstarts like France and Russia don’t go along with its plans, but as long as it holds a veto, nothing happens that it doesn’t want to happen. I personally think the assignment of a U.N. force for oversight in Georgia could have happened a long time ago. But why, when the U.S. has a military base right outside Tbilisi?

      • Misha says:

        Then again, you can have refs who call fouls on one team while allowing the other to foul without penalty. In such situations: once in awhile the team being favored will get penalized to give the impression of objectivity (ICTY).

        It an get especially bizarre when it’s the provoking team that’s given the preferential treatment.

  11. Yalensis says:

    On the topic of Georgia, I just read a new online editorial by Gruzian super-patriot Gagi Otiashvili. Here is link to article and also to INOSMI version (the original seems to be in Russian, so INOSMI translators had easy job last night, just reprinted). I recommend everybody read, this is a real BLOCKBUSTER!

    Gist of article: Otiashvili lays out a strategy of long-term national resistance to Russian “occupation” and calls on all Gruzians to consolidate around his plan. He lays out principled position distinguishing between legitimate military targets, say blowing up troop trains; versus illegitimate terrorist acts committed outside of Gruzian borders.

    There is so much to discuss in this one article I don’t even know where to begin! But for me one key take-away is the discussion of how Gruzian resistance can avoid mistakes made by “Ichkerian” resistance movement, for example not blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow. Is this an admission, at long last, that Chechen terrorists did that? Usually anti-Muscovites claim that it was Putin who blew up these buildings, with his own dirty hands. Here is the quote from future resistance leader Gagi:

    Запомните- взрыв машины оккупанта, или поезда оккупационных войск в Грузии, и уничтожение оккупанта (содействующей военным, или спецслужбам, или административным, или оккупационному режиму организации) в Грузии, это антиоккупационное действие. А в России, вдали от места оккупации, на чужой территории взрыв дома гражданина – террор.

    The whole plan is laid out very meticulously, almost like American NGO grant proposal! Hmm…

  12. Yalensis says:

    Am I spam? Grrr!! I am trying to post comment, with no luck…

  13. Yalensis says:

    Okay, it will not let me post comment with link, so I will have to remove link to INOSMI article. You will have to find for yourself. See comment to follow… Grrr!

  14. Misha says:

    Opportunists in former Communist space and elsewhere can tailor their position without a formal stink tank like upbringing.

    A shining star:

    No mention of his parents.

    A seasoned vet of a preferred Armenian view:

    • Yalensis says:

      How did you do that??
      Blog wouldn’t let me post anything with http link…

      • marknesop says:

        Sorry, they all went into the spam filter. I don’t know what it uses for criteria, but it’s usually correct. I’ll pick out the best one (with the most links) and restore it, and delete the rest; I believe there were 8 total.

    • Yalensis says:

      Good links, by the way, Misha, thank you for that. I had not read these articles before. My goodness! That Serbian child is a piece of work. At his age he should be playing soccer and trying to meet girlfriend, not lobbying for position in quisling government.
      Armenian article also good — especially the comments! Seems many Armenians pitching in to rake author over coals. God bless Armenia!

      • Misha says:


        Glad you found the links I gave of interest. On Armenia and Azerbaijan, here’s an updated version of what appeared in Global Research and Eurasian Home:

        You might get a kick out of these videos:

        Of course, things are bit more complex than what the two videos suggest.

        I’m sympathetic to Armenia in a way that I try to be reasonable. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue is a potentially explosive one.

        I’ve suggested a unique settlement of that dispute which would give that territory the status of being jointly part of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Each of these two former Soviet republics wouldn’t take a ruling against their respective desire well.

  15. Yalensis says:

    Sorry about that, Mark! I didn’t mean to clutter up your spam filter. Like an idiot, I just kept trying to post same message over and over. No need to restore my original post, since I got my point across eventually, but could you please just show the link to INOSMI? I really hope others will read this amazing article, and I want to make it easy for them to find it. Thanks!

    • marknesop says:

      No worries! I’m sorry on my part that it creates a problem; don’t worry about cluttering it up, it has quite a capacity. Normally I check several times a day, but your messages arrived during the night. I don’t think too many sites can operate now without any spam filter at all, and I generally get one or two posts a week that are just gibberish with some product-marketer’s ID attached. Those I delete – everything else gets the benefit of the doubt and is restored. So far, no argumentative russophobic posts have gone into the filter, but if they do I will restore them as well.

      I understand your urgency in this case, and am anxious to read your link!

  16. Misha says:

    Thanks Yalensis

    While not always agreeing with their selection of material, InoSMi continues to exhibit a greater editorial balance of views than RFE/RL and openDemocracy.

    A shot at some folks in the West who suggest that they’ve a monopoly on the best possible media.

  17. Yalensis says:

    Latest Gruzian news: yesterday (9/6) a group of American politicians arrived on cruise ship in port of Batumi as American delegation for big huge international conference (“Global Challenges to World Order”) organized by Saakashvili and his friends to discuss future of Black Sea region. American delegation included Condoleeza Rice, William Perry (former Secretary of Defense); Democratic politicians Jim Marshall, Jane Harman, Peter Welch; and Republican politicians Charles Dent and Cynthia Lummis. (What? No John McCain??)
    Delegation spent a day enjoying beach in Batumi, then on to Tbilisi for the conference. Afterwards they are scheduled to meet with Saakashvili. Gruzian laws of hospitality dictate that they will be forced to drink much wine and make many toasts.
    Mikhail Gorbachev was also supposed to attend, as stellar representative of Russian nation. However, he cancelled at last minute. Condoleeza Rice also left unexpectedly: Something must have happened to change her plans, because right after arriving in Batumi she boarded a helicopter and flew off to Dublin. Gruzians were devastated by her departure, because she was supposed to be keynote speaker.
    I cannot include link for story, as this will no doubt land me in Mark’s spam filter. But I will show it in separate post, and Mark can fish it out of spam filter later!

    • Misha says:

      Not so good PR for Gorbachev in Russia if he attended.

      Rice cancelling possibly ties in with an earlier point at this thread on how Western neocons and neolibs can change their global priorities, whereas Georgia exists in Russia’s so-called “near abroad.”

      Somewhere down the line a Russian-West understanding on the former Georgian SSR which comes closer to Russia’s view than what’s currently evident isn’t completely out of the question.

      • marknesop says:

        What does Rice have to do with it? I thought she landed a job back at her old university. She isn’t a luminary of any think tank I know of, and has no role in government. The keynote speaker? Give me a break. The only attraction Rice has is that she can be relied on for a lot of fiery militant jibber-jabber about not being overshadowed by the evil empire, Georgians yearning to breathe the air of freedom, blah blah. Oh, and what a great guy Saakashvili is. Gag. As far as NATO membership goes, they might as well have invited Ronald McDonald to be the keynote speaker – he has as much influence with the NATO decision-makers now as Rice does. It makes me want to heave, the way these former politicians are wined and dined and wooed for their opinions even after they don’t matter any more.

        • Misha says:

          Within wonk circles, she’s a “celeb” and therefore considered of greater worth than someone not as well known and with more interesting and prudent views.

          • Yalensis says:

            Also, Saak is nostalgic for George W. Bush administration and maybe hopes in his heart that Republicans will return to power soon. Then Rice might get a job in new administration. It could happen. Horrible nightmare, but not impossible…

            • marknesop says:

              Woooo…. I feel like somebody just walked over my grave.

            • Misha says:

              An unfortunate foreign policy reality in the one party system that’s divided between Dems and Repubs.

              The same old, same old often gets recycled, even with some prior screw ups.

              In the Clinton administration, Albright and Holbrooke served under the previous Democratic presidential administration of Jimmy Carter – some 12 years earlier.

              I see a relationship between the Clinton’s administration’s “humanitarian intervention” approach and the way the Carter administration utilized human rights as a geopolitical propaganda tool. On the former, note the selectivity in which country was bombed over some others. On the latter, the greater human rights abuses at the time in Romania and China were comparatively downplayed in relation to the human rights situation in the USSR. During this period, the Sino-Soviet rift was in full swing and Romania was a convenient pest to have within the Warsaw Pact.

              • marknesop says:

                Unfortunately, these political power games are seldom as clear in the doing as they are with the benefit of hindsight. However, if you’re suggesting the media has served administrations of both parties when they needed cover, you’re quite right – the media did a superb job of demonizing Milosevic, to the point that even Russian criticism of bombing fellow Slavs was muted. You’re also correct that misbehaving nations that are useful as counterbalances to stability in non-aligned regions often have their misbehavior overlooked. That’s become, I think, more difficult with the rising visibility of the blogosphere.

              • Aslan says:

                I do not mind realpolitik, but I hate when it is disguised with righteousness. Doesn’t Brzezinski’s son also advise Obama ? (As a Russia-expert of all things.) The man is a true Machiavellian, and largely to blame for the Islamism that threatens billions from India to Europe, including a state with nuclear weapons.

                • Misha says:

                  For sure.

                  Noble causes are selectively applied for realpolitik useage.

                  Another PC approach is how entities with titles like defense department and defense ministry were once termed as war department and war ministry.

                  There’s so much crap out there.

  18. Misha says:

    I recall Tina Brown referring to bloggers as the Taliban of the media. Such is the snoot factor out there. P.J. O’Rourke expressed a similar thought recently as well.

    A repeat point: beware of who does and doesn’t get propped to reflect the not so popular view at the more high profile of outlets. Sometimes there’s not much to complain about. In other instances, there’s a sign of limits.

    On the subject of former Yugoslavia and your native Canada, I’m a fan of James Bissett, Lewis MacKenzie and Scott Taylor.

    When the Russian opposition you mention was noted in English language mass media, it was typically done in a way to suggest how misguided Russia has been. Latynina wrote such an inaccurate piece as well. The piece I recall from her uncritically accepted overly trumped up casualty figures along with giving Milseovic way too much credit for starting the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia.

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