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.