Decade since the August War: the Pragmatic Ossetians, Disillusioned Abkhazs, "Unpredictable" Russians and Us, Georgians

After ten years of the August 2008 war - Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been grown more alienated from Georgia, Georgia - from Russia, Abkhazia is even further than ever from its independence. Perhaps South Ossetia is the only territory that is nowadays closer to the aim of its national project, which is to become a part of the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, the year 2008 and the subsequent internal and external political events have definitely brought in a novelty; in particular - the parties have finally recognized that the conflict is marked by continuity and none of them is ready to change the status quo once more.

The United National Movement (UNM), the Georgian Dream and  „Paata“ – or, why the Georgians never change their ways?!

Georgia's stated goal has been to restore its territorial integrity; however, after 2008, the prospect of resolving the issue in "Georgian" way has grown quite vague. After the war, first in the South Caucasus, and later - in the whole post-Soviet space (in the wake of Russia's intervention in Ukraine), the balance of power has changed in favor of Russia. The Georgian military version of the Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhazian "settlement" of the conflict has been shelved by Georgians; The only way was left - to win peace, or to strengthen its own economic and social situation, and, in the long-term, in the conditions brought on by the more favorable international context, to make the Abkhazians and Ossetians an offer that could be unsound to refuse.

It can not be said that this version was an essential novelty for the Georgia’s political elite and its society - up to 2008, Tbilisi had launched a number of peace initiatives to resolve the conflict; Unfortunately, the lack of patience, a foremost impediment to any undertaking, and a disastrous quality when it comes to the conflict resolution, was too typical for these Georgian initiatives.

The Government of Georgia’s third president, Mikheil Saakashvili, worked hardly, as usual, few subsequent weeks after the war and soon afterwards developed the corresponding legislative strategy (Georgia’s Low on Occupied Territories), and its policy documents. In spite of having many interesting ideas and possibilities, which the Georgian authorities offered to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the strategy did not work or worked only partially; It was natural and understandable – not only the terminology of Georgian texts (permanent reflection of the occupation) were unacceptable to Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, but also the parties lacked the main element to make any progress - they had no trust in each other.

So, the Georgian Dream, which won Parliamentary Elections in 2012, inherited a legacy that was too difficult to overcome. When Paata Zakareishvili became the Minister of Reintegration (later the ministry was renamed), it entailed some optimism:  Zakareishvili worked in the civil society sector on conflicts for years and was distinguished by his courageous, liberal initiatives. An approach of Paata Zakareishvili and, most likely, that of then ruling elite, was based on the following assumption: if Georgia could more or less normalize the Georgian-Russian relations and reduce the political tension, then, along with this, the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian cooperation would become possible as well; Which meant that ,,in the conditions” of less "loud" , generally, more constructive Georgia at an international level, Russia would not interfere with these relations; Or would interfere much less.Paradoxically, elites in Tbilisi didn’t bother to analyze as to why Moscow should support Georgian-Abkhaz-Ossetian rapprochement. The naivety of the Georgians seems particularly striking in light of Russia's pragmatic and cynical foreign policy. More details on Russian interests will be given below.

The unfavorable international events coincided with the misinterpretation of the Russian interests. The main determinant of Georgia's policy in the external affairs was the events in Ukraine. The annexation of the Crimea and the actions of the Russian military in Eastern Ukraine brought tension to international context. Meanwhile, Tbilisi avoided any drastic steps in the light of confrontation between Russia and the West, - it was unclear what could be reactions from Moscow, Washington or Brussels.

 The camp of those opposed to the new approaches was much stronger. The New Minister had many opponents both in the opposition wing and in state institutions or the cabinet of the Georgian dream. The "Conservatives" could not understand what kind of results could be expected from a direct dialogue with Abkhazians and Ossetians, whereas in their opinion, only Moscow could have the real impact on the process, while the dialogue and direct contacts could only legitimize to the regimes in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali.

But neither Sukhumi nor Tskhinvali, paradoxically enough, were too enthusiastic towards the prospects of establishing direct relations; the addressees of Paata Zakareishvili's statements remained mostly reserved.

In the end, the Georgian dream chose a cautious, even overly cautious, moderate policy, which includes the main directions, as follows: moderate criticism toward Russia on the international arena, an actualization of the theme of occupation and its rooting into the discourses of various international organizations, the active implementation of the policy of non-recognition throughout the world, and ,,small steps’’ towards Abkhazians and Ossetians. The proposals of the Georgian side, in their essence and form, were often so balanced that caused no particular irritation neither in the official political opposition, nor in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, - nor even in Moscow. There’s a common understanding -nowadays, at least - that they do not threaten the existing status quo.

It seems that we should not expect any special changes in years to come, especially since the support of the Georgian dream among voters has substantially decreased by the end of these six years; These conflicts, in the face of many unsolved social problems,   take an even smaller place in the daily life of  Georgians ;  image of Georgia is still very far from  being attractive to Abkhazians and Ossetians, and the international situation does not provide a basis for particular optimism.

As a matter of fact, Georgians are constantly afraid of making any steps in order not to make a mistake, which could cause or speed up the recognition / loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; however, later they have to make even greater concessions. It's time to turn this experience into knowledge at last.

"Unpredictable" Russia

We, the majority of Georgians, do not like Russia's approaches, but what Russia has been doing for the last ten years toward Tbilisi, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali is fully in keeping with the foreign policy logic that it conducts in the post-Soviet space and beyond it - it does not allow NATO and the EU to the new territories and restores its influence everywhere where local state institutions and civil society are so weak that they can not prevent it - this is the policy that it conducts very consistently and quite successfully; At the same time, as the cases with Georgia and Ukraine have clearly shown, it uses any method to achieve its goals, - from occupation to annexation.

In its first part, or in "not letting" Georgia from its grasp, Russia is partially successful - the prospects of Georgia's integration into NATO ten years after the Bucharest summit are still vague; Membership in the EU seems also unrealistic so far. However, one thing is de jure, and the real situation is quite different - today both NATO and the EU are much more presented in Georgia than in 2008, and vice versa.

This is a rather strange situation, when, in spite of the increasing presence of NATO and the EU, today, however, there’s more and more Russia in Georgia as well - economic relations, increasing number of tourists, cultural and humanitarian contacts - all these are growing tendencies; Here have appeared the new political parties, - some of them are presented in the parliament of Georgia, - whose perception of Russia is more positive than negative.

That’s why Russia will desist from taking any drastic steps towards Tbilisi or Sukhumi or Tskhinvali. Georgia distanced itself from Russia as a result of the 2008 war, but not to the extent that Russia considered it lost for good; consequently, neither Ossetia nor Abkhazia will be annexed in the near future. Their potential as a lever of pressure on Georgia has not yet been exhausted; and if ever Russia no longer resists Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian relations, this will happen only in the context of Georgia’s returning into the Russia's orbit.

On developments in Abkhazia

The results of the Georgian-Russian war in 2008, especially the recognition of Abkhazia from the Russian Federation, have aroused great excitement and enthusiasm among local elites and society. It seems that this should remove the issue of Georgia from the agenda and give impetus to the development of the statehood of Abkhazia. Few in Abkhazia have thought  whether the Abkhazian elite would master the "creation" of statehood -  whether was she qualified enough to fight corruption, nepotism, crime, the clannishness and many other, almost endemic phenomena, not to mention a serious challenge for the Abkhazian society, when only one third of its members are loyal to the idea of ​​statehood – local Georgians and Armenians, both before and after recognition of Abkhazia, did not see themselves in the  Abkhaz national project - the Abkhaz had never put much effort in making them part of it - quite the contrary.

 Despite the change of authorities, the existing political and social elites could not overcome any of the above-mentioned problems; Moreover, crime and corruption, especially under Raul Khajimba's presidency, have become irreversible and upward; At the same time, following the Association Agreement signed between EU and Georgia in 2014, Russia signed a treaty with Abkhazia  ,, on Alliance and Strategic Partnership “ to punish Georgia and increase its  influence in Abkhazia.

As a result, Russia's already enormous influence over the last ten years has gradually turned into absolute control on Abkhazia, or, at least, that’s what is coming. The Abkhaz are too worried about these developments, however, the public discontent has still not transformed into positive efforts - in statehood-building, in building of its institutions, economy and other sectors; This, naturally, would reduce Abkhazia’s vulnerability to Moscow.

Many in Tbilisi are also concerned - high-ranking officials realize that it’s just a matter of time and technology – Abkhazia, disillusioned and desperate after failed statehood attempts - may become the second South Ossetia. But as I mentioned above, it’s been already twenty-five years that the "paranoid fear of making a mistake” prevents Georgia from taking bold actions.

On developments in South Ossetia

Ossetians assess their ccapacities more adequately than all the others - rather than creating an independent state, Tskhinvali always preferred the unification of "two Ossetia". The struggle between these two ideas was long, but recently the idea of unification became the dominant political narrative there.

After the war in 2008, In the context of Russian financial aid, incredible lack of ownership and corruption, clannishness of local political class, as well as taking into account the geographical situation and the existing demographic situation - the idea of independence  has become increasingly unpopular in Ossetian society. It was under this slogan of unification with Russia that the de facto president Anatoly Bibilov won the parliamentary and then presidential elections.

And as it seems that Russia has no plans yet to annex this territory, coercive independence remains its only prospect in the near future.

Instead of a summary

The situation is not so good in Georgia, but things could be much worse. To those who do not believe me, I offer to come to Tbilisi and look to the east, toward Karabakh, then to the west - towards Ukraine, and the biggest skeptics should look to south - towards Syria. But rather than looking in all directions, it’s still better to continue to talk with each other - in Geneva, Tbilisi, Sukhumi, or Tskhinvali, and, when necessary - in Brussels, Washington and Moscow.