This week marks five years since Russian troops crossed the border into Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on trumped-up grounds of defending an ethnic Russian minority against Tbilisi’s aggression. The Kremlin’s thinly-veiled aim was to reestablish its hegemony over the region while punishing its former territory and its first democratically elected president for seeking closer engagement with the West. Five years on, Moscow continues its program of destabilization; only the administration in Tbilisi appears to be less resistant.
Outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili was fresh off a successful campaign to placate another breakaway province, Adjara. The pro-Russian leader was forced to resign and Tbilisi regained control. This success was not repeated in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Saakashvili instead used a mixture of threats and military preparations in an attempt to bring the provinces back in line. Sensing an opportunity, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin began supporting the provincial leaders in both regions. Many Ossetians were forced to accept Russian passports or face losing their land. This created the phony demographic pretext for Russian involvement, and the troop buildup that commenced.
In the summer of 2008, Russian troops on the border began shelling Georgian peacekeeping troops stationed in South Ossetia since the mid-1990s. Saakashvili’s reaction was brash. He ordered a full-scale military incursion into the territory, sparking a swift and overwhelming Russian response. Over 10 days that August, as the Summer Olympics played out in Beijing, Russian troops pushed Georgian Army units out of the provinces entirely, took the cities of Gori on the road to Tbilisi and Poti on the Black Sea coast, and bombed targets in the outskirts of the capital. Gori was later returned, but a cease-fire left Russian units in control of some twenty percent of Georgian territory. Russia then recognized the provinces as independent nations.
The conflict was disastrous for Saakashvili. Prior to the war, he was hailed as a reformer, feted in Western capitals, and popular at home. As his second and final term comes to an end, Saakashvili is deeply unpopular, his party has been kicked out of power and is disorganized in opposition, his former ministers face myriad charges – many unjustly – for their actions in office, and he himself faces calls for his arrest. Saakashvili retains a measure of respect internationally, but he is no longer viewed with the promise with which he was once imbued.
Prior to 2008, Georgia was carefully building momentum for inclusion in NATO and the EU. Georgian troops fought alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, earning a visit from former president George W. Bush. The war put Georgia’s Western future on hold. European capitals no longer push strongly for Georgia’s case, and the incoming Obama Administration’s ill-fated “reset” policy towards Russia put Georgian interests on the back burner.
Domestically, Saakashvili’s increasingly heavy handed reactions to political protests led to the rise of new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili – a hated rival. Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition now controls the government, and is using its authority to pursue a campaign of discrediting Saakashvili’s United National Movement. Ivanishvili has a stated goal of rekindling relations with Moscow, a policy likely born of his business experience in Russia, where he amassed a fortune estimated at $6.5 billion.
Ivanishvili’s government has stated that it will not pursue normalization of relations with Russia as long as Russian troops remain on Georgian soil. So it contents itself for now with harassing former members of the Saakashvili government and opening new investigations into previous allegations of wrongdoing or corruption. These have come at the cost of Georgia’s reputation in the West, as no less than NATO chief Anders Fogh-Rasmussen made a public call for Tbilisi to avoid “political interference” in the legal system. All the while, Moscow’s position in Georgia and the broader Caucasus grows stronger.
Ivanishvili should soon have free rein to pursue his own “reset” policy towards Russia, likely with results similar to the U.S. Moscow is interested in reset too, it just looks to set the clock back a bit further. Putin would like nothing more than to see a return to the state of affairs not pre-2008, but pre-2003, when Georgia’s Rose Revolution ushered Saakashivili to world prominence and led a wave of popular democratic movements in the newly independent nations of the former Soviet Union.
A new president will be elected in late October, formally inaugurating the post-Saakashvili era. The leading candidates – one a relative unknown from Ivanishvili’s party and the other an independent former speaker of parliament – promise to be Ivanishvili allies, or at least stay out of his way. Once the first to break out and full of promise for a democratic revitalization of the former Soviet Republics, Georgia faces no small danger of being the first to fall back behind Putin’s new Iron Curtain.