Friday, August 20, 2010

Georgia vs. Russia; Two Years Later

The two-year anniversary of the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia passed recently with little fanfare, in the United States at least, save for a Washington Post editorial by Sen. John McCain that was largely a call to relaunch the Cold War (McCain was and is a staunch backer of Georgia). Since I've written about it numerous time before, I won't go into a discussion about how America's position that Georgia should be allowed to regain control over their quasi-independent former regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is awfully hypocritical considering that the United States was perhaps the biggest backer of independence for Serbia's breakaway province, Kosovo, other than to note that Georgia is staunch an American ally, while Serbia is not; feel free, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions from there.

Of course Georgia has as much hope of regaining control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Serbia does Kosovo, which is to say none at all short of launching an all-out war to retake the territories, a highly-unlikely prospect in either situation. For his part, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev marked the two-year anniversary of the conflict by paying a state visit on his Abkhaz counterpart, President Sergei Bagapsh (Russia is just one of a small handful of countries that recognizes the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

Once again though the Abkhazia situation shows that American foreign policy tends to be incredibly short-sighted. The US has been stubbornly arguing for the “territorial integrity” of Georgia, when in reality the smart play in the region would be to recognize the independence of both places and begin normal diplomatic relations, here's why: with their current status being in international limbo and with hostile relations between them and their former parent state of Georgia, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are becoming increasingly dependent on their patron, Russia. Both places do have long-standing ties to Russia; in the period between the early 1990s, when both places fought civil wars and became self-governing territories only nominally still part of Georgia until the 2008 war when they made their final break, Abkhazia and South Ossetia relied on trade with Russia for much of their respective economies, the Russians, meanwhile, passed out Russian passports to many of the citizens of both regions. But now the governments, especially the Abkhaz government, are taking this whole “independence” thing pretty seriously; for them independence doesn't mean becoming a satellite state of Russia. In the official photo of his meeting with Medvedev, Abkhazia's Bagapsh looked particularly uncomfortable. The reality is that without broader international recognition, both tiny states – Abkhazia's population is somewhere around 300,000, South Ossetia's is only around 80,000 – will be forever tied to the largesse of Moscow.

To be honest, South Ossetia's future options are pretty limited. With a tiny population, and landlocked within the rugged and restive southern Caucasus region, being a self-governing Russian satellite is probably their best play (estimates are that 98% of the South Ossetian economy is linked to Russia). Abkhazia is rather different. During the Communist era, Abkhazia's Black Sea coastline was considered the “Soviet Riviera”; meaning it has great potential as a tourist destination (there are a fair number of countries around the world who have built fairly respectable economies on the tourist trade). Add to that the fact that in less than four years time the Winter Olympics will be held just up the road in Sochi, Russia; the world will literally be coming to Abkhazia's door. Of course all of this will mean a lot less to Abkhazia so long as they are compelled to take their marching orders from Moscow. So far Russia has been supporting Abkhazia not only economically, but also militarily; Russia's explanation – that they have to defend Abkhazia against future Georgian aggression - is not one you can easily dismiss given the boasts on the part of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili that Georgia will reclaim both breakaway regions. But the Russian military footprint is growing within Abkhazia, it now includes some of their most-sophisticated weapons (including the S-300 anti-aircraft system) and plans to expand a Black Sea naval station; signs that clearly point towards Russia planning a long stay in the region.

Neoconservatives, along with left over Cold Warriors in Washington, warn against Russia trying to reestablish a Soviet-style “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Of course when you isolate a region diplomatically, you help to push them into closer relations with the few places that do recognize their existence. All of which makes an interesting case for the United States recognizing Abkhazia's independence and launching full diplomatic relations with them. The United States shouldn't be as foolish as we previously were with pro-western governments in Ukraine and Saakashvili's-own in Georgia and expect Abkhazia to choose between the US or Russia – given their position as next-door neighbors, you would both hope and expect Russia and Abkhazia to have close and friendly relations. But that is something different than being a satellite of Russia. Sure, recognition will upset the Georgians greatly, but the United States had no problem in telling Serbia to, in essence, “get over” losing Kosovo; for the good of the region, it is a message worth repeating to the Georgians as well.
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