At first glance, this seems like a minor event. The resignation of a non-president of a non-state in a small and poor region of the Caucasus is not the kind of thing that generally grabs headlines. The broader context, however, suggests that we should pay a bit more attention to these events, particularly as the West is increasingly concerned about Russian aggression.
Accordingly, Saakashvili's rhetoric tells a very clear anti-Russian story, but if the Georgian government were to be judged by outcomes, rather than rhetoric, with regards to Russia, a very different story would emerge. Regardless of its intentions, the Georgian government has delivered a set of outcomes that are in Russia's clear interest in the region. After being in power for more than eight years, Saakashvili and his government have seen roughly 20 percent of Georgian territory ceded to Russia for the foreseeable future, allowed Georgia's NATO and EU aspirations to become little more than a pipe dream, have presided over very difficult economic times in Georgia, a country now besot by joblessness, inflation, and a debt problem which will become more serious in the next few years.
While it is clearly too early to know what will happen in Russia, there are several aspects to the current situation in Russia which could become increasingly significant as the current political crisis in Russia unfolds. First, when faced with a domestic political crisis, leaders often seek to identify an external enemy at whose feet to lay the blame for internal problems. This can take the form of rhetoric and propaganda, but it can also manifest itself through military actions. The Russian regime has already sought to increase its anti-American rhetoric, as it has done periodically throughout the last decade or so. This time, this approach has not been very effective. Efforts by Putin to depict the demonstrations as a western conspiracy have largely failed.
If the Georgian government had scripted recent events in Abkhazia, and between Abkhazia and Vanuatu, it could not have gotten a better outcome than what has actually occurred. Vanuatu, a tiny Pacific Island state briefly recognized, or almost briefly recognized, Abkhazia in the beginning of June. Almost immediately after the announcement of the recognition there were rumors that the government of Vanuatu was back tracking as Vanuatu’s Ambassador to the UN claimed to know nothing of the recognition. Georgia, of course, has continued to maintain that Abkhazia is part of Georgia. This view is supported by the U.S., the European Union and most of the world.
Recognition of Abkhazia by Vanuatu does not make Abkhazia a real country, but it may have an impact on this. As Vanuatu is too small and distant to have any direct bearing on Abkhazia’s future, its decision to recognize Abkhazia is better understood as part of a larger story. The Abkhaz have sought to tell as story of a small state which has won its independence from a larger more powerful neighbor, slowly building relations, and winning recognition, from different countries around the world. Vanuatu’s recognition clearly fits into this narrative.
The current Georgian paradoxes are not altogether unusual. There are other countries that have been modernized by soft authoritarian regimes, or that have financed economic progress on borrowed money and faced the consequences when those debts have come due. Perhaps recognizing the unexceptionalism of Georgia can be useful for policy makers. This might allow policy makers to see Georgia as a country more concerned with modernization than democracy, and to recognize the potential seriousness of a looming debt crisis, which is scheduled to coincide with a sharp decline in American assistance, and how this could have a potentially destabilizing impact. This might be a better foundation for a sound Georgian policy than increasingly vague rhetoric, particularly from Washington, about democracy and territorial integrity.
The election results, however, may have an effect on American foreign policy, but this will probably not be as significant as some might think. The new Republican members of congress will focus likely continue to focus their attention on domestic issues. Moreover, many of these people have very little experience on foreign policy and know very little about it. Of course, this is true regarding domestic policy as well, but lack of experience and knowledge tends to be more of a barrier in the making of foreign policy.
The cooling of relations between Belarus and Russia is good news for the west, but it has not changed the nature of the authoritarian regime in Belarus. This raises something of a dilemma for the US and Europe who are now caught between wanting to continue to encourage the nascent rift between Belarus and Russia while also encouraging political liberalization in the former country. Of course, pushing too hard for this liberalization, which the Lukashenka regime has consistently resisted, will very possibly also push Belarus back to Russia, while backing away from supporting and calling for freedom in Belarus will encourage the dictators in Minsk to simply continue their domestic policies.
Georgia’s dilemma with regards to Abkhazia is clear. Georgia seeks to reintegrate Abkhazia into Georgia and reassert its sovereignty over Abkhazia. However, this task, which has never been easy, is made more difficult because the presence of Russian security forces in Abkhazia makes it easier for the Abkhaz leadership to ignore Georgian overtures of any kind. Moreover, the steady growth of Russian influence in Abkhazia means that the challenge gets more difficult as time passes.
The reality that these types of programs have rarely had a significant impact on resolving territorial disputes has not appeared to daunt proponents of the shared economic venture as path to peace approach. These programs have generally had a marginal effect as conflicts have either endured in spite of these programs, or more frequently these programs have failed to get off the ground because the conflict and rancor between the groups. It is clear that, for example, joint Palestinian-Israeli tourism ventures could generate needed income, or cooperation liberalized trade zones involving Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh would help the economy of the South Caucasus, but even though the west supports programs to do these types of things, the underlying problems are more enduring. The China-Taiwan case is an interesting example of a conflict where trade has expanded substantially in recent years, but the tensions between the two polities remains quite strong with both sides retaining strong militaries and the threat of war breaking out no less significant, despite the economic ties
The Obama administration’s relations with Russia are still a work in progress, but there is some reason to be encouraged, and some suggestions that Biden’s views lie at the core of the administration’s views as well. Thus far, the administration has avoided trading off anything important to the US, such as support for Georgia or recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The administration has conceded things to Russia that they either they did not have, such as a realistic chance of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, or things they did not want, such as missile defense in Eastern Europe. This reflects the understanding of relative power of the two countries suggested by Biden’s comments.
Foreign governments hiring firms to polish their image, build relationships with key American policy makers, or hiring think tanks to issue reports favorable to their view, is different. It is no longer about Americans trying to influence their own government, but foreign governments seeking to influence the American government, and in many cases, trying to influence American public opinion as well. These practices are now widespread in Washington and have become an important part of how policy is made. There is nothing illegal about any of this as long as the firms in question report their contracts as required by American law. Yet these practices take on something of an absurdist twist when countries which receive ample financial support from the U.S. hire firms to lobby on their behalf, creating a situation where the U.S. government is, at least in part, paying lobbying firms to lobby the U.S. government.
The Russia Georgia war in a paradoxical way changed everything and changed nothing. Accordingly, determining the real impact of the war can be a puzzling task. The initial fears articulated in Tbilisi and Washington last August have proven false. The dominoes did not tumble throughout the former Soviet Union; a new Cold War did not occur, President Mikheil Saakashvili is still in power in Georgia; and Russia did not take over Georgia. Although these extreme scenarios did not come to pass, something did change.
The war between Russia and Georgia has receded from the front pages, but the questions it has raised are still urgent. Russia’s aggression toward Georgia, which greatly exceeded what was necessary to achieve its stated goals, and Moscow’s continuing efforts to weaken and destabilize Georgia, make it clear that Russia is a real threat to several U.S. allies. From Azerbaijan to Latvia, the Kremlin’s actions have been duly noted. The next American administration will confront the fallout of this war and face a hard challenge: It is not possible to craft Georgia policy without looking at the broader U.S.-Russia policy, while it is not possible to craft a broader U.S.-Russia policy without recognizing the role the U.S. plays in creating tension between Russia and Georgia.
While I have lived, worked and frequently visited Georgia since 2002 and have written extensively on Georgian politics, I am not going to address the specifics of the conflict here. Instead, it might be useful to explore some of the questions which the conflict between Georgia and Russia raises for domestic politics in the US. The conflict has, appropriately, led to debate online and elsewhere about the limits, impact and attitudes of American power foreign policy. It has also, again not unsurprisingly, become an issue in the presidential race as Senator McCain has responded with blustery statements stressing Russian aggression and the need to defend Georgia, while Senator Obama has emphasized these points, but also stressed the need for partnership with Europe on this issue.