The Georgian military spent years training with US forces in Iraq and were well equipped to take on the lightly armed Abkhaz border guards, many of whom wore little more than camouflage pajamas and outdated Soviet pistols. More importantly, there was a widespread Georgian belief that the Russian peacekeepers would not defend the Abkhaz because of US relations with Georgia and their limited defensive capabilities at the border.[3]

The Russians were demoralized by years of malnutrition, boredom, and local fraternization with Georgian women. Testifying to the sorry condition of the Russian peacekeepers, I witnessed a dozen soldiers man-haul a five hundred gallon water tank miles from the nearest Georgian village because they had no petrol for their trucks. Georgian officers told me they had started providing food to the soldiers since Moscow was regularly late in paying their troops, and many Georgian commanders believed the Russians would simply allow the army to pass through on its way to Sokhumi. They concluded that even if the Russian army became involved later, the initial speed of a Georgian advance would present them with a fait accompli and Abkhazia would be recaptured. That was the perception at least. How wrong it proved to be.

The end result was the same whether larger US/European relations with Russia overrode concerns for an increasingly precarious Georgian position, or Tbilisi simply caught the West by surprise: the Russians knew the Georgians were coming, the US failed to expend the necessary political capital to ensure Georgia’s entrance into the NATO candidate group, and the Georgian perception of Russian passivity was greatly mistaken.

Western governments may not like the peace imposed by Russia, but the new status quo looks to be more stable and Georgia’s range of options more certain, an argument that can be made without recourse to the jingoistic rhetoric commonly heard from the Kremlin and its academic and media lackeys. Decreasing uncertainty is a hallmark of effective deterrence, and the presence of a credible Russian deterrent could keep the peace for some time, just as NATO deterrence has brought peace to Kosovo over Russia’s objections.

The current situation will likely endure despite the Georgian government’s efforts to rebuild its military forces and maintain the option of reclaiming the separatist regions in the future. In addition, legal complaints will not avail Saakashvilli since United Nations monitoring forces have withdrawn from Georgia, thereby giving tacit approval to Russian influence in the region. Even though no CIS country has followed Moscow’s decision to recognize Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence, and only Nicaragua has supported it, formal recognition by others may not be necessary. Such is Russia’s complete control and the lack of international will to challenge it.

However, for the sake of the country’s thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs), the Georgian government and society must move forward, give up the right of return, and leave the separatists to their fate.  Getting the Saakashvilli administration to accept the loss of two historically Georgian regions may not be as difficult as the political rhetoric suggests. The Georgian people are surely tired of the enduring conflict and can be persuaded if treated fairly.

To do that, all IDPs must receive compensation for their lost property.[4] Russia staked its claim on sovereign Georgian territory, and while the illegality of their actions remains a subject of academic debate, the responsibility for payment rests solidly on Moscow. Their recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence is nothing short of diplomatic conquest, and fair compensation is the only way to salvage the smallest hint of legitimacy.

Furthermore, the Georgian government does not have the money to pay for new home construction, nor should it have to if the funds become available; Saakashvilli operated under a reasonable assumption of Western support that never materialized.

Unfortunately, no government can force Moscow’s compliance. Since the EU and US showed that they would not sacrifice their own strategic interests in the face of Russia’s blatant aggression, the burden falls on the West to atone for its failures and hypocrisy. They must provide the funds in the absence of Russian assistance. Setting aside normal practice and offering the reconstruction contracts to Georgian companies would provide a much needed economic stimulus, and strengthen community connections between IDPs and native residents. This would aid in the healing process as IDPs finally give up their dreams of returning home, and start building new connections with their neighbors as equal residents instead of indigent foreigners.

The second condition is more controversial, but equally important for the resumption of Georgian sovereignty: the complete cessation of all international aid to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The logic rests on the adage, “If you break it, you pay for it.” Russia broke the enduring conflict and assumed the mantle of final arbiter, just as NATO did in Kosovo.

The separatists have existed as rentier states for nearly two decades relying on international assistance to care for their citizens. This has enabled them to spend scarce resources on government bureaucracies and military forces instead of education, healthcare, roads, etc. While this might have been a reasonable approach given the undercurrent of violence with Georgia, the cost has been an unjust system of governance. Their citizens cannot claim the right of free political involvement since they are not taxed, and government officials disregard citizen activism as irrelevant and even dangerous; fears of Georgian political saboteurs have often been used to limit participation.

Even more problematically, despite claims of democratic procedures and domestic support, the separatist regions have never included all their citizens since IDPs cannot vote there. This justifies Georgian perceptions that they are illegal regimes, and keeps open the option of reclaiming them. Forcing the Abkhaz and Ossetians to face the consequences of siding with Russia against the international community will help remove Georgian resentment at what many consider Western hypocrisy.

Yet Abkhazia and South Ossetia will likely join the ranks of failed states if Russia does not bear the burden it fought to gain. Russian investment must increase and move beyond military support. These are deeply broken societies needing economic restructuring, improved medical and educational infrastructures, and widespread agricultural reforms. Russia has a moral responsibility because it granted them diplomatic recognition. Now it must ensure the separatists have the state capacity to survive as well.

In contrast, the new Georgia has less territory but an even greater opportunity to be sovereign over it. First, the government must give up its resistance to integrating IDPs in their present communities. They need to be welcomed as citizens not quarantined as squatters. It must also give up the military option once and for all, and move beyond the legacy of past conflict resolution failures.

Finally, it should establish domestic truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) similar to those used in South Africa, Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland. While the separatists and Russians would most likely refuse to participate, unilateral forgiveness and healing can go a long way to rebuilding Georgian identities after the loss of such historically important territory. Dreaming of the past will only hurt Georgia in the long run because Russia destroyed that dream permanently. It is time to start living in the new reality. Only then will Georgian sovereignty be truly restored.


[1] Svante Cornell, “War in Georgia, Jitters All Around,” Current History October (2008): 8, and Roy Allison, “Russia Resurgent? Moscow’s Campaign to ‘Coerce Georgia to Peace’,” International Affairs 6 (2008):1145-1171 .

[2] http://www.russiatoday.ru/Top_News/2008-04-17/Build-up_of_Georgian_troops_on_Abkhazia_border_causes_ concern.html and RIA Novosti (2008): August 8.

[3] Interviews, March-June 2007.

[4] The Georgian Ministry for Refugees developed a website service using Google Earth to help IDPs locate and claim lost property. Roughly 50,000 claims had been filed by late June 2007. Many more followed last year’s war.