In June 2008 the Atlantic Council of the United States published a paper entitled Restoring Georgia’s Sovereignty in Abkhazia. The author proposed several solutions to the on-going conflict, specifically calling on Russia to become a force for peace rather than an obstructionist great power. Unfortunately the timing of the publication invalidated many of its suggestions as Russia and Georgia went to war two months later.

The author bears no criticism for making bold predictions since these are often necessary to focus international attention on forgotten problems. However, the Summer War showed something more disturbing than a forgetful diplomatic community. It showed how little Georgia matters in the Great Game of world politics. As a result, Abkhazia will likely never return to Georgian control. Russian troops garrison the  region, oligarchs own increasing amounts of beachfront property in the Black Sea capital of Sokhumi, and an overwhelming majority of Abkhaz can claim citizenship in another country by virtue of their Russian passports. How then can Georgian sovereignty be restored?

Determining the future of Georgian territorial integrity first requires an explanation of the Summer War. It also demands radical changes in Georgian nationalism and international aid policies. In contrast, Russia need only accept responsibility for those under its control. None of the following suggestions will be easy or well-liked, but they are the only way for Georgia to solve the enduring problems of its territorial losses.

Georgia is a patchwork of ethnic groups that share a few commonalities: Orthodox Christianity, cuisine, and the Georgian language. The Abkhaz are one of several ethnicities with ties to groups in Southern Russia and Georgia; they are most closely related to Georgian-Mengrelians living near the border with Abkhazia. However, centuries of shifting imperial lines of control, punctuated by periods of independence, created competing claims of political legitimacy.

Nationalism in both countries increased in the early Soviet period, but political machinations over the next seventy years worsened rather than calmed relations. Fighting eventually broke out in the early 1990s leading to the expulsion of over 200,000 Georgians (mostly Mengrelians) from Abkhazia. Nearly 50,000 returned to the Gali border region after the ceasefire, but few ever returned to their homes in Abkhazia.

The Abkhaz never pursued offensive military strategies during the sixteen years of conflict resolution efforts with Georgia. Instead, they maintained defensive positions under the 1992 Sochi Agreement monitored by Russian peacekeepers. There had been small skirmishes around the border, but rarely more than the occasional flare-up. The Georgian capture of the Kodori Valley in northern Abkhazia in 2006 did not upset the status quo, nor did bombastic rhetoric from Tbilisi and the disruption of diplomatic and trade relations compel Russia to set aside its claimed neutrality.

However, once Georgian forces began killing Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, Moscow seized the opportunity to punish the Georgian government and restore Russian dominance in the Caucasus.

The Summer War developed out of a series of skirmishes common to the region. South Ossetian paramilitary groups destroyed a Georgian police vehicle on August 1st, and Georgian snipers retaliated by killing several off-duty Ossetian police officers. Localized fighting continued until August 6th, when both sides significantly increased their military forces engaged in the battle. Despite the antagonists’ assertions that their enemies had aggressive intentions, it seems more likely that dramatically heightened threat perceptions caused the escalation: the separatists had grown increasingly worried by the Georgian President’s assertive nationalist rhetoric, while increased Russian security assurances to the Abkhaz and Ossetians compressed Georgian time frames for reclaiming the separatist regions.

Sometime between the late evening of August 7th and the early hours of the 8th Georgian troops entered the South Ossetian capital and the Russian army entered South Ossetia.[1] Both sides claim they acted in response to the other’s aggression, but President Saakashvilli called for a ceasefire once it became clear that the Russians had fully committed to the battle. His actions could have halted the disastrous spiral towards full-scale war if Russia had maintained purely defensive intentions, but Moscow’s actions in the following months clearly showed this was not the case.

The Georgians argue that Russian aggression in 2007, specifically the downing of Georgian unmanned aerial vehicles and a helicopter attack on Georgian positions in the Kodori Valley, had taken relations in a decidedly negative direction. The tipping point came when Russia opened official relations with the separatists in April 2008, signaling a major shift from tacit approval to overt recognition. This may have been the logical response to the Georgian government changing the title of the Ministry of Conflict Resolution to the more aggressive sounding Ministry of Territorial Integration. However, the Georgian action can be explained as either playing to nationalist sentiment in the face of growing domestic opposition, or as fulfillment of a campaign promise to restore Georgia’s long-lost territory; neither reason contradicted the international agreements governing relations between the parties.

The Russian offensive into Georgia proper also calls into question Moscow’s claims that its actions were 1) peacekeeping, 2) UN-sanction Right to Protect against aggression, or 3) outside intervention in support of oppressed peoples, especially since they and the Abkhaz drove out the remaining Georgian civilians rather than protect them during the fighting.

In addition, the Georgians argue that Russian troop deployments were not defensive but rather a premeditated plan to alter the configuration of power in the region prior to fully recognizing Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence. Moscow simply waited for an opportune time to release the full force of its military on the weaker Georgian army. The loss of several Russian peacekeepers did not warrant such a massive military response, but it served as a catalyst to change the larger strategic situation in the Caucasus.

The Russian version of events states that Abkhazia was fortified by sea and land forces through newly repaired roads and railways connecting it to Southern Russia because Russian military commanders believed that an attack into Abkhazia was imminent.[2] Whether they received covert intelligence or had monitored the Georgian military buildup with growing concern, the signs showed a major change was about to take place.

Then, during late July Russian troops participated in a counter-terrorism exercise near the border and were ideally poised to defend their peacekeepers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia if Georgian soldiers entered in force. Once that happened, Russia pursued a strategy of “peace coercion” to ensure the Georgian government would never again try to alter the strategic situation through military means.

This led to a full-scale invasion of northern Georgia, driving the Georgians out of their American-financed bases near Zugdidi (the closest town to the Abkhaz border), and maintaining security zones for several weeks to eliminate guerilla activity in the area.

Several months earlier I had spoken to members of the US intelligence community about the growing likelihood of war in the region, providing pictures taken behind the Abkhaz border. Their importance was not to show behind-the-scenes photos of Russian troop emplacements, rather to give examples of intelligence provided to the Georgian security service by my translator while I was there. The pictures showed run down facilities concentrated around the Gali border region, but no Russian troops afterward on the primary highway to the Abkhaz capital of Sokhumi. The occasional Abkhaz army minivan accounted for most of the military traffic.

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] 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.