Finishing the Job

Russia tightens its grip on Georgia's breakaway regions.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As the summer heat spreads through the Caucasus, it is once again accompanied by fears of war. Memories are still fresh from last summer, when after months of meticulous planning, Russian tanks rolled through the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and far into Georgian land. After the official withdrawal date a few weeks later, Russian troops remained in force (and in violation of an EU-mediated cease-fire) in the two separatist territories. Russia recognized them as independent states and stationed permanent military bases there, within striking distance of Georgia’s major cities.

Given recent events, keeping an eye on Moscow’s Caucasian machinations will be difficult. Just this week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s mission in Georgia closed down, taking with it its last observers working in South Ossetia. Russia was able to veto the mission’s extension last winter. Earlier in June, Moscow went further by vetoing the extension of the U.N. observer mission in Georgia, which monitored security in Abkhazia. Russia refuses to provide access to either territory for the EU monitoring mission that was launched following last year’s war. Moscow has thus effectively isolated the two territories from the international community, preventing oversight of Russian activities there, whether it is military buildups, human rights violations, or smuggling and organized criminal activities.

The main question today is whether Russia’s leaders think they finished the job during the 2008 amputation, or whether they still hope to force out Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s democratically elected government. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told French President Nicolas Sarkozy last August that he intended to "hang Saakashvili by the balls," but in spite of domestic political troubles, the Georgian leader is still in power and all sensitive body parts appear intact. This salient fact, as well as Russian saber rattling including a major military exercise just north of the Georgian border, suggests to many analysts that a new war may be in the making.

Although Saakashvili’s prospects for survival remain an important topic of discussion, developments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are no less significant. The bottom line: Moscow, by expanding its military presence in the two regions and hindering international observation has made the annexation of the territories a fait accompli that Georgia and its Western powers are now essentially powerless to reverse.

Russia’s designs for the two territories did not begin with the 2008 war. On the contrary, Moscow’s long-standing and accumulative efforts to control Abkhazia and South Ossetia were the single major reason for the deterioration of Russia-Georgia relations over the past five years. In 2000, Moscow began distributing Russian passports to the inhabitants of the two provinces, which later enabled it to claim a right to protect its "citizens" there. In 2001, it engineered the election of a Russian favorite to the leadership of South Ossetia. By 2006, South Ossetia’s defense minister, national security council secretary, and security chief were all Russian nationals. Meanwhile, Russian investment flowed into the two regions, particularly Abkhazia’s coastal resorts. Russia also allowed its Ossetian proxies to ethnically cleanse South Ossetia of the thousands of ethnic Georgians who had lived in the territory for centuries.

By 2008, Moscow appeared to have realized that Georgia had irreversibly moved away from its "sphere of influence" (a cherished term among Russian policymakers) and that a pliant, pro-Russian government in Georgia was simply not going to happen. The only option left therefore was to punish Georgia by making its territorial amputation official through overt conquest.

Events since the war are consistent with this narrative. After the cease-fire, Moscow refused to honor its commitment to withdraw troops from the territories and immediately engaged in fortifying its positions there, announcing the building of permanent military bases that officially were to host 3,800 Russian troops in each of the two territories, far in excess of prewar numbers.

In fact, Moscow’s decision to officially recognize the independence of the two territories was closely related to its basing needs. Given that Russia could no longer reasonably call its troops on Georgian soil "peacekeepers," it needed a new, if ever so tenuous, legal basis to station its forces there. Hence, recognition. Given Moscow’s veto power in the U.N. Security Council, all the West could do was denounce the maneuver. But in essence, Russia has annexed the two territories in blatant violation of international law.

South Ossetia, effectively cleansed of all ethnic Georgians, is now essentially a Russian military post, with a civilian population not exceeding 30,000. There is no civil society to speak of, and the territory is under the firm control of the Russian military and security services. It is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future.

Abkhazia, on the other hand, is multiethnic, consisting of roughly equal-sized communities of Abkhaz, Armenians, and Georgians, the latter living predominantly in the southern Gali district. It also has a small but growing Russian population. Moreover, Abkhazia has experienced true participatory politics in the past decade (if only within the narrow Abkhaz ethnic community, and marginalizing ethnic minorities, particularly Georgians). Within the Abkhaz elite, there are divergent views of the territory’s future, including those of a limited but nevertheless vibrant civil society and a substantial Abkhaz nationalist faction that is wary of excessive Russian dominance over the territory.

Unlike in South Ossetia, Abkhazia’s economic and demographic realities are subject to change. A renowned tourist destination in the Soviet period, with its Black Sea beaches and lush mountains, it has in the past several years once again become a vacation spot of choice for the Russian public, particularly military officers and their families. Now that Moscow feels more confident about expanding its presence in Abkhazia, Russian investment in the tourist sector will likely expand, as will the number of Russians settling in the territory. The Russian government will probably encourage settlement to make its annexation complete.

The future of the Armenian and Georgian communities in Abkhazia is also a major question. In the past decade, the Armenian community has gradually grown thanks to migration from Russia and is now estimated to be the largest community in the territory. That trend is likely to continue and perhaps pick up speed. In contrast, the situation of the Georgians of the Gali district is precarious. Already severely discriminated against, the Georgians are now increasingly isolated from the rest of Georgia, effectively hostages to Russia’s whims. Whether Moscow will seek to expel them to stoke tensions with Georgia remains to be seen.

Ethnic Abkhaz are likely to make up a shrinking percentage of Abkhazia’s population over the coming years, almost certainly leading to increased tensions with Russia. Here, Moscow’s performance in the republics of the North Caucasus is instructive. The Russian state’s heavy-handed rule over not only Chechens but Dagestanis, Ingush, and Kabardins has gradually alienated large portions of the local societies, fueling extremist anti-Russian movements. If the security service presence continues to grow in Abkhazia, the same might take place there.

In the end, however, it is doubtful that such resentment will constitute a problem for Moscow. Like many small minorities under Russian control, the Abkhaz — who number less than 75,000 — have little prospect of standing up to Russian excesses should they even wish to do so. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have essentially become Russian protectorates, and the international community is increasingly shut out.

So far, the United States and the European Union have shown little interest in doing anything about this tragic state of affairs. That’s a mistake: Although shaping developments in the Caucasus will be an excruciatingly slow and difficult process, the de facto borders between these Russian protectorates and Georgia are certain to remain a flash point in European security for the foreseeable future.

Maintaining a presence near these borders — as the EU monitoring mission is trying to do — will be crucial for understanding what is going on in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and for preventing flare-ups of violence along their borders. Given where the situation now stands, this outcome is probably the best we can hope for.

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