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Russia?€™s Georgia Problem One Year On

The long-awaited report on the 2008 Russia-Georgia war prepared by a European Union commission did not create a sensation. It was written in true European political style, purposefully avoiding sharp conclusions or extremes and taking a balanced approach. What conclusion can be drawn following its publication?

First, Moscow’s decision to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains irreversible for the foreseeable future. An about-face on that position would cause so much harm to Russia’s prestige that Moscow has no choice but to support those two regions at whatever financial and political cost it might entail.

For the time being, however, those costs are not very high. Today’s leading global players do not have the resources to bring much pressure against Russia. This became particularly clear when the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly did not support the motion to deny voting rights to the Russian delegation. Of course, Georgia will continue to use every means at its disposal — the United Nations, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization — to influence affairs, but it is unlikely that Tbilisi will be able to cause serious political damage to Moscow.

One area where Russia can expect some headaches is from within Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazia is strengthening its sense of national identification, and South Ossetia is bogged down by corruption and a weak and ineffective government.

Second, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has lost any prospects for significant international support. After losing the war with Russia, he has tried to restore his legitimacy by arguing that the military operation in South Ossetia was necessary to repel a Russian invasion. But the EU commission report, despite its broad criticisms of Russia’s actions, did not support that version of events. As long as Saakashvili remains in office, he can expect to receive only symbolic economic and political support from the West.

Third, the international organizations called on to settle the conflict have proven ineffective. The OSCE is unlikely to regain its reputation of being an effective intermediary. The organization could neither prevent nor halt the war. There is a chance that the OSCE will play some role in the so-called “Corfu Process,” which was initiated to discuss the Russian idea of forming a new architecture for European security. But no clear-cut idea of that process yet exists. In addition, the United Nations should be the leading international force, but its activity is fettered by the requirement that all decisions be reached through a consensus among member states. That is unrealistic. Moscow and Tbilisi are incapable of speaking to each other about anything. Finally, the EU, a relatively new player in the region, is taking the lead in the South Caucasus area.

Because the EU commission’s report was intentionally written so as to distance itself from events in the Caucasus, it can claim to be a neutral intermediary. Thanks to efforts by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to resolve the crisis one year ago, the EU gained a diplomatic foothold in the region that it does not want to lose. By maintaining peace between Georgia and its neighbors, the EU will reap political dividends and greater international status.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has been less active in the former Soviet republics. This does not mean that the South Caucasus is no longer a priority for the United States. More likely, Washington has not fully formulated its Iran policy. Iran is a key factor in the region because any radical change in the country will have serious repercussions for the Caspian Sea area, the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

The changes brought on by the Russia-Georgia war opened up new possibilities for Turkey, and all sides are willing for Ankara to play a new role in the Caucasus. Europe and the United States are on friendly terms with Turkey, and Russia always prefers that regional powers resolve problems in their own region without bringing in outside forces. That is especially true now, when Russian-Turkish relations are improving. But the question is how far do Turkish ambitions extend? The developing relationship between Ankara and Yerevan, as well as the course Turkey will pursue with Abkhazia — a people with whom the Turks are ethnically and historically close — will determine the limits of Russia’s tolerance.

The 2008 war shook up the entire post-Soviet territory. Political and diplomatic activity surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has clearly entered a new phase. Too many major interests cannot be fulfilled as a result of the Karabakh deadlock. But it is becoming more probable that Karabakh will have a status in some way separate from Azerbaijan, and that the compromise will consist of discussing the fates of neighboring regions, but not that of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

Events in Moldova, where a pro-European coalition has come to power, also offer food for thought. Although the young generation of Moldovan politicians was born in the unified Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, their conscious life and social activity began after the country was divided. For them, the idea of restoring Transdnestr is not such a high priority as it was for former President Vladimir Voronin. The unresolved question of unity blocks the prospects for joining Europe, particularly since Tiraspol, the administrative center of Transdnestr, historically was not in the European -- specifically Romanian -- part of Moldova. Thus, the question remains: Does it make sense to join the European Union without the other bank of the Dnestr or to reunite with unclear consequences?

Despite the flare-up in the information war this August, the one-year anniversary of the Russia-Georgia conflict showed that the situation in the conflict zone is fairly stable. Russia’s unilateral recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia created a political problem that Moscow will have to deal with for years to come, but at the same time it has also precluded the possibility of renewed military activity in the near future.

Although the Russia-Georgia war allowed pent-up tensions to vent, it did not resolve a single problem that had created those tensions in the first place.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

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