A Rivalry Revived: Confrontation in the Caucasus

Article excerpt

Russian president Vladimir Putin recently announced his country's interest in normalizing relations with former satellite state Georgia. That statement, coupled with the restoration of Russia's ambassador to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, puts a rather deceptive face on what have been hugely divisive years in the politics of the Caucasus. March 2006 saw an emboldened Russia block Georgian imports of water and wine, and in September Georgia's arrest of four Russian soldiers on accusations of espionage created a major diplomatic fallout between the two countries. Recent developments, meanwhile, include a referendum held in the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia in which 90 percent of citizens voted for independence. Diplomatic platitudes--such as Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili's pledge to work with Russia as an equal--only serve to mask the tension and apprehension in a relationship as divided as this one.

Despite the optimistic promises of cooperation between heads of state, there is no simple resolution to the current conflict. The roots of the current dispute lie partly in the semi-autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which lie on Georgia's border with Russia and claim independence from Georgia. Indeed, South Ossetia's recent referendum on the question of separation, as well as the pro-Russian leanings of its current president, seem to indicate that a division lies in the not-so-distant future. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has been steadfast in refusing to consider the possibility of secession. If neither he nor Russia nor the disputed territories are willing to compromise, a bloody conflict appears likely.

Sovereignty concerns, however, are only part of the disagreement between the two states. Since the popular Rose Revolution of 2003, Saakashvili has moved aggressively to align his country with the West by liberalizing its economy, fighting corruption, and even petitioning for NATO membership, all with an eye toward eventually joining the European Union. His aim is full integration with the West, partly because of the economic benefits, and partly because he expects to use Western support as leverage in his dealings with Russia. Saakashvili knows that the European Union will require that Georgia's territorial conflicts be resolved prior to any consideration of membership, so he is trying with some degree of success to attract Western backing for his reunification efforts.

Russia's foreign policy calculus, however, is significantly more complex. Russia has historically dominated Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, and no doubt it hopes to maintain that control even in a post-Soviet world. Its supremacy, however, has been challenged in recent years by a sequence of "color revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, all of which have rejected Russian-style government in favor of Western alignment. The latest showdown with Georgia would seem to suggest an increasingly enfeebled Russia that is trying vainly to control its former subjects. …