Divergent Interests


A Moscow Times headline boldly declared “How to Resolve the Georgia Conflict” for a piece written by the increasingly influential tag team of Samuel Charap from the Center for American Progress and Cory Welt from George Washington University’s Elliott School. [1] The article itself, despite the somewhat bombastic header, was relatively muted. Rather than handing readers the keys to peace in the Caucasus, it sought to sketch a direction of limited increments between hostile sides under exceedingly challenging conditions. If the article’s proposal was underwhelming, it was because it was written with the reality of the situation in mind and not for a lack of thoughtfulness.

Building off of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s recent unilateral no-force declaration, Charap and Welt saw the 14th round of Geneva talks on December 16 as an opportunity to build additional mechanisms into the fragile, near-nonexistent security apparatuses. Specifically, they called on the sides to agree on the limited, but useful, goal of expanding the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) mandate to both sides of the conflict zones. Currently, EUMM monitors only operate within Tbilisi-controlled borders of Georgia. It’s far from a solution to the conflict, to be sure, but a worthy proposal nonetheless.

“There is no better ‘existing instrument’ for strengthening the nonuse-of-force regime than deploying the European Union Monitoring Mission, or EUMM, whose monitors have been stationed in Georgia since October 2008, to Gali and Akhalgori, districts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that border the conflict lines and are predominantly populated by ethnic Georgians,” notes the article.

“The EUMM can also address a host of broader security issues by deploying monitors to Gali and Akhalgori. Conflicts with local populations that turn violent can lead to pressures for armed escalation.”

While this is a natural step towards enhancing the general peace and security of the region, it’s hardly a major geopolitical undertaking and should not be regarded as a threat to anyone. As Charap and Welt go on to note later in the article, it is a development that should be welcome in Tbilisi as well as Sukhumi, Tskhinvali, and Moscow.

And yet, only hours after publication, the news out of the Geneva roundtable is somber and unhelpful. On December 17, Civil.Ge publishes a piece showing that Tbilisi left the talks “disappointed.”

“Georgia insists on Russia to make non-use of force pledge, after the similar unilateral declaration was made by President Saakashvili on November 23. But Russia insists that it is not a party into the conflict, saying that Tbilisi on the one hand and Tskhinvali and Sokhumi on the other are parties into the conflict,” reported Civil.Ge.

“Russia, which tries to position itself as ‘a mediator’, welcomed non-use of force pledges made by Sokhumi and Tskhinvali just ahead of the fourteenth round of Geneva talks.” [2]

Suffice to say that it’s not particularly encouraging when the Geneva talks cannot even yield a no-force pledge from the only party whose military forces actually crossed international borders in the August 2008 war. Russia’s insistence on its position as being only that of a “mediator” — as though its invasion were a mere footnote in the conflict narrative — can only be described as ludicrous. It’s not hard to see why some might regard the otherwise generally minor goal of expanding the EUMM mandate as being tantamount to something as great as ‘resolving’ the conflict. It might as well be the case if the most powerful actor in the recent war cannot even acknowledge its undeniable role, to say nothing of securing a no-force pledge between all of these parties. [3]

This difficulty raises an important question — why is as modest a goal as Charap and Welt’s proposal so seemingly out of reach? What is it about Georgia and Russia that disallows almost all attempts at the revitalization of bilateral ties?
What is it about Georgia and Russia that disallows almost all attempts at the revitalization of bilateral ties?

In many ways, the common approach to the problems that plague the space between Tbilisi and Moscow have been oriented around particular issues, personalities, and events — IDPs’ right of return, Saakashvili’s presidency, the August 2008 war, and the like — rather than considering more basic, elemental rationales for conflict.

A good place to begin is to remember that Georgia occupies a geographic position that makes it vulnerable to conflict. While referring to a country as a ‘crossroads’ country or ‘bridge’ between ‘east and west’ has become somewhat of a universal cliché, there’s no doubt that Georgia straddles the meeting point between three regional superpowers (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) in a transcontinental area that has also been a common spot for visitors from the outside (Afghans, Greeks, Romans, Mongolians, Arabs, British, Americans, and others). [4]

More contemporaneously, Georgia’s national interests are quite simply largely incompatible with that of Russia’s. When Saakashvili came to power in 2004, he made it his overarching to firmly and finally break Georgia from the old Russian regional power system. While it was strongest during the Soviet era, this Russian imperial system had encompassed major portions of Georgia for at least the past several centuries. Georgia, and the South Caucasus region (known in Moscow as the Transcaucasus), was and is considered to be a critical piece of Russia’s system of security and regional influence.

With Georgia’s bald-faced renunciation of this system after the Rose Revolution, it should be of no surprise that Russia reacted as it did. And while Moscow’s actions, including a campaign aimed at destabilizing Georgia, [5] does not exactly conform to modern expectations of diplomacy or interstate relations, it is neither entirely irrational. If the precepts that undergird basic security assumptions for Russia are being violated, it stands to reason that Moscow would move to correct that ‘problem.’

Of course, this poses an existential problem for Georgia, where a strong consensus exists that Georgia’s future should be an independent one. While good relations with the giant to the north are certainly considered to be important, it is fundamentally less so than having the freedom to chart an independent path — within the usual constraints of responsible statecraft, of course.

But perhaps more importantly, while Russia seems to lack much of a governing ideology (unless one counts ‘national greatness’ as such), Georgia’s elite seem to be motivated by a shared antipathy for the Soviet/Post-Soviet system. This is not to say that they are necessarily anti-Russia — although in some cases this may be the case — but they seek to completely divorce Georgia from the residues of its Soviet past or the dispiriting wreckage of the archetypical post-Soviet kleptocracy.

Since Russia very much embodies, patronizes, and even relies upon this type of system, Georgia’s wish to have as little as possible to do with it is in direct confrontation with Moscow’s interest in keeping Georgia as a component within its system.

Of course, this is only scratching the surface. But it does demonstrate that the key to the seemingly intractable disputes between Moscow and Tbilisi, as well as the key to their resolution, is not in the management of specific issues and events so much as unearthing the fundamental source of tension between the two states. Looking at it this way, it may not matter who started the war, where IDPs will live, or whether or not it’s Saakashvili or former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania at the helm. While it might matter for the purposes of human rights or democracy building, the collision of diametrically opposing national interests means that Georgia and Russia’s problems will never be solved via roundtables or international mediators barring some other major change.


[1] http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/how-to-resolve-the-georgia-conflict/426803.html
[2] http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22968
[3] See: http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22971
[4] See: http://www.evolutsia.net/a-maelstrom-of-geography/
[5] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/dec/2/russia-waged-covert-war-on-georgia-starting-in-04/

Michael Cecire

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

4 thoughts on “Divergent Interests

  • December 20, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Russia will never agree with the proposal of sending any nablyubateley, because it means that it does not recognize the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Europeans, or Georgia would not go for talks with the leadership of Abkhazia and South Ossetia because it de facto recognizes their sovereignty. This is all the reason and not some abstract fact of post-sovetstkie kleptocratic tradition or a difference in a democratic regime.

  • December 21, 2010 at 2:31 am

    “Russia’s insistence on its position as being only that of a “mediator”…..can only be described as ludicrous.”

    Why doesn’t the esteemed author recommend that the USA and Israel also sign the non-force pledge?! After all, Condoleeza was practically pushing Misha into the armed conflict, and a presidential hopeful had declared himself “a Georgian”.

    Russia was not a part of the conflict. Period.

    “Russian imperial system had encompassed major portions of Georgia for at least the past several centuries.”

    The author, obviously, learned the Georgian history from the revised versions of the textbooks. The Georgia had been ravaged by “visitors” from Turkey, Iran and other neighboring nations. The Georgians sent several delegations begging the Russian Empire to take them under the protection. That “protection” never was in the Russian interests. Thousands upon thousands of Russian lives were lost in the region.
    During the Soviet regime Georgians enjoyed much higher standard of living than anybody else in the USSR. How do I know it? I lived there. I lived there, and I observed the level of corruption, the total disregard of the law, the way of life when one had to pay bribes for everything. Having worked for many years in Siberia, I was unpleasantly surprised with the life in Tbilisi. Oh, life was good for me personally. After all, I was a wife of the American scientists. We were wined and dined by the friends and neighbors, and my American husband, like the author of this piece, was falling in love with the warm and hospitable Georgians. But he didn’t know one fact^ historically the Georgians as a nation were “prostitutes”, always looking for a higher bidder. Iranians, Turks, Russians… And now – Americans.

    • December 25, 2010 at 10:37 am

      “Russia was not a part of the conflict. Period.”

      “Georgians is a nation of prostitutes”

      Irene, I see why you are so upset, but even if your ex-husband left you for a Georgian wife does not lend you the right to be so ridiculous when talking about Georgians. Russia was not a part of the conflict?? FYI, Russia’s military forces, and none other, crossed Georgian border and fought Georgian army.

  • December 21, 2010 at 7:59 am

    >> yield a no-force pledge from the only party whose military forces actually crossed international borders in the August 2008 war <<
    Ask "WHY?".
    Because we hear what Saakashvili talk in 17-00 07.08.08. And we see what he did after.
    His word is nothing. And we don’t believe in his words.


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