A year ago I was in the south Georgian port city of Batumi for a couple of days. There a new road sign showed directions to Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, which has been recognized as an independent state by Moscow in the aftermath of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.
The Georgians are good at the language of symbols - in the end, there is nothing else left for them in the aftermath of the conflict - and the sign showed that they won’t concede defeat, at least not yet. And, as recent developments show, they have a certain point here.
The third anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war was marked by an interview Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave to the Russia Today TV network, Ekho Moskvy radio as well as the First Caucasian television channel from Georgia. In it the Russian leader repeated standard denunciations of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, saying that he would like to see him tried by an international tribunal. Simultaneously, Russian prosecutors delivered what they say is proof of Georgian crimes in South Ossetia to the International Criminal Court, where it had filed a lawsuit against the authorities in Tbilisi. Bearing in mind the sensitivity of the subject and the ability of international organizations like the ICC to procrastinate, I am certain we will not see any practical action on behalf of the court any time soon.
The only new development was Medvedev’s suggestion to fully normalize relations with Georgia if the official Tbilisi agreed to lift its objections to Russia joining the World Trade Organization.
However even this offer was invalidated - exactly by the proclaimed desire to see Saakashvili behind bars. After all, you cannot normalize relations with a country on the one hand and simultaneously and publicly brand its leader a criminal.
In fact, Medvedev played it safe. Should Georgia decide to allow Russia’s membership to the WTO (which doesn’t look likely for now) the Kremlin would claim that the Saakashvili government had to bend to pressures from the United States (to which this particular part of the interview was clearly addressed). Then the Russians would have had yet another reason to claim that the Georgian leader is nothing but an American puppet. In case Saakashvili does not change his attitude towards Russia’s WTO membership (as seems to be the case) it would be reason for Moscow to say: “Well, you see, he is so unreasonable that even the Americans can do nothing with him.”
Medvedev was very keen to stress that the 2008 war, which is still very popular in the Russian society, was “his decision” and his only. In this respect this interview was no doubt part of his continuing drive to position himself as a strong leader and a frontrunner in Russia’s upcoming presidential elections.
The fact that WTO membership may not materialize before the end of 2011 (as both the Russian and the American leaders suggested it will) may not be such a big price to pay for the top prize: the Russian presidency.
Looking into the future though, the Georgian question will not go away. First, Mikheil Saakashvili will remain president for more than a year. And very probably he will not leave power even after the end of his second presidential term, but will rather move into the prime minister’s chair. Second, the Georgian society may indeed get tired of him and credible opposition figures might emerge that will challenge him. But this will probably have no impact on the Georgian society’s view of the 2008 events as Russian aggression. So even if Saakashvili is gone, there is hardly a chance of a Georgian collaborationist emerging in his place. Third, it seems Western countries will not change their attitude either, so Russia’s de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (and to all intents in purposes, these two territories are in reality Russian dependencies). This leaves Moscow with very few diplomatic options.
Rescinding the diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or even compromising on elements of it, like letting the Georgian customs officers to man posts on the Russian-Abkhaz and Russian-Ossetian borders, is an unthinkable kowtow for Moscow. And no other step would make Tbilisi change its way. In fact only one - to stick to its position and hope for the day some new Georgian leader will say: “We do not need Abkhazia and South Ossetia anymore, but instead we do want to be members of the EU and NATO - and fast.” This will be the day when the Georgians would move on, and the Russian leadership could breathe a sigh of relief. The Georgians may be defeated militarily, but their ability to inconvenience Russia has paradoxically increased since that defeat. I do not think this situation will change any time soon.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.