A flat universe is a popular metaphor for developing understanding beyond the usual three dimensions. In such a world, we imagine creatures moving along a flat dimension incapable of either entering a space or perceiving the existence of a significantly larger and more complex spatial universe. In light of the fundamental ignorance of such a world’s inhabitants, were we to damage their universe, they would probably never be capable of understanding the cause of changes.
The recent analyses that have been provided in abundance regarding Georgia’s relations with Russia exactly resemble the flat universe inhabitants’ depth of understanding. I am referring to those experts, especially the Georgian experts, who somehow manage to consider developments between Tbilisi and Moscow entirely from the standpoint of actions taken by the Georgian side.
No matter how inevitable the Russia-Georgia war was, we could have been in a more favorable position in terms of PR in 2008.
The notion that the path of Russia’s actions in the occupied territories of Georgia entirely depended on the politics of the Georgian side is extremely primitive. The role of the Georgian side in prompting the Kremlin’s steps can only be discussed hypothetically. The truth, however, is that control of the situation was, and largely is, in the hands of the strong, i.e. Russia.
One can hardly make realistic assessments on this subject without considering the international developments of the past decade. What happened in Russia and in the West in parallel with the turbulences in Georgia in the 2000s? Imperialistic ideas came to the fore in Russia; the Chechen insurgency was quashed once and for all; Vladimir Putin openly threatened retaliation for the United States recognizing Kosovo’s independence; statements were made about the necessity of reinstating and maintaining the Soviet sphere of influence; for years, the Russian Duma actively worked on a project for the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; the informal recognition of these Georgian regions was a long-established fact (let’s recall the frequent official-level visits, the reception of the leaders of the proxy regimes in Moscow and vice versa); Russian passports were issued to residents of the occupied territories; military drills were conducted; dissatisfaction with and threats about NATO enlargement were openly articulated; the position of George W. Bush’s administration in international politics weakened; the Orange Revolution proved to be a failure.
Against that backdrop, one can only make tenuous assumptions that the role of the Georgian side was decisive in the Kremlin’s formal recognition of Sokhumi and Tskhinvali. No less realistic, to say the least, is the theory that actions were taken merely because a favorable situation for doing so occurred. The reasons for Russia’s official recognition of these territories were likely many and various, but the most prominent reason, if anything, was Georgia making real headway in its path towards NATO integration.
This does not mean that Georgian politics could not have been more pragmatic. President Mikheil Saakashvili’s spontaneous, eccentric moves were far from optimal. No matter how inevitable the Russia-Georgia war was, we could have been in a more favorable position in terms of PR in 2008.
The shortcomings of Saakashvili’s administration did not, however, qualitatively change the geopolitical picture – either in terms of the interests of key actors or the balance of power. Speculation that “we should have sped up our advancement towards NATO and, at the same time, refrained from irritating Russia” is conflicting. On the one hand, we claim that the conflict with Russia complicated our NATO integration. On the other hand, no one can deny that a real association with NATO would happen without open aggression from Russia. The Kremlin’s stance on this issue was, and remains, clear-cut. Georgia’s aspiration towards NATO was itself a key reason heightening Russia’s aggression.
We can consider two contradicting scenarios: we either strive towards NATO or accept Russian influence and be left face to face with our northern neighbor. Precisely where the second scenario will lead is difficult to say, however, it is obvious that we have no rational grounds to believe that that course will result in the de-occupation of our territories. Georgia would have far fewer levers to influence Russia if left alone than it would have in partnership with NATO.
The occupied territories were and are a key instrument for Russia to influence Georgia. This renders the assumption that “friendship” with the Kremlin would bring about qualitative progress and an eventual de-occupation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region even more naïve. For example, no progress has been seen in Moldova’s circumstances concerning Transnistria, even though that situation is, at first glance, much simpler than that of Georgia and no open confrontation with Russia took place there. In the “best” case scenario, the conflicts in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region would have continued to be “frozen”, whilst Russia’s threats of recognition would have continued to play the role of the sword of Damocles. That would not have taken Georgian citizens any closer to the beaches of Sokhumi or mountainous landscapes of the Tskhinvali region.
At the same time, under the scenario of friendship with the Kremlin, Georgia would have found itself in a far worse situation both in terms of contacts with the West and its various reforms. The failure and fragility of some of Georgia’s reforms are obvious. However, even those achievements which we have had – in terms of simplified bureaucracy, an uncorrupt police, weakened organized crime, or a more or less targeted spending of resources for infrastructure development – would have been unattainable for a satellite of Russia.
The popularity of the Kremlin’s versions in the West must not deceive us either. Clearly, if Georgia assumes all the “blame” it would play into the hands of those Western political circles who view the non-irritation of Putin as a priority. No one will dissuade us from self-castigation. Even more, students of “East European studies” in Europe and the United States believe that “Stalin divided Ossetia into North and South Ossetias.” Nor do many remember that Karelia once belonged to Finland. It is also obvious that Russia’s PR resources dramatically exceed those of Georgia. The question, however, is how the acceptance and spread of the Kremlin’s PR-theses will benefit Georgia.
In terms of settling our conflicts, the only thing we can rely on is the West again placing pressure on Russia. But in order to benefit from that, Georgia must maintain its ties with the West. In the process of coming closer to the Kremlin, however, one can hardly imagine Russia not posing ultimatums to Georgia concerning its ties with the West.
It has already become clear that the new government’s change in Georgia’s foreign course have gone beyond cosmetic changes alone. The chosen course no longer matches the pre-election formulation given by optimistic pro-Westerner members of the then political opposition: “we will exercise maximum diplomacy without making any qualitative concessions.” Even more, ignoring Russia’s aggression, the conspicuously flattering relations with the inhabitants of the Kremlin and the active encouragement of pro-Russian attitudes inside Georgia do not even fit into the scenario of “balancing.” If our maneuvering abroad can theoretically be explained by diplomacy; the cultural, informational and economic inbreeding of our own society with Moscow can only be explained by a desire to relapse into a colony.
We may entertain ourselves with the dream that by coming closer to Moscow we will regain our occupied territories one fine day. But, judging by the opinions of the Kremlin’s ideologues, the closeness required for that will need to be so intimate that we will no longer be able to understand whether Abkhazia reintegrated with Georgia or whether Georgia merged with Russia’s Krasnodar Krai.