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Relations Between Russia, Georgia Still at Standoff

  • James Brooke

Two years after war broke out between Russia and Georgia over two Russian secessionist areas, the confrontation has become yet another frozen conflict in the post-Soviet space.

With the war anniversary looming this weekend, Russia's President Dimitri Medvedev told reporters in Moscow this week that "normal relations" will be impossible as long as Mikhail Saakashvili is president of Georgia.

From Tbilisi, the Georgian president told troops gathered Wednesday at a military cemetery that Russia is 'the enemy' and that his government's survival is part of the "irreversible dismantling of old empires and imperial sphere of influence."

On the ground, there is little movement after a war that killed 850 people and displaced 35,000. In March, a lone border crossing opened between Georgia and Russia. Sporadic charter flights link the two capitals.

Cut off from Russia, young Georgians increasingly do not speak Russian. In a break with two centuries of close ties, a generation of Georgians is growing up more oriented to London and Paris than to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Although Russia won the war, it did not win the diplomatic peace, says Aleksey Malashenko, a Causasus - Central Asia expert for Moscow's Carnegie Center. With the exception of Russian, no other country of the former Soviet Union extended diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian separatist regions that Russia has promoted as independent countries.

This rebuff, he said, reflected nervousness about tinkering with post-Soviet borders and undermined Russia's leadership of the post-Soviet space.

On the Georgian side, President Saakashvili has weathered his military defeat of two years ago. A major wave of street rallies by opponents failed to dislodge him. Two months ago, his party swept mayoral races across the nation, including the key race for Tbilisi City Hall.

Emerging from isolation, the Georgian president started traveling again to Europe this summer for state visits. In the last month in Tbilisi, he has hosted four foreign ministers, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ms. Clinton pointedly referred to the "occupation" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Although Nicaragua's president Daniel Ortega recently announced that he will visit South Ossetia next month, the reality is that two years after the war, only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific island nation of Nauru, recognize the two breakaway areas as independent nations.

Anatoliy Tsyganok, head of the Military Forecast Center Center in Moscow, argues that Russian soldiers saved these two small peoples from Georgian aggression.

But, he notes, Russia failed to make its case around the world for the five-day war.

Looking ahead, a key date on the Kremlin calendar will be February 2014, when Russia will host the Winter Olympic Games. With some of the venues within sight of Abkhazia, analysts predict Russia would like to make peace with Georgia by then.

But for now, there are no signs of a détente with Georgia. Russia's state controlled press continues to demonize the Georgian leader and his government.

Last week an old photo emerged of Vera Kobalia, now Georgia's economy minister, dancing on a table with scantily clad girl friends at a Florida bar. Russia's tabloid and TV stations gleefully pounced, devoting stories to Saakashvili's 28-year-old 'Stripper Minister'.

Maxim Shevchenko, a television journalist and member of Russia's official Community Council, expressed this week a hostile view shared by many officials in Moscow.

Addressing a round table in Moscow, he said: "We don't have a problem with Georgia, we have a problem with Saakashvili, who we see as a war criminal, a killer of Russian peacekeepers."

As the war anniversary nears, there is little sign of compromise from Tbilisi.

In an interview with AFP on Thursday, Nika Gilauri, Georgia's prime minister, said that Georgia will veto Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization if Russia refuses to allow Georgian government officials to staff customs checkpoints at Russian border crossings with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In a separate dig at Russia, Georgia's parliament two weeks ago approved a resolution to mark Feb. 25 as Soviet Occupation day. On that day, in 1921, Georgia was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Next month, when Georgia's new school year starts, students are to receive a new history textbook detailing 200 years of Russian occupation of Georgia.

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