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The Stakes in the Caucasus Conflict are Huge - for All Parties

The recent conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia has dramatized the separate perspectives held by each of the main parties to the conflict as well as their European neighbors. The one point on which nearly everyone can agree is that the stakes are huge.

The current conflict had been brewing for some time. The dispute over South Ossetia is one of three “frozen conflicts” left unresolved after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. It was intensified by recent developments, such as Western support for the independence of Kosovo from Russia’s ally Serbia, the eastward expansion of NATO into what was once the Soviet sphere of influence, and U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

On August 7, Tbilisi sent troops in an effort to take control of Tskhinvali, the capital of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, and Russia, which had troops in the region, responded by sending additional troops, tanks, and armored personnel carriers and by going on the offensive. South Ossetia, along with the other Georgian region of Abkhazia, declared independence from Georgia in the mid-1990s. Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had vowed to bring both regions back into the fold.

Earlier this week, President Saakashvili signed a European-backed cease-fire with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Finnish counterpart, Alexander Stubb, in Tbilisi. Then French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Moscow, and they agreed on a six-point plan for a permanent truce. The plan includes a provision for what officials call an “international discussion of the future status” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. President Saakashvili accepted the French-brokered peace plan for an immediate cease-fire, but accused Russia of sending tanks deeper into Georgia and imposing a naval blockade, charges that Moscow denies.

A Georgian Perspective
David Nikuradze, Washington reporter for the leading independent Georgian broadcasting company, Rustavi 2, says people are relying on Western countries to help them find a solution to “this horrible situation” and that they are afraid that Moscow’s real goal is to remove their president. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Nikuradze points to the leaked conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last Sunday at the United Nations in which Foreign Minister Lavrov said that President Saakashvili “must go.” But Nikuradze says that, if Russia changes the government of Georgia, it will be the end of Georgia’s independence.

A Russian Perspective
However, Igor Zevelev, Washington bureau chief of RIA Novesti Russian News and Information Service, says Russians view the cause of the conflict and its resolution in quite different terms. Mr. Zevelev says that many people inside – but also outside – Russia believes that the Georgian government made a very serious mistake by trying to resolve the problem of South Ossetia by force. But, he says, he doubts that the removal of the Georgian president is Russia’s immediate goal.

B-T-C Pipeline
Another contentious factor underlying the Georgian conflict, according to David Nikuradze, is Moscow’s strong opposition to the building of a pipeline that would carry crude oil from Baku on the Caspian Sea through Tbilisi to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. But, from a Russian perspective, Igor Zevelev says, the pipeline plays a relatively minor role, although he acknowledges that Moscow was unhappy that Georgia has become a transit country for a pipeline designed to bypass Russia. Right now, Zevelev says, the major issue is the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Prospective NATO Membership
According to Igor Zevelev, the other major factor is Georgia’s aspiration to become a member of NATO, which he says, “irritates Russia a lot.” From the Russian perspective, Georgia’s desire to join NATO makes the resolution of the other conflicts even more difficult.

A German Perspective
Christian Wernicke, Washington correspondent with Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung, agrees that the root cause of the current impasse is Georgia’s expressed desire for membership in NATO. But he also agrees with David Nikuradze of Rustavi 2 that President Saakashvili had become a “thorn in the side of Russia,” and it was exacerbated when the Bush administration embraced his aspirations for NATO membership. Wernicke says that in Berlin – as well as in London, Paris, and Brussels – people now view the conflict as a critical test of the West’s relationship with Russia.

Mr. Wernicke says both Europe and the United States have learned a lot about the limits of Western power in the last few days. Everyone knows, he says, that Germany and other West European countries are “exposed” because of their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Wernicke says the West will have to find a new way to live with a petro-state that has been empowered by rising oil prices. And for that, there is no simple answer. Wernicke says he fears it is basically Russia’s choice whether, and if, it cares about its image in international affairs. Furthermore, he argues that the Europeans need to take more responsibility for setting limits on Moscow’s assault on Georgia because, he says, “Ukraine could be next.” That’s a concern not only for East European countries, such as Poland, but for all European countries.

A U.S. Perspective
U.S. President George Bush said Wednesday that the United States strongly supports France’s efforts to broker an agreement to end the conflict. He said Washington stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia and asserts that Georgia’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” must be respected. Furthermore, Washington is concerned about reports that Russia has pushed into the strategic city of Gori, blocking the east-west highway, and effectively dividing the country. President Bush promised the U.S. military would head a humanitarian mission to the people of Georgia. Three days after Russia agreed to a cease-fire, the truce has yet to be fully implemented and Russian forces have yet to leave Georgian territory. Furthermore, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov was dismissive of the matter of Georgia’s “territorial integrity,” saying Washington needs to choose between its “virtual project” in Georgia and “real partnership,” referring to Russia.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned that Russia’s relationship with the United States will be damaged for years if it does not step back from its military offensive in Georgia. On August 14, a second U.S. military aircraft landed in Georgia, carrying relief supplies such as medicine, tents, and blankets.

Secretary of State Rice met on Thursday with President Sarkozy in France and on Friday with President Saakashvili in Tbilisi to discuss the cease-fire drawn up by the French President. The Georgian President has signed the cease-fire, and Secretary Rice said that Russian troops must immediately withdraw from Georgia under its terms. She also reaffirmed U.S. support for Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity.