Vienna, August 10 – On the first anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war, most Moscow commentators have focused on the continuing tensions between the two countries and even on the possibilities for a new outbreak of fighting over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But some Moscow analysts have begun to discuss what they see as the possibility, even likelihood, that Moscow and Tbilisi a decade or so from now will find a new modus vivendi not only because of common economic interests but even more because of a recognition that they face a common threat.
In an analysis entitled “The Caucasus in 2030: Finland or the Balkans,” Sergey Markedonov argues that however contentious relations are at present, the Russian Federation and Georgia will eventually find their way back to greater cooperation either on the basis of economic requirements or because of a common enemy (www.chaskor.ru/p.php?id=9125).
“At first glance,” he suggests, the possibilities for that direction of development would seem to be precluded by the events of 2008. But serious analysts should “never say never,” all the more so because there are developments right now inside Georgia and around it that could push the two governments to explore a rapprochement.
On the one hand, “despite all the rhetoric …the Russian business presence in post-war Georgia not only has not contracted but has even expanded.” Indeed, Markedonov says, while it is “not too well known,” on the Inguri Hydro-Electric Station project, “Russian and Georgian energy officials have been negotiating, bypassing Sukhumi.”
And on the other, the growing threat of radical Islamism in the Caucasus, not only in the north but also, albeit to “a lesser degree,” in Azerbaijan, could push Georgia and Russia together just as Islamic and Turkic activism at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century pushed some in the Georgian elite to be interested in gaining Russia as an ally.
Those underlying forces will play out, he suggests, even to the point of leading some in a new generation of the Georgian elite after an interval of ten to fifteen years to accept Tbilisi’s loss of control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the basis of a “pragmatic” calculation of Georgia’s own interests.
That won’t happen easily or all at once, Markedonov predicts, but rather through a gradual recognition on the part of the Georgian business and then the political elites that Tbilisi may in fact be able to extract benefits from not having to deal with hostile minorities or having to bear the social welfare costs that both Abkhazia and South Ossetia represent.
If that happens, the Moscow analyst continues, then “we would have a ‘Caucasus Finland,’” by which he says he is referring to the recognition by at least some in Helsinki that the loss of Vyborg to the Soviets was “a lesser evil” to the alternative, an understanding that made Finland “one of the few countries which won during the Cold War.”
Three other Russian analysts provide additional support for what may strike many as Markedonov’s overly optimistic predictions. First, Aleksandr Khramchikhin argues that one development Russians say they most oppose – Georgian membership in NATO – would not only work to Moscow’s benefit but open the door for cooperation.
Russia would almost certainly gain if Georgia became a member of the Western alliance because in exchange for a security guarantee, Georgia would ultimately be told by its Western partners that it could not unilaterally act to recover Abkhazia and South Ossetia and should forget about trying to do so (www.chaskor.ru/p.php?id=8553).
And once the issue of the loss of the two breakaway republics ceased to be at the center of Georgian politics, he implies, then Georgians could focus on a wide variety of other issues, including cooperation with Russia, which would benefit them more than they can imagine at the present time.
Second, Yuliya Petrovskaya suggests that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are going to provide an object lesson to Tbilisi on why it may benefit from their not being Georgia’s responsibility any more. By its moves last year, Russia has acquired “long-term financial, political and military obligations” (http://www.chaskor.ru/p.php?id=9134).
And third, in an article in “Versiya,” Mikhail Yakovlev discusses what he sees as relative likelihood of three mid-term developments for Abkhazia and South Ossetia: pro-Russian independence, annexation by the Russian Federation, or their reorientation toward Europe and the West (versia.ru/articles/2009/aug/10/posledstvija_gruzinskoj_vojny).
The most likely course of development – Yakovlev estimates its probability as 50 percent – is that the two breakaway republics will remain independent but closely tied to Russia. He gives as his reasons the high costs for Moscow of annexation both internationally – the West would object – and domestically – the North Caucasus would be destabilized.
Slightly less likely with a 40 percent probability is that one or the other will nonetheless be annexed. South Ossetia “for a long time has been de facto Russian territory,” but the Abkhazians do not want to be part of Russia, preferring instead “membership in the CIS and a union treaty” modeled on the Russian-Belarusian one.
And least probable – only 10 percent he suggests – would be a reorientation of these states toward Europe and the West, a development less likely than before the war but possible still because of the West’s greater financial capacity and because of its interests in restraining Russian power.
One variant of this last possibility would involved an offer to the Abkhazians and South Ossetians of a UN or EU protectorate involving recognition of their “provisional independence” in exchange for turning away from Moscow, a development that at least some in Tbilisi might find more palatable.
None of these analysts is suggesting that any such change will come quickly or easily, but the fact that some commentators in Moscow are exploring such a possibility indicates that there may be more basis for the start of serious conversations than the heated rhetoric in both capitals might suggest. At the very least, that is something supporters of both countries should explore.