A year after the Russo-Georgian war, the world looks the same even if the Caucasus are changed forever

Last year, many saw in the Russo-Georgian War signs of a new international order. But it is only the Caucasus that look different


A year after the Russo-Georgian War, not much has changed in the world. But the Caucasus look very different. That makes the Georgians — including in the break-away territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — the ultimate losers of the conflict.

When Russian tanks rolled into Tskhinvali, many analysts thought it was a pivotal moment. Breathless commentary proclaimed “the end of the 1990s”, the termination of that supposedly peaceful, post-Cold War period that had seen a network of treaties and deals replace the Realpolitik of an earlier era. Russia, which for years under Vladimir Putin’s leadership had been bristling at NATO’s expansion, showed it was willing to use not only harsh rhetoric but hard power. NATO and the European Union, in turn, declared that there could be no business as usual with the Moscow leadership and suspended their cooperation.

But a year on, East-West relations look remarkably similar to how they appeared the night before the guns sounded. NATO and the EU have restored links with Moscow, lead by Barack Obama’s drive to “reset” relations. During the US president’s Moscow visit, the US and Russia signed seven different agreements. One, an agreement further reduce nuclear stockpiles, is the ultimate 1990s-type of issue.

The newly-installed NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, even told reporters at his inaugural press conference that he thought NATO and Russia could have a “strategic partnership”. With NATO allies such as Germany and Bulgaria so closely tied to Russia, and Italy keen to preserve its links with Moscow, it could hardly be different. 

Though the Putin-Medvedev administration continues to huff and puff – partly for domestic consumption – there has been no signs that Russia thinks it can use military power against NATO’s eastern European allies. It is happy to challenge these former Warsaw Pact countries in other ways, would probably consider using military force to keep Ukraine and certainly Crimea out NATO and is weary of deals signed when it was weak. But in this there is nothing new.

The EU, too, seems to have rebounded from a bad war. It was powerless to stop Russia’s onslaught and divided both over the causes of the conflict and who to blame. But following Nicolas Sarkozy’s hyper-diplomacy the twenty-seven member bloc manage to push through a ceasefire and deploy 300-some monitor to monitor the agreement. Though the EU as a whole still has no coherent Georgia policy, its monitors have helped stabilise the situation.

If international politics remain largely unaffected, things are very different in the Caucasus today than they were a year ago. There, the looser have been the Georgians. Not only in Georgia proper, but all Georgians including those living in the “make-belief states” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, seemed like the winner. Omnipresent on in the world’ media, the US-educated Georgian leader was seen to have won the propaganda battle. Big bad Russia against plucky little Georgia. But in the end, President Shakashvili lost two much bigger prizes: the territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; and the backing of his friends. For Tblisi’s foolhardy provocation of Russia showed even Georgia’s staunchest allies inside the North Atlantic alliance that the country has a long way to go before it meets even basic NATO standards. The failure to undertake a cross-party investigation into the war, on the model of the Agranat Commission that investigated the Israeli government’s actions during the Yom Kippur War, shows that democracy in Georgia needs time to mature. The result has been to set back prospects for Georgia’s NATO membership for at least a decade if not forever.

Even worse hit are the South Ossetians and the Abkhazis.  Following the conflict, the two territories have been forced to trade de facto independence for a real dependence on Russia. As Nicu Popescu writes: “The paradox is that until August 2008 Abkhazia and South Ossetia were unrecognised, but de facto independent; after August 2008 they became partly recognized, but not de facto independent anymore.” In time, they may even be absorbed into Russia proper.

South Ossetians do not seem to mind, at least for now, but the Abkhaz appear concerned. Though mini-states like Montenegro and Kosovo have defied hitherto held ideas of what viable states look like, Abkhazia, with its Black Sea coast, arable land, and indigenous leadership, is a credible candidate for statehood. South Ossetia, on the other hand, has few of the economic or topographical trappings associated with statehood. Its leadership has largely been transplanted form Russia.

According to an old Indian saying, when elephants fight the grass often gets trampled — but when elephants make love, the grass gets trampled too. The Cold War-style tensions that preceded last year’s conflict were bad for Tblisi, caught as it were between the US and Russia. But now that these two powers have begun courting each other again, things may not look any better for Georgia. When you are grass, it is probably best just to hope the elephants will go somewhere else. The worst you can do is to entice them to come over.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.