Get involved over Georgia or invite a war

The West could be sleepwalking into a war on the European continent. An article published in the Financial Times

This article was published in the Financial Times, St Petersburg Times and Weekendavisen (Denmark).

The west could be sleepwalking into a war on the European continent. Georgia, which burst into view with a moving display of democratic ambition during the Rose Revolution of 2003, is teetering on the brink of war with Russia over the separatist Georgian enclave of Abkhazia. The outcome of this crisis – involving a fledgling democracy with aspirations to join Nato and the European Union – will help determine the rules of the post-cold-war security system. But western diplomats are not sending strong enough signals to either side.

Moscow seems determined to provoke Tbilisi to take military action that would discredit Georgia in western eyes and kill the country’s aspirations to join Nato. Vladimir Putin used the west’s recognition of Kosovo as a pretext to strengthen his own country’s links with the breakaway republic. One of his last acts as Russian president was to establish “direct official relations” with Abkhaz quasi-state bodies; a move just short of outright diplomatic recognition. In early May, Russia sent an extra 1,000 “peacekeeping” troops to the region, using the cover of a United Nations mandate to change the balance of power in the enclave.

Yet Georgia also is far from perfect. Its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is charismatic, brash and a touch authoritarian. He arouses as much anxiety in European capitals as he does admiration. Mr Saakashvili sees himself as a “father of the nation” and is determined to unify his country. If he is forced to choose between Georgian unity and the west, there is a danger he will be tempted to try a land grab of Abkhazia by force.

But in spite of its president’s mercurial character, Georgia represents the best hope for democracy in the region. The recent presidential and parliamentary elections – which Mr Saakashvili’s party won handsomely – have gone some way to undoing the damage that his 2007 crackdown did to his democratic credentials.

What should the west do? Thus far, US and EU actions have been largely limited to issuing statements calling for restraint – statements that seem to have had little impact on either side. Unconditional western support for Georgia could encourage Tbilisi to take actions that it may regret later. Yet preaching at Tbilisi without providing it with any credible support is not a viable strategy. In fact, the EU’s attempts to avoid entanglement could simply end up strengthening hardliners on both sides.

The west needs to understand that the best way to keep the peace is to get involved, rather than standing on the sidelines. The US and EU need to send a clear signal to both sides. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s new president, must be told that future relations with the west – from visits to co-operation agreements – will be influenced by Russian behaviour towards its neighbours. In particular, western governments should signal that Russia’s policies in the Black Sea region will inevitably affect western attitudes towards the high Moscow priority of the 2014 winter Olympics in the southern Russian resort of Sochi, just across the border from Abkhazia.

On the other hand, Washington and Brussels must also send a message of tough love to Tbilisi, making it clear western support is conditional on Georgian restraint. If Georgia attempted to pursue a land grab, it would end any hope of integration into the west.

Above all, western countries need to get directly involved in building confidence between the two sides. The current peacekeeping and negotiating formats are not working. For years they froze the tensions in Abkhazia, but now they have become pawns of Russian policy. Moscow is using the UN and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe peacekeeping mandates as a fig leaf to legitimise a military build-up. It claims to be a mediator but is de facto a party in the conflict.

In the early 1990s, western countries urged Russia to assume a leading peacekeeping role because they were not willing to put their own forces in. But today these peacekeepers are leading the region closer to conflict. Western countries must be prepared to withdraw those mandates and insist on new missions that are truly neutral and include greater western participation, both civilian and military. Finally, western governments need to help create a real peace process about Abkhazia’s future. The Georgian strategy of publishing peace plans for western consumption is not enough. Georgia must show that it is willing to engage in a real dialogue, without any preconditions, with the Abkhaz -leadership.

The key to a long-term solution will be breaking down the isolation on both sides of the conflict by creating new human and economic ties and the kind of security that will allow people to start returning to their homes.

Ultimately the stakes in this crisis go well beyond the Caucasus. The escalation threatens to make a mockery of the principles on which the west has worked to build a post-cold-war peace – principles that transcended spheres of influence and that gave all countries, big and small and irrespective of their geography, the right peacefully to determine their own future. Moscow agreed to those principles in the 1990s but now, flush with nationalism and petrodollars, it flouts them. The west should not. That is why the situation in Georgia is a litmus test for us.

Ron Asmus is executive director of the transatlantic centre of the German Marshall Fund of the US in Brussels. Mark Leonard is executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations


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


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