Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Sofia, Bulgaria, October 7, 2010

 I was asked to speak on problems in the Caucasus at the New Political Forum organized by the Gorbachev Foundation in Sofia.  Although I am by no means an expert on the Caucasus, I tried to apply our experience in ending the Cold War to the present situation.  Here is a summary of my observations:

 At present, though most fighting has stopped, the peace is tenuous in the Caucasus and many questions loom over the future. It is clear that the area has not benefited from the end of the Cold War. Neither Georgia nor the areas that have declared their independence have been able to turn independence into peace and progress for their people. Russian interests in the area have suffered, with insurgency continuing in the North Caucasus and a deep sense of grievance on the part of Georgians. Russia needs a stable and friendly South Caucasus if it is to solve its continuing problems on its side of that border.

 When I was asked by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 to fashion a negotiation plan to end the arms race with the Soviet Union, the Cold War was at its height. But in less than five years the spirit of confrontation engendered by the Cold War was over and the Cold War ended within months.

 How did this happen? When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader, both countries changed their manner of dealing with each other. In particular, they kept in contact regardless of the tensions and crises that occurred; they treated each other with respect; they rejected resort to violence not only against each other but also to settle problems at home; they avoided any subversive activity against the other; they negotiated on specific problems and arrangements rather than arguing about abstractions.

 None of the parties to the conflicts in the South Caucasus have heeded the lessons they might have learned if they had been more attentive to the way the Cold War ended—and made possible the developments that led to Georgia’s independence.  The result is a situation that can produce more violence in the future if it is not corrected.

 Is there any way for the region to move away from the hatred and violence that infects it today? Given the policies and attitudes of both the Russian and Georgian governments, the prospects are slim.  Certainly, peace and stability is not likely to descend upon the region unless there is a radical change in attitudes on the part of all the leaders of both Georgia and Russia. I would suggest that changes that must occur if there is to be peace and economic development include the following:

  1.  Georgia must recognize, both as a matter of policy and practice, that it cannot regain sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia by military force. 
  2.   NATO members should make clear that, while the possibility of membership in the alliance remains open to further countries, those that have not solved territorial problems in internal governance will not be accepted. (In other words, Georgia cannot aspire to future membership in NATO as a means of bringing Abkhazia and South Ossetia to heel, but must settle those issues before it qualifies for NATO membership.)  
  3. Russia must recognize that it is not in its interest to continue to treat Georgia as an enemy or a vassal state.  
  4. Refusal to deal with the leader of the other state serves the interest of neither.  
  5. The international community can assist by seeking innovative solutions to the issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity.  It has not yet developed a consistent approach to dealing with “second-order sovereignties,” that is, autonomous areas. Though a “right” of self-determination receives a measure of lip service, there are no clear criteria to determine under what conditions and by whom that right can be exercised. NATO members followed one principle (ignoring others) in the case of Kosovo and Serbia, but are pursuing a different logic in their policies regarding Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence. 
  6. Full economic ties should be restored between Georgia and Russia and normal travel of people be allowed.  
  7. The international community should insist that the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, if they desire further international recognition, make provision for the peaceful return of ethnic Georgians to their homes and for their protection.  
  8. Georgia could facilitate the process of reconciliation—which obviously with take time—by refraining from threats, by developing its economy, and by making credible proposals for power sharing and shared sovereignty over the two areas.  There are precedents in Europe, including Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino and other quasi-independent ministates. Variations should also be considered, and this thought is also relevant in regard to Nagorny Karabakh and Trans-Dniestr. 
  9. Russia should recognize that the current situation cannot be sustained indefinitely without damage to Russia’s security and other important national interests. If the South Caucasus remains full of unresolved ethnic disputes, these will inevitably make it more difficult to secure Russia’s border in the Caucasus and to put an end to the terrorist threat that still exists in the area. Attempting to control people by military force creates a liability rather than an asset. 

Given current passions in Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, these recommendations doubtless seem impractical, even utopian. But when Gorbachev and Reagan talked of eliminating whole classes of nuclear weapons and of reducing strategic arsenals by half, that was considered utopian by the majority of specialists. In 1983 few could conceive that the Cold War would be essentially over in half a decade. But all this in fact happened. Attitudes do change and passions, at times, can be made to yield to rationality.  Members of NATO and the European Union can assist a transformation of attitudes by making these simple propositions clear to all the parties in the Russian-Georgian imbroglio.

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