August 2013 marks the fifth anniversary of the war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. Yet the national conversation surrounding the issue is dominated by electioneering, writes Levan Kakhishvili.
Five years ago, the Georgian government tried to regain control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, leading to a severe reaction from Russia. A tank column forced a Georgian retreat, but much-feared plans to take Tbilisi were either non-existent or postponed. Although Russian airplanes continued to bomb modern and Soviet-era military facilities all over Georgia, the actual war lasted for just five days.
Five years later, narratives of the war are controversial. There is little agreement on whether the war could have been avoided, or who started it. However, these narratives are so important for the Georgian public that they have almost emerged as a political cleavage. This was especially prevalent prior to the 2012 parliamentary elections, which was won by opposition coalition, Georgian Dream. President Saakashvili has fiercely criticised the coalition’s policy of normalising relations with Russia, arguing that diplomatic resources had been exhausted in efforts to resolve controversies between the two countries.
Now, with presidential elections in October, Saakashvili’s party is trying to play on the issue. Perhaps this was the purpose of the two interviews aired recently by Rustavi 2 – the television station that played a key role in the success of the Rose Revolution of 2003 and the installation of Saakashvili’s government.
The Russian Narrative
First was Dmitri Medvedev, current Prime Minister of Russia and the country’s President at the time of the war. Medvedev discussed two interrelated topics – the war and the integration. He claimed the war was unavoidable and explained its origins in terms of Georgia’s unreasonable policy towards its breakaway regions – manifested in the absence of direct talks between Tbilisi and Sokhumi or Tskhinvali.
Medvedev maintains that the problems that exist are between Georgia and two independent republics, not between Russia and a Georgia that incorporates these two regions. He maintained that NATO could not bring any good for Georgia or Russia. Instead, Georgia should consider the prospects of cooperation with Russia and join the Eurasian Union.
This is perhaps too much of a compromise for Georgia. Medvedev’s statements were perceived as a threat and a sign that nothing can make Russia reconsider its decision on recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This for some (including President Saakashvili) is an indication why Georgia should not even try to talk to Russia.
An interview with Saakashvili the next day was more of a monologue. Assisted by the TV station and its journalists, the Georgian President tried to victimise his government and discredit the current government’s policy. The journalist asked a few questions and let the President detail communication between him and the Putin-Medvedev duo. Saakashvili also claimed war was unavoidable but blamed Russia’s plans for the war, using the metaphor of a wolf and lamb to imply the feebleness of Georgia in the face of a ‘predator’.
Saakashvili said Russia asks for three compromises: recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence; a commitment not to join NATO; and to join instead the Eurasian Union. Only after Georgia has fulfilled these conditions will Russia apparently be willing to talk to its government, making the possibility of direct negotiations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia practically non-existent for Georgia’s government. According to Saakashvili, therefore, dialogue with Russia is in vain and his promise not to join NATO a fruitless attempt to defend Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The war therefore remains an impediment to establishing full relations with Russia, and one of the key ways of differentiating the main Georgian political parties. Since both parties are for democratic consolidation, freedom of the media, judicial independence, and so on, Saakashvili is banking on foreign policy as the determining factor.
For his part, Ivanishvili “took Medvedev’s advice into account” and expressed readiness “for direct dialogue with our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers.” Symbolically, Ivanishvili spoke while greeting new recruits. The Prime Minister also said that the government is ready to admit mistakes and take “its own share of the blame”, as described in the 2009 EU report into the causes of the war. Nonetheless, he also criticised Russia: “Unfortunately, we cannot find an explanation to the fact of the barbwire further into the territory of our country.”
It is unclear if Ivanishvili’s speech was a repetition of Medvedev’s narrative or a response to Saakashvili before the elections. Most importantly, perhaps, there is no evidence so far that his speech will be followed by any tangible initiatives. Medvedev is right to say that Tbilisi has not been able to find a common language with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali. In fact, there has been little effort in this regard. Direct contact with Abkhazians and South Ossetians at all levels should, perhaps, be a priority for Georgia. Only direct peaceful negotiations can show the way out of the current situations.
In the end, there are two conclusions to be drawn from all this.
First, the August war still divides Georgian public and foreign policy issues in Georgia are emerging as a social cleavage. Second, for Saakashvili, Georgia’s problems cannot be solved with Russia. Ivanishvili, on the other hand, hopes to solve problems through negotiations. In the circumstances, it is more reasonable for Tbilisi to talk to Sokhumi and Tskhinvali than to wait for a Russian collapse.