Georgia: the next Yugoslavia?


A military conflict has broken out in the European Neighbourhood, just across the Black Sea, on the European Union’s eastern frontier. The French Presidency of the Council of the European Union has issued a statement expressing its ‘grave concern’ over the situation, calling on the ‘exercise of the utmost restraint’ and for all parties to ‘immediately lower tensions and avoid any further escalation.’ This sounds remarkably similar to the European response at the beginning of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. Frankly, it is humiliating; a European country is under attack and Europeans are sitting around twiddling their thumbs. At least this time we do not have the Luxembourgious Foreign Minister popping up, as Jacques Poos did back in 1991, declaring—very wrongly—that ‘the hour of Europe’ had come.

Georgia, a small country on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, under the leadership of Mikhail Saakashvili’s relatively moderate, democratic and reformist—that is, pro-European, pro-American—government, was this morning violated by a Russian incursion into South Ossetia, a small province in northern Georgia. For anyone unaware of the history surrounding the conflict, the situation in South Ossetia has been rumbling on for years, often failing to attract much outside attention. South Ossetia unilaterally broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s, when the country gained its independence from Soviet Russia. The aims of the Russian leadership in South Ossetia, under the former communist and wrestler, Eduard Kokoiti, have always been reunification with the former imperial power on the other side of Georgia’s northern border. Up to ninety percent of South Ossetia’s population is Russian, and Moscow has entrenched these loyalties by stoking the flames of Russian nationalism in South Ossetia, not least by granting Russian passports to the vast majority of people in the territory. Russia has also improved the communications links between North Ossetia in Russia and South Ossetia in Georgia.

Worse, Russia has maintained a garrison in South Ossetia in a botched attempt to retain order in the territory after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But with the return of autocracy in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s regime, these Russian ‘peacekeeping’ forces have been used less for their original purpose, and more for Russian geopolitical designs in Georgia and the wider Caucasus. Like the situation in Moldova with Transnistria, South Ossetia has long been considered a ‘frozen conflict’ by European and American observers. But no conflict is ever truly frozen. Rather, while Russian troops and Georgian cautiousness have sought to keep a lid on the Ossetian cauldron, the Kremlin has been quietly encouraging Russian passport holders in South Ossetia to become more confident and pushy vis-à-vis the Georgian government in Tbilisi. Keeping Georgia divided and fragmented keeps it weak and down.

However, the Kremlin is not so much concerned with Georgia proper, but rather its authority in the Caucasus—particularly with regard to energy supplies. Georgia is the only viable corridor for the transit of energy from the Central Asian gas and oil fields to the European Union that excludes the energy passing through Russian territory. As Europeans have been increasingly keen to diversify their supplies since Russia shut off the gas supply to Ukraine in 2006, the Kremlin has tried to actively undermine their efforts. Preventing Georgia from becoming a fully coherent, affluent and stable democracy is part of that plan. The Russians calculate that European leaders will avoid building or extending new transit routes through conflict-ridden countries.

But Russian geostrategy is also motivated by wider concerns, which aim to re-establish Russian dominance across Eurasia. In the 1990s, this began with a statement by Anatoly Chubais, the privatisation minister in Boris Yeltsin’s government, that ‘liberal imperialism should become Russia’s ideology and building up a liberal empire Russia’s mission.’ This empire would include much of the former Russian empire and Soviet Union. In recent years, Vladimir Putin has lamented the defeat of the Soviet Union at the hands of the Europeans and Americans in 1989 as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the twentieth century. And yesterday, the new Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, proclaimed that Russia was compelled to invade Georgia because ‘I must protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are’. Russia’s leaders seem progressively more convinced that they have the legitimacy and right to intervene militarily to protect Russian passport holders in countries on Russia’s borders. The old Roman dictum Civis Romanus Sum—I am a Roman citizen—springs to mind, albeit with ‘Russian’ replacing ‘Roman’.

As readers of my previous articles will know, I have long argued for a robust European approach towards Russia. Given that Russia rejected the olive branch offered by the West after the end of Soviet rule, it is time that the European Union stopped issuing silly ‘statements of grave concern’, and got involved directly and actively in conflicts on its borders, rolling back Russian influence as and when necessary. A European Union intervention force should have been readied and sent to Georgia long before this latest round of fighting broke out, as suggested by Estonia on Tuesday. After all, the European Security Strategy says that preventative engagement is always better than dealing with wars after they have begun. And that President Saakashvili has long requested the deployment of European peacekeeping forces to police his country’s unruly breakaway territories means that the legitimacy and international legality of such an intervention would not be in question. Should Russia respond, Europeans should not only demand that all Russian forces be removed from Georgia, but also remind Moscow that they reserve the right to be the ‘special authority’ in the European Neighbourhood. Indeed, a European ‘Monroe Doctrine’, directed primarily against Russia—but also brutality and wrongdoing on the part of others, like Georgia—in this zone should not be ruled out.

Georgia is not just a far-off country of which we know nothing, but is rather a nation of critical importance to Europeans and the European Union. We should not want it to become another Yugoslavia. Unless Europeans come to the aid of a beleaguered Georgia, Russia will reassert its power—which it is particularly keen to do after the humiliation it suffered over the West’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence in February 2008. And if Russia prevails, it will calculate that Europeans will probably not intervene or get involved in future conflicts, such as those in Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia. After all, Russian passport holders exist in all of those countries too. This impacts on the cohesion of the European Union itself: if Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Poles see a failure on the Union’s part to prevent Russian geopolitical advances, why should they think that their fellow Europeans will come to their aid should Russian power be pressed in their direction?

[Update: 11th August 2008]

Selected articles:

• Svante Cornell, ‘The war that Russia wants’, The Guardian, 8th August 2008.

• Charles Crawford, ‘Georgia’s Not So Virtual Reality’,, 9th August 2008.

• Edward Lucas, ‘How Georgia fell into its enemies’ trap’, The Times, 9th August 2008.

• Presidents of Poland and the Baltic States, ‘Joint Statement on the Georgia-Russia War’, Georgia Daily, 9th August 2008.

• The Professor, ‘More Russian delusions’, Streetwise Professor, 9th August 2008.

• Bronwen Maddox, ‘NATO should press on and give Georgia membership’, The Times, 10th August 2008.

• James Sherr, ‘Russia demands to be regarded as number one’, The Sunday Telegraph, 10th August 2008.

• Andrew Wilson, ‘War in Georgia—the EU needs to step in’, European Council on Foreign Relations, 10th August 2008.

• David Clark, ‘The west can no longer stand idle while the Russian bully wreaks havoc’, The Guardian, 11th August 2008.• Denis MacShane, ‘We must act to resist Russian aggression’, Daily Telegraph, 11th August 2008.

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