In August of 2008, the world’s eyes turned to the small Caucasus country of Georgia. Conflict had broken out in the breakaway territory of South Ossetia on the night of August 7th between the Georgian Armed Forces (GAF) and the South Ossetia Militia, who were backed by Russian peacekeepers and soldiers. After five days of open conflict, the French Presidency of the European Union mediated a ceasefire agreement on August 12th, which was then signed by Georgia on the 15th and Russia on the 16th. An uneasy peace has been in place since this ceasefire.
In its latest blog series, ISIS Europe hopes to draw attention to those countries that once used to be at the center of attention of the media and policy-makers, but that have recently been overshadowed by other topical crises. Although the ceasefire agreement between the two sides still stands, the conflict has never been fully resolved, leading to higher tensions and more difficult relations in the region.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia
Many of the underlying issues from the 2008 conflict can find their roots in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia were autonomous republics operating within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. However, in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union was falling apart, both republics seceded from Georgia and declared independence. War broke out and the two republics gained de facto independence and signed a ceasefire with Georgia. The ceasefire also involved the installation of Russian peacekeepers, as well as Georgia retaining control of portions of both republics. Russia also recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent and supported their claims to legitimate independence.
In November 2003, the peaceful Rose Revolution led to a power transition from the longstanding Soviet Era President Eduard Shevardnadze to a more democratic regime following the election of Mikheil Saakashvili. Following the revolution, the new government pushed for democratic reforms and seemed intent on resolving the secessionist conflicts and seeking NATO and EU membership, further souring relations between Russia and Georgia.
Conflict in 2008 was reignited when the GAF responded to secessionist attacks in South Ossetia. The GAF was able to claim some territory over the next two days, until the Russians assisted the Ossetian forces in a counterattack, eventually taking territory in Georgia proper. Russia also launched an offensive in Abkhazia, taking out some Georgian bases in the West. Russians counteroffensive was immediately deemed an invasion of Georgia by the US and its allies, while the Russians claimed it was a duty of their peacekeeping mission. This increased tensions between NATO and the EU and Russia, but the French presidency was eventual able to mediate the ceasefire agreement that stands to this day.
Leaning to the West
Following the ceasefire agreement, the story has mostly turned to Georgia shying away from its northern neighbor and looking to the west for support pushing for accession to the EU and NATO. Throughout 2013, the European Union and Georgia have been working out the details of an association agreement including a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement; according to the Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the agreements are expected to be signed in the spring of 2014. The Georgians have also stated outright that they have no intention of joining the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. The Georgia’s are mirroring these assertions in the trade sector with the EU accounting for almost 30% of Georgia’s trade and Russia constituting just over 6% in 2012.
Georgia has also been working with NATO to modernize their military and bring it up to the alliance’s standards. This began when Georgia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace in 1994. However, their efforts to join were slow until after the Rose Revolution, when the government began strong campaigns for accession. One domestic campaign included signs and posters reading, “Our Foreign Policy Priority is the Integration into NATO.” Further NATO-Georgia cooperation came about in 2004 with the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), which laid out a diagram for Georgia’s eventual accession. Then, in 2008, NATO foreign ministers decided to enhance their work though the development of an Annual National Programme (ANP), which replaced the IPAP when it was finalized in spring 2009. These steps are all leading to what is considered the last step before accession: the Membership Action Plan (MAP).
Russia still in the mix
Although Saakashvili has gone to great lengths to move Georgia into the West, Russia cannot be ignored. Secessionist issues and their Russian backing still present a huge thorn in the side of the Georgian government. This conflict is no closer to resolution, especially with recent borderization by Russia. In both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian troops have begun to construct border fences in an attempt to further separate the breakaway regions from their former owners. Although the EU Monitoring Mission has reported these as violations to the ceasefire agreement, little has actually been done to stop the fencebuilding operations, which are constructed arbitrarily and sometimes cut towns, and even farms and cemeteries, in half. These breakaway territories still provide a great hindrance to any attempts at Georgia trying to join the West.
The road ahead
For Georgia, the future is anything but clear. On October 27th, Georgians will head to the polls to choose Saakashvili’s predecessor, leaving a large question mark for the country’s foreign policy. Muddying the waters further, Ivanishvili, political opponent to the President, claimed that he will stand down following the election. This leaves many in the Euro-Atlantic region left to wonder whether the new government will continue to pursue a strong European relationship or if it will try to strike a balance between Russia and the West.
Role of the EU
Currently, the EU continues its monitoring mission in the country, as well as providing funding for government reforms. It seems that the EU is still intent on bringing Georgia into the fold and that relations and trade between the two will continue to grow. Moving forward, the EU must do more to ensure that both sides are respecting the ceasefire agreement and work to find a resolution to the secession issues.
In the end, Georgia cannot escape its history with Russia. If it truly wants to join the ranks of the EU and NATO, then it must resume talks with its northern neighbor and work through their problems in a diplomatic setting. However, in these talks, both sides would need to put aside rhetoric and petty politics to come to a real and lasting solution, which is easier said than done.