EUROPE's FIRST WAR of the 21st CENTURY
     
at CEPS: Views from Tbilisi and Europe (video)
Monday 8 September 2008 at CEPS: 'The August War in Georgia - Views from Tbilisi'. Meeting and debate to explore the issues. See also the CEPS policy brief EUROPE's FIRST WAR of the 21st CENTURY

In spite of all policies, laws, democratic decisions and consultations a war broke out in Europe. ‘Gathering Storm’ again? Some compare the events and open conflict with the years just before WW-II, caused by many enmities and disagreements (some history - map Andersen) and say there is the need of stability pacts. Others say they have no opinion because of absence in knowledge about the history or they let know the skirmish are too far away. Finally there were people talking about the many different important interests (oil pipe-line, Black Sea importance and disunities within Caucasian civil societies). Reaffirmation of the commitment of all the parties to implement in full all the provisions of the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan of 12 August 2008:

1. Withdrawal of forces
2. International observation mechanisms
3. International discussions
.


In the shadow of Ukraine: seven years on from Russian-Georgian war
European Council on Foreign Relaions, commentary Gustav Gressel 06th August, 2015

The war had its roots in long-standing Russia instrumentalisation of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a bargaining chip to influence Georgia's domestic policy. Above all, it was used as a tool to prevent Georgia from further strengthening ties with the West. Yet Russia could not offer the Georgians any viable path for social, political, and economic modernisation. Frustration mounted leading to the 2003 Rose Revolution and the ousting of the regime of Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili, who rose to power after the revolution, tried to achieve two key objectives simultaneously, reunification of South Ossetia and Abkhzia, and the westernization of Georgia.

Domestically, he tried to make the Georgian-controlled part of South Ossetia a showcase for economic and social modernisation (by entrusting Dimitri Sanakoev with the government of the region). He hoped that the successful Georgian modernisation process would lead for Ossetians in Tskhinvali to demand the same sooner or later, opening the path for re-unification. Internationally, he thought his reform course would enjoy Western support.. He was wrong on both fronts. South Ossetia was and is firmly within the iron grasp of the Communist Party of Ossetia, totally dependent on Russian financial aid and Russian security services. Regardless of what the Ossetians might have wanted, South Ossetia was, de-facto, a Russian colony, unable to make its own decisions.

Since 2006, Russia's defence establishment frequently aired the idea that a situation might occur in Georgia that would force Russia to intervene and so Russia was well prepared to intervene. After NATO rejected granting Georgia a military action plan in April 2008, Russian military preparations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia were ramped up: lines of communication were restored, military equipment was pre-positioned and Russian military presence was reinforced. From May of 2008, incidents and skirmishes increased. By mid-July 2008, the Russian 58th Army was conducting manoeuvres in the Northern Caucasus, manoeuvres that were officially supposed to end on 2nd August. But Russian troops remained in the area.

On 7th August, Russian deployment to South Ossetia began. Fatefully, the Georgian leadership attempted to pre-empt further Russian aggression and advanced into Ossetian territory. In doing so, they allowed Russia to claim that Georgian aggression started the war. On the afternoon of the 8th, the Georgian advance came to a halt without advancing to the Roki Tunnel – the vital line of communication from Russia to South Ossetia. On 9th August the Russian Air Force started to strike deep into Georgian territory, while Russian paratroopers and mechanised forces started counterattacks on Georgian positions.

On 10th August the Georgian positions were shattered and Georgian forces expelled from the hills around Tskhinvali. Five Russian motorised rifle regiments, two airborne regiments and units from four different reconnaissance and Special Forces brigades faced off against two Georgian brigades. From here the Russian military offence concentrated on Gori, in the Kura Valley. On the August 10th Western diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire started, putting pressure on Russia. The same day Russian troops opened a second front in Abkhazia, making considerable progress due to the lack of Georgian preparations in the area. On the Ossetian front, Russian troops entered Gori on the 13th, one day after then French President Sarkozy secured both Russian and Georgian signatures on a ceasefire agreement. On August 14th, then US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice visited Georgia. At the time of the visit, Russian troops had advanced about 40km towards Tbilisi and raided the Black Sea port of Poti with light forces.

Georgia had lost the war, but Russia was not able to exploit its military advantages in terms of numbers, geography, air-superiority and heavy equipment, hindered more by the disorganisation of the Russian troops than by Georgian resistance. If Russia had been as quick in 2008 as it was in Crimea in 2014, Tbilisi would have fallen before Western diplomacy could react.

While Russia was not able to resolve the ‘Georgian issue’ in the course of just one weekend, it used the outcome to its own advantage. The territories under Russian control were enlarged. Perhaps most important of all, Russia was left in control of the last geographic obstacles between Tskinvali and the Kura valley, making effective Georgian defence against a renewed assault extremely difficult, if not impossible. After formally recognising the breakaway regions, Russia gradually increased its military presence in both regions, as well as in Armenia. This dire military situation looms large over Georgian politics and is increasingly narrowing the freedom of manoeuvre for Tblisi. By insisting on its own interpretation of the six-point agreement, Russia denies the EU monitoring mission any access to the breakaway regions. After expelling about 15,000 ethnic Georgians from South Ossetia, Russia controls the region more tightly than ever.

Europe and the west drew very few lessons from the conflict. Saakashvili's mistake in participating in the Russian policy of escalation served as a major fig-leave for the west to restore “business as usual” policy with Russia. The very limited Russian information operation were effective in influencing Western (particularly German) public opinion, which soon tilted towards the Russian version of the events. Lines of Russian disinformation even penetrated the EU's own final report, which overplayed the significance of US support and military assistance to Georgia. Russia learned its lessons, however, its information operations were dramatically increased for the 2014 campaign in Ukraine, albeit with much less effectiveness than in 2008.

In order not to repeat the Georgian experience Western governments advised Ukraine to not put up meaningful military resistance against Russian moves in Crimea (although at the time Ukraine the dire state of her armed forces gave her few options). But restraint in Crimea only meant that Russia started another war in the Donbas. As in Georgia, Russia used its own interpretation of the ceasefire agreement to create facts on the ground to its own advantage. In both conflicts, the West simply did not know how to equalise Russian escalation dominance.

Ukraine is, compared to Georgia, much more capable militarily. Further Russian military advances would not remove Ukraine from the political map of Europe – at least not quickly. But that's not necessarily true for Georgia. With Russian troops having increased their capabilities and operational tempo significantly after 2008, a renewed Russian-Georgian war would probably be fatal for Georgia. In both countries, the West has no clear concept of how to deal with the respective, long-term EU and NATO membership aspirations of these countries. While after Georgia the West became cautious not to be caught up in regional military struggles, both conflicts show that refraining from meaningful support will be interpreted as an opportunity to escalate in Moscow. Short of formal EU membership, the association agreements provide some framework for developing closer relations between the EU, Georgia and Ukraine respectively. But in the dimension of hard security, European foreign policy has a void that Russia knows to exploit skilfully.

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Every year the Georgian Foreign Ministry makes a statement on the anniversary of the 2008 August War. ' Russian troops made an incursion into Georgia's sovereign territory and, in flagrant violation of universally recognized norms and principles of international law, carried out direct military aggression against Georgia. On the 12th of August 2008, a six-point ceasefire agreement was signed. The Russian Federation, however, continues to flout its obligation to withdraw its forces to their pre-war positions as set out in this Agreement'.

The 2012 elections in Georgia have led to a change of power which the Western-oriented party of President Saakashvili diametrically opposed to the currently reigning Russian oriented party of Prime Ivanishvili. In various policy a dialogue has started, but a consensus on the domestic direction remains off with negative implications for the international credibility of the country.

A change of government is never an easy task and is rarely smooth. This certainly applies to Georgia where the 2012 national elections were identified as free and fair by international observers. The ruling party of President Saakashvili was replaced by a new coalition of parties, Georgian Dream (GD), led by the new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. For many watchers from home and abroad that came as a big surprise.

Changing of the power monopoly
Ivanishvili has played a major role in breaking the power of the United National Movement (UNM) of Saakashvili. The multi-billionaire - and richest person in Georgia - knew to bring the opposition a flag and moreover, he had sufficient means to finance a decent campaign. In the election campaign, he could conveniently anticipate the (social) unrest in the country and the protests against the way the UNM hitherto exercised power. Who that time was not affiliated with the ruling party had difficulties. It is unfortunately not uncommon in countries like Georgia that the party that controls the government is trying to establish a monopoly of power, leaving little room for the opposition. The GD coalition threatens to succumb to this temptation too. The UNM already complaining about the fact that its members are put under pressure and that some former government officials are unjustly persecuted. It is too early to assess whether the fear of the current opposition party UNM is justified, but only watchfulness looks at her place, even on the part of the international community.

It is unwise to thereby immediately take sides. Ivanishvili had to answer a few complaints from the ranks of the European Parliament stated in its response that he was walking a thin line balancing: one demands its followers righteousness, but on the other hand, he wants not a hunt for the former rulers. Hopefully he can maintain this balancing act. When the cord breaks Georgia can end up in the same situation as Ukraine, where the EU is extremely concerned about the quality of law. That would be the talks between Georgia and the EU on an Association Agreement and a Deep Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement into question.

Constitution as power
Another important point is the internal conflict constitution. Under the previous government of Saakashvili has changed dramaically so that in the future the most power in the Prime Minister will lie and therefore the parliament. The UNM trusted that again would achieve a majority in parliament and so without Saakashvili as president - not re-elected in the presidential elections of October 2013 - the power could maintain. That plan failed.

The changes in the constitution go into effect in the autumn. Until then, the current UNM President Saakashvili has considerable power resources such as the power of the government to appoint or to dissolve parliament. The latter means of power is used in discussions with the Government of Ivanishvili a form of cohabitation between the ruling party and the opposition Georgian Dream of the United National Movement. GD obviously wants to change the Constitution enters into force earlier. The negotiating demands the UNM amnesty in return for certain power violations of the past and a clear pro-EU and pro-NATO arrangement of the GD government.

Russia, Europe and NATO
The hard requirement for this Western orientation in foreign policy is dictated by the arrangement of Ivanishvili more friendly towards Russia, which suspiciously at being watched by the outside world. The Prime Minister is committed to a partial restoration of relations with the great Northern neighbor. The UNM contrast even demanded that the pursuit of integration into Euro-Atlantic structures in the Constitution should be recorded. This is no majority. GD was still sensitive to the criticism and decided together with the UNM a parliament resolution to which no doubt is left to the pro-European and pro-Atlantic orientation of Georgia. In the agreed international strategy is the highest priority to the search for joining the EU and NATO membership.

A majority of the parliament wants normalization of relations with Russia, but the diplomatic relations can only be restored when Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia undo. Also, Georgia no alliances with other countries that have recognized the two separatist republics. In practice this means that a full restoration of relations with Russia is impossible and that Georgia will not join the Eurasian Union, the customs union formed by Russia, or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the regional security.

Lack of consensus
The parliamentary resolution on the strategic direction of foreign policy is a remarkable document given the difficult balance of power between the GD and the UNM. Also in some other areas (minorities, gender, party funding) has started a dialogue. However, consensus on domestic politics, a discussion about a better distribution of power between the ruling coalition and the opposition, and a vision for the future of the country lacking.
The intentions of the foreign resolution will ultimately vain, as Georgia domestically as yet knows no rate determining. It will then neither the EU nor NATO a serious partner.

Brief resonance by Feeling EUROPE:
PEOPLE, POLITICS and the AUGUST WAR in the CAUCASUS – CAN RELATIONSHIPS BE RECOVERED?