Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks during the European Union-Russia informal summit in Lahti, Finland, on October 20 underscored some major theses — often confusing to the West — behind Russia’s policy toward Georgia and the frozen conflicts. The summit was held against the backdrop of Russia’s economic and political assault on Georgia, coupled with a Kremlin push to obtain Western acceptance of its precepts regarding those conflicts.
During the conclave itself and the ensuing news conference, Putin laid out four theses (Kremlin.ru, NTV Mir, Interfax, October 20):
1) Russia is not to be regarded as a party to the secessionist conflicts in Georgia: “This is not a matter of relations between Georgia and Russia. It is a matter between Georgia [and] Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Yet, at the same time,
2) “As soon as a different kind of relations between Georgia [and] Abkhazia and South Ossetia are developed, the Russia-Georgia relationship will also be normalized.”
The first of these assertions enables Moscow to disclaim responsibility for conducting the conflicts and to hide behind its proxies in stonewalling the political settlements. In this respect, the UN Security Council’s October 13 resolution, emphatically referring to Georgia and Abkhazia as “the sides” to that conflict and blessing Russia’s “peacekeeping,” has accepted Moscow’s pretense at innocence and evenhandedness and has strengthened its manipulative leverage.
The second of Putin’s assertions, seemingly contradicting the first, reinserts the secessionist conflicts into Russia-Georgia relations, indeed at the center of those relations; but only to shift to Georgia the onus of “normalizing” the relations. Moscow’s recent war-scare propaganda has reinforced an already existing tendency in Western diplomacy to focus on “restraining” Georgia and ignore Russia’s de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in hopes of “improving” Russia-Georgia relations.
3) The “common state” continues to be a paradigm in Moscow for resolving these conflicts. According to Putin, “Extremely difficult relations have formed between these peoples. What we need is patience. We need carefully to try to restore [their] confidence toward one another and build up a common state. This is what we are calling for, this is what we want.”
Originally proposed to Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan in 1997 by Yevgeny Primakov, then Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, the “common state” solution envisaged a loose association of the rump state with the secessionist territory, under Russian arbitration and “guarantees” by treaty. The main goal was to enable Russia’s protégés and Moscow itself to influence those countries’ political systems and strategic decisions from within, under the guise of implementing federal-type arrangements in a “common state.” Mainly for that reason, Russia never stood unambiguously for full and final separation of its protégés from the state from which they were seceding. Moscow preferred to negotiate their re-entry into that state on terms that would leave the state dysfunctional and Russia in control.
4) According to Putin, “Everyone says that if Russia wanted it, the [conflicts] could be resolved tomorrow. Russia will not assume such a responsibility. This is, above all, the responsibility of the peoples and their representatives. They must agree among themselves and find a compromise” (RIA-Novosti, October 20). “Don’t try to blame us for what by definition we cannot do, as we have quite a few frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space. … We should not be tasked with something that is not our job to do in the first place” (Kremlin.ru, October 20).
With this, Moscow rejects the widespread notion that it holds the key” to resolution of the conflicts. While disclaiming responsibility for the settlement of conflicts, however, Russia equally insists on retaining full control of the “peacekeeping” operations and negotiating formats. And, using those instruments, Moscow encourages its protégés to remain intransigent. Thus, the disclaimer of responsibility is one aspect of Moscow’s policy to prolong the conflicts indefinitely.
Putin boldly misrepresented the background to the conflicts in Georgia at the EU summit. He evidently capitalized on Western leaders’ inadequate information on the subject, and turned sarcastic when Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis corrected some of Putin’s assertions. He provided misleading figures on the populations, charged Georgia with perpetrating “genocide” on South Ossetians, passed in silence over the Russia-orchestrated eviction of Georgians from Abkhazia, and without substantiation he accused Tbilisi of intending to settle the conflicts by military force — a tactic that seemed to preempt any discussion of Russia’s ongoing de facto incorporation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In Tbilisi, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gela Bezhuashvili described Putin’s claims as “directly insulting the intelligence of his European colleagues.” Georgia intends to persist with holding a bilateral dialogue with Moscow but is calling on the West to — in Bezhuashvili’s words — “not leave us alone” (Civil Georgia, October 21). President Mikheil Saakashvili has announced that he is prepared to hold talks with Putin again in Russia at any time. Initiating such dialogue can only increase the persuasiveness of Georgia’s calls for transformation of Russian “peacekeeping” operations without further delays.