Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s September 22 address to the United Nations General Assembly has transformed the terms of international discussion on the post-Soviet “frozen” conflicts. After Saakashvili’s address, hardly any international actors other than Moscow’s ad-hoc supporters could any longer defend Russia’s “peacekeeping” and “mediation” or its prescriptions for political settlement of these conflicts.
Saakashvili’s address has — for the first time in many years at this level — clearly set down the basic parameters for dealing with these conflicts:
1. The conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are “territorial conflicts,” conducted by Russia against Georgia. Saakashvili outlined the process by which “these regions are being annexed” through military force and handover of Russian citizenship to local residents, directly violating international law. This part of Saakashvili’s speech implicitly underscores the long-ignored change in the nature of these conflicts: from local ethnic conflicts (Moscow-orchestrated in the first place) into a Russian assault on Georgia.
2. All ethnic communities suffer in the secessionist enclaves: the Georgians through ethnic cleansing and denial of native-language education, the others through rule by “sponsors of organized crime, fear, and lawlessness. Such suffering must come to an end.” Implicitly but clearly, the grounds for international humanitarian intervention are shown to exist.
3. “Proxies” underscore Russia’s primary role in the conflict. Saakashvili called attention to the heavy arming of Abkhaz and South Ossetian forces by Russia and frequently held joint exercises of secessionist and Russian forces.
4. Russia’s conduct poses a clear case of aggression: “Few examples are more blatant of a state seeking to annex the internationally recognized territory of another state.” Thus, Russia is shown to challenge the foundations of the international system as well.
5. Georgia holds the right of self-defense based on international law: Saakashvili wondered aloud “whether any members in this great hall would tolerate such intervention on their own soil.” Russia, he noted, expects the international community to accept this situation with regard to Georgia. If accepted, then “lawlessness and indifference to it [become] the new rules of the international game.” The ultimate stake transcends Georgia: “There is a vital interest to reject the unraveling of sovereign statehood.”
6. Resolution of these conflicts must be integrated with the agenda for rule of law and democracy: “The residents of our disputed territories are under a form of gangster occupation. The Rose Revolution and democracy in Georgia will remain unfinished until all citizens of Georgia have the right to participate in the life and decisions of the state.”
7. On their track record, Saakashvili noted, “The inherited peacekeeping frameworks and negotiating formats neither promote peace nor encourage any genuine negotiation.…They have served to perpetuate, rather than resolve the conflicts.” In the course of 12 years, Russia’s “peacekeepers” have failed to facilitate the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia. Russian peacekeeping operations have “abused and made a farce of the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and trust.”
8. Georgia calls for international action to “replace and transform the current frameworks for negotiation and peacekeeping in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” It seeks demilitarization of both areas and the deployment of internationally mandated police units, backed by active engagement of the UN, OSCE, and the European Union. Russia’s ‘peacekeeping’ forces “themselves, by their own choice, not by ours, have in effect annulled their own mandate.” The negotiating formats must be reconfigured to focus on “direct dialogue on the ground between Georgians and Abkhaz, Georgians and South Ossetians” as well as opening the prospect of economic rehabilitation: “Why should our citizens be reduced to such miserable economic conditions?”
9. Thus, Georgia serves notice that it intends to exercise “the sovereign right to request the removal of foreign military forces. We make no secret of our intentions to fulfill this sovereign right and solemn duty.” Saakashvili was alluding to plans by the Georgian government and parliament to issue in October an evaluation of more than a decade of Russian “peacekeeping” and, based on that track record, to demand the termination of those operations.
10. The onus for a peaceful resolution rests not only on Georgia, but on the international community as well: “Let no one ever say that Georgia was not clear as to how it would protect its democracy and its State, let no one ever say that we did not seek to do so by peaceful means alone.…All nations that share these values are willing to sacrifice for them.”
In the run-up to the Georgian parliament’s vote, some governments and international organizations that have over the years grown comfortable with the Russia-created status quo were beginning to discourage Georgia from trying to change that situation. Saakashvili’s UN address — a consensus product of Georgia’s presidency, leading parliamentarians, and its government — has rendered those attempts to protect the Russian-made status quo unsustainable from now on.