Tension Over South Ossetia Triggers Policy Debate In Moscow

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 25

Last week’s demonstration of force by the Georgian central government on the administrative border with the breakaway region of South Ossetia sparked a vigorous debate among Russia’s policy-makers, media and the analytic community. At the heart of the ongoing political discussion is the issue of utmost strategic significance– namely, what are Moscow’s true national interests in Georgia and how can they best be defended? There appear to be two main positions that do not seem to be easily reconcilable. Russia’s hawks among the siloviki, government bureaucracy and diplomatic corps argue that unless the Kremlin reacts strongly to Tbilisi’s official reunification policy, Russia will end up losing its strategic positions in the South Caucasus. But Russian politicians with more liberal leanings suggest that the old policies of “divide and rule” are not defensible under the new circumstances. Russian politicians maintain that accommodation with the Saakashvili administration and furthering Russia’s economic interests in Georgia will likely compensate for the perceived geopolitical losses.

Starting with the downfall of Aslan Abashidze, Ajaria’s strongman and a friend to some Moscow leaders, the Georgian central government’s activist policies aimed at establishing full control over the national territory have been rattling wide segments of the Russian political class. A brief deployment of Georgian troops to the regional border with South Ossetia was perceived by some Russian politicians and commentators as yet another sign that Tbilisi regards Moscow as weak and incapable of resolute action. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement warning the Saakashvili government of “serious consequences” was seen by Moscow hawks as too meek a response. They argue that either Moscow will finally show its teeth, or Russia will lose its strategic dominance in the South Caucasus. “Let’s stop duping ourselves,” says one commentary. Saakashvili’s unification policy represents “a well thought out strategy aiming at taking the Caucasus away from Russia.”

The arguments of some experts tellingly betray the strategic thinking of Russian general staff theorists. The Caucasus constitutes one single strategic complex, a number of regional analysts contend. “It is impossible to leave South Ossetia but still remain in North Ossetia. It is impossible to leave Georgia but retain geopolitical influence in the Caucasus,” these analysts argue. Moscow neo-imperialists hold that Russia’s inexplicable passivity gives Saakashvili an edge and strengthens his stance vis-à-vis the renegade provinces. In the opinion of Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Institute for the CIS Studies, Tbilisi pins its main hopes on Moscow’s inactivity. Some nationalist commentators go even further, suggesting that the Georgian central government’s robust policies present a direct challenge to the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to political analyst Vladislav Shurygin, Russia’s toothless reaction to Tbilisi’s efforts to rein in separatists reveals that the Kremlin “has neither any coherent idea of national interest nor a desire to act resolutely and forcefully” (Moskovsky komsomolets, June 2, Vedomosti, June 2, Rossiya, June 3, Zavtra, June 3).

Arguing with their hawkish opponents, representatives of pragmatist and liberal schools of thought reasonably point out that Russia, in fact, has very limited space for maneuvering in dealing with Georgia’s self-styled “independent states.” If Saakashvili himself doesn’t make some grave mistake, leading to an uncontrollable escalation in the separatist enclaves, any attempt by the Kremlin to retain control over South Ossetia or Abkhazia will cause a powerful negative reaction from the international community, they say. In the opinion of some commentators, Moscow’s stubborn desire to preserve its sphere of influence in Georgia in its present form will inevitably lead to the aggravation of tension and further crises. Instead of maintaining the illegitimate status quo, the Kremlin should facilitate smooth and secure integration of breakaway regions into the Georgian legal space, asserts Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the respected foreign policy journal Rossiya v globalnoi politike.

A number of regional experts believe that Russia’s interests will be better served if Moscow reaches accommodation with unified Georgia and exchanges some of its geopolitical influence in the Caucasus country for economic benefits. Some Moscow analysts view the appointment of Russian industrialist Kakha Bendukidze to the post of Georgian economics minister as a sign that some political forces in Russia are ready to swap military-political influence for economic clout. Georgians, they say, have readily welcomed the deal. According to veteran political commentator Vitaly Tretyakov, the Saakashvili administration is keen to help harmonize Russian and American interests in Georgia. Tretyakov suggests that the Saakashvili administration has decided “to entrust the political sphere to Washington and the economic sphere to Moscow” (Gazeta.ru, Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 3).

Is there a chance to bridge the gap between the political philosophy of “entrepreneurial Russia” and that of “military Russia”? Most analysts are skeptical. As one commentator has aptly noted, “In almost all the conflicts on the territory of the former USSR, the warring sides are supported by the opposing groupings within Russia” (Kommersant, June 3).