Western and Russian media assess the controversial legacy of the five-day war between Georgia and Russia in 2008.

South Ossetians evacuate the South Ossetian capital of Tshinvali August 10, 2008. Photo: Reuters

On the fifth anniversary of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia, Russia Direct presents a roundup of reaction from Western and Russian media sources, focusing on their coverage of current Russian-Georgian relations.

While Russian journalists focus on practical diplomatic issues such as the restoration of South Ossetia, corruption in the republic and the implications of this breakaway territory on the future of Russian-Georgian relations, their American counterparts pay more attention to the personality of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his personal impact on the bilateral relations between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Despite these differing approaches, both Russian and foreign journalists express their hope for improvement in the relationship between Russia and Georgia.

Georgia: Extending an olive branch to Russia?

The Voice of America (VOA) radio station looks at the problem of Russian-Georgian relations from the perspective of the key decision-makers in Georgia’s political establishment. According to VOA, the future of the relationship between Tbilisi and Moscow depends on which politicians will be in power.

“On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the war between Russia and Georgia, the prime minister of Georgia extended an olive branch to his giant neighbor to the north,” VOA’s James Brooke wrote in his article published on August 5.

The journalist interviewed Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to know his opinion about the prospects of Russian-Georgian relations.

“There is a nostalgic sentiment in Russia for Georgia and there is a nostalgic sentiment also in Georgia for the Russian people,” Ivanishvili said. “Relations will be restored, and we must do it. I will invest all forces so that relations with our big neighbor will be restored. I think we will be successful.”

Despite Ivanishvili’s statement that he will resign in the near future, VOA implies that he will still be a key decision-maker who may impact the relations between two countries.  

“While Georgia’s prime minister promised to step down in four months, he sounded like a man who planned to remain a political force for years to come,” VOA said.

Meanwhile, according to The Wall Street Journal, Georgia will remain firm in its negotiations with Moscow on the two breakaway republics – Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“Five years after a disastrous conflict with Russia in August 2008, a fifth of Georgia's territory remains occupied, behind barbed wire,” Ivanishvili wrote in his Wall Street Journal column.

Trade with Russia is being allowed to resume as a confidence-building measure, but we remain firm on the return of Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This issue should be handled in compliance with the principles of international law, which will require active engagement from international organizations and from our Western partners.”

Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko.

At the same time he reiterated Tbilisi’s aspiration for the NATO membership, a very tricky issue that might spur further tensions with Russia and complicate the dialogue.

"Georgia has already moved closer to NATO by adopting bold reforms," according to a public statement by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen earlier this month,” the Georgian prime minister wrote.

In his column, Ivanishvili makes no bones about his further attempts to establish closer ties with the West to get protection “for a small country in a very dangerous neighborhood.”

“We need stronger international support so we can continue to realize the aspirations of millions of Georgians, the aspirations that once represented the ideals and hopes of the Rose Revolution,” he wrote.

Unlike Ivanishvili, Hürriyet Daily News, the oldest English-language newspaper in Turkey, is less enthusiastic about the future of Russian-Georgian relations.

“Despite a brutal conflict in the early 1990s that saw the breakaway territory declare independence and set up its own administration, the region was a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages where people on both sides often worked together and intermarried,” it said.

“Now though, five years on from the war, links between the two sides have been almost totally severed and Russian forces continue to build new fences and lay razor wire.”  

The Turkish newspaper also raises eyebrows about the rumored links of Ivanishvili to Russia’s power verticals and business establishment, pointing out the fact that Ivanishvili “made his vast fortune in Russia in the early 1990s.”

Likewise, VOA’s Brookes mention this: “Ivanishvili, who is also Georgia’s richest man, made his fortune in Russia. He spoke Monday at his estate on Georgia’s Black Sea, a park-like compound that is home to his private menagerie of zebras, peacocks and pink flamingoes.”

South Ossetia: Five years on, still no changes

A local resident of South Ossetia fires into the air in front of the South Ossetian state flag, as he celebrates Russia's recognition of South Ossetia as an independent state in Tskhinvali, August 26, 2008. Source: Reuters

Russian journalists tend to focus more on practical diplomatic issues that deal with the everyday necessities of the victims of the Russian-Georgian conflict.

Influential weekly Kommersant-Vlast argues that, although a lot of humanitarian aid flows from the Russian government to South Ossetia, ordinary people don’t seem to be satisfied. They don’t see any significant changes in their cities and still live in ramshackle and destroyed houses because of corruption.

“The citizens of the city [of Tskhinvali] long ago got over the idea that somebody might receive decent dividends from the war,” the weekly said. “And now they frequently remember dishonest officials with irony. …  The South Ossetians understand that the humanitarian aid is not for them it is used for a different purpose so that they will have to spend their winters in ruined houses.”

According to Kommersant-Vlast, the near universal consensus amongst the citizens of Tskhinvali is that the only Russian achievement over the last five years is the opportunity for them to “sleep well and not be afraid of a new war” with Georgia.

The weekly says that, in South Ossetia, Russia is still seen as the state that recognized the breakaway republic’s independence, rooted out the horrors of war and brings more stability and predictability in the region. There are two images of Russia in the mind of South Ossetians: “The one that saved, recognized and helped, the other that brought corrupt officials who benefited from the war,” the weekly wrote. 

Likewise, Russian daily Trud also describes the problems of ordinary citizens in South Ossetia who struggle to make ends meet. Although the authorities have made attempts to restore the region and “half of the houses of Tskhinvali proudly are shining with their new roofs,” the restoration is not in full swing but rather sluggish, the newspaper said. 

“The roads in the capital are in bad shape, so that they look as if their survived a bombing,” it wrote. The newspaper pointed out a range of other infrastructure problems, like the plight of the sewage and water pipe systems, the poor Internet connections, and the absence of urban amenities like movie theaters and asphalt roads.  

At the same time, Trud raises the issue of South Ossetian independence and the possibility of the territory’s accession to Russia’s North Ossetia. “And what should a sovereign country do if it doesn’t even have an economy and 80 percent of its population live relying on the budget of Russia,” it asks rhetorically. 

The five-day war: What is the verdict for Russia and Georgia?

Children play with an empty grenade launcher in a damaged house in the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali September 1, 2008. Photo: Reuters

Meanwhile, five years after the Russian-Georgian conflict, Russia’s official newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta reiterated the consensus opinion of the Russian government, citing Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

“We have to defend the interests of Russia, the life and the health of our citizens on the territory of a foreign country,” he said, referring to the deployment of Russian troops in South Ossetia.

"This is not a war between Russia and Georgia. This is the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, which we had to interfere in to force Georgia to stop killing people whom they view as their citizens and who at the same time were the citizens of Russia. This was an operation to restore the peace.”

Kommersant-Vlast interviewed Georgian Reintegration Minister Paata Zakareishbili who outlined the major challenges Georgia and Russia should tackle to improve their relations. According to him, Russia and Georgia have to restore their diplomatic relations, but this won’t happen until Russia recognizes Georgia’s territorial integrity and returns South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“It’s our defense – it’s like a safety belt,” he said in an interview to Kommersant-Vlast attaching great importance to the improvement of the Russo-Georgian relations. He made it clear that “Georgia is losing a great deal without favorable relations with Russia, yet Russia is losing even more without having [diplomatic] relations with Georgia” because Tbilisi has a lot of political heft in the Caucasus, the most turbulent and problematic region in Russia.

Oleg Kozyrev, a blogger of the Echo Moscow opposition radio station, argues that South Ossetia and Abkhazia fell prey to the collapse of the Soviet Union and became “unhealed wounds of this period.”

He pays tribute to the Russia peacekeepers: “We can criticize Russia for its imperial ambitions and the desire to interfere in post-Soviet conflicts, yet it’s uncertain how many victims in Abkhazia and South Ossetia we would have seen eventually if our troops hadn’t divided the warring parties and received a peacekeeping mandate.”

At the same time, Kozyrev blames Russia for its failure to restore South Ossetia’s economy and its excessive interference in the country’s domestic policies.

“While talking about the independence of their territory, we made them dependent on us,” he argues. He proposes granting independence to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, withdrawing the Russian troops from these republics and stopping the economic and political pressure on them.

Likewise, he rebukes Georgia for its military intervention in South Ossetia.

“These five days are the main verdict for Georgia,” he said. “This is not the best way to fight for [your territory]. This is not the best way to escape from your own land. You don’t so easily surrender what is a part of you. You retreat only if you understand that you are wrong. You can surrender only what is foreign to you and captured.”