Five years after the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, what has really changed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Russian soldiers sit on top of an APC (armored personel carrier) as they travel towards the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, at the South Ossetian settlement Dzhaba, August 9, 2008. Photo: Reuters

From the outset in the early 1990s, the conflict settlement on Georgia's breakaway territories - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - went through difficult periods. The settlement was based on a broad international effort with the UN and the OSCE actively involved as facilitators and with Russia cooperating as a partner. The war which broke out between Georgia and Russia in August 2008 changed this pattern dramatically.

For Georgia, this war ended with a disaster in military as well as in political terms. Abandoning its former role as a mediator, Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, thus becoming the key guarantor for their security. At Russia's insistence, the conflict settlement mandates for the UN and the OSCE were discontinued.

Peace processes for the breakaway territories which had, under enormous difficulties, been built up for many years broke down completely. The only instrument of conflict management remaining are the Geneva peace talks which, in 24 sessions since the end of the war, have not been able to produce tangible results.

Given this background, what is the current outlook for Abkhaz and South Ossetian statehood?

At this point in time, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are unable to sustain themselves economically.  Russia is contributing by far the largest part of their budgets. As for the international arena, both states are virtually isolated with only Russia, Venezuela and Nicaragua recognizing them. Even close Russian allies like Belarus have refrained from recognition.

At the same time, the residents of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia face the dilemma of being drawn into an assimilation process which might leave little of their national identity. South Ossetian President Leonid Tibilov must have had this in mind when, at a recent press conference, he speculated publicly on possibilities for South Ossetia to join the  Republic of North Ossetia, which is part of the Russian Federation. However, this is an option which could have serious adverse repercussions on the situation in CIS states.

Meanwhile, the independence option for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while accommodating Russia's immediate security interests, may turn out to be a somewhat risky experiment for the larger Caucasus context and at home. This is valid, first of all, for the North Caucasus, a prime  crisis region in the Russian Federation. How will Chechens, Ingushets or Kabardinians, to mention only these, react to it? Will it not raise their own appetite for independence aspirations?

And, turning to the domestic Russian dimension: considering the enormous expenses which Russia has to take on for the security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states (there are estimates in the range of 700 million to 1 billion U.S. dollars per year) what will eventually be the reaction in the Russian public to these expenditures?  An open debate on this issue is outstanding until this day. But it is bound to come.

As for Georgia, there is a saying that stability in the Caucasus cannot be achieved without its active involvement. It may well be argued that Georgia's conflict settlement policy under President Saakashvili was one-sided in that it antagonized Russia and essentially wagered on support by the U.S. in the first place and the EU in the second – and all this without forecasting substantial contributions of its own.

Saakashvili's policy, certainly, was also unimaginative and inefficient in another important respect: It did not address the core problem of confidence-building and reconciliation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were forced to go to war three times with the Georgians, leaving their populations in a state of shock and trauma.

However, these shortcomings, grave as they may be, cannot justify to keep Georgia completely out of any peace arrangement, as  happened after August 2008 with Russia's unilateral recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence.

There is also a new dynamism in Georgia’s domestic politics and signs that the Georgian government may wish to cast a fresh look on some aspects of conflict settlement, including restoration of bilateral relations with Russia. For Russia, the question is whether long-run stability in the Caucasus may not more effectively be achieved with Georgia as a partner than as an adversary.

Finally, there is one more aspect which deserves to be considered when talking about Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the context of U.S.-Russian relations, Georgia has increasingly (and particularly after August 2008) developed into a stumbling block, obstructing agreement on a number of key international issues - in Iran, Syria and the Middle East as a whole. A removal of this roadblock seems highly desirable.

There is certainly a shared interest in the stability of the Caucasus region as a whole; however, on the other hand, there is also a feeling that Russia's one-sided action to safeguard its national security interests regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia is in contradiction to some basic rules of fair political partnership. The issue of the conflicts in Georgia may come up again in this context, despite a couple of warning signals that have already been sent.

By no means should a political settlement process be formulated at the expense of legitimate concerns which Abkhazia and South Ossetia entertain regarding their future relationship with Georgia. Concepts for a political settlement based on far-reaching autonomy for them have long ago been worked out. The time may come to readdress these concepts in a meaningful way.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.