Today it is possible to say that the events in Georgia in August 2008 challenged the world — by demonstrating that the state boundaries drawn on the borders of the former Soviet Union could not stand and that the process of carving up the Soviet state had not ended.
Georgia's President Georgy Margvelashvili, second from right, takes part in a wreath laying ceremony to commemorate Georgian soldiers killed during the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict at the memorial cemetery in Tbilisi, August 8, 2016. Photo: AP
Aug. 8 marked eight years since the beginning of the Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia. Today, the anniversary still attracts the attention of active politicians, experts, and journalists, but enough time has passed that it is possible to take a more objective look at the events of those late summer days in 2008.
American political scientist and diplomat Ronald Asmus called his 2010 book about the events A Little War that Shook the World. Indeed, the Five-Day War broke the old geopolitical status quo.
For the first time since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, some of the former autonomous Soviet regions of post-Soviet countries won recognition as independent states. Russia changed its status from that of mediator and peacekeeper to a promoter of self-determination in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while Georgia, for its part, hardened its resolve to become part of the North Atlantic and European communities.
As a result of these positions, two parallel political-legal realities arose: South Ossetia and Abkhazia, former autonomous regions of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, exist both as independent, semi-recognized states and Russian-occupied territories of Georgia. No attempts are being made to change the situation using military force. Russia’s presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia grows, as does the influence of the United States and the EU in Georgia, paradoxically cementing the order that was established in 2008.
However it should be recognized that this situation is only possible because Abkhazia and South Ossetia left the Georgian political-legal, educational, and information space long before 2008. The territories had existed as non-recognized entities since the early 1990s. The Five-Day War only enhanced the formal aspect of the problem. And today, as it did before 2008, Tbilisi today considers the two partially recognized republics as integral parts of its territorial integrity and Moscow as the main instigator of “aggressive separatism.”
Within the multitude of analytical comments written about the events of eight years ago, three main lines of discussion can be easily identified. First is the question of which side shot first, which is still hotly debated all these years later. Secondly, discussion also continues as to the personal responsibility of the leaders of Russia and Georgia. Finally, there is a more recent slate of comments that attempt to consider the events of the Five-Day War as a prelude to Russia’s 2014 absorption of Crimea.
Regarding the first two topics, debates about the “bad guys” and “victims of aggression” obscure the understanding of the broader political processes that led to the Five-Day War, which was not a unique event caused by the personal malice of the leaders of Georgia and Russia. The time is long overdue to stop interpreting that complex event as being caused exclusively by the “great personal enmity” between Russian President and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and then-Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.
Also read Russia Direct's report: "Frozen Conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space"
Even if there was hostility between the leaders, it is certainly irrelevant now. In the 2010s, Saakashvili left Tbilisi to start a political career in Ukraine, leaving his successors in the Georgian Dream coalition to continue with the line of integration with NATO and the EU. The successors, for their part, have proclaimed normalization of the country’s relations with Russia as an essential prerequisite for moving towards the West.
Regarding the third line of analysis, In the words of Cory Welt, an expert at George Washington University, “if we view the 2008 war as prelude to the annexation of Crimea and the generally far more destructive conflict in Ukraine, we would have to conclude that the war imposed the greater geopolitical cost U.S. officials feared at the time — costs that for years remained underappreciated.”
Welt is right to look at the Five-Day War in a bigger context. The questions being asked today should not be why the Georgian and Russian leaders were unable to reach an agreement in 2008, but why generally presidents, prime ministers and opposition leaders in post-Soviet societies today lack the willingness to seek a compromise even after a victory has been won.
To answer those questions, it is necessary to look again at the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The departure from “real socialism” in the vast territory of the former U.S.S.R. was not a transition from authoritarianism to democracy – rather, it was the formation of nation states on the ruins of a great quasi-federalist whole. To reach democratization, decisions had to be made as to where the boundaries of “our state” lay, what exactly “our state” was, and who exactly could consider it as their own.
The new states of Eurasia began solving at the end of the 20th century the same problems Central and Eastern Europe faced half a century earlier. That is why it is necessary to assess the extremities of the ethno-political conflicts in the post-Soviet space not in terms of the “Spanish-Portuguese-Greek democratic transition” of 1974–1981 but in terms of the ethno-territorial disputes during the period between the two world wars — the conflicts over the Sudetenland (between Germany and Czechoslovakia) as well as over the Memel territory (between Germany and Lithuania).
In December 1991, a state occupying one sixth of the world’s land mass disappeared from the map, but the process of disintegration of the Soviet sovereignty had only begun. The new independent republics had yet to prove that their boundaries, drawn by the Soviet commissars, were not fictitious but real, and their sovereignties (which were defined in the times of the U.S.S.R.) could be regarded as their own by the multiple ethnic minorities who resided in them. As the process of ethno-national self-determination of the former Soviet constituent republics began, only naïve idealists could have believed that the process would be restricted to the republics without affecting the autonomous entities.
In the early 1990s, the first wave of conflicts that would serve as tools for forming new political identities took place when those who disagreed with the division of the Soviet Union into states along the borders of the former republics put forth their own vision of how the process of forming nation states in Eurasia should go. That was followed by the “freezing” of the conflicts, which did not put an end to either the revanchist sentiments or the desire for independence.
As a consequence, the conflicts started “thawing,” with attempts made to achieve a different result. That was the case in Chechnya in 1999–2000. It was the same way in Georgia after 2004, and eventually this thaw led to the events of August 2008. However the Georgian authorities failed to estimate adequately their country’s resources as well as external factors influencing the conflicts’ dynamics.
As was justly observed by Hans Mouritzen, an expert at the Danish Institute for International Research, “an erroneous perception by Georgia of Russia’s intentions and military potential caused by the assurances of Western diplomats and failures of American intelligence, triggered a chain of events which started on Aug. 7, 2008. In the light of this misperception, the actions of South Ossetian formations were a temptation for Tbilisi to teach the 'bandits' a lesson by intensive bombarding of the capital of the un-recognized republic.”
In the context of the Georgian leadership’s hard pro-Western stance and NATO ambitions, Russia saw the bombardment of Tskhinvali as an American penetration into its sphere of interests that had to be countered. In any case, the Five-Day War demonstrated that the borders established by the “wise policies” of the “Party and Government” could not become firm interstate lines — and that the process of “carving up” the Soviet legacy is not yet over.
Both points again have been abundantly demonstrated by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh in April. That is arguably the main outcome of the Five-Day War. Only when all these border disputes have been ended and the sides of the conflicts have reached a compromise will it be possible to talk about the end of the Soviet era in Eurasia.
And then, only after finally forming their political identities, can the new states that emerged as a result of the events of 1991 tackle democratization.
Only then can they confront similar questions to those dealt with by Greece and Central and Eastern Europe in 1970–1980. Only then will the demand for nationalism and populism be less strong, and the internal political agenda, more complex.
And then maybe there will be a chance that Russian and Georgian political scientists, along with their Abkhaz and Ossetian colleagues, will publish a series of multi-volume monographs or collections of archive sources with reciprocal admission of errors, repentance, and revelations — the way the Germans do today with the French and the Poles.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.