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From Confrontation To Dialogue

  • Aleksei Malashenko

Pursuing a hard line

Pursuing a hard line

The search for a way out of the dead end that Russia and the West now find themselves in will continue for some time. After all, relations were fairly complicated even before the conflict in the South Caucasus unfolded. In this context, the August 19 call to continue this discussion in the framework of the European Union could prove useful, especially if the agenda for such talks is worked out together with Russia, which, in turn, would agree to participate in the process. Of course, all discussants would have to agree to adhere to the agreed-upon agenda.

Such a process would help, at least a little, all parties to back away from the emotional approach that has predominated since the beginning of the fighting and which continues to strongly influence the entire situation. Emotions took hold the moment Georgian forces entered South Ossetia and raged particularly after Russian tanks crossed the border between the unrecognized republic and the rest of Georgia. Emotions have dominated in media reports and in the statements of politicians. They have also been heard in the comments of some analysts trying to be objective, some of whom have even called the situation "a war" between Russia and the West.

War Of Nerves

In this sense, a war of nerves has developed, one that no one can win.

The situation is developing in such a way that with each new turn it becomes increasingly difficult to find compromises and concessions. Both sides in the dispute seem capable only of hearing their own voices. Now it appears that the attempt by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to find a general settlement is collapsing. That plan had a real chance of success, had it not been for efforts by the UN Security Council to "correct" it that were totally rejected by Russia.

It would seem that the more isolated Russia feels, the less inclined its leaders are to seek dialogue. They feel misunderstood and, even, insulted. Let's take a look at their thinking:

First, Russia always believed it has special rights in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that they had been de facto affirmed by the international community;

Second, Russia has repeatedly affirmed the de jure territorial integrity of Georgia and stated many times right up until the recent crisis that it had no intention of changing that position;

And third, Moscow clearly did not expect a military action against South Ossetia (not counting the periodic exchanges of fire that had, unfortunately, become routine).

In short, Moscow feels that up until the last moment, Russia played by the rules of a complex game; that it violated those rules not first, but second; and that it had a right to do so.

After the fighting erupted, though, the previous circumstances of the conflict were erased, and Russia began acting in accordance with its own military and political logic. The Kremlin viewed Georgia's "blunder" as a perfect opportunity to solve several problems -- both external and, importantly, internal -- in one fell swoop.

Isolation And Victory

Now, despite its growing isolation, Moscow feels like a victor, and a majority of the public supports a hard-line policy. And there is one more important factor. If Moscow had acted otherwise, its passivity would have been seen in the North Caucasus as weakness. In view of the potentially explosive situation in several of those republics, such a development was simply not an option. This fact must be taken into consideration as talks on the Georgia situation develop.

Nonetheless, there are various opinions in Russia about whether Moscow should recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The most responsible politicians stress that Moscow should not force events and that Russia should not be the only country to take such a step.

If the proposed talks within the framework of the European Union proceed as a dialogue rather than a bid by both sides to continue the propaganda war of recent days, then there is a real possibility of finding a complex formulation that might be acceptable to all parties.

In order to succeed, the EU forum should be preceded by some preliminary decisions aimed at reducing tensions. Perhaps the politicians will be able to hammer out a more flexible resolution in the Security Council.

Most likely, Russia is ready to make some concessions, since Moscow sees that it is gradually painting itself into a corner. The Kremlin sees that it currently has no allies or even supporters in the international community on the question of Georgia. It is significant that even members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have largely been silent. However, the form of those concessions cannot be interpreted by Russia's ruling elite as backing away from a hard line or as some acknowledgement by Moscow that its actions were not legitimate.

The situation in the Caucasus today is more confused than ever. Previous approaches have been completely played out. Perhaps they were ineffective; perhaps the collapse happened by chance (in an interview with Ekho Moskvy, former Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze complained of the "excessive" emotionality of some Georgian politicians). What new approaches and proposals will emerge in the new situation remains to be seen.

But the problem of the Russia-Georgia conflict cannot be viewed outside the context of the general situation in Russia. Excessive pressure on Moscow will only strengthen conservative forces, including the military establishment. And this will make the normalization of relations between Moscow and its Western partners (or, at present, opponents) more difficult or even impossible. Sooner or later, everyone involved will have to sit down at the negotiating table. How long that will take is hard to say. But it appears that the search for a format for that process is gradually beginning.

Aleksei Malashenko is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

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