For a decade, the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been major obstacles to good relations between the two countries. The two territories remain unrecognized by the international community a decade after fighting wars of secession against the central Georgian government. Since then, they have enjoyed de facto independence, running their own affairs with their own self-styled local governments. But Georgia's new president, Mikheil Saakashvili, says that situation can no longer be tolerated.
Encouraged by his successful bid to crush another secessionist movement in Adjara in May, Saakashvili has now set his sights on reining in the two holdouts. And that is putting Russia in a very uncomfortable position.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of "Russia in Global Affairs" -- a leading foreign policy journal -- explains Moscow's dilemma to RFE/RL. Legally, he says, Saakashvili cannot be faulted for wanting to reunite his country -- it's the way he has chosen to go about it, with nationalist rhetoric and threats of violence that threaten to boil over into a major armed conflict: "In principle, one should not criticize Saakashvili for wanting to protect the borders of his country and to reestablish its territorial unity. But it's one thing to talk about this as an abstract idea and quite another when [this idea] is put into action in a specific situation."
Georgia's interior minister has accused Moscow of sending spy planes over South Ossetia and has threatened to shoot down any future violators. Saakashvili, meanwhile, raised hackles in Moscow last week with his threat to sink any Russian ships crossing into Abkhaz waters.
Faced with a Georgian leadership determined to seek a change in the status quo in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Lukyanov says Moscow has few attractive options: "The situation is very complicated, especially for Russia, because it has very little room to maneuver. Moscow cannot demand independence for these two territories or to aim for their unification with Russia because this contradicts all tenets of international law. In fact, the Russian Constitutional Court confirmed this only a few days ago. And, in general, as the proverb goes, people who lives in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. If you demand independence for Abkhazia or South Ossetia, then the issue of Russia's Caucasus republics comes up, etc."
But at the same time, he notes, Russia cannot walk away from the issue. For one thing, most of the people living in South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- including the separatist leaders of both republics -- would like to see their territories become part of the Russian Federation. And most of them, as a result of Moscow's past policy of handing out Russian passports, are now Russian citizens: "On the other hand, Russia -- for purely political as well as emotional reasons -- cannot simply leave the scene and pretend that this is the territory of another country and none of our business. First of all, Russia distributed Russian passports and is therefore obliged to defend its citizens. And secondly -- a more objective reason --- any destabilization is very dangerous for Russia. It's a very explosive region, and what happens if some kind of rebellion begins in South Ossetia, let's say, is very hard to predict."
Lukyanov cautions that Saakashvili, if he believes he can duplicate the success he had in toppling Adjara's rebellious leadership in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is dangerously wrong. Unlike in Adjara, the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflicts have ethnicity at their core. Both territories fought bloody wars to rid themselves of Tbilisi's influence, and fears of what a reimposition of Georgian authority might mean are very real: "From the point of view of effectiveness, Saakashvili should not force events. If South Ossetia were left alone for a year-and-a-half or two years, my impression is that it would gradually draw closer to Georgia. The main thing is not to scare the population because the internal legitimacy of these unrecognized regimes [in South Ossetia and Abkhazia] is based solely on a feeling of fear. As long as the population of these republics fears Georgia, these regimes will enjoy support. And the more Georgia pushes, the greater the internal support will be. If the fear factor vanishes, and if people understand -- in Abkhazia it will be difficult, but in South Ossetia, I think, it'll be possible -- if people understand that being a part of Georgia is an option that opens opportunities, then the problem will be resolved much more easily."
Ultimately, of course, size matters. And the enormous imbalance in size between the two countries does play to Russia's advantage -- something Saakashvili should not forget, according to Richard Giragosian, a Washington-based expert on the Caucasus.
Giragosian says Saakashvili should also not forget the key role Moscow played in paving the way for his rise to power last November, as well as the toppling of Adjara's former local ruler, Aslan Abashidze.
Even though Saakashvili counts on U.S. support, which he has been receiving, Giragosian says Moscow will always remain the key outside factor in Georgian politics: "We see former [Georgian] President [Eduard] Shevardnadze, who was forced into resignation -- not by Saakashvili -- but actually by negotiations led by former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Ivanov later, as chairman of the National Security Council, was also the key figure who negotiated the departure of Aslan Abashidze, the Adjaran strongman. What this demonstrates to me is not so much a Saakashvili victory but more that Russia is close -- and always will be -- and the U.S. is far away -- and always will be. And it's that recognition of the Russian vested interest -- right or wrong -- that remains key in determining the outcome."
Russia's economic leverage -- especially in the energy sector, since it recently gained control of the Georgian power distribution network -- should also be kept in mind, according to Giragosian: "That's a much more sophisticated tool of influence and interest than traditional hardcore Russian military power."
Undoubtedly, Russia finds itself in a difficult position, but analysts agree that if Saakashvili continues to up the ante he may soon find he has overplayed his hand.