As Moscow shows deliberate slowness on withdrawing its troops from Georgia, there are few signs the international crisis over the Russian invasion of the Caucasus is calming down. RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondents and RFE/RL's senior geopolitics correspondent answer key questions about what might happen next.
RFE/RL: How fragile is the current cease-fire in Georgia? Could it lead to peace, to war, or to a situation that is peaceful yet diplomatically unacceptable to the Georgians and the West?
Daniel Kimmage, RFE/RL senior geopolitics correspondent: I think out of all those choices right now I would simply stress the fragility, because if you look at the terms of the agreement that [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy called the "provisional cessation of hostilities," it is not terribly precise in terms of where exactly Georgian and Russian forces had to be, so given the fragility of the situation on the ground, and the lack of clarity in that document, I would have to say it is extremely fragile at this point.
RFE/RL: The Russian foreign minister says that he cannot imagine that the citizens of Abkhazia or South Ossetia would ever want to return to Georgia. Is that an acceptable proposition to the United States or to Georgia?
Kimmage: I cannot speak for the official U.S. reaction to this, but I can say that this was a very strong and clear statement of the Russian position, which is to say that "Georgia has lost these regions and we will stand by and ensure that loss." So they're setting the stage for what appears to be quite a diplomatic confrontation, because we've heard statements from the German chancellor, affirming the territorial integrity of Georgia and the fact that any status for these regions has to be negotiated within that framework. I believe Lavrov said, "You can forget about the territorial integrity of Georgia." So we have here two very different frameworks for viewing this and they are very much in contradiction.
David Kakabadze, head of RFE/RL's Georgian Service: [Russian] President [Dmitry] Medvedev said that he has nothing against the territorial integrity of Georgia, and [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel also stated that it is important to solve this issue in the framework of the territorial integrity of Georgia. This was an important statement. As we know, Germany is not among the strongest supporters of Georgia's Western aspirations, of Georgia's joining NATO, and so on and so forth.
What is very important here, I would say, is that Russia tries to do everything to stop Georgia's Western aspirations and saying that Abkhazians and Ossetians will never accept to be part of Georgia.... When we are hearing this, we have to remember that 250,000 refugees had to leave their homes from Abkhazia, and the first thing to do is to make sure that these refugees go back. The second thing, which would be very important to do, would be organizing a referendum under the auspices of the international community, not under Russian auspices, not as it was with peacekeepers when Russian forces were called peacekeepers whereas they were a party in the conflict. So it's a very long process, not an easy one, but accepting Abkhazia's secession would be legalizing the ethnic cleansing that took place in the war of 1993.
RFE/RL: What is the current attitude of the Georgian people toward Mikheil Saakashvili? How do you envision this will develop?
Kakabadze: This is a question I've been asked many times in recent days. At this moment, Georgian society is united in a way it hasn't been in many years. This is true of the political spectrum, as well. An hour or two ago, Saakashvili's main rival from the presidential elections in January, Levan Gachechiladze, the leader of the unified opposition, made another statement on Georgian public TV, saying it is not the time to speak about differences between the government and the opposition, but rather the time to oppose the Russian invasion, and to be unified in order to avert possible overthrowing of the government or some kind of actions which would be imposed from outside. So this is the general mood among the public at the moment.
Of course, I think in a couple months this will change. A lot of people will start questioning the military operation, which was started on August 7, and many people will say that Saakashvili started a war that he couldn't have won.
RFE/RL: As the Georgian crisis develops, it is becoming clear Moscow intends its action to be a lesson for a larger audience than the Georgians. What is Moscow's message?
Kimmage: The first thing I would say is a follow-up to what David was saying about the domestic situation in Georgia, and you have to look at the domestic repercussions in the other former Soviet republics, because the message that Moscow is sending with this operation is really not directed primarily at Washington or Brussels, but at the capitals of the other states in the former Soviet Union. And what they're supposed to see is Russia using military force to defend and advance its interests at it defines them, and they're also supposed to see the West being powerless to respond. That's one important thing.
Secondly, I think the most interesting thing right now is that we're seeing some contradictory statements coming out of Moscow, and to me this suggests that Moscow hasn't really thought out the endgame or its exit strategy. This is often something that happens when you have a large-scale military operation intended to make a broad point. The broad point here is that "we can and will intervene militarily in our backyard." That doesn't mean they have thought through precisely what they want to achieve, and I think this opens up a lot of holes for skilful diplomacy, and it is something I think we should watch out for in the next few days.
The final point I'll make, since we are talking about Russian propaganda at home, is that, first of all, we have to pay much more attention to how this is covered in Russia, because I think we're reaching the tipping point, where some of the domestic propaganda is actually forcing action abroad. And state-controlled television in Russia and Kremlin-supported youth groups have really whipped up a real storm of anti-Western paranoia and anti-Georgian sentiment, particularly directed at Saakashvili, who is routinely depicted as a fascist.
I think this is really starting to play a role in the current crisis, because whenever a regime bombards a population with very aggressive propaganda, it is eventually going to be obligated to match words with deeds in order to maintain its domestic credibility. This is why I think we have to pay attention to the message being broadcast domestically in Russia, not simply contrast it with Western coverage, but to understand how potentially it could affect Russian foreign policy as well.
RFE/RL: Are we reaching a new phase in Georgia's frozen conflicts, where Russia and its allies insist that the provinces break away; Georgia, backed by Western powers and the United States, insist that this not happen; and Georgia becomes occupied de facto for the foreseeable future?
Kimmage: Well, I certainly hope it won't come to that, but we are seeing Moscow unfreezing and using these conflicts, and it's a very unpredictable process. Perhaps the most disturbing element in this is that we are seeing the borders established when the Soviet Union fell apart being called into question now. As I said, I hope it doesn't lead to a reemergence of hot conflict or occupation, but I think this does have potential to destabilize much more than just Georgia. There are other frozen conflicts and territorial disputes and ambiguities in the region, and this could, potentially, be opening up Pandora's box.
RFE/RL: What can the United States or Europe do to defuse tensions?
Kimmage: I think that right now, broadly, it is simply to try to internationalize the conflict, bring in European outside observers, hopefully peacekeepers. I think that keeping this in the center of attention, and involving international bodies and other parties will certainly help. The other thing I would add is that many people have brought up the fact that the West does not have any leverage here. I would say that sometimes there is more leverage than might appear at first glance. The Russian elite is deeply enmeshed in the Western financial system, and has extremely wide-ranging business interests in Western Europe, in England, and I think that this is also something that can come into play as we move towards a solution and try to establish a rule-based framework that is internationally viable for making sure that these conflicts don't go from frozen to hot.
RFE/RL: Why did the president of Georgia choose this time to send troops into South Ossetia in response to cross-border shelling?
Kakabadze: Let us recall the events of the last months. On April 3, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Georgia and Ukraine are denied the Membership Action Plan and are given the promise to become members of NATO one day.
On April 16, [then-]Russian President [Vladimir] Putin orders to establish direct links with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A couple of days later, a Russian MIG-29 fighter jet shoots down a spy drone in Georgian airspace. Then, again, a couple of days later 1,500 troops are being sent to Abkhazia, so-called "peacekeepers," sent without Georgian consent. I don't want to go into too much detail.
It started long ago, even long before April 2008. Russia was trying very, very hard to provoke the Georgian leadership, and the Georgian leadership was kind of trying to show restraint, and on the eve of the day when the conflict broke out, President Saakashvili sent his envoy to Tskhinvali to talk to the leaders of the separatist South Ossetian republic. He went back to Tbilisi with nothing, with no results -- the South Ossetian leaders rejected the proposal of talks.
This was on August 7, a week ago, and on the very same evening, President Saakashvili announced that he took the decision to unilaterally declare cease-fire, and ordered his troops not to fire anymore. This was probably interpreted by the other side as a sign of weakness by the Georgian leadership, and the shelling and bombing of Georgian villages in South Ossetia intensified that evening.
As the Georgian leadership claims, there were tanks seen on the border of Georgia, entering Georgian territory from North Ossetia, and this was the moment when President Saakashvili had to take the decision and somehow to defend the residents of the Georgian villages there, and this was how the conflict started.
RFE/RL: What is the mood in Georgia today?
Marina Vashakmadze, Tbilisi bureau chief, RFE/RL's Georgian Service: Of course, people are depressed and terrified. I will tell you there is no one in Georgia who is without the understanding that the country's only hope is help from the outside, and the first country to offer help was the United States. I remember that evening, when even Tbilisi was waiting for an attack, and our correspondents kept calling in, saying, "They're moving to Tbilisi!" This was the very evening when [U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs] Matthew Bryza, came, and he made a statement right in the airport, and this was the moment when things changed, this was hope. And then there was the statement by President George Bush.
This is the only hope now in Georgia, because at this moment we have 40 000 refugees -- and these are only the registered ones. We have no idea how many more there are in Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and other cities. They are hungry, and homeless, and the help they are getting is humanitarian aid from the United States. Other countries are involved and helping, too, of course, but the Unites States was the first. One more thing I wanted to say that people are noticing the wonderful cooperation offered to Georgia now, the cooperation of the United States and the EU.
RFE/RL: Georgia has become very important as a transit for pipelines and plans for pipelines coming in from the east and bringing oil and gas to the West. Does the Russian invasion impact those plans?
Kimmage: I think it is a very clearly calculated part of Russia's policy to remain the energy hegemon in Eurasia. To put it in as much of a nutshell as I can, a great deal of Russia's current wealth derives from exports of natural gas to Europe, and Russia's own gas deposits have been declining a bit recently, and they have chosen rather than to invest billions in development of new gas deposits to try to buy gas in Central Asia and ship it to Europe, so it's very important for them to control the export routes.
This is a part of it. At the very least, instability in the Caucasus makes it unlikely for any Western consortium to invest money in a new project. At most, Russian territorial control puts them in control of this, so I'd say that this may or may not be the primary motivation, but certainly maintaining Russia's role as a 21st-century energy superpower depend on its ability to control export routes in that region. That's very clearly a part of this.
Kakabadze: You have to take into account that this is the only pipeline which bypasses Russia and pumps Caspian oil to the world markets, and this is a very important point.
These are excerpts are from an RFE/RL experts' briefing held in Prague and Washington on August 15