The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
In 1713, King Vakhtang VI of Georgia sent his former teacher, the famed polymath and writer Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, to France and Italy on an urgent diplomatic mission. Squeezed on all sides—by the Persian Empire to the southeast, the Ottoman Empire to the southwest, and Russia to the north—Georgia needed Western allies. Orbeliani seemed the perfect choice to petition the French monarch and the pope, the power brokers of the time, for help. His eloquence and erudition, according to historical records, charmed Louis XIV. Orbeliani made the case that as a Christian nation Georgia was a natural pro-Western ally and a gateway to the Caucasus and farther east. But in the end, he failed.
Although the Turks, the Persians, and the Russians were France’s rivals as well, Louis the Great was consumed by problems closer to home and had no appetite for intervening in the Caucasus. For Georgia, it meant another period of conquest and subjugation by its neighbors. First, the Ottomans grabbed chunks of territory in the west. Then, as the Persian threat from the south grew, the king of what was by then eastern Georgia signed a treaty with Catherine the Great of Russia in 1783 to protect what was left of the country. But for Georgians, it proved an early lesson not to trust their giant northern neighbor. When the Persians did invade the following decade, sacking Tbilisi in the process, Russia sat on the sidelines. Then, after pushing the Persians out, it annexed Georgia, in 1801. Georgia begged the West to come to its aid again after World War I, when it was briefly independent under British protection, but then the Red Army marched in during the winter of 1921 and installed the Bolshevik regime.
Orbeliani is revered today in Georgia as the standard-bearer for the country’s aspirations to join the West, as the “man who paved the road to Europe.” But this week, which marks the anniversary of its 2008 war with Russia, brings a discomfiting reminder that more than 300 years later, the tiny country is still only part of the way there, as Moscow is firmly blocking its path.
Ostensibly, the brief conflict, which lasted August 7–12, was a battle for control of the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia. But for the Kremlin it was also about asserting its power in what it sees as its backyard and preventing its neighbor from getting any closer to the West by joining NATO. It ended with Russia sending its forces deep into Georgian territory and occupying both South Ossetia and the other breakaway region of Abkhazia. Eight years on, it has turned into another frozen conflict, largely forgotten by the outside world but ensnaring Georgia in a nervy limbo. And as some predicted at the time, it was a precursor of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow has recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as “independent republics,” even as it steadily entrenches its presence there. The Georgian government calls this behavior “creeping annexation.” Russian-language media use the same rhetoric in covering the conflict in Ukraine, portraying Moscow as defending Russian speakers in the breakaway territories against Western-backed Georgia, even as its troops and tanks are positioned just an hour’s drive from the capital of Tbilisi. Tens of thousands of people, displaced by the fighting and previous flare-ups with Russia since 1991 over the two breakaway regions, face the possibility of never returning home.
“My mother is buried in South Ossetia,” said Marina, who fled her home the day the war began as pro-Russian militias closed in on her village. “I can’t bear the thought of never seeing her grave again.” Marina, who would give only her first name, now lives with her family in a two-room prefab cottage donated by the government. Khurvaleti, the windswept settlement where she resides, holds hundreds of internally displaced. I spent several days there talking with and sketching its residents. Our conversations were sometimes interrupted by the sounds of explosions from Russian military drills across the boundary fence, which is just beyond the camp. Minutes away in the other direction is the main east–west highway to Tbilisi. Russian President Vladimir Putin can cut Georgia in half in an afternoon if he wants to.
“What’s happening in Ukraine is what happened to us first,” said Khatuna Songilishvili, one Khurvaleti resident, as I drew her. “We had a good life before, living in our own house and selling fruit and vegetables in Tskhinvali [the regional capital].”
The Georgian government supports more than 230,000 internally displaced from the two breakaway regions—a weighty burden for a country of fewer than four million people and a GDP per head of around $3,700. Although many have settled in urban areas, thousands remain in isolated settlements like Khurvaleti, blighted by unemployment and mental health problems.
Few of its residents have a job, relying on the government’s monthly stipend of 50 lari ($21). Knots of men hang on street corners, some clearly drunk. In a barely furnished hut at the far end of the camp, I find 62-year-old Ketavan living alone. “My only relatives are in Moscow and I haven’t seen them for years,” she said, weeping.
“It’s a depressing place,” said Marina, but she blamed their plight on the government of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was in charge during the 2008 war. “Why did they get us into this war with Russia?”
Georgia certainly bears plenty of responsibility for its troubles. Nationalists who took power as the Soviet Union was collapsing helped stir up separatist conflict in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, leading to both regions breaking away and being effectively taken over by Russia. Even if the Soviet Union was crumbling, the KGB was still ready and willing to preserve Russian influence in the region. And when Georgia set its course firmly westward after the 2003 Rose Revolution, which brought Saakashvili to power, Moscow further exploited these tensions, leading eventually to the 2008 war. Each side insists the other started it.
Georgia’s version of events is that it initially took military action to counter South Ossetian separatists who had been shelling Georgian villages. But when its troops moved on the regional capital of Tskhinvali and killed at least ten Russian “peacekeepers” based there, Moscow accused Tbilisi of “aggression against South Ossetia.” It launched a full-scale land and air offensive and sent thousands of reinforcements through the strategic Roki Tunnel. Georgia’s small army was quickly overwhelmed, suffering hundreds of casualties. Russian troops then expanded their operation deeper into Georgian territory, opening a second front from Abkhazia, as well as seizing the country’s main port on the Black Sea. And when Russian armored columns advanced to within just miles of Tbilisi, Moscow made clear it had much bigger goals in mind than simply defending South Ossetia.
The Georgian leader has since been condemned for getting his country into a war it couldn’t win. When I interviewed Saakashvili at the height of the conflict, he said he had no choice but to respond once Russian troops came pouring in. “Any other country in the world would have done the same.”
I had challenged him that he had in effect “manufactured” the conflict. When I listen back eight years on, Saakashvili’s response is telling: “We manufactured it by our existence, being a free democracy.”
Russia’s narrative, that it was simply defending itself, initially dominated European assessments of the war—and the former Georgian president got the blame. But Putin’s later actions in Ukraine—after it sought closer ties with the EU—casts a different light on the matter, and Saakashvili’s supporters say he has been proven right.
“Russia’s challenge to the post–Cold War order started with the 2008 war in Georgia,” said Davit Sikharulidze, who was Georgia’s U.S. ambassador at the time. “They had been preparing since at least the year before,” he told me in an interview, pointing to, among other things, the large number of troops that Russia had “kept in the region after an earlier military exercise.”
Dmitry Medvedev was Russia’s president at the time, during Putin’s brief period as prime minister, and in an interview several years later, he dismissed claims that Moscow had effectively set a trap for its tiny neighbor. He called the accusation “total bunk.” But Russia had to invade, he said, to prevent Georgia from getting new arms from its “American friends” and to make sure it “wouldn’t be able to target civilians in Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Russian Federation.”
One question on everyone’s minds in 2008 was why Russian forces stopped where they did, without going into the capital. The answer, according to Dimitri Shashkin, a former Georgian defense minister, was that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush decided belatedly to raise the stakes and send military support in the guise of humanitarian aid. “Russia could not bomb Tbilisi airport,” said Shashkin in an interview last year, “because there were American Hercules aircraft on the tarmac.”
Yet for the Kremlin, the invasion of Georgia was ultimately cost-free. When U.S. President Barack Obama took office the following year, he ordered his famous “reset” in relations with Russia, effectively wiping the slate clean. And as critics at the time warned, it was taken as a cue by Putin that he could get away with using force in Ukraine.
The current Georgian coalition government has taken a more conciliatory approach to Russia, while still insisting on the return of the breakaway territories and that the internally displaced be allowed to go home. But in effect, it has accepted that they are staying put, since it has offered the refugees a program allowing them to buy their cottages for the nominal sum of one lari (about 40 cents). “Who knows when they can go back,” explains Tamaz Balashvili, the administrator of the biggest internally displaced settlement at Tserovani. “We want them to sleep peacefully.” Most of the 10,000-plus residents now own their cottages.
Conditions are far better in Tserovani than in Khurvaleti. Paved streets run between the rows of cottages. All houses have water and electricity. But unemployment is at over 50 percent, even with the capital 20 minutes away. “There is no future here,” said Manuchar Gadrani, a 32-year-old who has twice fled his home because of Georgia’s post-independence strife with Russia. “I want to get to Europe to find a job,” he told me as he crouched under a tree.
This brings us back to that road west. Since 2008, Georgia has inched closer to Europe, signing an association agreement with the EU in 2014 (which came into force this year) and holding regular exercises with NATO troops despite grumbles from Moscow. Georgia continues to send troops to Afghanistan to fight alongside U.S. forces, paying a heavy price in relation to its population, with more than 30 fatalities so far. But consumed once more by their own problems and fearful of antagonizing the Kremlin, the West to be giving no sign that it wants to reciprocate Georgia’s “West-ophilia” any further. And Georgian politicians worry that the prize of full EU and NATO membership will be kept perpetually out of reach. Even interim measures, such as giving Georgians visa-free access to the EU, have been delayed as European politicians struggle with issues closer to home like the migration crisis and Brexit.
Although polls consistently show that most Georgians want closer integration with the West, a recent survey also revealed that nearly a third of respondents supported membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Union. And with general elections due in October, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has sounded a warning to the West. In a recent interview, he declared, “Pro-Russian, or let’s say Euroskeptic or NATO-skeptic, parties will find their way into parliament.” One key move the government is praying for before the elections is that European leaders sign off on the visa liberalization program, giving Georgians tangible proof of the benefits of deeper ties.
Just as it was in Ukraine, the Kremlin is unimpressed by Georgia’s pro-Western leanings. It doesn’t want to let go of the state that used to be a favorite holiday destination for Soviet leaders. Some—although certainly not all—of the thousands of Russians who holiday in Georgia today behave as if it is still theirs. The Kremlin is answering NATO exercises in Georgia with its biggest-ever military drills in the Caucasus this year, and it seems determined to keep the current Georgian government off balance, despite its more conciliatory approach (far too conciliatory, say some of its critics). Over the past 18 months, Russia has pushed out its fence around South Ossetia, effectively grabbing more territory. And earlier this year, a border guard from Russian-controlled Abkhazia fatally shot a Georgian man at a crossing point. Many fear more Russian surprises as the elections approach.
All this of course raises the question as to how much the West should care about faraway Georgia—the very same question Louis XIV faced centuries ago. Georgians who advocate closer ties argue that ultimately it is about defending fundamental values and having a longer-term security strategy for the region. “Frozen conflicts are not frozen,” said Sikharulidze. “They can explode at any time.” He faults European leaders for not having a consistent view of their interests “beyond the next election.”
The 2008 war taught Georgia that confrontation with Russia is “futile,” at least according to Tserovani administrator Balashvili. But there can be no alternative, he said, to the country “strictly” maintaining its pro-Western orientation. The only option for that to happen, he explained, “is still to follow the path of Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani” and beseech the West for support. And this time, the West should answer the request.