How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Since taking office in January, President Mikheil Saakashvili has made the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity his top priority. His initial moves were remarkably successful. Aslan Abashidze, the strongman who had long controlled the autonomous province of Adjaria, stepped down under pressure from the central government. He fled to Russia, leaving the province and its important Black Sea port of Batumi once again under Tbilisi's direct control.
Emboldened by the success in Adjaria, Saakashvili next moved against South Ossetia, the region in north-central Georgia which has effectively existed as an independent state for more than a decade. Saakashvili ordered Georgian police and interior ministry forces to close down one of the region's chief sources of revenue, a vast black market complex which sold foodstuffs and fuel smuggled from Russia. In response, South Ossetia's leadership upped the ante by announcing preparations to defend their unrecognized republic against a supposed Georgian invasion. In late July, Georgian troops and peacekeepers, who are allowed to be in the region under the cease-fire agreement, clashed with South Ossetian militiamen and freelance fighters from Russia. By mid-August, a dozen Georgian soldiers and an unknown number of civilians, both Georgian and South Ossetian, had been killed.
Tensions have also been rising in Abkhazia, the region along the northwestern coast which, like South Ossetia, has been functionally independent for more than ten years. President Saakashvili has vowed to block any ships from docking at Abkhazia's ports and to try to prevent Russian tourists from visiting the attractive beaches (a mainstay of the secessionist republic's economy). The Georgian government has repeatedly argued that it is seeking a peaceful solution to these crises and that any violence has been solely the result of provocation by Russia and the secessionists. Yet it was in precisely these conditions that the disastrous wars of the early 1990s began: as attempts by the central government to push its case for reintegrating regions that had already de facto seceded.
President Saakashvili has often argued that these unrecognized states are little more than Russia's stooges -- levers that Moscow can use to keep Georgia weak at a time when the country has become a solid partner of the United States. That understates the complexity of the situation, however. Especially in Abkhazia, local citizens are united in their desire not to be part of Georgia. They won a war for independence in the early 1990s, and they have spent more than a decade building something that looks like a real state. Georgia's territorial woes are thus not simply about rebuilding a single country. They are about trying to unite several independent ones. So far, however, neither Georgia nor the international community has been able to offer anything attractive enough to woo the South Ossetians and Abkhaz into a unified country. As recent events have shown, when Georgia flexes its muscles, the secessionists are simply reminded of why they fought -- and, with Russia's help, won -- the civil wars of the early 1990s.