IMPLICATIONS: This is certainly a far more complicated undertaking than any of the regional mergers accomplished so far since South Ossetia is formally a part of Georgia and Russia is on the record with the unconditional recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity. However, South Ossetia de facto seceded back in 1990 and so to all intents and purposes was never a part of the Georgian state that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. The history of the conflict is certainly subject to all sorts of mutually exclusive interpretations and even mythologies but Moscow could avoid involvement in deadlocked debates and opt instead for a ‘democratic’ solution. It can make a plausible pretence that a referendum in both Ossetias is a local initiative and that it simply cannot ignore the strongly expressed popular will. The outcome of the referendum would never be in doubt even if several Georgian villages in South Ossetia would definitely refuse to participate. It would not even be necessary for Moscow to immediately grant full legitimacy to such a controversial ‘re-unification’; it could show reasonable doubt and implicitly encourage broad public ‘demand’. Delay may even be a part of the plan, since Russia is reasonably certain that the EU cannot postpone indefinitely the decision on the status on Kosovo. And however inventive Brussels could be in formulating this decision, it would inevitably involve essential separation of ties between Serbia and its mutinous province. The plain fact of European security life is that nobody could invent a model solution for half a dozen secessionist conflicts, but time is generally on the side of the unrecognized quasi-states that are busy proving their viability. Moscow could provide reassurances that the Ossetian case would not be reproduced in Abkhazia, which is much more independence-oriented and angered Putin’s courtiers in autumn 2004 by electing a president of its own choice. Russia could even show some ‘flexibility’ in Transdniestria, which it has no realistic chance to incorporate or keep as a ‘protectorate’. In any case, the real aim in the Kremlin would be not to ‘annex’ a desperately poor chunk of mountainous terrain of no strategic importance but to push Georgia to the brink of failure.
CONCLUSIONS:Reprehensible as this sort of political behavior undoubtedly is, it is essential to remember that the Georgian leadership has been deliberately playing on tensions with Russia seeking to secure every bit of Western attention and aid. Nino Burjanadze, the speaker of Georgian parliament, is able to bring some elegance to this game, which she showed for instance addressing the ‘jubilee’ session of the Russian parliament in St. Petersburg on April 27, marking 100 years of the first Russian Duma. Others push it more blatantly, so that the economic stagnation aggravated by the haphazard pattern of reforms is blamed squarely on Russia and even the multiplying splits inside Saakashvili’s shrinking team are explained away as chiseled by the Kremlin’s ‘long hand’. Moscow could safely count on every kind of emotional and fundamentally inadequate response from Tbilisi to its sequence of simple steps in Ossetia. One such step that was tested last winter and could be reproduced in the next one, is a series of explosions on the gas pipeline supplying Georgia – and Tbilisi does not yet have a defense against this ‘energy weapon’. Saakashvili is inclined to think that the ripening initiative to invite Ukraine to join NATO already in 2008 could open a ‘fast-track’ for Georgia as well, providing he portrays a sufficiently convincing ‘Russian threat’. The gamble might succeed, but he is racing not only against time but also, paradoxically, against himself. For NATO, there are clear risks involved in extending an invitation to this troubled state. For Georgia to overcome its weakness and traumas, a sustained commitment is necessary. A half-hearted engagement, on the other hand, could initiate a chain reaction of unintended consequences and become another factor of failure.