Georgia and Russia can avoid war – if the West helps
War could mean more pressure on already sky-high oil prices.
Hanover, N.H.; and Washington
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But a war between these two countries would threaten security in the volatile Caucasus and eastern Black Sea region and the booming exports of Caspian energy through Georgia, adding pressure to already sky-high oil prices throughout the world. It would also endanger US and NATO security interests in an area not far removed from the Middle East.
Thanks largely to wise Russian diplomacy at the time, the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw the emergence of peaceful borders between the 15 new states. One exception was, and still is, Abkhazia, a strategically located separatist region in Georgia. Russia borders the region to the north and exerts military control and economic leverage over it. And now, Russia, which fiercely opposes Georgian membership in NATO, appears to be taking steps to annex Abkhazia – to the chagrin of Georgia.
In April, then-President Vladimir Putin extended Russia's economic, legal, and administrative writ to Abkhazia. A few days later, a Russian fighter aircraft destroyed a Georgian unmanned surveillance plane, though Russia denies it.
Ruffling Georgia's feathers even more, Russia put 1,000 troops into Abkhazia for peacekeeping and railway repair. Georgia now seems at a breaking point.
If Russia steps down from this posturing, it could lead to the reopening of land transport through Abkhazia to Georgia and Armenia; a peaceful Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014; and more tourism, shipping, and investment in the eastern Black Sea region.
If Georgia and Russia can avoid military confrontation, Georgia could benefit with the return of internal refugees to their homes in Abkhazia, enhanced confidence in energy security, and entry into NATO.
But, if Russia and Georgia continue as they have, it could quickly spiral into war.
What can be done?
First, Georgia must strengthen its own democracy and demonstrate it is confident enough to handle the complicated issues surrounding Abkhazia. This will help convince ethnic Abkhaz that their rights will be respected after reintegration.
Last month's parliamentary elections in Georgia were an improvement over presidential elections held last January and a step forward from November 2007 when government forces broke up large opposition demonstrations.
A massive demonstration last month, however, suggests that more must be done to heal fissures. Georgia needs to be open to freedom of the press and political parties and civil society having freedom of activity. Opposition forces in Georgia must recognize the rules of the democratic game, take their seats in parliament, and contribute constructively to political dialogue.