The war that erupted between Russia and its little post-Soviet neighbor Georgia three years ago this weekend was unexpected, extremely violent, and brief, much like the sudden summer storms that descend upon the Caucasus Mountains at this time of year.
But instead of refreshing the landscape, the August War has led to an extended period of frozen relations, deepening bitterness, and hardening narratives in both countries. Georgia, which has shifted toward the West since the 2003 Rose Revolution, sees itself as a harbinger of democracy in the post-Soviet sphere. Russia, however, sees it as a renegade state on its flank led by an illegitimate president.
The tensions have largely played out in a fight over two ethnic enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and have since been supported by Russia. But what was for years merely a regional spat became a conflict of global concern in the 2008 war, when Moscow unilaterally granted both statelets independence to crown its swift military victory over the US-trained Georgian army.
Now, Georgians maintain, Russia is striving to undermine their country's credibility as a model for democracy.
"The root of the Russian-Georgian antagonism is that Georgia has shown that creating a liberal democracy in this part of the world is possible, and that Georgia can be an example for other countries in the Russian sphere," says Tornike Gordadze, Georgia's deputy foreign minister. "The objective of the 2008 war wasn't to recognize the breakaway regions, but to change the regime in Georgia. Since that hasn't happened, they have failed. The Russian objective is now to discredit the government [by other means]."
How the war started
Though Tbilisi still officially maintains that Russia started the war in an effort to unseat its pro-Western president, Mikhael Saakashvili, there seems no doubt that the war began on the night of Aug. 7 with a massive Georgian bombardment and armored assault on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. The attack resulted in the death of several Russian peacekeeping troops stationed there under international accords.
Russia reacted the next day with a major armored onslaught that quickly drove Georgian forces from S. Ossetia and occupied a wide swath of Georgian territory.
Western powers, stunned by Russia's rapid overrunning of a tiny neighbor, backed Georgia. They mediated a cease-fire and negotiated a pull-back of Russian forces from Georgian territory into the two breakaway regions. But that unity has broken down over the past three years as the US has embarked on a controversial "reset" of relations with Moscow, and European countries, beset by their own troubles, have divided over how to press for a regional peace settlement.
A US Senate resolution this week reaffirmed American support for Georgian sovereignty and called on Russia to end its "occupation" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That triggered a harsh response from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who said in an interview Friday that the US Senate was feeding what he called a growing "revanchist mood" in Georgia.
More ominously, Mr. Medvedev also revived the old Russian suspicion that the US may have encouraged Georgia to attack South Ossetia. "I don’t believe the Americans had urged Georgia’s president to invade. But I do believe that there were certain subtleties and certain hints made, which could have effectively fed Saakashvili’s hopes that the Americans would back him in any conflict," Medvedev said.
'I will never forgive him' – Medvedev
The view from Tbilisi is that, despite its swift defeat, Georgia withstood the might of giant Russia in the conflict and proved that it made the right choice by turning away from Moscow and toward the West in the 2003 "Rose Revolution," which brought Mr. Saakashvili to power.
But for Russians, who triumphed over a pesky pro-West neighbor, the attitude is that Saakashvili is an illegitimate leader, perhaps a puppet of US interests, and that no meaningful peace negotiations can occur until he has gone.
But Russia can never be reconciled with Georgia as long as Saakashvili remains president, he said.
Though early Russian claims of Georgian "genocide" against South Ossetians have been thoroughly debunked by international human rights monitors, Mr. Medvedev still holds Saakashvili responsible for "hundreds" of Russian deaths, including those of peacekeepers.
"I will never forgive him for that, and I will not talk to him," said the Russian president. Saakashvili will have to leave, perhaps democratically, perhaps not, he added.
"And whoever becomes the next president in Georgia, they will have a chance to restore positive and beneficial relations with Russia," said Medvedev.
Saakashvili remains popular at home. He was reelected to a second five-year term in early 2008, and received another thumping endorsement from Georgians a year ago when his ruling United National Movement won over 60 percent of the votes in regional elections.
But Georgian leaders have blamed Russia for orchestrating periodic unrest in Georgia, including a wave of Tbilisi street demonstrations this spring. They also claim that Moscow runs secret networks of spies and terrorists that included Saakashvili's personal photographer, who was arrested with several other journalists and charged with espionage in July.
"We know that Russian secret services are active around the world, and Georgia is very high on Moscow's list of enemies," says Shota Utiashvili, spokesman for Georgia's Interior Ministry, which oversees the police. "Some people want to close their eyes to this, but there are [pro-Russian underground] networks operating here that we know of, and probably some we don't know of. It's ridiculous to deny that there are Russian agents working here, or that Georgia is capable of catching some of them."
Russian officials counter that Saakashvili's government is gripped by "spy mania" that is largely detached from reality. They point to episodes like last year's fictitious documentary about a new Russian invasion of Georgia, presented on pro-government TV as if it were real news, which caused Georgian cellphone networks to crash and saw thousand of people pouring into the streets in panic.
'A new mentality' in Georgia
"The current situation is very comfortable for Russia," he says. "The two sides are not talking; they occupy our territory and do whatever they want."
A few voices in Georgia say it may be time to consider the unthinkable prospect of letting go of at least Abkhazia – an ethnically distinct region with its own separate history – as part of a wider reconciliation with Russia.
Mr. Areshidze, a well-known expert who recently suggested the idea publicly, was accused of "treason" by leading nationalist politicians for proposing such a rethink.
"I know my views are terribly unpopular," he says. "But both in Georgia and the West we have to change our attitude toward the separatist regions.... Time has passed, there is a new mentality and a new generation... Georgians have become used to having the West deal with our problems, and come to believe that with enough pressure Russia will step back. But Russia won't step back unless Georgians become active and have creative ideas," toward solving the issue.
Russian leaders divided over right course
There is also fierce debate in Russia about which course to take.
Last week Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested to a meeting of nationalist youth that South Ossetia might in future be admitted to the Russian Federation and joined to its ethnically-related neighbor, North Ossetia. But Medvedev, who is locked in fierce but undeclared rivalry with Mr. Putin in advance of Russian presidential election next March, shot down that idea.
"Today there is neither legal nor factual basis for uniting South and North Ossetia and their joining to Russia. That's why I signed a decree recognizing the independence of this territory, " Medvedev told Russian media.
Most Russians appear happy with the status quo, even though only four countries in the world – Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the miniscule Pacific island nation of Nauru – have so far recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They seem to believe that time is on their side.
"Sooner or later the world will accept the facts," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Look at Sudan, which recently split in two, and the international community welcomed it. Look at Kosovo. There's nothing terrible in the fact that South Ossetia and Abkhazia decided long ago to split from Georgia, just as Georgia split from the USSR. Trying to roll these changes back would be a dead end."