At 8 PM on March 13, a leading television channel in Georgia sent the country back to war. The half-hour broadcast on pro-government Imedi TV unveiled a terrifying scenario for its viewers: Russian tanks were rolling toward the capital, Tbilisi, aiming to complete the unfinished business of August 2008, when Moscow brought Georgia to its knees in a conflict over the breakaway province of South Ossetia; President Mikheil Saakashvili had either fled or been killed; a “people’s government” loyal to Moscow was now in charge, led by two former Georgian officials who had recently crossed over to the opposition; and three army battalions had joined the Russians.
This was all a virtual reality. Soon thereafter, an anchor stepped out into the studio audience and announced that the entire episode had been a hoax designed to remind everyone of just what their future might hold. The supposedly live images, including a vindictive President Medvedev, President Obama apparently expressing alarm, and statements from the British and French ambassadors in Tbilisi, had all been recut from footage of the earlier conflict. But thousands of ordinary people, especially outside of the capital where there are few alternative news sources, genuinely believed their country was at war once again; there were reports of panic and overloaded mobile-telephone networks. A friend of a friend went into premature labor. Crowds gathered to protest the program outside Imedi’s headquarters.
The next day, speaking to residents in a small town near the capital, President Saakashvili distanced himself from the mock-up war, arguing that Imedi should have screened a caption warning viewers it was only a hoax. But he quickly backtracked, supporting the stunt by saying, “The major unpleasant thing about yesterday’s report—and I want people to understand this well—was that it’s extremely close to what could really happen, and to what Georgia’s enemy keeps in mind.”
The plot thickened further when a recording of a tapped telephone conversation, apparently between Imedi head Giorgi Arveladze and his deputy, was posted on the Web site www.copoka.net with a Russian transcript. Arveladze, who used to be a close aide of Saakashvili, was heard to say that the president had approved the broadcast and indeed had opposed a disclaimer caption being screened, because “If we do so, then it will lose all its flavor.” The two executives denied that they had this conversation, and Georgian officials alleged the tape was a fabrication by the Russian security services.
During these three days, the collective blood pressure of the Georgian nation, already high, shot up even further. It is unlikely to subside anytime soon. Whether or not Saakashvili directly approved the fake broadcast—given his closeness to Arveladze, it is hard to believe he did not sanction it—the Georgian leader has made the “Russia threat” the defining theme of his remaining three years as president. He routinely warns Georgians that they are facing the danger of a repeat of 1921, when the Bolsheviks reconquered Georgia and crushed its first attempt at independence. His rhetoric has only escalated since the two former officials portrayed as quislings in the fake broadcast, ex-Speaker Nino Burjanadze and ex–Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, broke the taboo of talking directly to the Russians and met Saakashvili’s nemesis Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister. The Georgian leader’s hackles couldn’t be more raised, and the two sides now routinely trade insults, calling one another traitors and enemies of Georgia in language that creepily harks back to the nationalist fury of 1991 and the Stalinist denunciations of the 1930s.
To truly decode the “Russia threat,” we must inevitably return to the events of the five-day war of August 2008 and the age-old question: “Who is to blame?” Ronald Asmus, executive director of the Transatlantic Center at the German Marshall Fund, has his answer, in book-long form. For him, the 2008 war was a preplanned Russian military intervention in Georgia, designed to halt Saakashvili’s choice to “go West.” Russia was punishing a small neighbor that dared to defy it by choosing a Western model of democratic development: “The more successful Tbilisi was, the more hostile and worried Moscow became.” He goes even further, in language that reminds one of the Cold War:
The Bush Administration had made the building of a Europe that was whole and free from the Baltic to the Black Sea a central part of its legacy. Regardless of what mistakes Tbilisi had made, Moscow had violated that basic concept and broken some of the cardinal principles upon which European security was supposed to be based.
In other words, for Asmus, NATO, not the EU, is the key European institution and the United States has a duty to be a guarantor of the security of small nations against a resurgent Russia. And the test of that strategy came with Georgia, for it presented a brave challenge to Moscow’s revisionist doctrine. This is a risky thesis, for it commits NATO to supporting leaders who proclaim pro-Western values but have their own local agendas with Russia. And it asks us to do so without examining the fine detail of what their quarrels with Moscow are all about.
Certainly, in August 2008 Moscow ruthlessly exploited Tbilisi’s long-running territorial disputes over the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia’s rule in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union fell apart. The Russians first executed a military defeat of Saakashvili’s country and then recognized the independence of the two territories, pulling them closer into Moscow’s orbit.
Russian officials also miss no opportunity to disparage Saakashvili. President Dmitri Medvedev recently called him a “persona non grata” and said relations with Georgia would only get back to normal once Saakashvili had left office. During the war, Vladimir Putin famously told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he wanted to hang Saakashvili “by the balls.” That continues to feed Georgian fears about Moscow’s intentions; Russian troops are still deployed only thirty miles from Tbilisi. But might it be that the Russians are content to have a crippled Georgian president mired in his own domestic squabbles, unable to pursue a pro-Western agenda? For this allows Moscow the space to consolidate the status quo won on the ground, while focusing on other issues, such as the “reset” with the United States.
If only Georgia were simple. The trouble with A Little War that Shook the World is that it is does not deal with local reality in the Caucasus. Asmus has talked to senior officials in the Bush administration, NATO and the EU—but not to Russians or Ossetians, and to few ordinary Georgians not in government. This is the region as seen from a satellite photograph.
Georgia has long been the most attractive of the former Soviet republics. In 1924, the writer Odette Keun compared the country to “a racehorse—palpitating, furious, rushing forward blindly it knows not where; rearing at the least check, not having yet learnt what is required of it, or what it can do.” I too plead guilty to the Georgia bug, but Caucasian dash can take you to dangerous places. Georgian brio inspired the street protests of the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought the charismatic young Mikheil Saakashvili to power, but other, duller qualities were required to tackle the country’s longer-term problems. After 2004, there began to be two Georgias. There was the Georgia that President Saakashvili sold abroad with remarkable success, marketing the Rose Revolution as a brand for a successful model of post-Soviet pro-Western transformation; and there was the Georgia that persistently stayed stuck in local realities, still trapped in nationalism, factionalism, and politics as plot and brawl.
Asmus has bought the foreign brand without inspecting the local product very closely, and his idealized account ultimately does the real Georgia no favors. Critically, Asmus gives a version of events of the war of 2008 that completely exempts the Georgian leadership of blame:
Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili put down the phone. It was 2335 the night of August 7 in Tbilisi. He had just given the order for his armed forces to attack what his intelligence had reported to be a column of Russian forces moving from the small South Ossetian town of Java just south of the Russian-Georgian border toward the city of Tskhinvali, the capital of the small separatist enclave, as well as Russian forces coming through the Roki Tunnel on the Russian-Georgian border into Georgia. He had also ordered his armed forces to suppress the shelling by South Ossetian militia of Georgian villages in that province that were under the control of Georgian peacekeepers and police. That shelling had been taking place on and off for the previous week, but it had resumed and escalated that evening in spite of a unilateral ceasefire he had ordered. Georgian civilians and peacekeepers had been wounded and killed. He paused, picked up the phone again, and gave a third command: “Minimize civilian casualties.”
This version of the start of the August war is wrong on all its main counts: on whether it was the Russians who made the first aggressive move, whether the South Ossetians shelled Georgian villages in the hours before Tbilisi’s assault and whether the Georgian leadership was interested in avoiding civilian casualties. Saakashvili transmits a message in which his country was the unambiguous victim—the Russians invaded to steal Georgian territory after the South Ossetians needlessly attacked Georgian civilians. It is well pitched for consumption in Western capitals but a long way short of the whole truth.
The first assertion—that a Russian military column invaded Georgian territory by moving into South Ossetia shortly before midnight on August 7—can even be questioned using only official Georgian sources. In fact, the claim was not made by Georgian leaders until two days into the war. On August 8, the powers that be in Tbilisi made a statement to the United Nations Security Council in New York that Russian forces had first come through the tunnel at 5:30 AM that day, six hours after the Georgian attack. A similar argument was proffered in the decree of martial law presented by the president to the Georgian parliament on August 9.
The second claim, that Saakashvili’s order to attack was made after sustained South Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages on the evening of August 7, does not fit with the report of the three international monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who took shelter in a Tskhinvali basement that night and would have been able to hear, especially in the hours of darkness, any artillery bombardment on those villages. Their confidential report—an open secret among diplomats in Tbilisi which was leaked to the New York Times three months later—said that the evening of August 7 was quiet until the Georgian government’s assault began.
As for the Georgian president’s supposed call to minimize civilian casualties, dozens of regular Ossetians did die in the artillery bombardment of August 7–8, and the fact that others did not perish probably can be attributed more to a large-scale evacuation of the city in the preceding days than to the mercy of the Georgian army. As the former citizens of Grozny know well, the Soviet-era multiple-rocket-launched Grad (the word means “hail” in Russian) that the Georgians fired at targets in Tskhinvali is an indiscriminate weapon that is almost guaranteed to maim and kill civilians in an urban area. In its report on the Georgia war, Amnesty International concluded that their “representatives also observed damage caused by Grad missiles during the night of August 7 in built up areas [of Tskhinvali] at least half a kilometre” from predetermined targets, such as the bases of the Russian peacekeepers and munition and fuel depots on the southern and western fringes of town.
We now know most of the truth of how war broke out, especially following the detailed 2009 European Union report on the conflict. It is very different from the standard Western media accounts of the time. The real version is more or less as follows: on August 7, 2008, after weeks of low-intensity skirmishes in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, President Saakashvili made a decision to attack and recapture its capital Tskhinvali. The Russians had been building up their presence among their increasingly partisan peacekeepers for weeks and were very likely preparing an operation of their own, perhaps to depose the alternative pro-Georgian leader resident in the territory. Saakashvili was certainly acting under equal parts threat and provocation on the ground—but it was he who struck first. The Russians were briefly taken by surprise—in fact, Vladimir Putin was out of the country having just flown to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games—and it took them half a day to respond properly.
Tbilisi’s troops captured most of Tskhinvali and for twenty-four hours, Saakashvili was a hero to many Georgians. He and his fellow leaders talked of the “liberation” of South Ossetia. But the Georgian offensive quickly ran out of professional troops, reservists were not up for a fight and reinforcements were late in arriving from their deployment in Iraq. And the Kremlin was only a few hours behind. Presented with a golden opportunity to take revenge on a foreign leader he loathed, Putin could extend his ambitions. Russian planes bombed Georgia proper and Russian ground forces began to exert superiority in both numbers and technology: they first rolled the Georgians out of Tskhinvali and then rampaged through the rest of the country. It has been called the “five-day war,” but the fighting really lasted less than two days.
Why rake over these old details? As Winston Churchill said, “the use of recriminating about the past is to enforce effective action in the present.” The point here is that there were two proximate causes of the August war. One was Vladimir Putin’s Russia flexing its neocolonial muscles in its neighborhood (and the brutality the Russians unleashed on Georgia was indeed a horrible sight). But the second impetus for Putin’s actions was that the Georgian leadership gave him cover, raising the temperature in both breakaway regions by building up Georgia’s armed forces on their borders and proclaiming that Tbilisi’s recovery of the two provinces was only just over the horizon. Saakashvili’s impetuous efforts to recover the two territories rebounded on him disastrously. Tensions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia had escalated to a point where war was already in the air early in 2008. The Georgian president eventually went for the military option that summer, apparently believing he could pull off a swift twenty-four-hour operation in South Ossetia and live with American rebukes afterward as he celebrated victory.
Saakashvili faced a difficult choice. That fateful night he made a snap judgment in a highly pressurized environment in which the Russian threat in South Ossetia was very real. In this small, multiethnic patch of land, ethnic Georgian and Ossetian villages adjoined one another in a complex jigsaw puzzle. The severing of a road here or a new roadblock there threatened encirclement or expulsion for one community or the other. Saakashvili took a gamble. In that sense he was, strange to say, less to blame than his Western friends—chiefly the ones in Washington—who could see the bigger picture and the bigger dangers but still did not manage to restrain the Georgian leader from his worst instincts. In South Ossetia, a local dispute was allowed to go global. It is a lesson the United States needs to remember if it wants again to go head-to-head with Moscow in Russia’s immediate neighborhood.
A decade and a half ago, the main American sin in the Caucasus was not over-keen interest, but neglect. Ron Asmus certainly has a point when he writes, “had the international community applied the same political will, strategic imagination, and resources to this region and created an international process to resolve these status issues as it did in the Balkans, I . . . believe progress could have been made [in Abkhazia] as well.” I have a lot of sympathy for this view. Western countries committed thousands of troops to the Balkans in the mid-1990s after the implosion of Yugoslavia and the bloody conflicts that followed; the UN sent little more than one hundred unarmed monitors to Abkhazia and the OSCE dispatched a mere handful in South Ossetia. This timid engagement stemmed from the unfortunate calculation that this was not an area of vital Western interest; it was much harder to change the situation on the ground in 2008 than it was in 1993. Instead, it was Russia which was allowed to secure the situation inside both Abkhazia and South Ossetia with peacekeeping troops who were basically enforcing a Pax Russica.
Yet it was in this land of unresolved conflicts, graveyards of ancient armies and historic Russian influence that Asmus and others launched a bid to push Georgia into NATO. I put it this way round because, keen as Saakashvili and his friends naturally were to join the Western alliance, they would surely not have raised their hopes so high if they had not seen a green light coming from Washington. Had Western leaders told them that Georgia would be better-off emulating Finland—seeking to move toward Europe by economic means, not through a military alliance—the Georgians would not have been pleased, but they would have accepted the message and recalibrated their plans accordingly.
In fact, the biggest successes of Saakashvili’s Georgia were economic. In the first two-and-a-half years of his administration, government revenues grew almost tenfold, thanks to a big drive for investment, massive public-sector reform and a major crackdown on corruption. Paradoxically, the more the new Georgia was praised as a “beacon of democracy,” the more it actually veered from that path. As Asmus himself allows, “Saakashvili soon became a poster child for the Bush Administration’s ‘freedom agenda’ and democracy promotion efforts.” Saakashvili was Bush’s natural soul mate: a young, energetic, U.S.-educated leader with little time for the caution of old Europe, the Georgian president committed troops to Iraq and wowed American audiences with his fluent English. With the sheen of the other colored revolutions fading, Saakashvili’s Georgian experiment became more and more celebrated, its deficiencies overlooked.
Back in Tbilisi, as the Georgian analyst Ivlian Khaindrava memorably puts it, Saakashvili had a “government by day” and a “government by night.” Washington and CNN studios saw the young, articulate, English-speaking reformers, but they did not see men like Vano Merabishvili, Saakashvili’s interior minister and chief enforcer, or Niko Rurua, an ex-paramilitary fighter who is now the minister of culture. It is men like these who sit with the president late at night in his office, making the big decisions. And it was they who supervised the crackdown against antigovernment demonstrators in November 2007, when riot police cleared the streets of Tbilisi and smashed up the studios of Imedi, then an opposition channel—an episode that barely figures in Asmus’s book. For men like Merabishvili and Rurua, it is more about control than about democracy. In November 2009, Transparency International reported that “Georgia’s media is less free and pluralistic than it was before the Rose Revolution in 2003 and the ousting of President Eduard Shevardnadze.”
These shadowy figures were also behind the massive buildup of the Georgian armed forces that preceded the 2008 war. Asmus honestly concedes that there were plans to launch a military operation in South Ossetia in 2004—a plan scotched in Washington—and for a “preemptive Georgian military move” on Abkhazia in the spring of 2008, as the Russians were increasing their military presence there. Presidents Bush and Saakashvili had a misunderstood conversation in which the latter apparently believed he had been given the go-ahead for military action. It took high-level diplomatic intervention to dispel the impression. U.S. officials delivered repeated messages in private that they would not support a military campaign, but they never said so strongly in public. Here, it seems, was the flashing amber light that made Saakashvili think that if he did launch a quick military strike, he would be allowed to get away with it.
Asmus berates Western leaders for not being firmer in offering Georgia a NATO Membership Action Plan at the Bucharest Summit of April 2008. Yet, this surely would have presented the Russians with an even-clearer provocation. And Asmus never convincingly makes the case that the main Western military alliance should have admitted a country with two conflict zones on its territory whose de facto authorities regarded Russia as the guarantor of their security. Pushing this agenda was always going to be a game Western countries would lose. When it came to these sphere-of-influence contests, Russia would play harder and dirtier. The Russians successfully exploited Abkhazian and South Ossetian fears of Georgia to tighten their de facto control of those territories. Then, when Saakashvili struck on August 7, the Russians vented their pent-up frustrations on a series of issues—Kosovo, Iraq, NATO expansion into Central and Eastern Europe—on unfortunate Georgia.
Saakashvili still has almost three years to run on his second term. This year may be his toughest yet. The $1 billion aid program allocated by America at the end of the war will be almost gone by December 2010, and U.S. financial assistance is set to drop to little more than $60 million in the years to follow. The wave of privatization auctions launched earlier in Saakashvili’s tenure is coming to an end, so there is not much new revenue to be expected from that source. The end result is likely to be a sharp economic crisis this fall, which Georgia has been cushioned from for the last two years. This, perhaps more than anything, could threaten the stability of Georgia and the length of Saakashvili’s tenure.
As ever, Saakashvili seems to be choosing all options at once. Temur Yakobashvili, the minister responsible for negotiating with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has launched an enlightened new strategy for the breakaway regions which commits the Georgian government to abandoning its policy of isolation for one of economic engagement with the current residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is almost certainly too late, as critics point out, but still a policy worth pursuing. Other Georgian officials are planning to reform the corrupt judiciary and introduce jury trials. At the same time, Saakashvili is not afraid to hurl the most vicious political abuse at his opponents and authorizing the kind of scare tactics that made people believe in the fake Russian invasion.
All eyes are now on the mayoral election in Tbilisi, as it is likely to be an indicator of the much larger political future of Georgia. Up to a quarter of Georgia’s population live in the capital city, and Saakashvili suffered the indignity of losing the popular vote there in the January 2008 presidential election. This is a chance for him to gather back his pride. The mayoral incumbent, Gigi Ugulava, one of Saakashvili’s inner circle, is the favorite. He is busy performing high-profile public works round the city and will benefit from a new electoral law, under which he needs just 30 percent of the vote to win, and from what post-Soviet officials call “administrative resources”—that age-old advantage of incumbents to use the levers of power to advance their electoral prospects.
But Ugulava’s main opponent is an impressive man. Irakli Alasania was probably Saakashvili’s most enlightened official. As his chief negotiator with Abkhazia, he came tantalizingly close to a framework peace plan before Saakashvili vetoed him and had Alasania transferred to be ambassador to the United Nations. Alasania also has patriotic credentials: his father was one of the Georgian leaders in Abkhazia who was murdered at the end of the war in 1993. Yet, having joined the opposition, Alasania is struggling to remake himself into a public politician. He appears too good mannered, too diplomatic and too hesitant to succeed.
With Georgian politics in new ferment, Alasania’s calm demeanor could yet play to his advantage, and perhaps even allow him to pull off an upset. That would mark the beginning of the end for the Georgian president. Conversely, if Ugulava is seen to defeat Alasania fairly, that will demoralize Georgia’s fractured opposition and reinvigorate Saakashvili.
The mayoral election, of course, is not the be-all and end-all. Even if his man wins fair and square, it will not be unqualified good news for the president. Saakashvili’s team is broken into different, jealous factions. And in typical Georgian political fashion, if elected mayor of the capital city, Ugulava might well start positioning himself to be the next president, distancing himself from his patron in the process. It could be merely the opening of a new front in Georgia’s manic political battles.
Faced with these multiple challenges, it is hard to say what Georgia’s unpredictable president will do and whether his better or worse instincts will come to the fore. Saakashvili’s invocation of the Russian threat could become a self-fulfilling prophecy on one of the porous de facto boundaries with Abkhazia and South Ossetia; a small provocation there by either side could escalate into something much more dangerous. Now, even more than a few years ago, Georgia needs disinterested help. Many Western leaders who called themselves Georgia’s friends have not served it well over the past six years. If the need arises to steady the ship through the next storm, we can only hope they are not looking the other way.
Ronald D. Asmus, A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 272 pp., $27.00.