South Ossetia might well become Georgia's Chechnya. And the European Union might be the best-placed conflict manager in the South Caucasus, concludes Professor Stefan Wolff from the University of Nottingham in this guest article for Atlantic Review:
As fighting in the separatist region of South Ossetia in Georgia escalates, with Russian air force attacking military targets inside Georgia and Abkhazian rebels in another break-away region of Georgia launching attacks against Georgian military installations, the South Caucasus seems on the brink of a major military confrontation between Georgia and Russia and its allies. The current hostilities are the culmination so far of increasing belligerence on all sides over the past 4 years. With both conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia unresolved but quiet since the early 1990s, it was only when current Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in 2004 that things began to heat up.
To be sure, Georgia has a right to have its sovereignty and territorial integrity respected and an autonomy plan for South Ossetia proposed by Saakashvili in 2005 was generous by any international standards, but fell, of course, short of South Ossetian demands for independence (and possibly subsequent unification with Russia).
The roots of this conflict, however, reach back much farther in history. Ossetians were always considered among the few of the Caucasus peoples loyal to Russia--the Tsar, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia. They live on both sides of the current border between Russia and Georgia. Those who ended up in an independent Georgia in 1991, saw their identity, language, and traditions threatened by an aggressively nationalist Georgian state. Backed by Russia, they launched an insurgency with the express aim of seceding from Georgia. A ceasefire and interim agreement brokered with OSCE help, saw the introduction of CIS peacekeepers in the region, predominantly made up of Russian troops. In the decade-and-a-half since few, if any, of the approximately 70,000 Georgian refugees from South Ossetia have been able to return to their homes, and neither have those 70,000 South Ossetians who fled from Georgia either to South Ossetia or onward across the border to the Russian region of North Ossetia. Under the auspices of the so-called Joint Control Commission, talks and negotiations have been ongoing ever since the end of the war, but with no concrete results even remotely resembling what could be an acceptable compromise to all sides, including Russia.
As the current escalation of military hostilities has put the likelihood of a sustainable settlement off even further, the question is about what the likely outcomes are of the current crisis. While Russia has vowed to defend its citizens and fulfil its peacekeeping mandate (not one approved by the UN, one should hasten to add), it is unlikely that Russia will allow itself be dragged into a full-blown war with Georgia. This would also be rather difficult logistically. There is only one major transport route to South Ossetia from Russia, mountain passes are impossible to cross from about October to May, and there are, so far, no suitable airports inside South Ossetia to cope with a massive Russian troop deployment to the region. On the other hand, Russia's air force is quite capable of engaging the Georgian military, providing back up for its peacekeepers and for South Ossetian forces. This comes at a price (two jets have already been brought down by Georgian air defenses), but it would be enough to deny the Georgians anything close to a victory.
Even without prolonged direct Russian involvement, the prospects of a Georgian victory are remote. Even though the Georgian military has benefited from years of a US-sponsored train-and-equip programs, and has a much more capable fighting force than back in the early 1990s, the mountainous, thinly populated terrain of South Ossetia is not the ground on which a regular military can win against local guerrillas, especially not if they are backed by Russia. Georgia's announcement that will recall at least half of its current troop contingent in Iraq is also an ominous sign of Georgian overstretch in the light of a much more robust Russian response than Georgia may have bargained for. South Ossetia might well become Georgia's Chechnya. The apparent near-total destruction of the regional capital, Tskhinvali, already reminds one of the fate of Grozny in the second Russo-Chechen war in the late 1990s.
So, the most likely outcome in the near future, but probably not after some more blood-letting and civilian suffering, is an internationally brokered ceasefire and withdrawal of both sides to the status quo ante, however that may eventually be defined. This, of course, is only a short-term solution, and moreover not one that will be very stable as low-level hostilities are likely to continue as they did over the past several years. At the same time, Georgia, Russia and the Ossetians will not be able to find a lasting solution themselves. They have tried for many years, with different degrees of sincerity, and failed, so there is a clear need for international mediation.
Any possible settlement will require all sides to make compromises, it will need some innovative thinking on the part of the mediators, and it must offer international guarantees that a deal will stick. With the OSCE likely to be paralyzed between pro- and anti-Russian camps, and the US heading for an all-important presidential election, the EU, which has a particular interest in the region and has made a long-term commitment to it with its inclusion in the European Neighborhood Policy and the appointment of a Special Representative, might be the best-placed player to step up to this challenge and may well prove its worth as an aspiring global conflict manager in the South Caucasus. This does not mean that the EU could, or even should, do this alone, but it needs to take the lead in managing this crisis, liaising closely with all other players and using its increasing weight, and strategic interests, in the region to prevent another war in the Caucasus.
Stefan Wolff is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution at the University of Nottingham. He has authored and edited several books and essays on ethnic conflict, of which you can find more information at his website.
His last article for Atlantic Review was Where Next for Serbia?
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