Having brought to heel a breakaway region with a minimum of violence earlier this summer, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili appears willing to resort to force to bring the self-styled independent regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Tbilisi's control.
Saakashvili's gambit is rife with danger. His current saber-rattling could start a new outbreak of ethnic conflict, as well as put into question the accomplishments and hopes of the "Rose Revolution."
Over the past few weeks, a low-level conflict has been simmering between Georgia and its restive provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Troops have been massed on tense borders, only to be dispersed. Erratic shooting and gunfire in the middle of night - traded by both sides - have started to be the norm. Last week, hours before a scheduled trip to meet American officials, Saakashvili warned that Russian tourists visiting Abkhazia's Black Sea coast via sea transport could be fired upon by Georgian forces -- calling Abkhazia a "war zone." A Russian parliamentarian was fired upon by what is believed to be Georgian-backed forces when his delegation was visiting the area.
The threat of force has pushed Abkhazia and South Ossetia closer to their only meaningful benefactor -- Russia. Saakashvili's war rhetoric appears to be a stratagem to force a confrontation with Russia, claiming Russian forces cannot maintain security in the region - with the hope that Georgia's newfound ally, the United States, will side with it as Saakashvili attempts to reclaim authority over all of sovereign Georgia. This is brinkmanship that can easily go wrong, starting a conflict that benefits no one.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, any semblance of order in the newly independent and sovereign state of Georgia collapsed as well. After a series of bloody civil wars and interethnic conflict, the Georgian regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adzhara were granted, with Russia support and protection, maximum autonomy -- basically independence without internationally recognized sovereignty.
For over a decade, an uneasy status quo was maintained under the watchful eyes of Russian peacekeepers. Then, Georgia's corrupt regime headed by former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was overthrown at the end of last year in a popular uprising known as the "Rose Revolution" spearheaded by Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili's "Rose Revolution" has no interest in the status quo. Without dynamic change, the "Rose Revolution" will die -- including Saakashvili's political ambitions.
Saakashvili has had some successes. The gross corruption and nepotism under Shevardnadze and the undermining of economic and legitimate state power has been put in check. Saakashvili, like Shevardnadze, continues Georgia's political orientation toward the West, particularly the Untied States, and at expense of its huge and historically problematic neighbor Russia. Georgia also looks forward to a new pipeline, purposely routed to avoid Russia and Iran, to come on line soon, helping fill empty state coffers. However, none of the above comes close to consummating the essence of Saakashvili's "Rose Revolution" - the return of a whole and sovereign Georgia.
Of the three restive breakaway regions, Adzhara was the weakest link. Ethnically Georgian, not bordering Russia, and run by an intensely corrupt clan under the auspices of Aslan Abashidze, Saakashvili launched a charm offensive, backed up with a number of implicit and explicit threats and had little trouble convincing residents of the region that Abashidze had to go. Russia, intervening at critical junctures, made it patently clear that it had no interest in blocking Saakashvili's designs. It is rumored that Russia's hands-off approach concerning Adzhara was tied to an explicit agreement with Saakashvili that Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be treated differently.
The majority of Abkhazia and South Ossetia residents are not ethnically Georgian. The two regions border Russia and have openly expressed the hope to become part of the Russia Federation. The very autonomous and vaguely independent republics and Russia have strong interests supporting the status quo: greed on the part of both regional authorities and greed on the part of Russia's peacekeeping contingent.
As long as there is no immediate security or military threat from Georgia proper, the present arrangement pays a handsome dividend to keep things the way they are. The economies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are, for the most part, based on smuggling and other illegal activity, with Russian military personnel more than happy to grease the works for a percentage.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia are more than happy having Russia as a protector. Russia, beset with similar problems on and within its borders, hardly has reason to agree to Saakashvili's agenda. However, the complacency of one side of this growing conflict and the ambitions of the other side are a recipe for senseless disaster.
Saakashvili desires to complete the "Rose Revolution" in a bid toward nationwide reunification as a substitute for slow and uninspiring economic and political reform results centered on his Tbilisi-centric constituency. Attempting to show that Russia is incapable of keeping the peace in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, when in fact he is doing everything to undermine it, is a very risky political calculus.
Saakashvili's hope that the United States will buttress his gambit is also poorly thought out. Russia and the United States have much bigger fish to fry in what is Russia's southern backyard.