This August marks the fourth anniversary of the five-day Russo-Georgian war of 2008. As usual, there has not been any lack of commentary on this event. There is still a dispute over who fired the first shot. And the issue of responsibility of Russian and Georgian leaders is still very much alive. This time, Vladimir Putin’s feelings about Russia’s preparations for the war have been the focus. Even without Putin's comments, it is clear that Moscow was reacting to Georgian attempts to violate the status quo established in the 1990s and that the responsibility for “unfreezing the conflict” can’t be “awarded” to only one side.
Meanwhile, the debates about the “bad guys” and “victims of aggression” create serious obstacles for adequate understanding of the broader political processes that led to the five-day war, an event which was not unique and generated ill will among leaders in Russia and Georgia. It is time to stop looking at the complex phenomenon through the prism of great personal animosity between Putin and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, or vice versa. All speculations on this topic appear reminiscent of forgotten ruminations that without the failed meetings between Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev and Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Aslan Maskhadov could have reversed the contemporary history of the Caucasus. The consequences of the five-day war, the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts as well as other ethno-political quarrels should be examined in the context of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
A reset of the analytical optics allows us to answer more important questions. After the dissolution of the USSR, political science in the post-Soviet countries developed under the powerful influence of the research approach known as transitology. These studies usually are concentrated on changes from authoritarianism to democracy, thereby overlooking numerous regional, ethno-national and cultural nuances and restricting studies to linear and progressive development.
In reality, escaping the USSR to create newly independent entities has not meant a real transition from authoritarianism to democracy; the core of this process has been the formation of new nation-states on the ruins of the quasi-federalist state. The first tasks for post-Soviet states became the definition of their borders, the launching of nation-building efforts and the creation of new political identities. For these states, it was necessary to answer some principal questions: For whom could the new state be “ours”? Who would be considered citizens or aliens?
Thus, in the late twentieth century, the new countries of Eurasia began to solve problems that Central, Eastern and Southern Europe had dealt with half a century earlier. It was only after surviving ethnic tensions and clashes (including expulsions of Germans from the Sudetenland or "population transfers" between Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria) and defined political identities that these predecessors could turn to issues of democratization. Hence, in speaking today about the Eurasian conflicts after the dissolution of the USSR, we need to assess them based not on the criteria of the Spanish, Portuguese or Greek transitions of 1974–1981 but on the earlier interwar history of fractures in the Sudetenland, Teschen, Danzig or Memel.
In December 1991, the state that had occupied one-sixth of the globe disappeared off the map. But the process of the Soviet Union’s disintegration had only just begun. The weakening integration capacity of the Soviet state and the loss of a unifying ideology—Soviet communism—provoked a process of ethno-national self-determination in the republics of the former USSR. It was unrealistic to assume that once independent they would be realized exclusively according the prior union’s borders. The newly independent republics had to prove that their borders, originally marked by the Soviet People's Commissars, were not fictitious, and new nation-states with the dominant groups defined in the Soviet period as “titular” needed to be accepted by numerous ethnic minorities. Hence extreme ethno-nationalism, tough political rhetoric and populism became the norm.
In the early 1990s, the first wave of conflicts took place when the new de facto entities offered a vision of the ethno-political self-determination that contradicted the interests of the former union republics. A temporary pause in hostilities did not stop any revanchist moods or desires to consolidate the victory. As a result, sides that saw themselves as the losers attempted to restart the conflicts.
So it was in Chechnya in 1999–2000 after the Russian defeat in Khasavyurt in 1996. The same thing happened in Georgia in 2004, although, unlike in Russia, the central authorities were defeated. However, in comparing Russia and Georgia with their separatist challenges, one can only regret that Tbilisi did not have the ability to conduct a competent audit of its own foreign and domestic resources. It was one thing to copy the style of Russian leaders on dealing with the media and the opposition and quite another to carry out large-scale geopolitical strategy.