As the world observes the continuing clash between Russia and the West in Ukraine, tensions are rising further south, in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Like in Ukraine, rivalries among political factions and ethnic groups in Georgia dangerously intersect with the broader Russian and Western struggle for influence in the former Soviet space. Without the dialogue necessary for peace, a serious conflict could erupt here as well, with very negative implications for regional and international security. The situation can’t be ignored.
Located at a strategic crossroads between East and West, Georgia has been a major theater of contention for many years. A country rich in history and hospitality, it is viewed by Washington as a conduit to Central Asian energy and as a means of expanding influence into the former Soviet Union. Moscow views it as an important component of its traditional security structure, enhanced by history and the shared ties of Orthodox Christianity.
In 2003, the Washington-backed Rose Revolution in Tbilisi swept Georgian President and former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze out of power, and brought in the American-educated, staunchly pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili’s government immediately sought to join the European Union and NATO and engaged in provocative anti-Russian rhetoric. Relations with Moscow quickly deteriorated. The situation reached the boiling point in August 2008, when Saakashvili launched a military assault on the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which was protected by Russian peacekeepers. The attack precipitated a five-day war in which Russia expelled Georgian forces from South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, and then formally recognized both as independent states. In response, Saakashvili severed ties with Moscow. Six years later, Russo-Georgian relations remain at a standstill.
In many respects, the 2008 conflict seemed to be a prelude to the developments that are now unfolding in Ukraine. In both conflicts, NATO expansion and attempts by Washington to strengthen US influence in the region played key roles. In both cases, pro-Western governments—overtly antagonistic toward Moscow—did much to fan the flames. And in both cases, Moscow stood firm in protecting its interests.
In the years following the 2008 conflict, Saakashvili’s regime gradually collapsed. In October 2012 his party, the United National Movement (UNM), lost to the Georgian Dream coalition headed by the charismatic Imeretian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili’s victory seemed to herald a new era for Georgia. It was to be one informed more by balanced pragmatism than by Saakashvili’s penchant for pro-Western bluster.
As a leader, Ivanishvili was neither entirely pro-Russian nor pro-Western. He understood the benefits of a relationship with Moscow and vowed to repair relations with the hope of fully restoring diplomatic ties. He also sought reconciliation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and advocated for reopening the Abkhaz railway, which linked Armenia to Russia during the Soviet era. He kept Georgia’s NATO and EU ambitions on the table, likely as negotiating chips with Moscow to help ensure a peace deal with the Abkhaz and Ossetes. At the same time, he openly considered the idea of joining the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union.