War in Georgia How the Caucasus Erupted

Firefights in South Ossetia and the danger of a second front in Abkhazia are the latest flare-ups in an old conflict. First the people in the breakaway regions lost their faith in the Georgian government, then they lost hope of any help from Europe.
Von Carmen Eller

"What you gain by violence can only be held by violence" is the quotation from Gandhi on one Abkhazian Web site. And the words of the Indian leader devoted to nonviolent resistance resonate with many residents of Georgia's breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But a peaceful society in a unified Georgia now seems like a utopian project, even to the most hardened optimists, and the tenor in the once-autonomous Georgian Republic is closer to: "Only war can heal what no longer belongs together."

For days there have been skirmishes in South Ossetia, the worst since the region declared independence from Georgia in the 1990s. Who made the first moves, who started the first gunfight -- those arguments can be spun in various ways in Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. But Georgia has officially started a military offensive to win back the breakaway regions. Russian warplanes are also bombing targets in Georgia, according to reports from Tbilisi. The UN Security Council has still not agreed on how to react.

It's a standoff with little hope for an easy solution. And it is one that, in the past, has repeatedly shone the spotlight on differences between Russia and the US. Russia does not want to lose its influence on the former Soviet Republic of Georgia wheras Washington -- which sees the country as a vital regional bridgehead and as an important transit country for gas and oil -- would like to see the country join NATO and has provided political and economic support.

Since the "Rose Revolution" in November 2003, the US has become even more involved in the region. Washington provided Georgia with development assistance and is an important investor in Georgia. President Mikhail Saakashwili, who studied in the US, has made a number of state visits to Washington. The US and NATO also assisted Georgia in modernizing its army.

President Saakashvili has said more than once that territorial integrity is enormously important for his small Caucasian republic. Europe has also supported Tbilisi so far in the long-simmering conflict over the breakway regions. Geopolitics play a role here: Georgia is an important transit nation for oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea. If Western countries want to support Georgia, they also risk being dragged into a war.

In a televised interview Mikhail Saakashvili has challenged the government in South Ossetia to enter negotiations with Tbilisi. The offer is that of broad autonomy under Russian oversight, but not total separation from Georgia. But such promises now seem counterproductive to the people in these breakaway regions. Their trust in the Georgian government has evaporated, and true independence is no longer truly negotiable.

This is the most important reason why German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier saw his plan for Abkhazia rejected. According to Steinmeier's vision, the question of independence would come only at the end of negotiations. For the Abkhazian leadership this was unthinkable. Independence, for them, is the basis for any future steps. "We won't discuss the question of our status with anyone," said Sergei Shamba, Abkhazia's foreign minister in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE . "Our ties with Russia solve practically all of our problems."

There is little hope for support from Europe. Faced with isolation, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia see no alternative but to turn to Russia as the only reliable partner available.

Indeed, the two regions' so far unsuccessful efforts to wring diplomatic recognition from the international community plays into Moscow's hands. As long as Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain isolated, Russia can keep on strengthening its influence in the area. And if Georgia proves unable to re-establish territorial integrity, it won't be invited to join NATO any time soon -- also a development that would be to Moscow's liking.

The Russian military has also done what it can to help the two provinces break from Georgia. Russia was first meant to act as mediator and peacemaker, stationing peacekeeping troops along its southern border. But it has slipped into the role of a protective big brother, even issuing Russian passports to the citizens of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It has also built a gas pipeline there.

If the situation deteriorates further, Georgia will soon face a war on two fronts. Abkhazia has signed a solidarity pact with South Ossetia. According to Sergey Shamba, troops from Abkhazia started moving toward the Georgian border on Friday morning. Help for both provinces is on the way from volunteers streaming into the region from the northern Caucasus.