Russia moved to recognize the contested territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on August 25 in a move apparently calculated to capitalize on lingering tensions between Moscow and Georgia following the two countries' armed conflict this month.
The Federation Council the upper house of Russia's bicameral parliament voted 134-0 in favor of a resolution to formally recognize both territories. The lower house, the Duma, quickly followed suit. "Today it is clear that after Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia, Georgian-South-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhazian relations cannot be returned to their former state," Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov was reported as saying during discussion of the resolution. "The peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have the right to get independence."
Mironov had earlier promised both regions recognition if Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took a "relevant decision," Interfax reported on August 20. Russian law stipulates that Medvedev must approve the resolution before it becomes an official act of recognition.
Even without a presidential signature, the resolution's timing has increased the strategic stakes in what appears to be Moscow's ongoing game of dare with both Tbilisi and the West. Most recently, a war of words has broken out over whether or not Russian peacekeeping posts outside of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are in compliance with a cease-fire protocol between Georgia and Russia.
One prominent pro-Kremlin Moscow analyst recently argued that recognition of the two regions as independent countries could allow Russia to assert itself in Georgia once again. "If the West continues to support [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili, there will be new demonstrations in South Ossetia, and the preparations for a new round of aggression will oblige us to help and protect the republic," Sergei Markov, a political analyst and parliamentarian close to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, wrote in Moskovsky Komsomolyets on August 22. "The recognition of its independence will enable us to send our forces there."
Western leaders have expressed no desire to ditch President Saakashvili. In arguably the most significant sign of public support to date, the White House announced on August 25 that US Vice President Dick Cheney will visit Georgia in early September. A concrete date for the trip has not yet been fixed. Cheney is widely viewed as a leading hawk in the Bush administration.
As Moscow ponders a possible response to Cheney's visit, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have embraced the Russian parliament's decision a move for which both pushed in the aftermath of international recognition of Kosovo earlier this year. "We'll never live in the territory of Georgia," declared a triumphant Eduard Kokoity, South Ossetia's de facto president, on August 25.
In Tbilisi, where both separatist governments are widely seen as marionettes acting at Moscow's behest, the decision was greeted with an official shoulder shrug as if to say, "so what?" The State Ministry for Territorial Reintegration did not respond to requests from EurasiaNet for comment. In remarks to Georgian television reporters, State Minister for Territorial Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili later asserted that the decision has only further isolated Russia from the international community.
Georgian President Saakashvili has stated that having a meddlesome neighbor like Russia is simply Georgia's "geopolitical fate."
Some mid-level officials take a slightly sharper line. Vasil Tchkoidze, chief of staff for the Georgian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee characterized the vote as "absolute nonsense."
"Russia is trying to legalize its occupied territory in Georgia," Tchkoidze said. Without the support of over 100,000 ethnic Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he added, the resolution will not "dramatically change" anything on the ground. "It is absolutely nonsense to recognize a territory without the consent of its population," he said.
The separatist leaderships of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have a different take. Before the latest conflict with Georgia, Abkhaz officials described returning the ethnic Georgian population displaced by the 1992-1993 war with Georgia as a gradual process; one that first required their economy to recover from the effects of war and a 12-year-long Commonwealth of Independent States trade blockade. South Ossetian officials took a similar position, arguing that ethnic Georgians already willingly lived in their territory.
One Georgian analyst contended that Moscow would be acting impulsively, and not in its best interests, if Medvedev formally authorized the recognition of the separatist enclaves. "We should
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.