Since the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 and the subsequent buildup of Russia’s military presence in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, ￼relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have remained mostly consistent . Russia has maintained its position of relative strength over Georgia and established its military position in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, building bases in both territories with approximately 1,500 troops each. Russia also has seen no need to move forces farther into Georgia; its troops are within miles of Tbilisi, but a pre-emptive move toward the Georgian capital could create a war of attrition or inspire a harsh reaction from the West. Meanwhile, Georgia has failed to gain the kind of support it wanted from NATO and its other Western allies. It is no closer to NATO membership than it was three years ago, and Tbilisi faces a de facto arms embargo from the West — a result of the United States’ focus on the Middle East and South Asia and U.S. and NATO dependence on Russia regarding the war in Afghanistan.
Though the situation in Georgia has remained essentially frozen for three years, there could be changes on the horizon, with upcoming elections in South Ossetia and in Russia possibly serving as catalysts. However, the overall circumstances are not likely to change until the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Recently, Moscow has indicated that it could be considering absorbing the breakaway territory of South Ossetia . One sign of this is a suggestion from the Kremlin-backed People’s Front, a South Ossetia-based political movement, that if for some reason the legitimate choice of a new leader in South Ossetia becomes impossible, the “artificial border between North and South Ossetia must be removed and the south should join the north,” which is part of Russia proper.
Several events could set this process in motion. The first is South Ossetia’s presidential election, slated for Nov. 13. The election will be controversial because South Ossetia’s independence, which was declared along with Abkhazia’s shortly after the August 2008 war, only has recognition from Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and a handful of Micronesian states, while the Georgian government maintains that the territory belongs to Georgia and is under occupation. Furthermore, incumbent South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity has already served two terms and will not be running, and the central electoral commission refused to register opposition candidate Dzhambulat Tedeyev, presumably in favor of Kokoity’s (and Moscow’s) preferred candidate: South Ossetian Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov. The commission’s actions prompted protests that drew several hundred people (some of whom allegedly were armed) in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali in late September and early October. If there are any complications with these elections, Russia could decide to take that as an opportunity to merge the two Ossetias.
This coincides with a leadership change in Russia, where parliamentary elections will occur in December and the presidential election will take place in March 2012. As STRATFOR has mentioned, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s decision to seek a return to the presidency was largely based on global perception, and his expected return will be accompanied by a more assertive Russian foreign policy. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who could soon take Putin’s current role as prime minister, said that while there are no prerequisites for the unification of the two Ossetias now, eventually it would be up to the North and South Ossetians to decide their common fate. STRATFOR sources in Georgia have said this suggests the Kremlin could be keeping the annexation of South Ossetia as one of its options.
Any major shakeup in the region likely would be limited to Russia’s absorption of South Ossetia (which, de facto, has already occurred) and would exclude military conflict in the near term. However, an event scheduled to take place in the longer term could change the equation significantly: the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Russia sees the 2014 Olympics as a chance to demonstrate its importance and status to the world. Moscow thus has invested heavily in Sochi, which until recently was a Black Sea resort city with a population of about 300,000. Russia — along with the numerous foreign firms it has contracted — has been building up infrastructure and investing heavily in the economic and security expansion in the region. Sochi’s proximity to the volatile North Caucasus has made security in the city and the wider region Moscow’s highest priority for the Olympics. Thus, it is in Russia’s interests to limit any major security provocations in the region, including military aggression toward Georgia, to avoid jeopardizing this event.
Abkhazia, the other territory that broke away from Georgia after the 2008 war, has become a major beneficiary of the investment pouring into Sochi ahead of the Olympics, as it borders the Russian province where Sochi is located. The Abkhazian economy has grown as a result of the investment, and there are indications that this economic growth could prompt more assertiveness from the Abkhazian government after the Olympics. This, combined with Russia’s lack of motivation to prevent major security incidents in the region once the Olympics are over, could prove to be the true disruption to the Russo-Georgian deadlock and could make the post-Olympic period in the region particularly dynamic.