Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s report on the members of the new Georgian government is worth reading:
De Waal says that Saakashvili’s refusal to engage the regions, particularly Abkhazia, directly has enabled the Kremlin to take that region’s dependence on Moscow for granted — and that could change soon.
“It could be the Russians’ real nightmare — to have a Georgian who wants to have real and substantial engagement with the Abkhaz and South Ossetians,” de Waal says. “In a sense [the Russians] have had it easy since 2008 in that the previous government has cast the conflict as a Russian-Georgian conflict and basically nothing, or very little, has happened.”
It hasn’t only been the Georgian government that has done this, but sympathetic Western governments as well. One of the points that Samuel Charap and Cory Welt made in their 2011 report on the subject was that the U.S. has also typically treated the conflict simply as one between Georgia and Russia with virtually no attention paid to the other conflicts:
Indeed, Washington discussions often seem to ignore the fact that while there is a Russia-Georgia conflict there are also Georgian conflicts with the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians. This is not to cleanly separate the external and secessionist conflicts conceptually or practically. But we should acknowledge that there are three Georgia conflicts (with Russia, the Abkhaz, and the South Ossetians) that exist on two levels (interstate and internal). (p.10-11)
Whatever the reasons for this oversight, it distorts the American understanding of the conflicts, which has made conflict resolution that much more difficult. De Waal explained in his recent book, The Caucasus, that the general Western refusal to engage with the separatist regions also contributed to the increase in Russian influence in the previous decade:
The default policy of isolating the separatists persisted and only drove them further into the embrace of Russia. (p. 223)
Rejecting a policy of engagement for fear of legitimizing or somehow aiding another government’s policies tends to be self-defeating. As far as Georgia is concerned, that could be changing with the appointment of new Georgian cabinet ministers with an interest in a different approach to the separatist regions. As the report explains, the new minister for “reintegration” is a well-respected person with a history of working on building ties between Georgia and the two separatist republics:
“Paatra Zakareishvili is an extremely thoughtful, impressive person who has worked for more than 10 years — possibly, the Georgian who has been most involved in dialogue with the Abkhaz and South Ossetians, going way back to the war when he was involved in negotiating prisoner exchanges and getting dead bodies out of Abkhazia,” de Waal says. “He’s a man who really respects them and they respect him.”
Resolving these conflicts will still be extraordinarily difficult, but it’s possible to imagine how tensions can at least be reduced under this government. That wasn’t at all likely under the old one. If the change in government reduces the chance of renewed warfare, Georgia and the entire region will benefit, and that would keep these conflicts from turning into a new crisis that once again jeopardizes regional stability and undermines good U.S. relations with Russia.