Last week I read an article in The New York Times on Georgia’s potentially dangerous policy towards the North Caucasus, which I previously discussed here, and I noticed that Center for American Progress was putting together an extensive report to be released later in the month. The report is now online, and this is a introduction to their arguments. The authors, Samuel Charap and Cory Welt, present two possible scenarios for the future of the region. In the first, the conflicts continue unresolved and drag on indefinitely, and the other involves a “process of conflict transformation that reduces tensions, brings people together across the conflict lines, creates trust, builds trade links, and normalizes contacts among authorities.” When things are presented this way, there is no question that the second scenario is more desirable for all parties, but it’s not clear to me that the best way to realize it is for the U.S. to be more “proactive.”

The authors make some interesting proposals, but it is almost certainly the case that things have gone far enough that the separatist republics will never actually be part of Georgia again. Charap and Welt dispute this argument:

The August 2008 war and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia clearly made progress more difficult. Some in Washington seem to have concluded that progress is now impossible and effectively thrown in the towel completely on conflict resolution. To be sure, we shouldn’t expect the conflicts to be resolved in the next few years. But this doesn’t imply that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are forever “lost” to Georgia. It also doesn’t mean that the choice is between permanent dismemberment and the immediate restoration of territorial integrity. Short-term progress is possible and indeed necessary to solve long-term problems.

It is possible that those are not the only choices, but everything in their recommendations rests on the assumption that there is an alternative. There is no doubt that Tbilisi would like to “reintegrate” the two territories in some fashion in the future, but what if that really will never happen? I agree that urging “strategic patience” creates an unreasonable expectation that Georgia can win over the populations of these territories through economic growth and development, but perhaps reintegration itself is an unreasonable expectation. The U.S. may be enabling Georgia to pursue unreasonable goals by lending it consistent support for reintegration.

The authors also describe at some length the problems with Georgia’s “engagement” policy with the North Caucasus:

Further, some of the Georgian government’s steps appear to have nothing to do with engagement. Official calls for issuing a recognition of the 19th century Circassian genocide and of an international boycott of the Sochi Olympics, which will be located just across the Psou River from Abkhazia, seem designed to stir the pot.

The Olympics face increasing criticism by many in the Circassian community, especially in the diaspora, for being held on the site of historical ethnic cleansing or genocide without acknowledgment of the location’s Circassian history. At the same time, some Circassians are mobilizing for a unified ethnic republic in the northwest Caucasus where they are currently divided into three separate federal units.

Official rhetoric on engagement also occasionally sounds more like calls for liberation of all the peoples of the Caucasus—Georgian and Russian citizens alike—from “subjugation, assimilation or annexation” at the hands of outside oppressors. President Saakashvili, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2010, called for “a united Caucasus” having “in common a deep, essential and undefeated aspiration for freedom” and asserted that this “one Caucasus… will one day join the European family of free nations, following the Georgian path.”

While Saakashvili underlined that this vision did not involve “changing borders,” his words clearly invoked the North Caucasus’ subjugation by the Russian Empire, Soviet-era oppression, the post-Soviet Chechen war, and the ongoing socioeconomic inequalities of the North Caucasus regions of the Russian Federation vis-à-vis the rest of Russia. President Saakashvili thus equated his own government’s interstate conflict with Russia to these struggles that are now manifest in terrorist bombs that result in the deaths of dozens of innocent civilians in the heart of Moscow. This was a deeply provocative statement despite the lofty but largely
meaningless and/or false rhetoric.  

In this context, then, Georgia’s engagement policy appears to Moscow to endorse lax cross-border security, promote separatism and possibly terrorism, cause grave international embarrassment to Russia and purposefully add to existing tensions between Georgia and Russia. All of this directly complicates the Georgian government’s stated goals of restoring dialogue with Russia and creating an environment conducive to conflict resolution.

Whatever other recommendations one wants to make, a key element to conflict resolution has to be a cessation of pointless provocations from the government that has everything to lose and nothing to gain through such actions. To their credit, Charap and Welt make a number of worthwhile recommendations on this question, but they assume that Tbilisi would be willing to accept them. Despite occasional signs of pragmatism, Saakashvili seems incapable of crafting a regional policy that is not openly confrontational and hostile to Russian interests. It is clearly a self-defeating approach, as it cannot compel Russia to change its policy, and it gives Moscow one pretext after another to maintain the status quo. Saakashvili has not only made it far more difficult to imagine the reintegration of the territories, but he seems intent on doing most of the things that will make reintegration impossible. If his policies are becoming a significant impediment to restoring normal relations between Georgia and Russia, perhaps 2011 is not the best time to attempt a concerted push for resolving the conflicts.