His speech had a hard kernel of advice, though: do not try to fight Russia. Georgia’s best hope of reclaiming the territories, he said, was building a country so appealing that the separatists would eventually return voluntarily [bold mine-DL]. Meeting with ethnic Georgian children displaced during the war, Mr. Biden couched that process in terms of years, or maybe decades.

“When all the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia see prosperity and opportunity in the rest of Georgia, and when they look north into Russia — unless it radically changes — and don’t see the same opportunity, they’re going to say to one another, ‘Regardless of ethnic background, I want to be in Georgia,’ ” he said. “That’s ultimately why the Berlin Wall came down.” [bold mine-DL]~The New York Times

If I were a Georgian nationalist, I would find this patronizing and stupid. Georgian nationalists believe they have every right to these territories, and the more hard-line among them aren’t going to be interested in waiting years to win back by persuasion what they believe they already should have by right. If I were a South Ossetian or Abkhazian, I would find it laughable. These peoples are unlikely to be enthusiastic about going back under the control of a government that has committed atrocities against them; their pro-Moscow leaders have every incentive to discourage them from ever considering this. Biden might as well have said to the displaced Georgian children that they would someday return to a Russian-ruled South Ossetia so long as it was well-governed, market-oriented and prosperous, which completely fails to take account of the questions of ethnic identity and security that are at the heart of all of these conflicts. As an American, I find all of this deeply embarrassing.

For the last decade, Russia was booming economically thanks to high oil revenues, and Georgia lagged behind, but this did not inspire Georgians to want to become part of Russia politically. On the contary, increased Russian strength indirectly encouraged an upsurge in Georgian nationalism. Post-Soviet independence for many former Soviet republics meant far worse economic conditions for many years than they had experienced earlier, but their nationalism and particularly the anti-Russian element of their nationalism made independence more attractive to them than any benefits they might have had by remaining under Moscow’s control. For many newly independent and post-communist states, independence and freedom from Soviet domination have gone hand in hand with an explosion of corruption and rising inequality, but it is understandable that they would prefer their own ramshackle states to being part of someone else’s similarly troubled state. For all of my criticisms of nationalism, I understand that the identity nationalism provides people is not something to be taken lightly, nor is it something that can ever be fully erased once it has been built up.

If nationalist peoples decided their political fortunes based on what was most economically advantageous, many would not have pursued national independence in the first place. Few doubt that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are hotbeds of criminality and corruption, and they are hardly flourishing economically, but the antagonism with the Georgians, which was already bad enough in South Ossetia before last year and is now much greater, means that there is no going back. To the extent that South Ossetians emphasize their identity as Ossetians, they have far more reason to attach themselves politically to Russia, where other Ossetians live, than to join Georgia, even if it were not the economic mess that it now is.

As a practical matter, Georgia is heavily dependent economically on Russia for its trade and supplies. If there is to be deeper economic integration leading to political change, it will mean Georgia’s eventual absorption into Russia, not the splitting off of bits of Russia to join Georgia. Georgian nationalists will probably be the first to recognize this.