The situation around Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is rapidly changing. Russian president Putin asked Russian government to enhance the relations between Russia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russians offer measures like recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian internal passports, enterprises, registered there, etc. – even though declared, they are yet to be outlined legally. This is practically partial recognition of these republics. At the same time Putin offered to ease visa restrictions for Georgians, open borders and start talks about readmission of Georgian good to the Russian market, both moves I must say are rather clever.
As Georgia is backed by the western countries (especially by the US) and Abkhazia and South Ossetia are openly backed by Russia, the situation seems to quickly assume the logic of a struggle between Russia and the West in the old-fashioned Cold War manner.
Even though both the US and EU urge Russia to back off from supporting Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so far they don’t really seem to be ready for any firm action against Russia. Given the incentives for Georgia, they might also be rather mild in the opposition to these moves.
I think, if Russia implements what it has promised, the situation will change profoundly, but also I sense the degree of unpredictability of further developments in the region has greatly increased. Georgians might do something unthoughtful and violence might break out – that would be the worst scenario. Still rather nationalistic, I’m afraid, poor and weak country is being deprived of its breakaway regions. There is still a hope in Russia of course, that seeing this process, Georgian public will revolt and dismiss the current government and the country will abandon its pro-western choice. However, these plans in my point of view are doomed for failure. Russia seems to have started redrawing the borders in the Caucasus, which is going to affect large portions of the region in near future.
The West and most notably the US are in a difficult position: on the one hand, they would not mind to see the problem of Georgian breakaway regions being solved once and for all, on the other hand, this will demonstrate the US’s weakness in face of Russian moves, which will certainly affect the situation in the regions beyond the Caucasus as well. So the US cannot afford really not to react, as well, as do too much.
What I am saying is basically that the situation might relatively easily spiral into a major stand off between Russia and the US (I don’t personally want to believe in this though). The trouble is that the US of course would not like to be used by Georgia as a proxy to regain their lost territories or to solve their problems (and run into a major loggerheads position with Russia), but also I hope the US realizes, that if Russia is somehow not contained, it will expand its ambitions and next time the choice might be even more difficult.
Could there be an agreement between the US and Russia behind the scene? It doesn’t look to me highly likely, but one can expect from the Bush’s administration almost anything. However, more likely is that Russia thinks, that it is good time to flex its muscles, especially as after less than 3 weeks, Putin formally steps down from president’s position (and assumes PM’s role) and therefore his successor will not bear the responsibility for the latest moves.