by James Graham
Russia had another compelling reason for supporting the Abkhazians, its own citizens of the North Caucasus. Tied by ancestral heritage, a common Caucasus identity and to a lesser degree by religion they would not have let Moscow forget the abandonment of Abkhazia. Apart from the Chechens, the North Caucasus has remained relatively peaceful since Russia became independent. What effect Russia's support for their fellow kinfolk had on retaining their loyalty is hard to gauge but it certainly avoided a situation where they were in open defiance with Moscow. Conversely, many Chechens gained arms and skills from the Abkhazia conflict. Its policy therefore directly contributed to increasing radicalism and instability in the region that later caused Russia no end of problems. Russia's policy had mixed results in keeping the peace within its own borders.
After 1993 the Russian domestic political situation stabilised allowing a coherent strategy towards Georgia and its ethnic conflicts to form. Specifically Russia's policy aimed at formalising Georgia's position in the CIS, deploying Russian peacekeeping troops in the region with an international mandate and the application of pressure on Abkhazia to compromise with Georgia. Russia chose to secure and maintain its interests in Georgia through Shevardnadze. Relations between the two nations reached a peak in February 1994 with the signing of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that provided for political, military and economic cooperation between the two. A joint air defence system and joint protection of the Georgia border were two of the products of the treaty. Russia however was left to fund the bulk of these and other security initiatives. The disarmament of the Abkhaz forces and the return of 250,000 internally displaced people to Abkhazia demanded by Georgia were largely ignored by Russia. Russia's policy towards Georgia followed a pattern of containment and cooperation during the mid and late 1990s.
Containment however was all Russia could hope to achieve in Georgia's ethnic conflicts in the mid 1990s. With its continuing financial weakness Russia's military presence in the region began to decline both in numbers and in quality. The outbreak of full-scale war in Chechnya in December 1994 was an even more serious constraint. Russia had no will or ability to involve itself in a second major war in the Caucasus. Its policy of cooperating with the Georgians and largely leaving the Abkhazs and Ossetians alone ensured Russia's military and economic resources were stretched no further than Russia could manage.
Vladimir Putin has continued a policy of clear ethnic discrimination by engaging and pressuring Georgia. In December 2000 Russia started requiring Georgian visitors to have visas. This has caused big problems as around 500,000 Georgians work in Russia and send home between $US600 million and $US1.5 billion a year. Visa rules are however milder for people in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia also manipulates Georgia's energy supply to apply pressure or reward it for carrying out Moscow's wishes. Since September 11 2001, Putin has attempted to paint Georgia as a haven for Chechen terrorists and Al Queda members. Using the war on terrorism as a rationale Russia has threatened to attack suspected militants within Georgian territory. With Shevardnadze's regime more secure Russia has felt free in recent times to apply more pressure on Georgia to acquiesce to its demands.
Russia's policy towards ethnic conflict in Georgia has achieved many of its goals. The Russian military still maintains an extensive presence in Georgia and the country remains firmly in the Russian sphere of influence. It has achieved this by ruthlessly manipulating ethnic conflicts in Georgia to its own advantage. Georgia has been left with few choices in the short run but to accept Russia's dominate roll in its internal affairs.
Over the long run, Russia has sowed the seeds for a decline in its influence over Georgia. Russia's duplicity in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is well known to Georgians who continue to tolerate it only out of necessity. However, Georgia's reliance on Russia cannot last forever. The west has taken an interest in the country and provided it with financial aid since the mid 1990s. Russia's focus on terrorism in Georgia has also attracted the attention of the United States already interested in the Caucasus for their potential energy resources. The US has stationed five military advisors in Georgia to train its armed forces to fight terrorism and provided it with ten UH-1H Iroquois helicopters. Both caused alarm in Russia and delight in Georgia. Russia's protection of Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's de facto independence and manipulation of both conflicts for its own gain has undermined Shevardnadze's regime and badly wounded Georgian pride. Russia has thus lost the historic opportunity that the collapse of the Soviet Union presented to forge a partnership with Georgia based on trust and mutual respect. Georgia whether realistically or not more than ever sees its future with the west and the United States in particular, a future that can only be at the expense of Russian interests.
Russia's policy towards ethnic conflict in Georgia has evolved over time in tune with changes in Russia's domestic politics and changes in external factors. The manipulation of these conflicts for short-term Russian gain has been a tremendous success with Georgia submitting to the majority of Russia's demands. Long-term Russia's tactics have served to alienate Georgia further increasing the chance Russia will have to accept growing western involvement in region. Events in Russia will however continue to determine Georgia's prospects for the near future, exactly what Russia always wanted.