Tensions between Russia and Georgia escalated again Feb. 1 as the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Moscow of conspiring with breakaway regions to incite violence, thus giving Russian peacekeepers posted in those regions an excuse to remain. Georgia will enjoy significantly increased financial stability — and total oil and natural gas independence from Russia — in the coming year. This will enable Tbilisi to focus on resolving domestic conflicts. And with Georgia's Parliament due to start debating the removal of the Russian peacekeepers, the breakaway regions will be the flashpoints of renewed conflict.
Georgia and Russia had another day of border disputes and mutual accusations Feb. 1. During the night, a traffic incident escalated to a confrontation between the Georgian military and Russian peacekeepers in the border area between the breakaway region of South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia. Later, the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that militants from the North Caucasus were conspiring with Abkhazian separatists to create incidents in order to justify the Russian peacekeeping presence. These events highlight the conflict between Georgia on the one side and its separatist regions and Russia on the other. And with Georgia's Parliament due to start debating the removal of the Russian peacekeepers on grounds that they violated their mandate, the breakaway regions will be the flashpoints of renewed conflict. Clearly, a traffic accident would not have caused so much commotion if it were not for the underlying border situation. It is to Moscow's advantage that the disputes continue to receive attention, as it increases support South Ossetia and Abkhazia — another Georgian breakaway region — for Russia's peacekeepers. Georgia also benefits from the increased attention, as it can present these incidents to its international audience as proof that Russia is meddling within its borders. With the imminent launch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and next year's completion of the South Caucasus (aka Shah-Deniz) natural gas pipeline, Georgia stands to gain complete natural gas and oil independence from Russia, along with cash from transport fees on the BTC. In addition, military and political support from the United States has strengthened Georgia's armed forces, meaning Tbilisi may be confident enough to make more use of its military. If Georgia organizes effectively and garners international support while also achieving energy independence and a fresh cash flow, it could once again attempt to bring South Ossetia under its control. After South Ossetia's secession campaign, which resulted in its autonomy after the breakup of the Soviet Union, many ethnic Ossetians moved across the border to the Russian republic of North Ossetia to avoid Georgian rule. That region, in turn, has had its own trouble, including the September 2004 Beslan incident and constant unease with its Muslim neighbors. If Georgia plans to attempt to retake South Ossetia, the next year would be the best time to do it because of its anticipated improved finances and because of the U.S. contribution to its military organization. Abkhazia is another matter. This separatist region's history and current status suggest a tougher fight. Abkhazia was a separate Soviet Socialist Republic from 1921-1925, on par with Georgia. Its resentment at being incorporated into Georgia is still an overriding factor in its relations with Tbilisi. And constant bickering at the Georgian-Abkhazian border may not escalate out of fears of a bloody reprisal of the previous Georgian attempt to bring the area under central control. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili may therefore postpone acting in this region. Russia has three options on how to react to the Georgian moves in the region. If it keeps the peacekeeping contingents after being the Georgian Parliament tells it to leave, Russia will be vulnerable to being labeled an occupier of a foreign country. Georgia's Western supporters will not look kindly upon that, but Russia will care less following the recent reversal of its geopolitical agenda. Option two is to withdraw, but this would conflict with Moscow's desire to strengthen its periphery. Option three is that Russia will focus its attention elsewhere in the Caucasus. Armenia and the separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, are places where a strategic Russian presence would benefit Moscow. Although Georgia has sought for years to bring its secessionist regions under control, the combination of its better financial fortunes, U.S. support and the relative weakening of the South Ossetian side may allow it to move this year. The danger of the conflict's turning violent will dampen the prospects for Georgia to draw its breakaway regions back into the fold, and may well deter it altogether. If Russia refocuses its attentions elsewhere in the Caucasus, Georgia will be successful — at least in South Ossetia.