Georgian officials are scoring points in the court of public opinion, as the spat between Georgia and Russia over the downing of a drone reconnaissance plane escalates into a broader, more philosophical discussion over the sovereignty of nations.
Georgia and Russia have traded accusations of skullduggery and nefarious intentions since the April 20 downing of an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane off the coast of the separatist territory of Abkhazia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On April 23, following a closed-door session of the United Nations Security Council, Georgia appeared to have gained the upper hand in the PR battle. After the session, which featured a debate on the drone shoot-down, four leading Western countries issued a statement critical of Russia's recent behavior. The statement expressed specific concern over Russian leader Vladimir Putin's April 16 order enabling an expansion of commercial and political contacts between Russia and Abkhazia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We call on the Russian Federation to revoke or not to implement its decision," said the statement, issued by the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
Russian officials, having lost the round at the UN Security Council, effectively told the Western allies that they were dreaming if they thought Moscow would back down. "This is not something which is going to happen," Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy to the UN, said in reference to the statement.
Georgian officials, meanwhile, are intent on focusing international attention on the broader geopolitical picture in the Caucasus, believing that doing so will boost Tbilisi's efforts to gain membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Top Georgian leaders in recent days have been asserting that the shoot-down incident is part of a pattern of aggressive and expansionist behavior on Russia's part. Ultimately, Tbilisi hopes that if it can convince the West that Russia is an inveterate bully, then French and German resistance to Georgian membership in NATO will recede, if not evaporate.
Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze gave a detailed overview of recent Russian moves in Abkhazia -- from Tbilisi's perspective -- during an appearance April 22 at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. Russian behavior has "very much intensified the process of de-facto control over Georgian territories," Bakradze said. The Georgian foreign minister condemned Putin's April 16 edict, saying it represented "a very big step forward towards the practical absorption of this space into Russian legal system."
Bakradze also voiced concern about Russia's renunciation of its commitment to uphold the 1996 decision of the Commonwealth of Independent States not to deal directly with the separatist regime in Abkhazia without the approval of the central government in Tbilisi. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. By unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement, the Russians have "freed up their hands for their possible increased military presence in Abkhazia and that is a very, very, dangerous development," Bakradze said.
Bakradze said that developments related to NATO and Kosovo help explain Russia's actions in the Caucasus. At NATO's Bucharest summit in early April, Georgia saw its hopes for obtaining a Membership Action Plan (MAP) frustrated. Experts attributed the reluctance of France, Germany and other European members to give Georgia a MAP to a determined Russian PR offensive. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
To placate Georgian leaders, NATO issued a statement essentially assuring that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO members, without setting any timetable for accession. NATO also said that it would revisit the MAP issue in December. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In Washington, Bakradze characterized the statement as a "compromise between supporters and skeptics" of Georgia's and Ukraine's membership bids. The problem with the Bucharest statement, according to Bakradze, is that it left Georgia in a "kind of grey zone" until at least December, which "worries us" since "people in Moscow" believe they have only a few months to try to frighten the Europeans into blocking Georgia's near-term MAP aspirations. "So from that viewpoint, we are now in the increased risk area, and I think one of the reasons of more active and more aggressive [Russian] policies is exactly the fact that this is the window of opportunity: to blow up Georgia in order not to make MAP in December possible."
Bakradze also believes that the circumstances surrounding Kosovo's declaration of independence have heavily influenced Russian behavior toward Georgia. In particular, "people in Moscow think that after Kosovo they obtained a kind of moral high ground, vis-à-vis United States, and vis-à-vis European Union, because of the way Kosovo was recognized." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Moscow now feels more comfortable supporting separatists in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Another speaker at the SAIS forum, Matthew Bryza, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for Caucasus and Southeastern Europe, called the current crisis a "test" for all parties involved in the Abkhazia peace process. "It's a test for the international community," Bryza said. "It's a test for my government as one of the members of the
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.