The longevity of the heavily multi-ethnic former Soviet Union can be partly explained by a federal system that granted degrees of notional autonomy and status.
The Soviet constitution even permitted secession for the Union’s republics which, of course, included Georgia and Russia.
On the other hand, it was understood that secession of any country could only be undertaken by the appropriate local communist party, which, through the heavily centralised and indoctrinated system, was hardly likely to occur.
As an added measure, this Soviet federal system was also seen as a series of the famous Russian nested dolls – one fitting inside another. In a crisis, a tacit internal balance of power system kicked in, ensuring that a smaller national unit would fear its immediate superior and turn to a larger unit – namely Russia – for protection. The consequences of these almost mythical structures were felt when the USSR began collapsing and most profoundly in Georgia.
That Soviet republic, with an intricately multiethnic population, had not one but three sub-units deliberately created in its territory for the three non-Georgian minorities of the Ossetians, Abkhazia and Adjarians.
Ethnic Russians were few in each of these units but these non-Georgians would have cause for fear in an independent Georgia, and would turn to Moscow for protection. Of the three, only Adjaria, which still has had strained relations with Tbilisi, even prompting a Georgian blockade, has avoided outright war with Georgian authorities in the post-Soviet era
The benefits to the non-Georgian minorities of their autonomy within that Soviet republic included the creation of a national political elite, as such units had some form of local administration, as well as cultural rights which might include education in the language of the titular group.
The small political opening that created Glasnost in the late 1980s allowed various ethnic groups to (re)assert their national identity; Georgians were among the first and the most strident to do so, not least because of enduring resentment at being colonised twice by Moscow in the 19th century and again after the Bolshevik revolution.
As Georgian nationalism increased, Soviet-era concessions made to peoples like the Abkhaz and Ossetians were reassessed as serving to subjugate the Georgians.
Mistrust and misperceptions were thus strong in Georgia in the early 1990s; the counterbalancing of forces implicit in the nested dolls came into full brutal pratice. Little independent reporting was available then, as now, and the exact dynamics of the outbreak of fighting in Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain disputed – all parties advance their own accounts to legitimate their subsequent actions. They also seek to strengthen their hands in peace negotiations.
Russia provided military assistance in the early conflicts. A weakened Georgia accepted Russian-led peacekeeping in both republics, which ensured a Russian military presence thereafter on Georgian territory, a factor that played directly into the present violence.
Russian military support, including in the form of ‘peacekeeping’, has ensured that Abkhazia and South Ossetia could continue to exist as de facto states. Not even Russia, however, recognized them. Russian President Vladimir Putin, starting in 2006, warned that recognition of Kosovo could be met with the same by Russia of such entities.
In addition, the distribution of Russian passports to the ethnic Abkhaz and Ossetian population was increased, to the point that some 90 per cent possess them. Russian officials, including the defence minister, stated that Russia had the right and the obligation to defend such ‘citizens’. To others this was both a provocative and a ready excuse for intervention.
Furthermore, after NATO’s Bucharest Summit, Putin elevated Russia’s legal view of the republics; while short of outright recognition, these moves suggested to Georgia that Russia was moving to tear them away.
The Ossetian and Russian view is that Georgia caused the immediate provocation of 8 August using the cover of the opening of the Olympics. There is considerable anger among Russians that Western media coverage first referred not to Georgian ‘mobilisation’ and ‘attacks’ on South Ossetia, but to ‘Russia attacking Georgia’. Western media has since noted such. By contrast, the assertions of Georgia ‘attacking’ and ‘invading’ South Ossetia, which remains part of Georgia, incenses Georgian supporters, not least because it implies South Ossetia’s independence.
Since becoming President, Mikheil Saakashvili has pandered to Georgian nationalism and to the painful collective grievance at the effective ‘loss’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by making statements supporting the territorial integrity of Georgia and even of reasserting control over the breakaway republics.
From their viewpoint, the US-sponsored Georgia Train and Equip sponsorship of the Georgian armed forces was also intended to support Georgian military reconquest. Both breakway territories and Moscow considered other Georgian policies to be confrontational. Tensions on all sides were thus considerable well before the ignition on 8 August.
Russia has called a halt to fighting, but only after having militarily secured South Ossetia and causing fear and destruction more widely across Georgia.
It also took the opportunity to expand its forces in Abkhazia causing concern it was establishing a second front.
Whatever the exact causes of the outbreak on 8 August, Russia will have shown that it is willing to use considerable – and in this case unquestionably disproportionate – force in its surrounding areas. While Russia’s moral standing will have been damaged, it has also shown that inability of Western and international powers to face the use of such force.
Dr Rick Fawn is senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews with an expertise in Eastern Europe and Russia