Last August’s brief war between Russia and Georgia was fought not only on the rolling hills of South Ossetia, but also on a second front in the international print and broadcast media. If Georgia’s military didn’t exactly distinguish itself on the first front, its government, particularly its president, thoroughly dominated the second.
From the earliest hours of the conflict, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili took to the airwaves to appeal for international sympathy and assistance. By and large, his efforts worked and the Western public bought the story line of a small democratic ally being bullied by a rogue superpower. Russia’s version of the story, that an unbalanced and power-hungry Georgian president was preparing genocide against the ethnic Ossetians, sold well at home but didn’t resonate so well internationally.
In recent months, however, a picture of the war more complicated than either side’s caricature has emerged. None of the sides remains blameless. But in light of this new information, it is now clear that for U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, constraining Georgia will be a task no less important than containing Russia.
Since the end of hostilities and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia proper, Moscow and Tbilisi have continued to trade barbs over the causes and conduct of the war. The origins of the conflict remain murky, with each side rolling out an array of historical analogies masquerading as argument—from Hitler’s 1938 invasion of the Sudetenland to the Soviet Union’s military support for an illegitimate Afghan government in 1979. But one point is clear: Western governments, and the United States in particular, failed to discourage a quarrelsome Georgian government from escalating an internal territorial problem to a regional war.
The Russian military response was precipitous and brazen, and has rightly been condemned by outside powers, but the next U.S. administration must learn that brinkmanship is a game that countries can play with friends as well as adversaries. U.S. officials warned Tbilisi of the dangers of using military force, but Saakashvili escalated his rhetoric anyway and took advantage of Western statements that Georgia’s path toward consolidated democracy and NATO membership were guaranteed. A history of mixed messages coming from the United States contributed to the Georgian government’s sense that a quick, successful war would meet with U.S. approval.
Recent reporting from the Caucasus has questioned Georgia’s account of the origins of the war. A New York Times investigation by two veteran correspondents found that shelling of civilian areas in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, began far earlier than Georgian authorities had alleged. Amnesty International has condemned the failure of both sides in the war to adequately protect civilians.
Although Georgia’s alleged offenses may pale in comparison with the systematic ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages by South Ossetian militias, these recent accounts differ significantly from the initial Western media reports, which were largely based on the Georgians’ own public relations efforts.
Unfortunately, President Saakashvili’s unquestioning supporters in Washington are still guilty of the same simplistic thinking that helped cause the war. These supporters tend to think of Georgia’s interests solely in the context of Russia’s nefarious gambits on Eurasia’s strategic chessboard. Georgians themselves have a far more nuanced view.
Recent polling by the International Republican Institute does show that more Georgians think the country is headed in the right direction than before the war. But when asked what they fear most, only 8 percent of Georgian respondents named “Russian aggression” as their primary concern. Forty-eight percent, by contrast, said the resumption of hostilities is their greatest fear. Moreover, the prospect of EU and NATO membership, though a significant issue, remains less important to Georgians than job creation. So for people on the ground, Russia is neither the obvious aggressor nor the primary threat that outsiders make it out to be.
Saakashvili and his party, the United National Movement, emerged from the war with more support than ever. A party that had been on the wane and embroiled in controversy now garners more then 50 percent approval in national polling. But signs of strain are showing in the president’s base. A number of senior political figures who initially supported Saakashvili’s handling of the war are now publicly asking tough questions of the administration. In early November, as many as 15,000 opposition supporters rallied in Tbilisi to call for early elections and promised a new wave of protests against Saakashvili’s management of the war and its effects.
Western governments would do well to heed the voices of Georgians themselves. They should realize that support for President Saakashvili, support for Georgia’s de jure borders, and support for Georgian democracy are no longer synonymous positions and might even be mutually exclusive. Georgia’s friends should take heed of how Georgian citizens have come to define their national interests—in ways that are more sophisticated, varied, and pragmatic than their leader would prefer.
Mikheil Saakashvili has overseen important reforms and has inched his country closer toward becoming a genuine European democracy, but the United States is now badly in need of a Georgia policy based on both countries’ real interests, not one man’s savvy marketing campaign.
Charles King is chair of the faculty and professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. His most recent book is The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).