By: Sara Zeineddine
Abkhazia & South Ossetia
With the emergence of the Soviet Union in the early 20th century, many areas in the Caucasus region became Soviet republics, or autonomous regions within those republics. After its dissolution in the early 1990s, these Soviet republics and autonomous regions declared independence, with some erupting into open conflict.
However, many of these aspiring independent states faced military confrontation on their way to claiming sovereignty. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia claimed independence in 1992 and 1990 respectively, and faced backlash from Georgian authorities. Georgia is located in South Caucasus and also declared its independence in 1991 right after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Russia fully supported these separatists regions, while Western states only supported the claimed independence of Soviet Socialist Republics and not autonomous regions within those republics. This situation led to the five-day war also called the August war in 2008 involving Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Background of the Conflict
In 1921, Georgia became a Soviet Republic under the Stalin regime. One year later, South Ossetia was created within Georgia as an autonomous region which meant that it "has control over its affairs and has the freedom to make decisions independent of external oversight."
However, this region continued its independence struggle, but it never came to fruition. It was either rejected, considered illegal or just simply ignored. Then, it was followed by Abkhazia in 1931, another autonomous region in Georgia.
Nevertheless, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a re-emergence of nationalism and a sentiment of separatism in both these autonomous regions. Their aim was to become entirely independent states with sovereignty over their claimed borders..
The declarations of independence caused a war that lasted until 1992 for South Ossetia and until May 1994 for Abkhazia. They both ended with a ceasefire backed by Russian mediation. For the new Russian state, this was one of the new government's first action in the region.
These referendums for independence were never recognized by the Georgian authorities. As such, they were considered illegal as these regions were integral parts of Georgia.
In addition to this, with Russian military backing, Georgian influence and presence started to diminish and these two unrecognized countries were able to operate with a high degree of autonomy. This only increased tensions between the newly independent state of Russia and Georgia.
During the Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgians staged peaceful protests to overthrow their current government.
Everyday Georgians wanted to show the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) that they had the capacity to be a democratic state. This situation led to the election in 2004 of Mikheil Saakashvili, a Georgian nationalist, who promised to take back control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Russian government refused to accept NATO expansion so close to its borders and saw South Ossetia and Abkhazia as increasingly relevant allies in the region.
The new Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, elected in 2004, had a "plan for South Ossetia that offered substantial autonomy and a three-stage settlement, consisting of demilitarization, economic rehabilitation and a political settlement" (NICHOL, 2009). The South Ossetian president rejected this offer and was swiftly set aside.
He argued that the population of this region always felt like they were part of Russia and that most of them had Russian citizenship. This is in part due to North Ossetia being part of Russia and the Ossetian will of unifying their historically fractured state. Therefore, in November 2006, South Ossetia had an independence referendum, which was not internationally recognized.
The only country to recognize the referendum at the time, was Russia. Georgia was "angered by Russian strengthening ties with South Ossetia in April 2008 while Moscow did not like Tbilisi’s ambition of joining NATO and EU" (HARRIS, 2018).
With time, Russian continued to send 'peacekeeping' troops to the border with Georgia. From the beginning of July 2008, a month before the outbreak of the war, it was noted that "the area is becoming increasingly militarized" (IWPRG, 2013). Russian forces flew to South Ossetia in order to repel any attacks from Georgian forces.
Regardless of Russian presence, Georgia began launching air and ground campaigns on South Ossetia. South Ossetia accused Georgia of "launching a massive artillery barrage against Tskhinvali" (NICHOL, 2009).
During the beginning of August 2008, five Georgian policemen were injured and firefights were happening near South Ossetia. On August 7 2008, the Georgian president responded by accusing South Ossetia of "intense bombing of some Georgian villages in the conflict zone" (NICHOL, 2009).
Dmitry Medvedev, then-president of Russia said that Russians couldn’t let this situation continue because a lot of innocent people were dying, especially since most of South Ossetia's inhabitants are Russian citizens themselves.
He said that "historically, Russia has been, and will continue to be, a guarantor of security for people of the Caucasus" (NICHOL, 2009). On the same day, a cease-fire was called between Russia and Georgia, however it only lasted for a couple of hours.
On August 8, Georgia opened fire on South Ossetia. Russia launched air attacks into Georgia in response to their attacks in South Ossetia. Russia claimed that they were obliged to interfere in order to protect South Ossetians.
Abkhaz forces opened a second front by attacking the Kodori Gorge, held by Georgia on August 9th. Abkhaz artillery and aircraft began a bombardment against Georgian troops in the upper Kodori Gorge. Three days later, a military offensive against the Kodori Gorge was officially initiated by Abkhaz separatists.
On August 10, Georgia withdrew their troops, sparking the beginning of de facto independence for both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The ceasefire was announced on August 12, 2008. Dmitry Medvedev the President of Russia and Nicolas Sarkozy the president of France had a meeting and discussed a ceasefire plan to present to the European Union.
This plan consisted on "allowing humanitarian aid into the conflict zone and facilitating the return of displaced persons" (NICHOL, 2009). However, this plan didn’t mention the territorial integrity of Georgia, which has left both Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a state of 'frozen conflict.'
After the war, Russia immediately recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The international community didn’t share the same idea and interest however. On August 16 2008, a peace agreement was signed, it declared that "Georgia and Russia should withdraw their forces to the position they held before the war" (IWPRG, 2013).
This war caused many casualties on all sides and left the regions in limbo. Infrastructure was badly damaged in Abkhazia, South Ossetia as well as in Georgia. The total cost was about '394.5 million dollars' in damages and Georgia’s economy was at its weakest state since its independence.
With little international oversight, a European Union report declared that '850 were killed during the course of the conflict' (IWPRG, 2013). However, the report does acknowledge the possibility of inaccuracies.
According to the Human Rights Watch, both Georgia and Russia violated human rights during this conflict. As such, international community put a lot of pressure on the importance of a 'cease-fire regime' and 'urgent humanitarian relief.'
It is true that it was a short war, but it had long term effects. Georgia received a lot of humanitarian and rebuilding assistance from many countries, international organizations and non-governmental organizations.
Russia has been accused of "creeping annexation tactics to further divide Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia" (TRICHKA AND MEIMAN, 2018). Even after the war, Russia still had and still had a presence in those regions and Georgia has accused them of occupying 20% of the Georgian territory.
Nevertheless, in September 2008, Russia signed a Friendship Cooperation and Mutual Assistance agreements with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which means that they can both decide on how many Russian troops should be located in their territory.
This five-day war was considered as one of Russia’s first and most important success after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which placed Russia as an independent state back in the international scene. The military deployment of the Russian forces in South Ossetia was the "first major deployment outside of their recognized borders" (CHAUSOVSKY, 2008).
To highlight Russia’s continued involvement, a treaty was signed with South Ossetia where this unrecognized country will "effectively incorporate its military and economy into Russia’s and make it easier for South Ossetians to obtain Russian citizenship" (HALL, 2018).
In conclusion, the Russia-Georgia war has its roots in the early nineties where Georgia and South Ossetia, ex-soviet republics, declared their independence from the collapsing Soviet Union.
The effects of this war in 2008 are still felt until today. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been left in a state of 'frozen conflict' and are considered unrecognized countries in a region with widespread separatism.
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