Georgia’s run at asserting itself in the rebel territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia appears definitively over. Pro-western President Mikhail Saakashvili is now more exposed to critics at home than ever. As for relations abroad, any ambitions Washington may have harboured to extend NATO into the Caucasus region have been seriously compromised, although the organisation still supports Georgia’s longterm hopes. Just four months ago, Saakashvili was claiming a breakthrough in his drive to join the Atlantic alliance.
The Bush administration’s agenda promoting this is seen as perhaps having emboldened the Georgian president into provocative action, without anticipating such a fierce Russian response. Foreign policy pundits single out one particular reason Russia rebounded so strongly to Georgia’s moves in South Ossetia. Moscow was furious at being neutralised in another of its traditional theatres of influence: Kosovo. Russia bitterly opposed Kosovo’s independence claim while the US and EU countries backed it.
Where Russian supremacy had prevailed in former soviet Chechnya, Moscow was determined to foil Georgia’s attempt to dominate South Ossetia. Saakashvili’s landslide victory in elections held after the Rose Revolution let him reorient Georgia towards the West. But now his opponents say he is throwing his weight around in the same authoritarian way as those he once challenged. His international political credibility devalued and his military humiliated, Saakashvili’s future is shrouded in doubt.