Georgia’s frozen conflict: a threat to the stability of the Caucasus

In case you were wondering, Georgia is a small nation in the Caucasus with an extraordinarily rich history dating back to the 13th century BC. Despite its unique culture, its importance on the world stage is motivated by its complex geopolitical situation

As a breakaway republic of the former USSR, it experienced a difficult decade in the 1990s, facing economic and financial crisis, political instability, widespread violence, and ethnic separatism.

The main ethnic minorities in the Georgian SSR were the Abkhazians, a Caucasian ethnic group living in the autonomous Abkhazian SSR, and the Ossetians, an Iranic ethnic group living in the autonomous Ossetian Oblast. 

The conflict begins

During the last days of the Soviet Union Georgian nationalism was resurging, and interethnic tensions began to appear. On 11th December 1990 the Ossetian Oblast declared itself a distinct Soviet Republic under direct rule from Moscow. Tbilisi’s response was the dissolution of the Oblast. All of a sudden, the situation worsened sharply. Ossetians started raising militias against Georgia. By January it was already open war. In the meantime, the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia was finally independent under the rule of the newly democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who promised harsh retaliations against secessionists forces. As the conflict escalated, Russia started supporting Ossetia. In 1992, Gamsakhurdia was ousted in a coup by Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign affairs minister under Gorbachev. Few months later Abkhazia declared independence too. The situation was extremely chaotic since there was an ongoing civil war between the supporters of Shevardnadze and Gamsakhurdia while Georgia was fighting against the secessionist republics of Abkhazia and Ossetia. 

In 1993 Russia mediated a ceasefire between Georgia and Abkhazia and Ossetia, which started to be de-facto independent states, although Georgia was still in control ofcontrolling part of them. In exchange Georgia joined the Russian-led CIS and started reshifting towards the Russian sphere of influence. 

After ten years, in 2003, Shevardnadze was peacefully ousted by the western-supported “rose revolution” and the country realigned  to the West, even considering joining NATO and the EU. In 2006 Georgia made a further western push, withdrawing from the CIS council of defense. Tensions with Russia rose quickly and in 2008 Russian troops started entering Abkhazia and Ossetia (which Georgia still considered part of its ownterritory). Georgia felt threatened and launched an offensive to regain Abkhazia and Ossetia, but this time Russia directly intervened in the conflict declaring war on Georgia. While western powers were too concerned with the financial crisis and the ongoing US elections, Russian troops easily advanced into Georgia proper. Meanwhile secessionist militia took full control of the remnant territories still held by Georgia and proceeded to cleanse ethnic Georgians.

The cold conflict heats up

The aftermath of the conflict saw Abkhazia and Ossetia de-facto fully independent from Georgia yet not recognized by the majority of the UN members.  The situation is often described as a so-called “cold conflict” that may be reheated resulting in a destabilization of a traditionally unstable region. 

A similar case can be the neighbouring Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict that after almost thirty years of stalemate re-escalated in November 2020. It has been said that peace is still far from being achieved but at the same time there seem to be no real intentions by both actors to reignite the war. Although the recent frictions between Europe and Russia over Ukraine may highlight a new wave of violence at the gates of Europe, we can object that for now this cold conflict is going to be stay cold for a bit. 

A cura di Michele Santolini

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