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THE OUTLOOK FOR RESOLVING INTERNAL CONFLICTS IN GEORGIA

RIA Novosti

MOSCOW (Sergei Markedonov, head of the department of ethnic relations at the Institute of Political and Military Analysts, for RIA Novosti) - Georgia is preparing for a visit by George W. Bush, who is expected to arrive in the republic after the May VE-Day celebrations in Moscow. "This move from Washington points to its complete support for the historical events in Georgia," said Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. "It also means that the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia concern not only Georgia and neighboring states but also the entire international community."

Despite his harsh statements, the Georgian president has called on the leaders of South Ossetia to discuss the possibility of "reunification" with Georgia as an autonomy. When referring to Abkhazia at a recent briefing, he said Tbilisi had "specific claims" to the breakaway republic that should be "discussed without delay." The claims concern the situation of ethnic Georgians in the Gali region and the perennial problem of Georgia-Abkhazia relations: the return of Georgian refugees to their homes in Abkhazia, from which they fled in 1992-1993.

Long before the Soviet Union's disintegration, celebrated human rights champion Andrei Sakharov described Georgia as "a small empire," and this is not a journalistic exaggeration. The Soviet regime largely helped to turn Georgia into this empire. Moreover, Stalin, an ethnic Georgian born Dzhugashvili, was the Soviet leader for three decades, which gave Georgia a special place in the "family of fraternal nations."

After the collapse of the USSR, the Georgian political class failed to see the simple truth that the continued existence of Georgia within the borders established during the Soviet regime was impossible if it continued to apply the old methods of governance ("small empire").

The first person to understand this in Georgia was Mikhail Saakashvili. As time went by, he started speaking about "a civil nation" and "patriotism ofa common state." "Georgia is the homeland for all of its citizens," he said, thereby recognizing that the "small empire" could not be built on appeals to ethnic Georgian nationalism.

Accordingly, he has called on the leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to search for ways to resolve the two conflicts, which have threatened to tear the "small empire" apart. "We will come to an agreement with the Abkhazes; our strength lies in our multinationality," the Georgian president said recently.

In the early 1990s, the Georgian political elite viewed "federalism" as a near profanity. Today everyone in Georgia, including the president, is discussing models of federalism.

But Saakashvili's peacemaking rhetoric is only one part of his political line. The other part is his willingness to use military force to bring his rebellious opponents to heel, as was proved by last summer's events in South Ossetia and his calls to sink ships that entered the territorial waters of the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia. A few weeks ago, I witnessed a military "demonstration" staged by a Georgian boat off the Sukhumi coast. The challenge led to a "duel" between the Georgian boat and an Abkhaz helicopter. Thankfully, nobody was hurt this time, but such raids are not extraordinary.

Yet Saakashvili is neither Gamsakhurdia nor Shevardnadze: He will not build up his state by killing people. The current leader of Georgia is learning the art of political patience. "It will take several years to return Abkhazia to Georgia, but we will do it, if we are patient enough," Saakashvili said on March 31, 2005. And it was not the first time he had said this.

Georgia's political style changed after Saakashvili came to power. Under Shevardnadze, the breakaway republics, though they were formally regarded as part of Georgia, seemed to be lost forever. But since 2004 Georgia has been acting as if it had not sustained territorial losses and the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia concern solely the determination of their status within Georgia.

Saakashvili is a smarter "imperialist" than Gamsakhurdia was and a more modern and better-educated one than Shevardnadze. He has a goal and he is developing a strategy to attain it.

And yet, the president of Georgia and his allies sometimes overestimate the external factor. There are problems in Tbilisi that Russia, the U.S. and the EU cannot solve. The Georgian leaders should find new approaches and serious political and managerial solutions to change the image of Georgia's political culture. Unfortunately, the concept of "one state-one nation" is inapplicable to modern Georgia, which does not have the legal or military resources to implement it.

On the other hand, attempts to use force to create an empire and unite the Georgian people on the basis of a defensive model that would mobilize the nation are impracticable.



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