Philip Bobbitt says that the crisis reflects Russia’s determination to remain an old-fashioned nation state, dominating its region. Intellectual imagination will be needed to thwart that ambition: a recognition that the post-Cold War world needs new global institutions
Georgia, which was admitted to the UN in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, was beset from the outset by the fatal conundrum at the heart of the national self-determination of the nation state: when is a nation — an ethnic, linguistic, historic-cultural idea — entitled to its own state? In Georgia, two nations — Abkhazis and Ossettians — were isolated within the majority population of ethnic Georgians. Both minority groups were huddled along the Georgian border with Russia. Each rebelled, with some success: Georgia’s president, Eduard Shevardnadze, attempted to assert Georgian sovereignty over these hostile regions and was decisively rebuffed; more than 300,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled — the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was not yet in use — and fled south. A ceasefire was instituted and, riskily, Russian troops were garrisoned in the two breakaway regions as a ‘peacekeeping’ force. In the ensuing years, Russian policy encouraged secession while Georgia aimed at restoring Georgian sovereignty.
Shevardnadze was removed in the ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003 after fraudulent elections prompted mass demonstrations, and in January 2004 Mikheil Saakashvili won a decisive election victory and was inaugurated as president of Georgia. The Rose revolution helped inspire colour revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In each case an autocrat was dislodged from power by largely non-violent demonstrations; in the case of the Ukrainian and Kyrgyz leaders, each fled to Moscow. Saakashvili aligned himself with the West; he sought membership in Nato, sent troops to join the Coalition forces in Iraq, and fought elections that are generally conceded to have been fair and democratic. He recognised considerable autonomy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the region of North Ossetia having remained in Russia).