The Caucasus region, where Georgia is located, is like a patchwork of different nationalities with different languages and cultures. During the Soviet era, the borders between the republics were drawn up without regard to local conditions or the wishes of the inhabitants. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a series of local conflicts erupted when different ethnic groups in the Caucasus demanded independence.
Within Georgia alone, some seventy ethnic groups have joined forces – not always voluntarily or painlessly. In connection with Georgia’s independence in the spring of 1991, the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia and the Autonomous Community of South Ossetia declared their independence. During a short war, the Abkhaz expelled the Georgian forces, but the independence of the area was not recognized by the outside world.
Georgia also partially lost control of South Ossetia. When the Georgian government tried to retake South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, citing a period of military provocation, a short but intense war broke out against Russian forces entering South Ossetia. Russia also sided with Abkhazia and recognized both breakaway areas as independent states. At the beginning of 2015, Russia signed an agreement with both breakaway states on such close cooperation that, in the Georgian opinion, they were almost incorporated into Russia.
Russia’s actions are believed to have been mainly due to irritation over Georgia’s pull towards the West and hopes of joining NATO and eventually the EU. It would drastically change the strategic conditions at Russia’s southern border between Europe and Asia in an area with important gas and oil pipelines.
Georgia’s independence since 1991 has been marked by conflicts with the country’s minorities. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway republics on the border with Russia in the north, have claimed to form their own states. This led to civil war in the early 1990s and since then the situation has remained generally tense in the region. In the summer of 2008, the conflict flared up again in a full-scale war, which ended with Russian troops expelling Georgian forces from the territories. After the war, Russia, which acted as a protective force for the regions, strengthened its influence, while Georgia was in principle completely deprived of control over them, which was strongly criticized in the West.
After months of escalating tensions, Georgian troops attacked South Ossetia in August 2008. Russian units sided with the South Ossetians and full-scale war broke out. The other Russian-backed breakaway republic, Abkhazia in the northwest, seized the opportunity and, with Russian help, forced Georgian forces out of the disputed Kodori Valley. The Georgians were driven back far into the country. The Russian army first stopped 40 km outside Tbilisi, causing panic in the capital. The united Western world sided with Georgia, raising fears of a new “cold war” between Russia and the West.
The war lasted only five days, when an agreement on ceasefire was concluded after EU mediation led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. By then, more than 600 people had died in the fighting and many had been injured or forced to flee. According to the agreement, all parties would withdraw their forces to the positions they held before the outbreak of war. Russia moved its troops out of Georgia, but left them in the breakaway republics.
South Ossetia, an autonomous region, and Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within the state of Georgia, have both claimed complete independence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They both border Russia and the influence from the big neighbor in the north has been great.
Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia issued declarations of independence shortly after the end of the war in 2008 and were immediately recognized by Russia, which concluded peace agreements with them. As a result, Georgia severed all diplomatic contacts with Moscow and left the Commonwealth of Independent States, the CIS. Only a handful of other countries have since recognized their independence. Large parts of the western world have distanced themselves from the demands for independence. The Georgian central power lost its influence over the two regions through the war. Russian influence, on the other hand, increased both economically and militarily, and since 2009 Russian troops have been controlling their borders with Georgia.
Relations between Russia and Georgia have remained strained. The two countries accused each other of being guilty of the war. In September 2009, an EU report was published stating that Georgia had started the war with an artillery attack on the capital of South Ossetia, Tschinvali, which was so disproportionately powerful that it could not be considered defensible under international law. The Commission of Inquiry rejected Georgia’s argument that the attack was aimed at preventing a similar attack by Russia, but noted at the same time that the attack on Tschinvali took place after months of provocations along the border blamed on both sides. Moscow was criticized for invading Georgia, and all parties were accused of abuses during the war. The report also condemned the breakaway republics’ withdrawal from Georgia.
Negotiations began between the countries shortly after the end of the war, mediated by the EU, the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE , but talks were sluggish and the sensitive issue of the future of breakaway republics was ruled out. The situation in the area has remained tense, but mostly peaceful. The OSCE closed its office in the capital Tbilisi in 2009.
In January 2010, a route between Moscow and Tbilisi was opened for the first time in a year and a half, and a few months later the only border crossing between the countries was opened, which had been closed for three years.
Escalation before the war in 2008
Several factors contributed to rising tensions between Georgia and the two breakaway republics in 2008 and led to the outbreak of war in August. During the period, troop exercises and minor clashes took place in the border areas, which was perceived as provocative from both sides.
When Kosovo issued a declaration of independence in February, it fueled the similar ambitions of the Georgian breakaway republics, and in March first proclaimed South Ossetia and then Abkhazia independent states. Earlier in the spring, the Georgian leadership had presented a proposal for increased autonomy for the autonomous territories, which they had rejected. At the same time, Russia strengthened its formal ties with the regions. Moscow accused Georgia of preparing for an invasion of Abkhazia and promised support to the regions in the event of war, and Russian peacekeepers in both areas increased. Russia also accused Georgia of carrying out a genocide against the people of South Ossetia.
Russia was also irritated by Georgia’s aspirations for NATO membership. The issue was first raised at the NATO summit in 2008. Georgia was promised membership but then nothing happened, despite the promise being repeated in 2009 and 2010. A precondition for Georgian NATO membership is, according to several member states, that the country finds a solution to the conflict the breakaway republics, whereupon some believe that there is a Russian interest in the area remaining unstable.
In addition, since the middle of the 2000s, Russia had distributed passports to the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which irritated the central government in Georgia. When the Georgian forces entered South Ossetia on August 7, Russia claimed that it had the right to defend Russian citizens.