Russia and Georgia: How Did We Get There and What's Next?

Oct 24, 2008

Georgia and Russia expert Oksana Antonenko discusses the history behind the headlines, and what the future may bring to this troubled region.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. I'm David Speedie. I'm Senior Fellow and Director of the Global Engagement Program here at the Council.

I would just say that we sent out what I'm told by more informational-technology-able colleagues is called an "e-blast" last Friday, literally two days before a holiday. And now to have this attendance is quite remarkable, and I think is a testimony both to our guest and to the subject matter that we are going to discuss today.

One of the global engagement focuses that we have is on the relationship with Russia. In fact, it is our first project, made possible by the generous support of the Alfred and Jane Ross Foundation here in New York.

In that context, we are very pleased and privileged to have today as our guest Oksana Antonenko. Oksana is the Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

I just returned from London. I met with Oksana last week, found out she was coming to New York, and instantly stamped her dance card to be here this afternoon. So, Oksana, thanks very much for coming on such short notice.

I don't want to take much time by way of introduction because we have only scheduled an hour and I'm sure there will be plenty of questions. Let me just say that Oksana is probably the first person I ever met in Russia. I came to Moscow for the first time in 1993, and I think you met me at the airport, Oksana, when we were doing something for the Harvard Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project. That's when we met. So we go back a long way in terms of my career in Russia.

Basically, I'd like Oksana to speak for maybe 15-20 minutes, at most, on the current situation, the topic that we have called "Russia and Georgia: How Did We Get Here and Where Do We Go Next?" While not in any way prescribing what you say, Oksana, it would be particularly helpful to have some sense of the historical context as you see it, particularly because you spent a couple of years in the Track II negotiations between the Georgians and South Ossetians that really did not long precede this conflict, which is of fairly recent vintage. So both the longer historical perspective and the more recent.


OKSANA ANTONENKO: Thank you very much, David. Thank you for this introduction. Thank you all very much for coming today.

I hope that we will have a productive hour. I will try to make a few remarks, briefly, for about 15-20 minutes, and then certainly welcome any questions from the floor.

As David mentioned, my perspective on the current conflict is very much informed by being involved for two and a half years. I have been leading the informal mediation team working on the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict. I don't know how many hundred times I visited Tskhinvali in South Ossetia. Our peace process, which was supported by the European Union and the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation, in Europe, was really the only informal peace process which was purely bilateral. It included South Ossetians and Georgians, on both sides senior officials, and some NGOs, but mostly senior officials.

It was really an opportunity at that time, after 2004, to provide the platform for the Georgians and South Ossetians without any third parties. There were no Russians there, there were no Americans there, no Europeans there, just the two parties to this conflict, to have a chance to sit down for a long period of time—each meeting lasted for about five days—to really talk about what they feel about this conflict and how they see their future.

At that time, being so much involved in putting it together and spending all these long days with the Georgians and South Ossetians in the same room, I really came, I think, to feel and understand how deeply this conflict affected the national psychology on both sides. I think seeing this conflict escalate, as it has in the last several months, and seeing a full-blown conflict and war again return to this region, and seeing it ending in this what I believe is a rather tragic outcome both for the Georgians and the South Ossetians, really makes me feel very uneasy about all the chances at which, from my point of view, the international community has failed to realize in weeks, months, and years leading to this conflict.

What I am going to say today, I hope, is going to give you a little bit of the historic background and the perspective on the actual Georgian-South Ossetian conflict. Then, maybe a few words of how I see Russia's role in what happened in August, in terms of Russia's intervention; and then how it influenced Russian-Western relations, which of course now is, so to speak, the main dimension of this conflict. It has moved on now from the purely Georgian-South Ossetian conflict, even from the Georgian-Russian conflict, to kind of a new type of dynamic and relationship between Russia and the West. And then, finally, I will just offer a few of my own views on how we can move ahead to try to deal with this current crisis.

On the history of the conflict, the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict is not unique. I'm sure all of you know at least a dozen ethnic conflicts which exist now around the world.

We live in this situation which after the end of the Cold War has left a number of states around the world in the situation where certain ethnic minorities simply do not want to be part of the recognized state.

There are different reasons for why those ethnic minorities do not want to be part of these recognized states, but in most cases, be it Northern Ireland or northern Cyprus or the Balkans, it is really because of the history of violence which has left a tremendous scar on the memory of various nations. The smaller the nation is, I think the deeper those scars are. If we talk about the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict in that sort of framework, it certainly has left very serious scars on both sides.

This conflict, of course, has a long history. The coexistence between Georgians and the South Ossetians has been a rather complex one throughout centuries. But let's just focus on the recent history of the 20th century.

The first phase of this conflict started very much in 1918, when at the time, after the collapse of the Russian Empire and the emergence of at that time the first democratic Georgian state, the first war between Georgia and South Ossetia broke out. Then we had a very bloody conflict, a conflict which resulted by various assessments in about 20,000 lives. I think about 5,000 people have perished as a direct result of this conflict—and I am talking about people on both sides, but of course the South Ossetians, being a minority, they suffered particularly more proportion of their population. And then, about 15,000 people died as a result of starvation and disease among refugees which followed that war.

We had the second episode of this war in 1992, again just one year after the collapse that time of the Soviet Empire, of the USSR, with the emergence of the new democratic Georgia state—at that time, of course, not yet very democratic, but very nationalist, with Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first Georgian president, in power—when again we had a conflict in which hundreds of people died. Of course, this is a conflict in which, as many people know, the Georgian side which had sent troops—at that time, one can say paramilitaries because Georgia did not not have a proper army yet—into South Ossetia, trying to crush what was at that time an attempt by the Ossetian nationalists to claim greater autonomy within Georgia. That conflict left an enormous amount of impact on the population, because of course it led to tremendous destruction of the whole area.

Then, we had for 15 years after the signature of the cease-fire agreement a situation when there was no war, no peace. The South Ossetians existed, as they claimed, as a de facto independent state. The Georgians, of course, did not recognize South Ossetia as independent, but had no control over South Ossetia. There was a period in this 15 years when the two communities, the Georgian and the South Ossetian communities, had managed to overcome to some degree the animosity which existed—they started to trade together again, some intermarriages started to appear between the two communities—but really, at the core of it there was still a major disagreement of where South Ossetians belonged. Let me just tell you three things about this disagreement.

For the South Ossetians, of course, there was not only the memory of the conflict in the early 1990s, but also the fact that the majority of Ossetians still live in Russia's north Caucasus, so it played an important role, as one can imagine—I don't know, it's hard to draw analogies here—but there is no doubt that the relationship between the South Ossetian population and the North Ossetian population which lives in Russia's north Caucasus has been very close as a result of that.

There was a unique environment in which South Ossetia was able to exist for many, many years due to the support which they received from Russia, which came originally from the North Ossetian communities living in the northern part of the Caucasus Mountains, in Russia proper—there are five times more Ossetians living in North Ossetia than in South Ossetia—but also, over time, from the Russian state itself, which has supported the South Ossetians for a number of years as the relationship between Russia and Georgia deteriorated.

Particularly in the last several years, we have seen very strong support from Russia, both in terms of financial support, military support, and direct political support for the South Ossetian de facto authorities. This was something which, of course, on the Georgian side was seen in a very negative light. It was seen as Russia being involved in, so to speak, brewing and supporting separatism, and something which of course became at the end of the day the key reason why the Georgian-Russian relation started to deteriorate.

The problem, of course, in the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict is that, unlike other conflicts in the south Caucasus—and again, here South Ossetia is not unique; Georgia also had a war with Abkhazia; there was a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagomo-Karabakh, which remains unresolved—but I think in the South Ossetian case we have seen yet another escalation of conflict in 2004, just months after the Rose Revolution in Georgia, when President Saakashvili, who initially in fact received quite a lot of, if not support, at least encouragement, from part of South Ossetian society and Abkhaz society, who wanted to believe that, unlike his predecessors, he was going to bring genuine peace and reconciliation to both of the breakaway regions.

But unfortunately, in the summer of 2004 we saw the first stage of escalation of the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict, which in my view has completed ended any expectations or any hope for the two communities to really make peace under the current administration in Georgia. I think this was very unfortunate that this escalation has occurred in 2004, but it was lucky for all of us and for the communities there that it was very brief and did not result in a full-scale war.

Just to summarize, I think it is really important to understand that the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict is at the core of the problems which we have seen in August happening in this war. This was a conflict, from my point of view, the escalation of which was absolutely predictable. It was predictable for a number of reasons.

It was predictable, first of all, because the official peace process, the real peace process, the resolution of conflict, had been frozen and suspended from 2004. Therefore, we at IISS had set up this informal mediation mechanism.

But, being involved in this mediation mechanism, it was also clear to me that the interests on both sides were completely irreconcilable. There was a profound mistrust between the Georgian and the South Ossetian communities, and there was no reason to believe that they could find a way to coexist within the same state in this generation. I want to say "in this generation" because I believe that if we would have taken this peace process as a kind of long-term objective and found a way for the Georgian society, in particular, to develop into a truly democratic and attractive society which respects the rights of minorities, which genuinely progresses towards European integration, I think that would have changed the perceptions of the next generation of the South Ossetians.

But the generations of South Ossetians who lived through two wars with Georgia, in 1992 and 2004, simply could not believe that they can live in peace with the current Georgian state. They simply could not believe it. No matter what guarantees one could have put on the table at that time, I think it was not possible, from my point of view, to see any chance for genuine reintegration of South Ossetian into Georgia.

So what we have seen in reality is that many, many peace plans which the Georgian government was putting on the table in the last three years were the peace plans which were developed by the Georgian side and presented to the international community. Many of those peace plans were not even sent to the South Ossetians. They were unilateral initiatives. They were something which were designed to demonstrate to the international community that Georgia wants to do something about South Ossetia, but they were not genuine attempts at reconciliation and a peace process which were required to be able to create an environment in which the Ossetians could voluntarily—not only be convinced, but would be willing and interested—coexist with the Georgians in the same state.

So as trust deteriorated, we saw growing militarization and growing impatience on both sides. The impatience on the Georgian side was understandable. The Georgian government in 2004 came to power very much explaining to its people the commitment made by President Saakashvili that he is going to reunite the country, he is going to restore territorial integrity, within a few years. That was from the very beginning an impossible task, and that was even more impossible after we saw the escalation of conflict in 2004.

I think the expectations which were put at the very beginning of the Georgian presidency inevitably led us to the situation where the proposals about the long-term peace process were no longer acceptable, and where the ideas about the military solution, about the quick victory, about finishing the conflict and resolving the conflict by force, were more and more openly discussed by the Georgian government, and something which of course had played an even more negative role on the Ossetian side.

On the South Ossetian side, the impatience was equally strong. This impatience came from three different factors.

The first one is the Beslan tragedy, which you all I'm sure know about. At that time, that was a shock to the Ossetian nation, losing 250 children in this terrible terrorist atrocity. It really galvanized Ossetian nationalism, in a way which did not exist there before.

The previous leader of North Ossetia in Russia was a kind of post-Soviet leader who did not believe in ethno-nationalism. In fact, he had a better relationship with President Shevardnadze, with whom he shared membership in the Communist Party Central Committee, than he did with South Ossetians living across the mountains.

But after Beslan we saw the rise of nationalism all across the Ossetian society. After this tragedy in Beslan, the whole Ossetian society came together—and when I say "the whole" it certainly included the South Ossetians, who were very much at the forefront for campaigning for the Ossetian nationalist project. In fact, after the Beslan massacre—I have been there myself during that time—I remember very well how even the de facto leader of South Ossetia was the one who was leading all the town hall meetings, or all the kind of meetings in the main square in Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia campaigning for Ossetian nationalism.

As a result, we have seen the emergence of the Ossetian nationalist leader in North Ossetia, who in that sense started to build a kind of Ossetian unification project—of course to some extent with the support of Moscow, but I will say a few words about this later. So that is the first trigger.

The second trigger came as Georgian-Russian relations started to deteriorate. Of course, we all know that Russia has imposed this terrible blockade on Georgia. Russian-Georgian relations had existed in a state of a kind of Cold War almost, for a number of years. At that time, the Russian government started to support the de facto Ossetian authorities ever more strongly.

Then, the third trigger came from Kosovo. When officials in Europe or in the United States say that Kosovo is not a precedent, I usually always say that from my perspective this is either ignorance or wishful thinking; because from my point of view of course it is not a precedent from the legal perspective, but it is a precedent in the minds of those people who live in similar circumstances. How can you explain to an average Ossetian who went through several wars that they have less claim and less right to live in an independent state than Kosovons do?

I think, after recognition of Kosovo, not only has the Russian perspective changed, but, more importantly, the perspective of South Ossetians and their path has changed. For them the peace process was finished.

After the recognition of Kosovo, we have seen zero effort on the part of any communities to engage in a genuine peace process. They said that for them after Kosovo this is the path they are going to choose. It was very difficult at that stage to convince them that they really have no right to follow Kosovo.

So those three factors have really escalated the dynamic on the South Ossetian side. As a result of that, eventually we had the conflict on August 7th and 8th.

The second thing I want to tell to you is that I believe that this conflict was preventable. It was predictable. In my view, it was completely predictable. I was there two weeks before the war, and at that stage the feeling that the war was imminent was universally shared by everyone, from the people who lived in both Georgia and South Ossetia to all the international organizations that were present on the ground in Georgia. Everybody knew that the war was coming.

If you could trace for weeks the dynamic of escalation of violence on the ground, you could see that over weeks we have seen greater number of exchanges of fire, more heavy weapons being brought to the region, more fortifications being built, the civilian population evacuated on both sides. So all the signs were there that the war was coming.

But nothing was done to stop this war. I think this is a very legitimate question to ask: Why did not the international community—which was there, which had a direct mandate for early warning, early action, conflict prevention—issue either an early warning or escalate this early warning into genuine conflict prevention mechanisms?

The OSCE, which had monitors on the ground, for weeks were documenting the escalation of violence. The European Union, which was present in Georgia, for weeks was talking about how there was a high likelihood of war starting. Even the Russian and the American government officials, just days before the conflict broke out, actually spoke on the phone talking about doing something to prevent this conflict.

But nothing was done. I think this is a great lesson which I hope that the international organizations have to learn.

Another issue that I am really disappointed about is the way that the U.S. Administration has failed to act early and strongly to be able to prevent or contain this conflict. I believe that the United States had a tremendous amount of leverage and power to actually prevent the conflict escalation.

Let me tell you just two stories, and I think it is really up to you to decide whether it is a genuine concern or not.

The first story was told to us by Prime Minister Putin, with whom we met just a few weeks ago in Sochi. It was a group of foreign experts who were talking to Putin about this crisis. He told us hour by hour the story of how this conflict unfolded. He told us that at 10 o'clock in the morning on the 8th of August he called President Bush. They were both in Beijing. He told him, "The Georgians are shelling Tskhinvali. The war is coming. Can you please help to stop it?" In Putin's view, Bush told him that, "Nobody wants this war and I am going to do something. I am going to speak with Saakashvili."

Then, for four hours there was no contact between the Russian and the American governments. Eventually, when Putin saw Bush at 8 o'clock in the evening on that day at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, he came to him and said, "Have you done something about this conflict?" Bush responded to him, "No, I not done anything. I have not even called Saakashvili because what we see is Russian aggression towards Georgia." That was at the time when Russian tanks had not even crossed the Roki Tunnel.

The second story is that I was just this morning in the United Nations trying to understand why the United Nations had failed to pass a resolution in the first hours of this conflict, before the conflict escalated into a full-blown Russian-Georgian war. Again this is a very interesting story, because the UN Secretary-General had issued a statement at 11 o'clock at night on the 7th. When the Emergency UN Security Council was convened at night on the 8th, from the 7th to the 8th, the proposal both by the Russians but also by the Belgians, who were chairing the UN Security Council at that time, to issue a statement asking for the cessation of hostilities, without even assigning blame to anybody, just calling for the stopping of hostilities, was not adopted because the United States did not want this statement to be passed.

So I think it is really interesting to understand why. What was the reason? I think, from my point of view, I cannot explain and cannot understand, simply because in 2004 when the conflict escalation happened for the first time, I have seen to what extent the U.S. government intervened very strongly to contain and stop the conflict at that time. But they did not intervene at this time. I think it is a big question why they didn't.

Now going to the role of Russia, there is no doubt that Russia's response to Georgia's attack on Tskhinvali was disproportionate. I think nobody doubts that. I think Russia responded not in a way which simply reassures or protects the Ossetian population, but it responded in a way to send a clear message to Georgia. I think Russia's occupation of big parts of Georgia outside of South Ossetia for an extended period of time, the bombing of civilian infrastructure—all that is completely unacceptable. I think it is very right for the international community to send a very clear message to Russia that those kinds of reactions cannot be tolerated.

The problem, of course, now is that it is very difficult to reach out to the Russian population, the Russian political elite, who actually to some extent sympathize with this message, that perhaps Russia's response was not proportionate, because they do not see any attention paid by the international community to what happened on August 7th in terms of the attack on South Ossetia.

So from that point of view, I think what we need now is to set up a high-level fact-finding mission, which should have a mandate and a clear legitimacy both for the West and for Russia, to be able to document hour by hour what happened and to document all the crimes which were committed during this war.

This is extremely important for a number of reasons. It is important to reconcile the two different discourses we now hear about this war from the Russian side and from the Western side.

It is also important to be able to prevent the emergence of new myths, which are already emerging—I mean this whole discussion about the genocide being committed against South Ossetians, the big discrepancy on the number of casualties; the myths which we now hear about the terrible atrocities which were committed by both sides, many of them nobody actually witnessed. But they are now very much in the public discourse. I think they need to be put to rest, either confirmed or denied. Without that, I think we will see a situation where even deeper scars are going to emerge, and it will not help us to resolve the conflict.

Finally, just a few words on where do we go from here. Of course, it is very difficult now to see how the current new status quo can be changed. I'm afraid, from my point of view, that Georgia has lost both Abkhazia and South Ossetia forever, or at least for the foreseeable future. It is very difficult to imagine under which circumstances Russia can now go back on the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Having said that, I also believe that the recognition itself does not amount to conflict resolution. What it amounts to is freezing the conflict once again, because both the South Ossetians and the Abkhaz can only obtain sustainable and clear security guarantees in the long run if they find a commonly agreed sustainable and just solution between the Georgians and the South Ossetians and the Georgians and the Abkhaz.

Therefore, from my point of view, it is absolutely inevitable that sooner or later we have to go back to square one and start the talks and negotiations between the Georgians and the South Ossetians again. Of course, this is going to be a completely different peace process. It is going to be a peace process in which the South Ossetians now, for a change, are going to negotiate from a position of strength. But the Georgians are going to negotiate from the position of the strong support which they continue to enjoy among the international community.

It is very difficult at the moment to understand who is actually going to be an interlocutor in these negotiations. Russia clearly cannot be a mediator. This whole conflict has really shown that Russia certainly is a party to this conflict. But the West, too, cannot be an interlocutor at the moment, because for South Ossetians the fact that there is no international reaction, no attention, and no outcry about the attack on South Ossetia which had happened on the 7th has really undermined trust both in the OSCE and the European Union and the United States. So we need to find a framework in which these negotiations can resume.

I'm afraid I am rather pessimistic about this meeting in Geneva, which is about to take place in the next couple of days, because I believe it is too soon and I think it can do a lot of damage. It can do a lot of damage because we have no agreement at the current stage who should be sitting around the table and what issues should be discussed. I think we run the risk of issuing statements which actually are going to prevent us from progressing towards conflict resolution in the future.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: I think the United States can take complete blame for what has happened there in encouraging Saakashvili to a point where he became very arrogant and disregarded and felt himself to be the man in charge. We will have a change of government. The European Union was not in favor of this. They warned them. But Mr. Bush was very determined. So I am hopeful when there is a change of government and when the economic situation will abate this will be taken up, and justly so. However, I think it is a fait accompli that Russia will have the upper hand there.

QUESTION: I have a question. I don't remember your exact words—during your account of the history of the area, you spoke about Georgia at that point not having yet started to develop a democracy, or something. It seems to me that it has not developed a democracy at all. From everything that I've read about Saakashvili and the way he conducts business there, it seems to be a totally authoritarian situation and I don't see any democracy whatsoever. And yet our government was promoting him as being a democratic figure in the area, and perhaps that's why they were supporting him. Why? I don't know if you can answer that, but I'm really interested to know.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You may not want to speak for U.S. policy, Oksana, but is Saakashvili just a sort of reincarnation of Gamsakhurdia? Is that simplistic or harsh?

OKSANA ANTONENKO: No. I think that Georgian society in fact is probably one of the most democratic societies in the post-Soviet area, if one doesn't take the Baltic States into account, which of course are now genuine European democracies. I think it is very interesting that Georgian society in fact developed into this very pluralist model under Shevardnadze, at a time when the government was very weak. As a result of that, the NGO sector was very strong, the media was genuinely independent, but the government was profoundly dysfunctional.

So I think when Saakashvili came to power, I think he came to power in an atmosphere of very genuine sentiments from both the political elite and the society in Georgia of wanting to have fair elections, wanting to have a democratic state, wanting to have a kind of balance of power. I think he really had a chance of developing democracy.

Unfortunately, as time went on, there is always kind of a tension within Georgian society, among a very pluralist population. I think, in fact, if you look at Russia, for example, today, unfortunately the people are quite supportive of an authoritarian state. If you look at all the opinion polls, there isn't really very strong support for democracy, so to speak, partly because of the experience of the 1990s.

In Georgia, I spent a lot of months and years in Georgia, and I find the society there completely different. The society really wants a debate, which believes in pluralism and opposition, which strongly defends independence of the media, for example.

But the problem with Saakashvili himself is that, even though he came from this NGO community himself, he very soon faced this dilemma—in a sense, very similar to Putin, funnily enough, even though they come from very different backgrounds—you know, how to reconcile the kind of pluralistic and democratic aspirations with the need to create a functional state. Unfortunately, in the post-Soviet environment the functional state ends up consuming this pluralistic democracy because it is a state which, in a sense, is run on this model of a kind of what I oftentimes call a network state, where it is not the institutions that matter but the individuals that are put together on the basis of loyalty and kind of corporate interest. That is really the model which has emerged now in Georgia.

But the society remains very pluralistic. There is still a viable opposition. There is still a very strong NGO community. The press is not as free as it was, but the public reaction towards the crackdown on the freedom of press is unique to the post-Soviet space. There is nothing of the kind in Central Asia. Even in the Ukraine, we have seen—of course, a very pluralistic society, but, in a sense, not maybe so vocal on some of those issues.

So I am rather optimistic about the long-term future for Georgia. Therefore, I really hope very much that Georgia moves beyond the current kind of nationalist discourse that they are having. I think it is healthy for the Georgian democracy to be able to say, "Okay, we are going to put the issue of conflicts on ice, not to encourage nationalism and a strong state, and really try to build a democratic state, which will take generations probably, or at least—I don't know—five, ten, 15 years, but genuinely build a state which responds to those kind of pluralistic aspirations of the population. And then we will approach those conflicts."

But you make a distinction between the aspirations of society and the actual leadership.

I agree.

There is a very large distinction there.

OKSANA ANTONENKO: Yes, definitely. You are right. There is a distinction, yes.

QUESTION: I have a question. One of the ramifications for Russia as a result of this conflict was a lot of foreign investor skepticism in its economy, such that so many people pulled out and Russia had to stop trading.

First of all—I don't remember—was there a similar kind of effect for Georgia? Was that warranted on the part of foreign investors, that this conflict made them doubt their ability to continue keeping their money in Russia? Do you think that Russia can overcome that?

OKSANA ANTONENKO: I think that the economic consequences of this conflict have not been really so grave for Russia. I think the initial fall of the market, which happened in mid-August, was to some extent driven by this new rhetoric of "the new Cold War," which temporarily emerged on the scene. I think it is now, from my point of view—we are beyond that high point of tensions and I think we are moving— in my view, welcoming that—more towards a more pragmatic and realist engagement between Russia and the West.

But I think at that time—maybe it was driven to some extent—but in terms of affecting the Russian economy as a whole, I think the stock market in Russia does not have a huge impact on the economy as a whole, because the economy remains to be dependent on energy prices, and the population, unlike the United States, which as you know invests a lot in the stock market, in Russia that is of course not the case.

So I think, in terms of the average Russian, or even the average Russian businessman, feeling the heat from the Georgian crisis, that wasn't the case. Of course, the recent fall of the stock market as a result of the global financial crisis was much more severe.

In that sense, yes Russia paid some economic price, but it was by no means a price which, from my point of view, bordered in any way on a kind of serious or unacceptable level for either the Russian leadership or for the Russian business community.

Now, can Russia attract investment? I think Russia needs desperately to have investment, absolutely. I think this is a dilemma for President Medvedev.

I think it is really a legitimate question, what kind of a relationship between Medvedev and Putin has emerged out of this Georgia crisis. I think this is an important question. The way I see it—and, of course, there are different views on that—is that Medvedev actually emerged from this crisis very much strengthened. He has emerged from this crisis with a rating now of over 70 percent. Some opinion polls actually put him above Prime Minister Putin. So he has emerged as his own leader. He has, in a way, shown the Russian public that he can be tough, he is not purely a shadow of Putin. And I think he also acquired certain political ambitions through that crisis, both through to some extent being initially sort of humiliated by the fact that he was not seen as a kind of leader capable of waging the war, but then rather inspired by the fact that he was able to do so and that he confronted the international community and led that process.

So I think we will see as a result of this war in fact Medvedev has been strengthened and now is very much engaged in seeking to have real power in Russia. I think, from the point of view of the interests of investors, this is good news, because I think, no matter what rhetoric we hear from President Medvedev these days, there is no doubt that he is much more liberal, much more reform-orientated than Putin was. Therefore, I think, in a sense, for Russia itself and for the future of economic and financial matters in Russia and investor confidence, in the long run we probably are going to see a rather positive impact. But this is just my speculation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: While the microphone is on its way, let me just say it's interesting too, Oksana—I think it was right before the August war—that the new Russian foreign policy doctrine essentially vested more authority in foreign policy decisions in the prime minister, in Putin. So it is clearly a very volatile environment.

QUESTION: Thank you for joining us this afternoon.

You had raised two rhetorical questions earlier about why Bush refused to intervene and why the Americans deliberately blocked any Security Council effort to resolve the crisis. Could you say something about the context of the American military support for Georgia and NATO, and also the obvious American role in backing Ukraine's giving significant military support to Georgia at a time when the Americans were trying to bring both Georgia and Ukraine into NATO?

OKSANA ANTONENKO: Thank you for this question.

I do believe that there came a point in the U.S. support for President Saakashvili and his government when the U.S. support no longer was conducive to the conflict resolution process, the conflict resolution agenda which existed. I think it came in conflict with this agenda for two reasons.

One is that it empowered President Saakashvili to almost feel a complete sense of impunity, no matter what he was doing, because of this kind of unconditional support which he received. I think the support through the last parliamentary elections in Georgia, which OSCE has documented as having major violations, and the full support which Saakashvili received from Washington, was to some extent one of those signs.

I think the second reason why it was no longer compatible with the conflict resolution is precisely the kind of military support which Georgia was receiving. I think it was receiving it unconditionally.

Again, I am not going to quote anyone directly, but just to say that I remember having some meetings at the DoD [Department of Defense] a few years ago, in the midst actually of running this Georgian-South Ossetian mediation, and raising this question, saying: "Should we not give some space for the kind of peace process to work? Should we not support Georgian military so much because we now hear all this rhetoric coming out from President Saakashvili saying, 'Next year we are going to reunite Georgia'?" That was, of course, a completely unrealistic schedule.

I remember hearing the response: "The strategy of preventing the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was to send as many Georgian troops as possible to Iraq so that they were engaged elsewhere." That could have been a joke—I think it probably was—but I think there was some truth to that, because, of course, the American support for the Georgian military was not based on their desire to help Saakashvili to take Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force. It was very much based on the fact that the United States really needed strong allies in Iraq at a time when many Europeans were pulling out. Georgia, of course, was standing by the United States throughout this period of time and sending a very strong contingent there.

But I think there was no projection from that to the fact that at the same time we see all this kind of rhetoric, threatening rhetoric and kind of militaristic rhetoric, coming out of Tbilisi, that that military support can actually one day backfire.

I think strongly, in fact, that, in my explanation, the reason why Bush didn't intervene and the United States did not support the resolution was because, in a sense, maybe the American government wanted to see whether Georgians could prevail or not in the first couple of days. I think that was an extremely dangerous decision, if that in fact was the case. But it seems to me that is the only reasonable explanation one can find in the current environment.

In terms of the Ukrainian supply, yes, I think this is a big up-and-coming story. The Ukrainian Investigation Commission is now uncovering all sorts of very unpleasant facts about the way that the Americans were involved in selecting the weapons from the Ukraine even throughout this crisis, as it was going on. This is going to have a huge impact on the way I think both the Ukrainians and the Russians are going to perceive this administration.

But luckily, as you say, we are going to have a new administration in January. I do very much hope that the new administration is not going to repeat those mistakes.

First of all, it is not going to offer Georgia unconditional support. I think the first test of will come at the next NATO Summit in April, the 60th Anniversary Summit, of how we are going to deal with the issue of NATO membership and the membership action plan for Georgia.

In my view, the right approach would be to forget about the membership action plan altogether, because, after all, the membership action plan has been invented only for Georgia and the Ukraine. It has never been used before, either for Estonia, the Czech Republic, or Poland, when they went into NATO. But we should stick to the criteria and develop a very clear criteria, which we did in relation to other candidates, on the membership, and I think measure up what Georgians are doing against this criteria, but not create another, very dangerous in my view, precedent where we give this membership action plan without any consideration to the criteria which actually the alliance has to observe.

QUESTION: I was struck by the fact that your very interesting description of the history and evolution of events seems, at least to me, to be entirely missing from Western media coverage, and certainly from U.S. media coverage. You mentioned the Bush Administration not taking certain actions that it might have. What would your speculation be as to media failing so abysmally to capture the context that you lay out? And also, leaving aside the Bush Administration, if the European community had monitors on the ground and watched the situation evolve on a day-to-day basis, why is their reaction so at odds too with what appears to be a quite contrary history that you lay out?

DAVID SPEEDIE: Good question.

I think, to the second part of your question, it is not at odds in fact. I think the OSCE and many European officials are completely aware about the history. I think, in a sense, that their approach to the conflict is much more nuanced.

The problem, of course, for me is still: Why did they not act early on to prevent this conflict, or at least try to prevent it? But now—

QUESTIONER: Are they speaking out?

OKSANA ANTONENKO: They are, absolutely, and they have been too. They have been telling the Georgians now for many, many years, and now after the war especially, that it is the Georgian attack on South Ossetia which triggered this conflict. As a result of that, I think we have seen, for example, in this Geneva process the Europeans very much advocating for the South Ossetians and the Abkhazs to be around the table, and to say, "It is an ethnic conflict that has a long history, so we need to, if we are talking about eventually dealing with these conflicts, have all parties present." It is the United States at the moment which is completely against allowing any Ossetians or Abkhazs to be involved in the Geneva meeting.

There is a huge difference actually in the perceptions in Europe and the perceptions in the United States. I think in Europe there is a much greater appreciation of the fact that it is an inter-ethnic conflict and there is a greater appreciation of the history, and there is a much more skeptical attitude towards the Georgian government.

But nonetheless, I think for the Europeans it is also a major dilemma, because at the end of the day it is on their border. So they have to do something. The problem is that, unfortunately, in spite of all the great declarations, the amount of resources—political, military, economic—which are required at the moment to be able to stabilize the situation in the Caucuses at the moment are so profound that the Europeans simply do not have it. So for them to be genuinely involved in dealing with the problems on the ground is really quite difficult.

Although I have to say, again to give the European Union credit, not only did they support our Track II process, which I think was important, but also before the conflict started they were the only ones who were actually investing money in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to deal with the issues of economic rehabilitation, human rights problems, intercommunity reconciliation initiatives, et cetera, et cetera. In Abkhazia they invested something like 4 million euros a year. In South Ossetia they invested about 5 million euros. So it is really quite a major investment that was put together, even at the time when they were separatist entities. I think now, of course, they are also aware of that.

Now, going back to the media, I am very disappointed about the media, of course. It is very hard to explain. I speak a lot in the media. It is very interesting for me. The media operates in those kind of sensational stories.

If you are in August, the time of holidays, it is much harder to explain to the public that there is this South Ossetia which had the conflicts with Georgia and there are all these Ossetian villages, Georgian villages. It is much easier to say "Russian tanks are moving across the border to a small democratic neighbor." This is when you don't change the channel. If you hear "South Ossetia" or some president, some village here, some village there, most of the people change the channel. But if you have the story that Russian tanks are moving across the border to crush a democratic neighbor, this is a story.

I was really struck myself, because, as I said, quite often I give interviews. During this whole war, even though everybody knew that I was involved, I had only been invited once to speak on CNN, and after that they told me, "You know what? This is very complicated what you are saying. We really want somebody who will come and say 'We need to stand up to the Russians because they are aggressors.'"

DAVID SPEEDIE: That's why you're here at the Carnegie Council.


This is the way the press played it out.

But I have to say now the situation is changing. I think there is now much more nuanced reporting. I noticed it in the American press, in particular. Media, maybe not, but press—in the Western press for sure—I think we now have finally more balanced reporting. I think the press has been doing soul searching on that actually. They were asking, "Why did we get it wrong?" They, of course, put the blame on the Russians.

QUESTIONER: Which press?

The Western press.

When you say "Western press," not the United States?

Do you think the U.S. press is not doing soul searching now?


OKSANA ANTONENKO: I think they are.

I think we have stories, but I think we lack journalism today. But I don't want to—

OKSANA ANTONENKO: But I think the journalists are saying that Russia did not give access to go to South Ossetia, while the Georgians organized this very elaborate kind of information campaign. They invited journalists straight away to see Gori. They provided the support. Saakashvili was on television, as you know, every day giving interviews. So they were ready for it, while the Russians, of course, were not.

Thank you very much. It has been very informative for me. It's not a region I know a lot about.

One question I have is: Why is so much the emphasis of the reporting and the discussion, including the discussion this evening, on South Ossetia as opposed to Abkhazia? Without my knowing anything deep about the region, it seems to me that Abkhazia, not only because it is a bigger territory but also because it has a major port, would be of greater strategic significance and there would be much more discussion about that. And yet, the great emphasis always seems to be on South Ossetia. I was just wondering what the reason is for that.

DAVID SPEEDIE: These two gentlemen in the front row, then we'll have you respond.

QUESTION: For those of us who were trying to follow this quite closely, including a friend who happened to be in France and was reading the Russian press on this, there seems to be a lot of information and disinformation. This is the first time that I've heard that Putin was on the phone with Bush and Bush didn't return a phone call. But we do know from George Friedman's article in The New York Review of Books that there was a rather lengthy investigation. We know from National Public Radio, that was apparently broadcasting various radio reports that were captured over there, that there are different stories.

No one has mentioned the pipeline issue, and nobody has mentioned that Secretary of State Rice was on the phone several times and had visited over there shortly before this occurred. There had to be some dialogue coming here. You're making it sound as if the United States simply dropped the ball on that. It has even been alleged that Saakashvili has just chosen to go ahead and do this.

The last point is there was so much satellite information and so much military information coming out there. This didn't happen in a day. There was an enormous buildup of troops, and everybody was painfully aware of what was taking place.

So there are many unanswered questions here. But I don't blame the United States for dropping the ball here.

QUESTION: To what degree has the situation in Georgia been a pawn of the rivalry between Russia and the United States? What this country has been doing is absolutely ridiculous in terms of its foreign policy. It is putting missiles in Eastern Europe. It is trying to set the former Russian satellites against Russia. It's got that pipeline issue, and Europe of course is dependent on Russian gas and oil. So I would assume this is just a power play. I think Kosovo is also involved in this thing. The United States sending its fleet into the Black Sea there was absolute insanity, and that's why Russia's fleet is in the Caribbean and they're supporting Venezuela.

So could you please comment on how much of this is just a pushback by Russia against stupid American policy?

Three very simple questions, Oksana. It should just take a few seconds to answer. But do your best.

OKSANA ANTONENKO: On the first point on Abkhazia you are absolutely right. In terms of the viability of being an independent state, Abkhazia of course is much more viable. But this war happened to be in South Ossetia. So when we are discussing this particular war, in fact, in Abkhazia there was no war this time around. There were just the Russian troops who came in and Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia. But there wasn't actually a war.

QUESTION: How could they justify that if Abkhazia itself wasn't the subject or the object of an invasion?

The Russians are saying that they have captured Georgian maps which indicated that the Georgians were planning to attack Abkhazia as well.

PARTICIPANT: A preventive war.

OKSANA ANTONENKO: Again, I was in Abkhazia on the 15th of July, and I had a very long meeting with the de facto president there, Sergei Bagapsh, for whom I actually have a lot of respect. I have to say at that stage the Abkhaz were absolutely convinced that the war would be in Abkhazia. The people who were sitting in Tbilisi at that time, international organizations, were all saying, "We know there will be a war," but where it is going to be, either in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, nobody could answer. You will remember in June there were huge tensions over Abkhazia, and, of course, Russia has sent reinforcements there and a lot more troops.

Now, about Abkhazia, I think it would be a huge mistake for the international community now to push Abkhazia closer to Russia and to basically leave Abkhazia to be dependent 100 percent on Russia, because, unlike South Ossetia, which as I explained—because of the Ossetian nationalists, because of the presence of the majority of Ossetians in North Ossetia, I think it is bound to Russia for a variety of reasons—Abkhazia, in fact, has been trying for many, many years to really distance themselves from Russia.

I think even when we met with the Abkhaz leader in Sochi, at the time when we met with Putin in September, he was very brave. He kind of faced the Russians and he actually said that he sees Abkhazia as being neutral, demilitarized, and under no circumstances integrated into Russia. That's his ambition. I think one has to remember that he actually ran and won in real elections in which the Russians were backing an opposite candidate against him, and he won.

So I think in that sense Abkhazia indeed potentially could become an independent state. But I think what we are doing now in the international community by refusing to give Abkhazia a seat at the table through the negotiating process, for example, in Geneva, is we are now making Abkhazia completely dependent on Russia, and giving them absolutely no room to maneuver.

I think they will have room to maneuver for a variety of reasons. One, that they are on the Black Sea. Secondly, that there is a Diaspora of 500,000 Abkhaz living in Turkey, and this Diaspora is extremely powerful, very vocal. I spoke recently to some Turkish officials. They said that almost on a daily basis now they have visits from the Abkhaz Diaspora. I think that if this Diaspora will start returning to Abkhazia—and that's what they want—we will have a completely different balance of forces emerging.

I think for Abkhazia we have to be very careful to very quickly develop a negotiating format in which the Abkhaz are able to speak to the international community directly, not via Russia.

Now, on these kind of difficulties, I said in my presentation we need a fact-finding mission. We need to document, using all the intelligence satellites—I'm sure we all have them. The Russians have satellites. The Americans have satellites. All the pictures are available. We need to document what happened when, because the amount of myths we now hear, particularly from the media, is extraordinary.

The Georgians are claiming the Russian tanks were crossing the Roki Tunnel before the attack. The Russians are saying they only came at 3 o'clock in the afternoon the next day. Then, of course, the international community is saying the buildup of forces was happening three days before the conflict. All of that needs to be documented.

I think we need to have a commission which will have authority and legitimacy, as I said, on both sides. I know that the United Nations is talking about this, and I hope they are going to do it.

In terms of the pipeline, it was not a war about the pipeline. The Russians have not touched this pipeline, and they could have, of course, very easily interrupted it. They have not interrupted this pipeline. The supply through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was stopped because there was an accident on the Turkish side of the pipeline. But they were not bombing the pipeline. They did not bomb anywhere near the pipeline. So I think it was a very clear message that this war has nothing to do with the pipelines.

I think if we look at—of course it has changed the way the war played out. It has changed the attitude of some of the countries, like Azerbaijan, because I think when Cheney went to Azerbaijan after the conflict and was rather surprised that those areas at that time were actively seeking American guarantees to distance themselves from the Russians, the Azerbaijanis said, "Thank you very much. We have seen how you defended the Georgians. After that you can hardly expect us now to go to the Russians and poke a finger in the bear's face, because actually we are going to be just fine developing good relations with the Russians because we have no other choice."

I think this, of course, is going to change and influence the pipeline dynamics, because now Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are both saying, "We need good relations with the Russians, and we need these good relations to be backed up by our energy relationship."

So I think we are likely now to see Azerbaijan sending more of its energy to Russia and we are likely to see Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan being reluctant to support and endorse some of the westward pipelines, like the Dabuka pipeline. In fact, I think at the moment Dabuka is really in trouble because we have no gas field at the moment at the end of the pipeline. That, if you are a businessman, I think should raise questions: Why do you build a 3,000-kilometer pipeline if there is no field at the end of it? But that's the reality.

Now, in terms of the U.S.-Russian rivalry, yes, you are right, it is definitely coming sooner or later. Something should have happened to shake the status quo, because what we had actually emerging is that there was a huge asymmetry in the way the Russians saw the relationship and the Americans saw the relationship.

The Bush Administration, for whatever reason—it is very hard for me to explain, given that in fact the relationship between Putin and Bush was very close.

Putin, when we spoke to him, said this very interesting thing, ironically. He said, "I really like Bush much more than the majority of American people do." I think he was right. In fact, he spoke very fondly of Bush. So they obviously, despite all this conflict, still have a very strong relationship.

But the U.S. Administration, for whatever reason, continued to treat the Russians as if we are in the 1990s, with a kind of drunk Yeltsin in charge, with Russia being completely consumed by its domestic problems, being weak, being not interested in any role globally because it was completely absorbed with its domestic crisis. They kind of failed to observe that we now have a completely different Russia. We have a Russia which is self-confident, which is assertive, which has resources, which is now the eighth biggest creditor in the world to the United States. Again, Putin said that he invested $48 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds. He said, "And after that you want to tell me that I am isolated?" It's very hard to convince him that he is isolated. So we have now a completely different Russia.

But yet the U.S. policy has not changed. The U.S. policy is still operating on the premise that we just inform the Russians what their interests are; we don't listen to them. We just come to them and tell them, "NATO enlargement is good for you." If they don't agree, we come back and we say it in a louder voice, "NATO enlargement is good for you" and "missile defense is good for you."

And then, the kind of operational strategy was: "They just don't get it. They don't get it, the Russians, that NATO enlargement is good. They just don't get it that missile defense is not against them, that it is not a threat."

But what they failed to do is to understand that Russia is no longer prepared to engage on those terms. So the kind of signals which were coming out from Kosovo, then missile defense, the Bucharest Summit, were quite clear, but they somehow were not heard in Washington, for whatever reason. They have lots of Russian experts there.

So sooner or later some crisis should happen to kind of adjust the situation. I think now everyone is aware that one has to take Russia seriously to some extent. Of course, it is unfortunate we had to go through the crisis, but in my view it is fortunate that this crisis happened over the much-loved-by-me South Caucuses, but which, in the big scheme of things, is not such a significant issue. I would have been much more worried if this crisis would have happened over, for example, the Iranian nuclear issue—which it could have, because I think sooner or later Russia would have had to send a clear sign that the rules of engagement have to change, that we have a new Russia now.

Therefore, it is, of course, a big challenge now for the new U.S. administration, because everybody is hoping that we are going to start from a clean piece of paper. But it is very hard to do, given the baggage with which we are coming into this relationship and the kind of legacy issues we have to deal with, again from missile defense to this whole issue of the Georgian war and the rest of it.

So I think the new administration would have to really be able to start thinking creatively and convince the political class in this country—and bringing up this old Cold War discourse which we hear everywhere now is extremely unhelpful—and just tell them that in fact there are so many important interests that the United States has now around the world—from Afghanistan, to Iran, to energy security, climate change, you name it—all of those issues require partnership with Russia.

I think we need to find again a relationship which is based on interests, and which perhaps deals with the issue of values—not in a way which is in the face of the Russians, but in a way which encourages them to act cooperatively in a way which is helping to realize common interests rather than preventing us from doing so.

QUESTIONER: Well, couldn't they start that by dropping the missiles?

Yes, I think that is likely.

My apologies to all those whose hands were up and not called.

Oksana, in barely over an hour we've gone from the origins of this conflict from the times of Lermontov and Tolstoy to the geostrategic U.S.-Russian relationship—an amazing tour de force. The channel will not be changed when this is aired from the Council in New York.

Thank you so much.

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