As the summer heat spreads through the Caucasus, it is once again accompanied by fears of war. Memories are still fresh from last summer, when after months of meticulous planning, Russian tanks rolled through the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and far into Georgian land. After the official withdrawal date a few weeks later, Russian troops remained in force (and in violation of an EU-mediated cease-fire) in the two separatist territories. Russia recognized them as independent states and stationed permanent military bases there, within striking distance of Georgia's major cities.
Given recent events, keeping an eye on Moscow's Caucasian machinations will be difficult. Just this week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission in Georgia closed down, taking with it its last observers working in South Ossetia. Russia was able to veto the mission's extension last winter. Earlier in June, Moscow went further by vetoing the extension of the U.N. observer mission in Georgia, which monitored security in Abkhazia. Russia refuses to provide access to either territory for the EU monitoring mission that was launched following last year's war. Moscow has thus effectively isolated the two territories from the international community, preventing oversight of Russian activities there, whether it is military buildups, human rights violations, or smuggling and organized criminal activities.
The main question today is whether Russia's leaders think they finished the job during the 2008 amputation, or whether they still hope to force out Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's democratically elected government. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told French President Nicolas Sarkozy last August that he intended to "hang Saakashvili by the balls," but in spite of domestic political troubles, the Georgian leader is still in power and all sensitive body parts appear intact. This salient fact, as well as Russian saber rattling including a major military exercise just north of the Georgian border, suggests to many analysts that a new war may be in the making.
Although Saakashvili's prospects for survival remain an important topic of discussion, developments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are no less significant. The bottom line: Moscow, by expanding its military presence in the two regions and hindering international observation has made the annexation of the territories a fait accompli that Georgia and its Western powers are now essentially powerless to reverse.
Russia's designs for the two territories did not begin with the 2008 war. On the contrary, Moscow's long-standing and accumulative efforts to control Abkhazia and South Ossetia were the single major reason for the deterioration of Russia-Georgia relations over the past five years. In 2000, Moscow began distributing Russian passports to the inhabitants of the two provinces, which later enabled it to claim a right to protect its "citizens" there. In 2001, it engineered the election of a Russian favorite to the leadership of South Ossetia. By 2006, South Ossetia's defense minister, national security council secretary, and security chief were all Russian nationals. Meanwhile, Russian investment flowed into the two regions, particularly Abkhazia's coastal resorts. Russia also allowed its Ossetian proxies to ethnically cleanse South Ossetia of the thousands of ethnic Georgians who had lived in the territory for centuries.