chapter  8
From Sukhumi to Tskhinvali: The Path to War in Georgia Johanna Popjanevski
Pages 19

Johanna Popjanevski Over the summer of 2008 tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi reached a peak, resulting in a full-scale war that rapidly expanded beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia to include much of Georgia proper. The war was short but eventful, causing severe destruction to Georgia’s military and economic infrastructure and resulting in the displacement from their homes of over 100,000 civilians. While the war took the world by surprise, developments over the spring and early summer of 2008 had strongly suggested that a confrontation in the Georgian conflict zones was becoming increasingly likely. It is therefore important to trace developments immediately preceding the war, and specifically the events leading up to August 7, 2008. Having done this, it is possible then to raise thematically the key contentious issues related to these events. Overview: The Lead-Up to the Russia-Georgia War In stark contrast to the escalation during the spring of 2008, the early months of 2008 witnessed what appeared to be the laying of groundwork for a rapprochement between Tbilisi and Moscow. In particular, Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 proved to carry less immediate significance for Georgia than Tbilisi had originally feared. While Russia during 2006-7 had repeatedly warned the West that recognition of Kosovo would set a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia in the early spring abstained from acting on that threat. Tbilisi, for its part, endured a deep domestic crisis in November-December 2007, which caused President Saakashvili to resign and hold snap elections. During the first months of 2008 the government appeared keen to adopt a more diplomatic approach toward Moscow. Following Saakashvili’s re-election in January 2008, the newly appointed Minister for Reintegration, Temuri Yakobashvili, underlined the potentially important, albeit not exclusive, role

that Moscow could play in the conflict resolution processes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.1 At a top-level meeting on February 21, Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the re-establishment of trade and air traffic links that had been cut in 2006.