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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Q&A: Professor M. Steven Fish comments on Russian-Georgian conflict

– Tensions appear to be mounting in the continuing violent conflict between Russia and Georgia that began last Thursday over the separatist Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The number of dead exceeded 2,000 and the number of Georgian refugees was more than 30,000 within a few days.

M.Steve Fish
M.Steven Fish
Georgia borders the Black Sea between Russia and Turkey. It was ruled by Moscow for almost 200 years before the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991. Russia has backed the separatist movements in Georgia of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

M. Steven Fish, a UC Berkeley professor of political science, has written extensively about contemporary Russian history and culture and answers below some basic questions about the situation in Georgia. He also has a video presentation about Russian autocracy on YouTube.

He also is among a few of UC Berkeley’s experts available to talk about the clash between Georgia and Russia.

Q. Can a cease-fire hold?

A. Since so many conflicts in the contemporary world are between stateless entities, observers of world politics have come to regard "cease fire" as a virtually meaningless, made-to-be-broken rule, but in the conflict between Russia and Georgia, we're talking about two states and two national military organizations.

It is definitely in the best interests of both countries to adhere to a cease fire, hopefully sooner rather than later.

The Russians might not want to be seen as violating a cease-fire they agreed to; and the Georgians might want to adhere to the cease first because the Russians showed that they were willing and able to tear Georgia apart, so for Georgia to violate any cease-fire agreement would verge on national suicide. On the other hand, the Russian government might want to demonstrate -- to Georgia, other neighbors, the world as a whole, and its own people –- that it will act at will, unconstrainted by law and formal agreements, even those it has signed.

Here we see the arrogance of the aggrieved, insecure great power that seeks to demonstrate its might by thumbing its nose at international disapproval. If the Russians choose this path, they won't be alone; such a posture has characterized the Bush administration's mentality and actions ever since 2001.

Q. What are the prospects for peace?

A. The prospects for a lasting, truly peaceful settlement are dim because of the national antagonism between Russians and Georgians (the people, not just the governments); the untenability in political and legal terms of the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (formally part of Georgia but de facto annexed by Russia); and the Russian government's deeply-rooted, long-term intention of reestablishing dominion (not full formal control, but very extensive influence) over the south Caucasus (meaning Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan).

Q. How might presidential politics in the United States impact what happens between Russia and Georgia?

A. Some of the prospects for peace rest on what happens in the United States in November. Bush and McCain have both eagerly sought a new Cold War with Russia, and part of their policy has been forming an intimate, almost client-like relationship with Georgia.

Absent that kind of relationship with the United States (and I think a Democratic president would be much more savvy and much less confrontational in relations with Russia), no Georgian government will engage in the kind of antics that this one did by launching the (legally justifiable but politically idiotic) military play for South Ossetia.

A list of UC Berkeley's authorities who can comment on the Georgia-Russia conflict is available online.