To call South Ossetia a "rebel region" or a "breakaway province" of Georgia flatters it with the language of political struggle. Better to think of it as a Russian-backed smuggling racket with a large piece of land attached. The sooner the land returns to Georgian control, the better for everyone. Georgia has an interest in South Ossetia's peace and prosperity. Russia has none.
Of the four "frozen conflicts" in the Black Sea region, that of South Ossetia has the merit of being the most straightforward. The separatist "government" now in place there has nothing to be said for it at all, whatever the factors that sent South Ossetia to war with Tbilisi more than a decade ago. The presence of Russian "peacekeeping" forces, backing up the South Ossetian authorities, ensures the continuation, not resolution, of this conflict within Georgia, which was veering back this week toward serious fighting between South Ossetian militia and Georgian forces, amid fears of Russian intervention.
The case of Transdniester, in Moldova, is almost as straightforward. There, too, Russian troops and Russian diplomacy prop up an illegal separatist regime that divides and cripples the country. They obstruct, rather than facilitate, a constitutional settlement giving Transdniester extensive autonomy, to which Moldova would readily subscribe.
A third frozen conflict, over Abkhazia, another rebel province of Georgia, is comparable to that in Transdniester. Abkhazia's history also gives it a more persuasive claim to some form of special political status. Georgia is ready to talk. But by sponsoring and protecting an Abkhaz government that appears to live mainly off smuggling, Russia obstructs a better solution.
The fourth frozen conflict, over Nagorno-Karabakh, is different again. Russia has an influence here, but so far a more constructive one, as Armenia's main political ally. Karabakh, an Armenian-populated part of Azerbaijan, has formed a de facto union with Armenia since winning a war of secession from Azerbaijan in 1994. The absence of a permanent settlement stunts the economic and political development of Armenia and Azerbaijan and leaves both vulnerable to fresh waves of nationalism and militarism.
At long last, these four frozen conflicts look set to attract the attention they deserve - which is a step toward solving them. There are several reasons for making this guardedly optimistic claim. One is the election of President Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia following last November's "rose revolution," when crowds fed up with corruption and vote-rigging drove out Eduard Shevardnadze. Previously, the Caucasus had had no leader capable of capturing America's attention, still less its enthusiasm.
Saakashvili has the charm and energy of youth, the advantage of good English and a clear commitment to liberal democracy, which he proposes to apply to the whole of his country.
A second factor that may help thaw the frozen conflicts is the decline of Western confidence in Russia. Until now the West has allowed Russia the lead role in managing (or, rather, mismanaging) the problems of Moldova and the Caucasus. But the Yukos case, together with the continuing Chechen war and President Vladimir Putin's suppression of free broadcast media, have persuaded Western governments that Russia is moving away from them in its political values and toward more authoritarian ones.
President George Bush's freedom to review his Russian policy has been hampered by his absurd declaration three years ago that he saw into Vladimir Putin's soul and knew he could trust the man. But, embarrassing as it may be for Bush personally, the U.S.-Russia relationship has been getting so much less trusting over the past year or two that a new and tougher U.S. policy can only be a matter of time. The United States will certainly move in that direction if John Kerry wins this year's presidential election and if his administration begins, as new administrations usually do, with a skeptical review of the policies of its predecessor; and it will probably do so if Bush wins and appoints a new secretary of state.
A third factor pushing frozen conflicts up the trans-Atlantic policy agenda is the eastward enlargement of NATO and the European Union, coupled with the heightened U.S. interest - after 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - in what it calls the Greater Middle East, with Turkey at its northwestern corner.
The fact that Europe and America now have a clear reason to want these countries as reliable allies gives an equally compelling reason to want an end to the frozen conflicts, which destabilize these countries from within while also posing wider threats. A recent study from the U.S.-based German Marshall Fund describes the conflict zones as "unresolved fragments of Soviet Empire [which] now serve as shipping points for weapons, narcotics and victims of human trafficking, as breeding grounds for transnational organized crime, and last but not least, for terrorism."
Russia is not making it easy. As it retreats from democracy, so its political workings become more opaque and its true intentions even harder to discern. But whatever the mix of signals Russia sends out, they have one fairly constant theme: It is the desire for respect and authority in the world. So this is the front on which the West should challenge Russia.
The West should tell Putin, directly and preferably publicly, that Russia's proclamations against crime and terrorism and secessionism elsewhere in the world cannot be taken seriously as long as Russia goes on sponsoring criminal regimes that undermine regional security and cripple legitimate governments in its own back yard.
The West needs to put the case in exactly those blunt terms if it wants to make Russia shift its position. Untruth and evasion are an integral part of Russian foreign policy; challenging them is the necessary first step toward changing the realities they obscure. Russia will shift its position if pressed in the right way, because Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniester don't really matter very much to it in the end - a few crooks in Russia profit from their rebellion commercially and a few nationalists in the Russian Duma politically. But they are not worth much of Putin's political capital. If these problems can be taken to the top, they will be settled more easily than by argument at lower levels, where narrow lobbies fight their corners.
Robert Cottrell is Central Europe
correspondent of The Economist.
This commentary was first written for Transitions Online (www.tol.cz).