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Four years later -- seeking a peaceful end to the Russian occupation

Russian Soldiers in Georgia

Russian soldiers clean their rifles at the military base in Tskhinvali, regional capital of Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia, Friday, Aug. 7, 2009. The separatist Georgian region marks the anniversary of the Georgian invasion that resulted in a brief Russia-Georgia war in Aug. 2008. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

Four years ago this month, as many around the world were watching the summer Olympics in Beijing, Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia. At one point Russian tanks were on the outskirts of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. Russian planes dropped bombs on Tbilisi International Airport -- a civilian airport.

Hostilities were quickly brought to an end by a French diplomatic intervention in the form of a Six Point Cease Fire agreement. However, four years later Russia still fails to live up to the requirements of the agreement.

Instead of military might, Georgia is taking a soft-power approach: winning over those living in the occupied territories and showing that a united Georgia is in everyone’s interest.

Currently, 10,000 Russian troops occupy the two Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia which equal 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory. Imagine a foreign army occupying one-fifth of the United States -- roughly equivalent to everything west of the Rocky Mountains in the continental U.S.

So what is the Georgian government doing about it?

Georgian leaders, tired of bloodshed and looking for peace, know that there will never be a military solution to ending the Russian occupation. To this end, President Saakashvili has publically made a “non-use of force” pledge regarding the occupied territories -- something that Russia fails to do in return.

Instead of military might, Georgia is taking a soft-power approach: winning over those living in the occupied territories and showing that a united Georgia is in everyone’s interest. Through a strategy that is best described as “engagement through cooperation,” Georgia’s Ministry of Reintegration has implemented several programs designed to pull the two occupied territories slowly out of the Russian orbit and back into Georgia’s.

For example, because regional security is derived from economic freedom, there is a drive to promote trade between communities that straddle the line between free Georgia and the occupied regions. Knowing that free trade will foster economic growth in the region, Georgia has also agreed to Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization.

The Georgian Ministry of Education and Science is making it easier for the residents of the occupied regions to earn Georgian college degrees by allowing students to take their required exams in the Ossetian or Abkhaz languages. The government is also funding scholarships for those living in the occupied territories to attend leading universities in Europe and the United States.

But travelling overseas from the occupied territories is no easy feat. In addition to Russia, only Nicaragua, Venezuela, and three tiny Pacific Island countries -- Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Nauru -- recognize the sovereignty and, therefore, the passports issued by the Russian-backed South Ossetian and Abkhazian puppet governments.

To encourage and allow international travel, but without politicizing issue of nationality, Georgia has established Status Neutral Travel Documents. Basically, these are passports that do not state the nationality of the individual. This ensures that innocent locals do not suffer from the regional dispute. So far, these documents are recognized by the U.S., Japan and five Eastern European countries, but it is hoped that more will recognize them in the future.

Georgia has clearly taken the moral high road in its dispute with Russia. One can see why Russia is hesitant to support Georgia’s “engagement through cooperation” strategy.

Since President Mikheil Saakashvili peacefully took power in 2003, Georgia has made tremendous improvements in its economy, democracy and international standing -- all in complete contrast to what Russia is experiencing under Putin. Once regularly described as an “ex-Soviet State,” Georgia is now better described as a beacon of hope for the future of the region.

Georgia will prove that, as in the Cold War, Russia won’t have to be defeated on the battlefield with tanks and soldiers. Moscow’s ambitions in the region will be defeated because, quite simply, freedom trumps oppression. In the end, the values, ideas and vision of President Saakashvili, and the modern Georgia he leads, will turn out to be more powerful than any army Georgia could ever field.

Russia cannot keep South Ossetia and Abkhazia isolated forever. Someday those living under the oppressive yoke of Moscow’s henchmen in the occupied regions will see that their future is better off with Tbilisi. This will take time, maybe even as long as a generation, but it will happen.

Luke Coffey is The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Fellow, specializing in transatlantic security issues.