As events move swiftly, and ominously, in the conflict between Georgia and Russia, an understanding of the background of the conflict is essential. Several pieces have appeared just today providing some good context and analysis.
First, Ellen Barry (with whom I once worked at the Moscow Times) gives an overview of South Ossetia's history and the tensions that have stalked the region since the break-up of the Soviet Union in this analysis piece from the New York Times. (The NYT's news roundup of the latest events is co-written by Anne Barnard, yet another former colleague from the Moscow Times.)
Over at the Guardian, David Hearst provides an excellent analysis of the current conflict. Here's an excerpt:
Observers had little doubt the operation to take South Ossetia back under Georgian control bore the hallmarks of a planned military offensive. It was not the result of a ceasefire that had broken down the night before. It was more a fulfillment of the promise the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, made to recapture lost national territory, and with it a measure of nationalist pride.
The assault appears to have been carefully timed to coincide with the opening of the Olympic games when the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, was in Beijing. Tom de Waal of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and an expert on the region said: "Clearly there have been incidents on both sides, but this is obviously a planned Georgian operation, a contingency plan they have had for some time, to retake [South Ossetia's capital] Tskhinvali.
"Possibly the Georgians calculated that with Putin in Beijing they could recapture the capital in two days and then defend it over the next two months, because the Russians won't take this lying down."
(Tom de Waal is, yes, yet another Moscow Timesnik from my days there in the mid-1990s. In addition, The Times of London's front-page print piece on the war was written by Kevin O'Flynn, whom I knew as a laid-back, long-haired youth on the sports desk at the Moscow Times. It's been like old home week for the MT crowd of that era.)
Hearst further notes:
The Russians are far from blameless. They have a long and dirty history of dividing and ruling, fomenting strife to weaken opponents in a critical frontier zone. But Russia could claim in the UN security council to be defending its own citizens and its own peacekeepers. Sabine Freizer, Europe programme director of the International Crisis Group said: "Russia should not be blamed for the fighting, but Russia should now be pressured not to go beyond its peacekeeping mandate, and to ensure that armed militia do not cross the border into South Ossetia."
However, the fighting is rapidly spreading beyond the "peacekeeping mandate," with Russian planes bombing targets in the Georgian city of Gori (Stalin's birthplace), killing several civilians. This brutal assault -- including a murderous airstrike on an apartment house -- only underscores the savagery that awaits if the conflict cannot be tamped down quickly.
It seems clear at this point that Georgia has taken an enormous gamble in launching the initial attack into South Ossetia, hoping for a quick knock-out blow and then strong support from Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's Terror War pals in Washington, as Jim Heintz notes in an insightful piece for the Associated Press (You'll be relieved to know that I did not work with Heintz at the Moscow Times):
With Vladimir Putin in Beijing for the Olympic opening ceremony and the world's attention fixed on China, Georgia may have been betting it could pounce on an opportunity to quickly wrest control of its breakaway province. But the gamble may backfire: Washington hasn't endorsed Georgia's power play, and Moscow's counteroffensive has brought the two sides into a fight it will be hard for Georgia, a former Soviet state, to win...
One analyst suggested Georgia's unexpected assault may have been rooted as much in a sense that its NATO bid was faltering as in antagonism with Russia. Earlier this year, NATO quashed Georgia's drive to get a so-called road map for alliance membership amid alarm that President Mikhail Saakashvili was backtracking on democracy with his violent suppression last year of opposition rallies.
Georgia got assurances that it could eventually join, but "this pushed Georgia into a philosophy of self-reliance — the idea that Georgia will be able to regain breakaway entities only by its own means," said Nicu Popescu of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The elephant in the room behind this whole story is Georgia's NATO prospects."
He also speculated the timing of the attack, hours before the opening ceremony in Beijing, could be a signal from the Georgian government. The Russian resort region of Sochi, just miles from the border of Georgia's other separatist region of Abkhazia, will host the 2014 Winter Games.
"It might be a signal to the Russians saying that the Sochi Olympics will not go the way Russia wants if there is no progress on the settlement in Abkhazia," Popescu said.
Heintz also notes a fact that seems to be slipping away from many media narratives on the conflict: that Saakashvili ordered the heavy bombardment of the South Ossetian capital just hours after declaring a supposed "cease-fire," and that Georgian forces targeted and killed several Russian peacekeeping troops that had been stationed in the region for years. These brutal and boneheaded moves provided the perfect excuse for the Kremlin to flex its muscles and secure an even tighter hold on Georgia's breakaway regions:
Georgia's withering artillery barrage came hours after Saakashvili declared a unilateral cease-fire ahead of negotiations set for the next day — and the separatists reportedly agreed to follow suit.
If Georgia violated its own cease-fire, it could be a crushing blow to its drive to integrate with the West.
Heintz also notes a point we mentioned yesterday: that the West's recognition of Kosovo's illusory "independence" helped spark the recent rise in tensions and cross-border incidents that Georgia used to justify Saakashvili's long-declared intention to bring all of what was Soviet Georgia under his control. Heintz further notes that almost every South Ossetian considers their region part of Russia; another fact frequently overlooked in the resurrection of Cold War rhetoric that has greeted the conflict:
South Ossetia was trouble waiting to happen for years — a "frozen conflict" with tensions building just below the surface. Georgia's thunderous assault may have been a go-for-broke move by a country that felt it was out of options amid Russia's growing dominance in the region. Or South Ossetia's separatists may have provoked Georgia once too often.
A grudging cease-fire that ended a separatist war in 1992 left the region mostly under control of an internationally unrecognized government, but dappled with areas held by Georgian forces. South Ossetia longed to be incorporated into Russia, whose province of North Ossetia contains their ethnic brethren. Georgia firmly rejected the prospect: Ceding the territory would bring Russia within 50 miles of the Georgian capital.
Negotiations were sporadic, often foundering on who should participate. Clashes broke out, especially near the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, which is in a pocket nearly surrounded by Georgian-held territory.
Tensions rose markedly this year after South Ossetia basked in Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia, calling it an international precedent that legitimized its own refusal to remain part of Georgia. Moscow boosted ties with the separatist government — and with a similar regime in Georgia's other separatist region, Abkhazia — and repeatedly denounced Saakashvili's push to join NATO.
None of the previous clashes this month had been anywhere close to the magnitude of the explosions that shook Tskhinvali throughout the night.
Neither side has nor will cover themselves with glory in this bloody episode. The depredations of the Putin regime are well-known; there is little to be expected from that quarter but power politics at its most brutal. Putin is a war criminal responsible for vast atrocities in Chechnya and a security apparat that uses black ops, assassinations and terrorism with as much aplomb as their American counterparts.
Meanwhile, Saakashvili's tenure in Tblisi -- which began as a self-proclaimed reformist revolution -- has deteriorated into a regime marked by much of the same kind of corruption, cronyism and repression that it puported to overthrow. One of Saakashvili's partners in the revolution, Irakli Okruashvili, had a dramatic falling-out with the boss last year. When he announced he was running for president against Saakashvili, he was arrested "and taken to Tbilisi’s notorious Isolator Number 7, the scene of well-documented torture of political prisoners since 1991," as Mark Almond of Oriel College, Oxford, noted in an article last year. After subjection to "strenuous interrogation techniques," Okruashvili "recanted" his charges against the president, and coughed up $6 million in shakedown "bail" money to win his release.
And what were Okruashvili's charges? Almond provides this quote from the former defense minister in Saakashvili’s government:
“The style of Saakashvili’s governance ... has made dishonesty, injustice and oppression a way of life. Everyday repression, demolition of houses and churches, robbery, ‘kulakization’, and murders, I would stress, murders, have become common practice for the authorities.”
You can see why George W. Bush has embraced Saakashvili so enthusiastically. Saakashvili is also a war criminal, albeit at a much smaller level than his patron Bush or his enemy Putin. Saakashvili has eagerly taken part in the greatest war crime of our still-young century (I'm sure we ain't seen nothin' yet): the war of aggression against Iraq, which has already led to the slaughter of at least a million innocent people. No one forced Saakashvili to be an accomplice to this horrendous crime; he chose to do it willingly, and he cannot escape the guilt.
There are no white hats in this conflict; but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to see the reality of what is happening. In Saturday's Guardian, Almond gave this view of the background:
Back in the late 1980s, as the USSR waned, the Red Army withdrew from countries in eastern Europe which plainly resented its presence as the guarantor of unpopular communist regimes. That theme continued throughout the new republics of the deceased Soviet Union, and on into the premiership of Putin, under whom Russian forces were evacuated even from the country's bases in Georgia.
To many Russians this vast geopolitical retreat from places which were part of Russia long before the dawn of communist rule brought no bonus in relations with the west. The more Russia drew in its horns, the more Washington and its allies denounced the Kremlin for its imperial ambitions.....
In 1992, the west backed Eduard Shevardnadze's attempts to reassert Georgia's control over these regions. The then Georgian president's war was a disaster for his nation. It left 300,000 or more refugees "cleansed" by the rebel regions, but for Ossetians and Abkhazians the brutal plundering of the Georgian troops is the most indelible memory.
Georgians have nursed their humiliation ever since. Although Mikheil Saakashvili has done little for the refugees since he came to power early in 2004 - apart from move them out of their hostels in central Tbilisi to make way for property development - he has spent 70% of the Georgian budget on his military. At the start of the week he decided to flex his muscles.
Devoted to achieving Nato entry for Georgia, Saakashvili has sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan - and so clearly felt he had American backing. The streets of the Georgian capital are plastered with posters of George W Bush alongside his Georgian protege. George W Bush Avenue leads to Tbilisi airport. But he has ignored Kissinger's dictum: "Great powers don't commit suicide for their allies." Perhaps his neoconservative allies in Washington have forgotten it, too. Let's hope not....
Saakashvili faces a domestic economic crisis and public disillusionment. In the years since the so-called Rose revolution, the cronyism and poverty that characterised the Shevardnadze era have not gone away. Allegations of corruption and favouritism towards his mother's clan, together with claims of election fraud, led to mass demonstrations against Saakashvili last November. His ruthless security forces - trained, equipped and subsidised by the west - thrashed the protesters. Lashing out at the Georgians' common enemy in South Ossetia would certainly rally them around the president, at least in the short term.
Last September, President Saakashvili suddenly turned on his closest ally in the Rose revolution, defence minister Irakli Okruashvili. Each man accused his former blood brother of mafia links and profiting from contraband. Whatever the truth, the fact that the men seen by the west as the heroes of a post-Shevardnadze clean-up accused each other of vile crimes should warn us against picking a local hero in Caucasian politics...
The question now is whether the conflict can be contained, or whether the west will be drawn in, raising the stakes to desperate levels. To date the west has operated radically different approaches to secession in the Balkans, where pro-western microstates get embassies, and the Caucasus, where the Caucasian boundaries drawn up by Stalin are deemed sacrosanct....
Given its extraordinary ethnic complexity, Georgia is a post-Soviet Union in miniature. If westerners readily conceded non-Russian republics' right to secede from the USSR in 1991, what is the logic of insisting that non-Georgians must remain inside a microempire which happens to be pro-western?
Other people's nationalisms are like other people's love affairs, or, indeed, like dog fights. These are things wise people don't get involved in. A war in the Caucasus is never a straightforward moral crusade - but then, how many wars are?
Indeed. The ultimate outcome of this war will be, as always, death and ruin for multitudes who have nothing to do with the violent aggression of corrupt elites on every side.
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This story was published on August 11, 2008.