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'Occupied' or 'Liberated' Territories? The Smoke and Mirrors of Caucasian Semantics, by George Hewitt

On 31 January 2008 Georgian president Mikheil Saak’ashvili and his prime minister Lado Gurgenidze changed the name of the previously styled Ministry for Conflict Resolution, rechristening it the Ministry for Reintegration, with Teimuraz (Temur) Iak’obashvili at its head. Whilst the Abkhazians and South Ossetians had been largely amenable to negotiating to resolve their conflicts with Georgia and to establish good-neighbourly relations with Georgia, there was no way they would engage with ministerial representatives whose goal was to reintegrate their territories within a unitary Georgian state. South Ossetia had been effectively free of Georgian control since the Daghomys Accord of June 1992, which ended a low-intensity 2-year war, whilst Abkhazia had gained de facto independence from Tbilisi when Georgian troops suffered a humiliating defeat at the end of September 1993, ending the high-intensity 14-month war initiated by Eduard Shevardnadze. As for the negotiations, these had already been suspended by the Abkhazians after Saak’ashvili's illegal introduction of military personnel into their Upper K’odor Valley in the summer of 2006, and this new development merely confirmed their determination to have nothing to do with Saak’ashvili's administration.

Iak’obashvili's post suddenly became a high-profile sinecure on 26 August 2008 when Russian president Dmitry Medvedev formally recognised, and established diplomatic relations with, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the wake of the 5-day war in South Ossetia (and the flight of the Georgian troops from the K’odor Valley) earlier that month. Unfortunately, the Georgian minister has obstinately refused to face this reality, and Georgia's Western friends have failed to find the courage to persuade him or his mercurial president, whose decision to launch an assault on the South Ossetian capital (Tskhinval) brought the full force of Russian nemesis down on his own (and his country's) hubristic head, to do so. Instead, Tbilisi continues to delude itself into believing that the world's two youngest republics can still be returned to the Georgian fold. And the prime illustration of this delusion was the unveiling by Iak’obashvili on 28 January 2010 of his 'State Strategy on [the] Occupied Territories: Engagement Through Coöperation'. Since, quite naturally (sc. in view of the constant threat of belligerence from the Georgian side of the respective borders), both the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians have concluded defence-agreements with Moscow, which grant Russia the right to protect their frontiers from renewed Georgian aggression, Russian troops have a presence in the border-regions of both republics. This is the flimsy justification for the use of the sensational term 'occupied territories' in the aforementioned document and in much of the rhetoric emanating from Georgian sources. Needless to say, the Georgian government takes great satisfaction from hearing the use of this time by foreign governments, organisations and leading political figures, the latest and most prominent of whom is US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who voiced the term when visiting Tbilisi on the final leg of her recent Transcaucasian tour.

Mrs. Clinton has had her fingers burnt in the past in connection with a too poorly-grounded assessment of a Georgian leader, which, one might have thought, would have made her more cautious about accepting Georgian propagandistic claims at face-value thereafter. But she seems to have fallen into the same trap as in 1999. This was when the American National Democratic Institute awarded its W. Averell Harriman prize to Georgia's then-president, Eduard Shevardnadze, in the presence of Hillary Clinton (who brought along her husband, President Bill Clinton, as a surprise-guest), an award which the Institute later preferred to consign to oblivion. This was hardly surprising in view of what closer inspection of the nature of the Georgian state under Shevardnadze revealed. For example, Human Rights Watch published a damning 63-page document (vol. 12, No. 11 (D)) in October 2000 entitled Georgia. Backtracking on Reform: Amendments Undermine Access to Justice, in which one of many criticisms read: 'Georgia has an abysmal record of torture and other ill-treatment in pre-trial detention and of unfair trials' (p. 6). When Shevardnadze was overthrown by the young pretender Saak’ashvili in November 2003, the US dropped him like a stone and promptly transferred its allegiance to his usurper.

It would be interesting to hear how Mrs. Clinton could justify her parroting of the term 'occupied territories'. Has she any first-hand knowledge of what life is like in the said republics? No. Are Russian troops in those republics against the wishes of the local governements and peoples? No. Are Russian troops visible on the streets of local towns and villages, brandishing weapons to keep resentful residents in order? No. Is Russian investment and influence growing there? Yes, but, then, what is the alternative, given the West's dogged refusal for almost two decades to do anything more than accede to Tbilisi's request to isolate the regions and their populations, which simply pushes them ever closer to their northern neighbour? Almost two decades of de facto independence became de iure in August 2008 with Russia's recognition, and Russia's military presence now provides the necessary bulwark for the freedom which the Abkhazians and South Ossetians secured at the cost of so many lives and damage inflicted on the infrastructure and economy of their countries. Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru have followed Russia's lead, and the Abkhazians and South Ossetians are working hard to gain even wider diplomatic support, which they readily acknowledge will be a slow process, given the international community's initial folly of precipitately recognising Georgia within its Soviet boundaries and that unsympathetic and largely ignorant community's consequent perception of a need to go on mouthing support for an unsustainable territorial integrity — fine-sounding words but with absolutely no relevance to the facts on the ground.

Mrs. Clinton was reported to have timed her return to America to be there in time to meet Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the occasion of his recent visit. This is somewhat ironic, for, if the Obama administration is eager to raise the issue of 'occupied territories' in the hope of engineering their deoccupation, their most appropriate interlocutor must be the Israeli Prime Minister. Might one, then, look forward to a change in US policy towards Israel, which would surely be the most effective way to ensure the deoccupation of the actual Occupied Territories of Palestine?

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