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Some Thoughts on the recent fighting, by John Colarusso - 13 August 2008

John Colarusso
McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario-13 August 2008

I have been opposed to American policy toward Georgia since 1993 when I first became involved as a back channel diplomat on matters between Washington and Russia regarding the Caucasus.

I told various and sundry in Washington repeatedly that to endorse the Stalinist boundaries of Georgia was to leave her chronically open to Russian pressure and manipulation. I might mention that this American policy endorses the machinations of one of history's great tyrants and mass murderers, and also repeats the errors of the mid-twentieth century of recognizing the false detritus of the British and other empires that rersulted in so much strife in Africa and elsewhere.

Now because of NATO requirements, these regions also present an insurmountable obstacle to Georgian membership in Partnership for Peace or whatever program NATO might extend toward Tbilisi.

I also warned repeatedly that Georgia had an exaggerated view of her importance both regionally and internationally. I cautioned that any understandings with any Georgian leader would have to be spelled out in considerable detail, lest he or she overreact on any number of issues.

The atrocities committed under the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1991-2 in Southg Ossetia and in 1992-3 in Abkhazia, with the warlords Tengiz Kitovani and Jaba Ioseliani, have left the Ossetians and Abkhaz with little trust for Tbilisi. None of these fears has been addressed as far as I know in subsequent talks.

Ethnic facts on the ground also have not been addressed. For example, the secession of Azerbaijan from the USSR split the Lezgian community. Russia and Azerbaijan have worked out an agreement by which Lezgian have privileged status in crossing the border to visit relatives and others within their community. Such arrangements for either the Ossetians or with the Abkhaz for the Abazas or their Circassians kin have never been put forward to my knowledge.

Strategic assets that are vitral to Russia also fall within both regions. In South Ossetia the Georgian Military Highway forms a vital asset for Russia should she want to project force southward into the Middle East. This asset is therefore opposed to Western interests, but this should not blind us to Russia's determination to maintain this region as apart from Georgia when the latter is being placed into an adversarial role toward Russia by the West.

In Abkhazia there is a listening station that is used by the Russian's to monitor nuclear testing in the Middle East, Iran, and Pakistan. This would be in accord with Western interests if intelligence sharing protocols with Russia were to remain in place. No efforts have been made to assure Russia of Western cooperation on such test monitoring, as far as I am aware.

A few Western commentators have said things that were either wrong or mendacious. One has characterized Georgia as a small and insignificant country. It is small, but it is highly significant both for its pipeline and for its geo-strategic position at the hub of the Turkey, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Another said it was not an American ally. With 2,000 troops formerly stationed in Baquba in Iraq, I would say that it was a strong American ally.

I derive no pleasure form being vindicated. I only hope that policy makers understand that diplomatic moves cannot achieve goals that are tactically unachievable, whether for want of military might or of political will. Regardless of how badly some may want a strategic structure to encircle a resurgent Russia, if such a structure cannot be tactically achieved, then the strategic goal must be replaced with other arrangements, many of which may involve compromise and accommodation of a politically distasteful form.

Certainly after the West's recognition of Kosovo, there should be little surprise if the Russians now do the same for Abklhazia and South Ossetia (which will probably simply become part of North Ossetia - Alania). I anticipate that Russia will ignore diplomatic efforts to return to an status ante bellum.

John Colarusso, Ph.D.,Professor, Department of Anthropology, and Department of Linguistics and Languages - McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario

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