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Audi alteram partem

The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation, by Donald Rayfield

The two regions at the heart of the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 must be understood in their own terms if the problem of Georgia - and western illusions about the country - are to be seriously addressed, says Donald Rayfield.

(This article was first published on 13 August 2008)

The embers of the five-day war between Georgia and Russia of 8-12 August 2008 are not quite extinguished, but the ceasefire agreement skilfully negotiated by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and agreed with his counterparts Dmitry Medvedev (Russia) and Mikheil Saakashvili (Georgia) gives hope for an end to this intense, destructive and tragic conflict.

More broadly, when the citizens displaced and wounded by the war have been able to regain a modicum of security and humanitarian relief in rebuilding their shattered lives, the space must be made for a thoroughgoing investigation into its background, causes and lessons. It may be appropriate at this early stage to offer some preliminary notes to this larger project.

Much of the media reporting of the "short and nasty war" has been strong and detailed, with a good dose of scepticism in questioning the tendentious (and often downright mendacious) versions of events relayed by Russian and Georgians spokespersons alike. This is in contrast to the lack of attention among commentators to the essential task of exploring the roots of the conflict; indeed, a lot of the opinion-flood persists in ignoring completely the local and regional factors in favour of an instant resort to high geopolitics, as if South Ossetia and Abkhazia - which lie at the heart of what has happened - do not in themselves even exist.

South Ossetia: the fire this time

South Ossetia, the small territory legally inside Georgia but beyond its control since the longer but equally nasty war of 1991-92, was the immediate trigger of the five-day war. The deeper background of this area demonstrates that indeed this was a conflict that did not have to happen (see Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy", 12 August 2008). The 40,000 or so Ossetians who live on the southern slopes of the central Caucasus have mostly developed separately from the main body of Ossetians on the northern slopes (and in Russian territory), to the point of speaking a different dialect. For some 700 years they have lived in villages interspersed with Georgian villages: intermingling peacefully, sharing the same religion, and marrying into Georgia's royalty and intelligentsia.

The serious clashes only began when the half-demented first president of post-Soviet Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, espoused (before and during his brief period of rule in 1992) an extreme chauvinist form of nationalism which declared all citizens who were not ethnic Georgians to be "guests" on the republic's territory. Gamsakhurdia abolished the autonomy and even the very name of South Ossetia, and allowed one of his ministers (Vazha Adamia) to lead a crusade on Tskhinvali.

After hundreds were killed, Georgia's Ossetians took what appeared the only option open to them: to separate. They rapidly found Russian protection in the guise of "peacekeepers", and continued in their newly constrained circumstances to eke a living from their poor soil and from smuggling goods across the Caucasus. By the late 1990s, the Georgian government of Eduard Shevardnadze (who had come to power after Gamsakhurdia's death) was tolerating this trade, which was fuelled by the reasonably peaceful coexistence of black marketeers centred on an enormous car-boot market on the Georgia-South Ossetian border.

Mikheil Saakashvili, who in turn succeeded Shevardnadze in the "rose revolution" of 2003-04 has - like almost all Georgian politicians - pledged to recover (by force if necessary) all the territory lost in the years of post-Soviet chaos and violence. This promise, and the rhetoric which accompanies it (its horizon, for example, is always the very near future), traps its makers. In the effort to fulfil it where South Ossetia is concerned, Saakashvili's government has tried a series of stratagems: installing a rival pro-Georgian puppet government to counter the Russian-backed South Ossetian administration led by Eduard Kokoity; manipulating water and power supplies; closing off trading posts; and escalating these measures (which the South Ossetian rulers willingly matched and even outdid) to kidnapping, mine-laying, and occasional bursts of gunfire.

In face of these "provocations" (to use a word promiscuously hurled by both sides), the South Ossetians - already armed and trained by Russian peacekeepers - received more and more support, to the point that it became impossible to identify the perpetrator of anti-Georgian acts: the Russian military, or local Ossetian lads. The Ossetians' military gurantors have in any case been assiduous in their routines: undertaking overflights (and sometimes "dropping" missiles), and reinforcing troops with units who are unusually heavily trained for peacekeeping.

On a political level, moreover, there is no doubt that Russia's salami-slicing tactics (issuing South Ossetians with Russian passports, then integrating them into the Russian pension, health and education systems) has amounted to a covert process of assimilating first the population, and then the actual country, into the Russian federation.

In itself, Ossetia has little attraction for Russian acquisition: nobody builds villas there, and there are no tourist resorts or prospects of building facilities for visitors (as there are in Abkhazia). More than 20,000 (and perhaps up to 30,000) Georgians - who would not wish to be Russian citizens - also live there among a total population of 70,000. It is in principle possible that if South Ossetians had been left in peace - next to a Georgia which was beginning to show impressive economic growth and to integrate with the western world - might eventually have agreed to an understanding: if not to rejoin Georgia, then to live as if they were a part of it, and not a part of Russia (to which in any case they are joined only by a long, dark and dangerous road-tunnel).

It did not happen and perhaps could not have happened, given the nature of Russian ambitions and Georgian political leadership. Mikheil Saakashvili, to those who have got to know him closer, is - behind his multilingual fluency and American lawyer's education - a dangerously unstable and sometimes ruthless politician. Even his role as an anti-Russian maverick is not quite what it seems: there is much evidence to suggest that his success in riding the wave of the rose revolution in 2003-04 was more tangled with Russian interests and personalities than either side might care to recall (which might too help explain the ferocity of the personal abuse exchanged between the two sides).

An entangled and shadowy story indicates that when the revolution was in its infancy and Shevardnadze was clinging to his tottering throne, Saakashvili was engaged in indirect dialogue with Vladimir Putin via one of the then Russian president's less savoury intermediaries, Grigory Luchansky. The ambitious Georgian saw an early chance to gain advantage over his elder rival by exerting pressure against the local warlord Aslan Abashidze, who ruled the southwest Georgian province of Adzharia as his fiefdom.

Putin obliged by removing Abashidze's Russian security force (it helped that Abashidze was an ally of Putin's own rival, Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow). An added incentive was that Shevardnadze had earned the hatred of Putin's KGB and the Russian military because of his role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By the time the foundations of Abashidze's rule had been undermined and Adzharia returned to rule by Tbilisi, Saakashvili was Georgia's president and could take the credit for this first step in a would-be national-reintegration project.

The turnaround is complete. Vladimir Putin's (and Dmitry Medvedev's) loathing of Saakashvili is reflected in Medvedev's use of the vulgar term otmorozok (something between "imbecile" and "scum"). The Georgian president has earned the mantle in the Russian leaders' eyes by political decisions and economic policies that have taken him as far away as possible from Russia's orbit - including heavy reliance on American military aid.

Mikheil Saakashvili returned the rhetoric of abuse in full. But beyond the insults and the nationalist bellowing, it is still not clear what induced him to think that he could use his army to stage a blitzkrieg in South Ossetia that the Russians would accept as a fait accompli. Where were his American military advisers, who should have heard about this wild scheme and been able to avert it? These are just some of the questions that surround Saakashvili; others include his role in the unexplained death of his prime minister and ally Zurab Zhvania in 2005, and in subsequent extraordinary deaths.

The true death-toll in Tskhinvali, and the extent of Georgian responsibility, is a further shadow over Saakashvili; even if it proves to be less than the figure of 1,500 circulated widely, the action remains a monstrous and (to use one of Saakashvili's favourite words - but only of his enemies) barbarous outrage committed by a national army trying to retake a separatist provincial town. All this is good reason why - despite all the embraces and handshakes, and the doubtless smiling welcome given to Condoleezza Rice when the United States's secretary of state visits Tbilisi - many of Saakashvili's western allies are now as anxious as the Russians to find a more reasonable man to replace him.

When his political obituary is written, the least that can be said is that his actions in South Ossetia have meant that any prospect of reincorporating South Ossetia into Georgia is now even more faint than it was before his misguided misadventure. As so often, the projection of zealous Georgian nationalism defeats its own intended purposes.

Abkhazia: the waves recede

In one respect at least it was surprising that the open conflict between Georgia and Russia broke out over South Ossetia rather than Georgia's other lost territory, Abkhazia - in that the issues dividing Georgia and Abkhazia are far more deep-rooted and serious (and because Georgian military forces had held part of Abkhazia, the Kodori gorge region, since July 2006 - until their retreat amid the August 2008 war).

If South Ossetia was integrated with Georgian kingdoms and republics for centuries, of Abkhazia it can only be said that it was certainly an integral part of a unified Georgian state for only a fraction of the latter's history: between about 900 and 1225 (the "golden age" of the Georgian kingdom), and from 1936 to 1992 (from the murder of the Abkhaz leader Nestor Lakoba by Lavrenti Beria to the separation and war under the leadership of Ardzinba).

At various periods, Abkhazia was ruled by the rulers of Mingrelia, very often under Ottoman suzerainty. Only after forced demographic changes in the 1930s did Abkhazia acquire a Georgian population that outnumbered the native Abkhaz (whose population was severely depleted in 1864, when Russia expelled half of them to Turkey). Georgia's claims to sovereignty over Abkhazia rest, therefore, on the modern post-1945 principle of inviolability of borders, rather than long historical association.

More important, Abkhazia with its productive soil, its once attractive seaside and mountain resorts is genuinely coveted by its neighbour. Russian officials and businessmen have been buying up property - from Stalin's old villas to abandoned Yugoslav-built hotels - on the assumption that when Abkhazia's status is eventually redefined, their purchases will be both legal and profitable. Abkhazia also has running through it the main road and railway that join pro-Russian Armenia to the rest of the world.

Russia's "peacekeepers", after their not-very-covert support of a war of separation in 1992-93, have strong vested interests in staying; and the Abkhaz, who have never forgiven the Georgians for their violence and bullying - in the 1930s and 1970s, as well as in the brutal, destructive 1992-93 campaign - have decided that Russian overlordship is far preferable. (Anyone who reads Fazil Iskander's novel Uncle Sandro from Chegem will find Abkhaz attitudes to their imperial rulers, and their confidence that under Russian rule they can go on living as they wish, fully explained there). The only vulnerability for an Abkhazia that wishes to be independent or a part of the Russian federation is the existence of its southern Gali region, where the Mingrelian population is ethnically and linguistically close to Mingrelians in western Georgia and indeed to ethnic Georgians too.

After the routing of Georgia in Tskhinvali and the total failure of the Americans and Europeans to back up their verbal and economic support for Georgia with any military action or effective political sanctions, the Abkhaz can now be sure that nobody will now attempt to encourage their reintegration with Georgia. European Union peacekeepers may possibly be added to Russian peacekeepers as a result of Nicolas Sarkozy's (and the Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb's) negotiations, but they are unlikely to be effective or even respected by Caucasians (who recognise the propensities of the Russian army to extreme physical violence as a sign of authenticity and will laugh at the inhibitions of any other type of blue-caps).

The legacy

Where then does the short war with Russia leave Georgia itself, within its now ever-more-clearly diminished size? Perhaps Georgian politicians and their public may begin to listen to the quiet, unpopular advice that their more realistic allies have been giving, but which has so far been ignored:

* first, look at the Czech Republic (which manages fine without Slovakia, and vice-versa) and at Hungary (which, an extremist fringe apart, has given up aspirations to regain Transylvania) - and accept that territory can be lost, and that a nation can survive and even benefit from a more homogeneous ethnic make-up (as long as this is combined with the cultivation of a civic rather than an ethnic nationalism)

* second, Georgia should concentrate entirely on economic and social development, so that it becomes a visibly richer, freer and more secure neighbour which a resident of Abkhazia or South Ossetia might conceivably wish to live in

* third, Georgians should realise that there are more than two options: an impossible one of reconquering lost territory, and a likely one of losing it to Russia. There is a third option: to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and offer diplomatic relations and open borders, so that these two regions can look outwards - to Turkey and to Europe as well as to Russia.

This advice is for the "west" too. Nato and European Union advisers should make all assistance to Georgia conditional on these three rational principles being accepted, and refrain from any more meaningless verbiage or public embraces.

I don't know of any Georgian politician with the courage to say anything along those lines, or with the self-assurance not to believe he or she will be killed for saying it. But if one does not appear, then what has happened in August 2008 will happen again. Moreover, there will be even worse consequences next time, for Russian foreign policy is based exclusively on the principle that it is better to be feared than loved; and Russia's Putin-Medvedev-FSB-military regime seems firmly established as the world's leading blackmailer, at least until its oil runs out. If Georgia needs any further incentive, it is that the continuation of its hardline stance will alienate other minorities - notably the 200,000 Armenians neglected by Tbilisi and living in poverty in Javakheti (southeast Georgia) - who might well decide to fight for integration with Armenia.

The history of Georgia is one of centuries of dismemberment followed by decades of unity. Any responsible friend of Georgia must think more radically and more realistically on how this process can be reversed, and offer clear and frank advice. Meanwhile, it can be hoped that the new generation of Georgians, particularly those who have lived and worked abroad, will share and preach such radicalism and realism in the months and years ahead.

Source: openDemocracy

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