The war over South Ossetia and its messy, dangerous aftermath is a lesson in collective forgetting. A new political settlement involving independence for Abkhazia and a revivified Georgia is needed to break the cycle, says Neal Ascherson.
(This article was first published on 15 August 2008)
The Russian soldiers are not the worst. They have won their victory, and now hang about Georgia mopping up. Much more terrible are the civilians and volunteers who come behind the soldiers, the big-bellied men with guns, knives and army jackets thrown over their T-shirts. They are doing the murdering, the looting and burning, the "cleansing" as they drive the last Georgians out of South Ossetia. The flight of the Georgian army has let them into Georgian territory as far as Gori, so they are following and killing them there.
They are Ossetians, helped by savage warriors from other nationalities in the northern Caucasus and by ultra-patriotic Russian "Cossacks". A year ago, most of these Ossetians probably lived in neighbourly peace with the local Georgians in the next village. But the spark of war ignites madness. The neighbours become "other": traitors, spies, saboteurs, snipers. They must be rooted out, exterminated.
The gunmen are Ossetians - but if Mikheil Saakashvili's surprise attack on 7-8 August 2008 had succeeded, they would be Georgians and their victims would be Ossetians. The first outrush of Ossetian refugees from the fighting in Tskhinvali, before the Russian army arrived and turned the tide, claimed that Georgian atrocities against them had already started. Now the outrush is Georgian, heading the other way as their houses burn, as the smoke and the sound of gunfire rise over the trees. The Ossetian fugitives may soon return to their homes, wrecked as many of them are. For the Georgians, there is no such hope. They will become helpless, homeless "IDPs" - internally-displaced persons. They will be crowded into dirty huts and abandoned factory-buildings with scores of thousands of older IDPs who have been rotting on the fringe of Georgian society since the early 1990s.
For all this has happened before. That is the worst thing about the tragic war over South Ossetia. The impetuous, almost crazy Georgian resort to force, the appeal to Russian armed strength to counter that force, Russia seizing a chance to weaken and humiliate Georgia and compromise its independence, the terrible crimes carried out by civilians of the winning side against the helpless families of the losing side, the ethnic cleansing by fire and bullet, the torrent of desperate refugees - all these horrors already happened here only fifteen years ago.
The Abkhazia precedent
The fighting in Abkhazia began in 1992. Before then, nearly half the population of this beautiful stretch of Black Sea coast had been Georgians or Mingrelians from western Georgia. Most of them were recent settlers, planted in Abkhazia by Stalin and his successors. The rest were a mix of Abkhazians, Armenians, Greeks and Russians.
The trouble began when the Soviet Union broke up. Georgia moved to full independence, asserting that Abkhazia was part of its territory. The Abkhazians - much like the southern Ossetians - retorted that they had once been a separate Soviet republic with a direct connection to Moscow. Association with Georgia within the Soviet framework had been one thing; downgrading to an ethnic minority directly and exclusively ruled from Tbilisi was quite another. Agitation grew.
Then in August 1992 the Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze, suddenly flung the army against Abkhazia. Like Mikheil Saakashvili sixteen years later to the month, he tried to reassert control by bombarding and seizing the capital, Sukhum. Violent fighting broke out. In the war that followed, Russian weaponry and air-strikes helped tiny Abkhazia - with less than a tenth of Georgia's population - to an unexpected victory in September 1993.
When it was over, Abkhazia's towns and infrastructure lay in ruins. As in South Ossetia today, atrocities followed the fighting troops. At first it was the Georgian militias who did their worst against non-Georgian civilians. But then, as the war turned their way, Abkhazian paramilitaries and the wild north-Caucasus volunteers who had swarmed in to help them took indiscriminate vengeance.
Who committed worse crimes? Each side still blames the other. But almost the entire Georgian and Mingrelian population, some 150,000 people, fled with the Georgian army. Many of them live in bleak refugee settlements to this day. A few have returned to the southern Abkhazian province of Gali, but security there is poor. Many go to their fields by day, and return to Georgian territory at night.
The upper hand
The point of this history is that nobody learned anything from it - nobody except the Russians. So history has repeated itself. In the years that followed, Georgian politicians failed to see that only imaginative diplomacy, not bombardment by rockets, might bring about some kind of rapprochement with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Abkhazians, independent but recognised by nobody, have no choice but to accept unofficial Russian hegemony. But at heart they resent it. They dream of escaping into the big world outside, into genuine independence. President Saakashvili, when he came to power, had the opportunity to exploit that resentment by making a fresh start with Abkhazia. If he had accepted some version of its sovereignty (an elastic term in that part of the world), reopened trade and transport links, and offered an exchange of apologies, something might have changed.
A few gestures and proposals were made. But the Abkhaz leaders, grimly suspicious, rejected them all as eyewash. Saakashvili, they insisted, was a nationalist demagogue who intended to rearm and to recapture both Abkhazia and smaller South Ossetia by force. Now they are entitled to say: "We told you so". What happened on 8 August and afterwards surprised nobody in Sukhum.
What, now, should western politicians do about Georgia? The first aim, clearly, is to strengthen the ceasefire and negotiate Russian military withdrawal from "Georgia proper". The problem there is that it is not yet sure what Russian intentions are. To smash the Georgian armed forces and then to destroy their tanks, guns, aircraft and ships - that is happening now.
But it may be that Russia wants more. The Russian plan may be to force a new bilateral treaty on a broken and humiliated Georgia, quite possibly giving back to the Russians one or more of the military bases which they have been evacuating in stages during this decade. That in turn requires the fall of President Saakashvili, and the Russians clearly hope that defeat has turned the Georgian people against him. But "Misha", bouncy and impenitent, as yet shows no sign of being either broken or humiliated.
The new ground
The best thing that the west can now do is to stop talking about "Georgian territorial integrity". It is dangerously absurd for politicians and the media (even the BBC) to describe South Ossetia and Abkhazia as "breakaway regions of Georgia", as if their "illegal secession" can somehow be reversed. It cannot. That useless dream is long dead. The question now is quite different. It is how their independence can be recognised and made real. Only in that way can the outside world make it harder for Russia to use them as pawns, in the game of crippling Georgian freedom and reasserting imperial "indirect rule" over the whole Transcaucasus.
It may not be possible to rescue South Ossetia, tiny and without resources, from becoming a Russian protectorate or even part of the Russian Federation - and most of its people seem to want that. But Abkhazia, with its once-flourishing holiday coast and its abundance of sub-tropical fruit and vegetables, can be a perfectly viable Black Sea nation-state. The European Union has a new regional neighbourhood programme, the Black Sea Basin Joint Operational Programme. It's time for the EU to stop pretending that Abkhazia does not exist, to integrate it into the programme, and to give it vigorous help for reconstruction and development.
And Georgia, that miraculous little nation which contains some of the world's most talented people and some of its worst politicians, must change too. It is not Georgia which has been defeated, but a particular Georgian policy towards "territorial integrity". This policy has again and again played into Russian hands, ending each time in bloodshed, the flight of weeping refugees and damage to Georgia's standing in the world.
It's time for renunciation, which will hurt much less than many people expect. Now there is a chance to make a new start, in which a revived Georgia could become a model of peace and stability to reassure and inspire the whole southern Caucasus. True friends of Georgia must hope that the chance will not be missed.
Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999), The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988), Black Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; reprinted 2007), and Stone Voices: the Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)