The mainstream media (MSM) spin on the recent events in Georgia runs something like this. Georgia’s young leader Mikheil Saakashvili, the Columbia Law School graduate who came to power after the heroic “Rose Revolution” in 2003, is a great friend of America (providing the third largest detachment of “Coalition” troops to Iraq). His commitment to democracy and Georgian independence have annoyed Moscow, which still retains aspects of Soviet-era authoritarianism, still cherishes ambitions to dominate border states once part of the USSR, and is (for unexplained reasons) suspicious of U.S. hopes to integrate Georgia into NATO. It has taken advantage of separatist movements in Georgia to weaken the Tblisi government.
Saakashvili, in an effort to establish effective control over his whole country, sent troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia August 7 (just before the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing). Russia used this as an excuse to flex its muscle, invading a country for the first time since the USSR invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. It not only drove Georgian troops from South Ossetia but along with allies in the separatist Abkhazia region attacked targets throughout Georgia. It’s a clear case of unwarranted aggression.
This narrative has been effectively challenged or at least contextualized in columns by Charles King in the Christian Science Monitor, Brendan O’Neill on Spiked, and Justin Raimondo on Antiwar.com, among others. Here I’d like to list some of their main points, along with some historical background:
1. Saakashvili, who owes his position to U.S. interference in Georgian politics, is no liberal democrat but an autocrat who jails political enemies and media critics and uses force to quash anti-government demonstrations. He accuses foes of coup plots which he equates with “aiding terrorism.”
2. Russia is alarmed at the unceasing expansion of NATO, an alliance formed to secure western Europe against a Soviet attack that never happened. Russian leaders expected NATO to dissolve along with the Warsaw Pact at the end of the Cold War. Instead it has expanded to include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in 1997 and Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004. Inclusion of the Baltic states brings NATO right up to the Russian border. Washington is pushing for the eventual inclusion of Ukraine (another country where Washington has been meddling politically) and Georgia in the alliance. Russia has repeatedly warned that it can not tolerate this.
3. The whole of Georgia was part of the Russian Empire from 1801, and was absorbed into the USSR in 1922. It became independent with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. During the Soviet period, South Ossetia and Abkhazia (as well as the Adjara region) had autonomous status within the Soviet Republic of Georgia. Use of the native languages was encouraged by the state and South Ossetians, Abkhazis, and Adjaris favored over Georgians or Russians for bureaucratic posts in their regions. In the last couple years of the USSR, new laws imposing the Georgian language nationwide and banning regional-based political parties caused South Ossetians to declare a Soviet Democratic Republic. In 1991 polls showed that they overwhelmingly favored the preservation of the Soviet Union and opposed integration into a new Georgian state. At the time Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia called South Ossetian separatists “direct agents of the Kremlin, its tools and terrorists.”
In 1992 the new regime of Eduard Shevardnadze in post-Soviet Georgia announced its intention to restore a 1921 constitution stripping these regions of autonomy. In response the South Ossetians conducted a referendum, voting overwhelmingly for independence. Violence in the region drew Russian concern and in June, after hundreds had died, Tblisi agreed to the creation of a tripartite peace-keeping force of Russians, Georgians and South Ossetians in the region. The following month Abkhazia proclaimed itself independent, and Tblisi sent 3000 troops into the poorly defended region and engaged in wanton destruction. The majority in both regions apparently want a divorce from Georgia and either independence or incorporation into the Russian Federation. In 2002 South Ossetia’s elected president, Eduard Kokoity, officially requested that Moscow recognize the Republic of South Ossetia and its absorption into the Russian Federation.
4. While Vladimir Putin was president, Russia conferred citizenship and passports on most South Ossetians and can thus argue that it has an obligation to defend them from aggression. Russia can also argue that it has an obligation to defend its peace-keeping troops from attack.
5. Saakashvili has cultivated an alliance with the U.S., even supplying the third largest detachment of troops (2000) to the “Coalition forces” in Iraq. (Georgia has only a population of 4.7 million people.) The Georgian Army has been trained by U.S. and Israeli forces. Saakashvili has sought membership in NATO, depicting Georgia as a European democracy confronted with a bullying undemocratic neighbor. Moscow finds Saakasvili’s rhetoric provocative.
6. While the MSM has depicted the Georgia crisis as the result of Russian aggression, the initial large-scale military action was a surprise aerial attack on the regional capital of Tskhinvali on August 7 followed up by a tank and mortar assault August 8. This produced a prompt Russian military response. However, it does not appear to have been planned well in advance. A senior U.S. official told the New York Times, “It doesn’t look like this was premeditated, with a massive staging of equipment. Until the night before the fighting, Russia seemed to be playing a constructive role [in maintaining peace between Tblisi and the Ossetians].”
7. Georgia plays an important role in the geopolitics of oil, since the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline completed 2005 passes through it, connecting the Caspian Sea oil fields to NATO member Turkey, bypassing Russia. Many Russian officials feel it an effort to diminish Russian influence in the Caucasus and justify the stationing of U.S. troops in the region. It may be that Saakashvili believed Georgia so valuable to the U.S. bloc, because of the pipeline, military cooperation and political allegiance, that he could assault South Ossetia counting on the U.S. to restrain any Russian response. But as the MSM reports, a U.S. military response is highly unlikely.
8. The Russians have justified their actions by making pointed references to U.S. actions in recent years. In February, when the U.S. recognized the Serbian breakaway province of Kosovo, split off from then-Yugoslavia by a NATO bombing campaign in 1999, the Russians denounced the move. They stated that the U.S.-led attack (the first war in Europe, including the first aerial attack on a national capital, since 1945) and the detachment of part of a sovereign state, ostensibly to protect an ethnic group, was a dangerous precedent. One can thus read the Russian actions of the last week as a tit-for-tat response to the arrogant use of American power in Russia’s immediate backyard.
I wrote after Kosovo’s U.S.-backed declaration of independence six months ago:
[The Russians’] opposition to Kosovo’s independence might be perceived as a slight irritation in Washington among those eager to establish a new client-state and drag it into NATO. But this move comes on the heels of U.S. meddling in Georgia, Belarus, and the Ukraine, the relentless eastward expansion of NATO, and moves to locate missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russian government is in effect saying: “Look, you intervene at will in Latin America, forming and toppling governments as you will, arguing it’s necessary for your ‘national security.’ We who have been invaded many times from the west have legitimate reasons to support our friends in the Balkans, including the Serbs whom you’ve maligned and mistreated disgracefully. Do you really think you can just wrench away a province from a Slavic country friendly to us, through brutal military force, and expect us to take it lying down?” I have the feeling that Washington blew it here–and that there will be some blowback.
Here’s indeed some blowback. The Georgian regime is humiliated, and Washington embarrassingly impotent to go to Saakashvili’s aid. Quite likely the young president’s constituents will turn on him, shocked by the utter folly of his provoking the Russian bear.
And the MSM take will be: Russia is flexing its muscles, secure in the knowledge that Europe needs its oil and natural gas and so the West cannot prevent its bullying antidemocratic actions. Some will call it a new Cold War. But don’t expect much genuine historical analysis.
The parallel between Kosovo and South Ossetia is not of course exact. Kosovo plays a more important role in Serbian history than South Ossetia in Georgian history. It experienced a far more dramatic ethno-demographic change in the last century and a half than South Ossetia. (A 1871 report by an Austrian officer indicates that Kosovo was 64% Serb, 32% Albanian, whereas the Kosovars are now 92% of the total.) Serbs can protest that the mere reproduction rate of Albanians in Kosovo shouldn’t have entitled the Kosovars to seize the Serbian heartland with its churches, monasteries and battlefields rich in heroic historical memory. I don’t think Georgians can make a similar argument about South Ossetia; the Ossetians (who may be related to Iranians) seem to have predominated in the region since around the fourteenth century.
The premise for the U.S./NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was that Kosovars were being persecuted by Serbian authorities. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen declared, “We’ve now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing… They may have been murdered,” while a State Department spokesman warned, “There are indications genocide is unfolding in Kosovo.” (One thinks of the Russian accusation of “genocide” as it was reported 1500-2000 Ossetian civilians had been killed in the Georgian attack.) Actually it turns out only about 2000 civilians were killed in Kosovo between 1998 and 1999–around the number of South Ossetians killed by Georgians in just a few days. (To put this into perspective, there are about 100,000 South Ossetians in a region measuring 3,900 square kilometers and about two million inhabitants of Kosovo measuring 11,000 square kilometers.) A German court determined in March 1999 that, “Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have neither been nor are now exposed to regional or countrywide group persecution in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” Does it not look as though the premise of persecution justifying outside intervention is much stronger in the South Ossetia case?
Before commencing the bombardment of Yugoslavia (again, the first such bombardment in Europe since World War II), the U.S. presented Belgrade with the “Rambouillet Accords” ultimatum: either allow NATO forces to operate at will and tax-free throughout the entire territory of Yugoslavia (once proudly non-aligned during the Cold War), while they secured Kosovo as Yugoslav federal troops withdrew–or be subject to attack. The U.S. made demands no sovereign state could accept. Russia in contrast has not demanded the right to move its troops at will throughout Georgia. It gave Tblisi no ultimatum before responding to what appears to have been a brutal sneak attack.
NATO bombed Belgrade for three months in 1999. The bombing of the Serb Radio and Television (RTS) headquarters in Belgrade on April 23 killed 16 RTS civilian technicians. Russia has reportedly attacked the Vaziani military airbase outside Tbilisi and military targets in the capital city to “punish” Georgia for the South Ossetia attack and, no doubt, its embrace of an unofficial military alliance threatening to Russia. Perhaps if the proposed cease-fire does not hold, Tblisi will encounter the same fate as Belgrade. But I think it more likely that the Georgian authorities will capitulate immediately to the invaders’ demands, which are more measured than the demands presented Milosevic.
Regardless of these differences between Kosovo and South Ossetia, Moscow seems to be saying: You cannot violate international law with your constant aggressions and provocations of Russia–a country seeking warm ties with the U.S. and Europe–without expecting us, at some point, to respond in kind. You cannot say it’s fine, as a “special exception” to violate the sovereignty of our traditional Serbian allies by delivering a state to the Kosovars while damning us for invading Georgia to defend the Ossetians. You have created this problem, and more to come.
Saakashvili explains Russia’s actions by saying, “They just don’t want freedom and that’s why they want to stamp on Georgia and destroy it.” The buffoon seems to echo Bush’s explanation for the 9-11 attacks: “They hate our freedoms.” Some see here the re-emergence of a Cold War, a pitting of democracy versus the specter of communist totalitarianism. Surely there are policy wonks nostalgic for the Cold War era and its simplicity. But it really has little to do with “freedom,” and we do not have here a clash of systems and ideologies. Russia is in its own way as capitalistic and imperialistic as the U.S. Rather, there’s a clash between those governing the U.S. and Russia, comparable to the inter-imperialist clashes and turf-battles of the past century and a half. Like those it has a lot to do with competition for the control of raw materials and markets. Within that big game, Russia suddenly seems much more competitive.