Limiting conflict in the Caucasus

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<ul><li><p> 2</p><p>008 </p><p>The</p><p> Aut</p><p>hor.</p><p> Jou</p><p>rnal</p><p> com</p><p>pila</p><p>tion </p><p> 2</p><p>008 </p><p>ippr</p><p>public policy research September-November 2008 127</p><p>The embers of the five-day acute phase of war between Georgia and Russia of 812 August 2008 are not quite extinguished. However, the </p><p>ceasefire agreement skilfully (if too impre-cisely) negotiated by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and agreed with his counterparts Dmitri Medvedev (Russia) and Mikheil Saakashvili (Georgia), did give hope for an end to this intense, destructive and tragic conflict.</p><p>When the citizens displaced and wounded by the war have been able to regain a modicum of security and humani-tarian relief in rebuilding their shattered lives, the space must be made for a thor-oughgoing investigation into this conflicts background, causes and lessons. However, we can, even at this early stage, offer some preliminary notes to this larger project.</p><p>Much of the media reporting of the short and nasty war has been strong and detailed, with a good dose of scepti-cism 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 opin-ion-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 even exist.</p><p>South Ossetia: the fire this timeSouth Ossetia, the small territory legally inside Georgia but beyond its control since the longer but equally nasty war of 199192, was the immediate trigger of the five-day war. The history of this area demonstrates that this was indeed a conflict that did not have to happen (see de Waal 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). For some 700 years they have lived in villages interspersed with Georgian villages: intermingling peace-fully, sharing the same religion, and marry-ing into Georgias royalty and intelligentsia. It should not be forgotten that just as many Ossetians live in villages around Tbilisi and in eastern Georgia as in South Ossetia itself, and that even after the 1992 conflict there was no reported conflict between them and their Georgian neighbours.</p><p>The serious clashes in South Ossetia 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 national-ism which declared all citizens who were not ethnic Georgians to be guests on the republics territory. Gamsakhurdia abol-ished the autonomy and even the very name of South Ossetia, and allowed one of his ministers (Vazha Adamia) to lead a crusade on Tskhinvali.</p><p>Limiting conflict in the Caucasus Donald Rayfield argues that the situation in Georgia is not as black-and-white as it may have appeared in recent media coverage, and that the best option for the republic would be to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. </p><p>PPR sept 08.indd 127 2/10/08 13:44:03</p></li><li><p>public policy research September-November 2008128</p><p> 2</p><p>008 </p><p>The</p><p> Aut</p><p>hor.</p><p> Jou</p><p>rnal</p><p> com</p><p>pila</p><p>tion </p><p> 2</p><p>008 </p><p>ippr</p><p>After hundreds were killed, Georgias 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 Gamsakhurdias 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.</p><p>Mikheil Saakashvili, who in turn succeeded Shevardnadze in the rose revolution of 200304 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 vio-lence. This promise, and the rhetoric which accompanies it (its horizon, for example, is always the very near future), traps its mak-ers. In the effort to fulfil that promise where South Ossetia is concerned, Saakashvilis government has tried a series of stratagems: offering peace initiatives, heralded by lorry-loads of fertiliser donated by Sandra Roelofs, the presidents wife; installing a rival pro-Georgian puppet government to counter the Russian-backed South Ossetian administration led by Eduard Kokoity; manipulating water and power supplies; </p><p>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.</p><p>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 distinguish who were the perpetrators of anti-Georgian acts: the Russian military, or local Ossetian lads. The Ossetians military guarantors 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.</p><p>On a political level, moreover, there is no doubt that Russias salami-slicing tactics (issuing South Ossetians with Russian pass-ports, then integrating them into the Russian pension, health and education systems) have amounted to a covert process of assimilat-ing first the population, and then the actual country, into the Russian federation.</p><p>In itself, Ossetia has little attraction for Russian acquisition: nobody builds vil-las 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 eco-nomic growth and to integrate with the Western world they 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 they are joined only by a long, dark and dangerous road-tunnel). </p><p>Now that the Russian president has recognised the independence of South Ossetia (a recognition which possibly only Belarus and Cuba may confirm), nobody can possibly believe that the new status </p><p>On a political level, there is no doubt that Russias salami-slicing tactics have amounted to a covert process of assimilating first the population, and then the actual country, into the Russian federation</p><p>PPR sept 08.indd 128 2/10/08 13:44:03</p></li><li><p> 2</p><p>008 </p><p>The</p><p> Aut</p><p>hor.</p><p> Jou</p><p>rnal</p><p> com</p><p>pila</p><p>tion </p><p> 2</p><p>008 </p><p>ippr</p><p>public policy research September-November 2008 129</p><p>is anything but a new province of Russia: the government being formed by Kokoity is heavily staffed with Russians. The main point of acquiring South Ossetia is that Russia can now dominate Georgia, notably Tbilisi and the sole eastwest highway, railway and pipeline, without its soldiers having to move from their artil-lery battery at Akhalgori, overlooking Georgias heartland.</p><p>Recovery of a small and needlessly lost territory must have seemed a feasible ambition to Saakashvili. It did not happen, and perhaps could not have happened, given the nature of Russian ambitions and the Georgian political leadership. Mikheil Saakashvili, to those who have got to know him closer, is behind his multilingual fluency and American law school educa-tion a dangerously unstable, sometimes ruthless and, above all, self-deceiving 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 200304 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).</p><p>An entangled and shadowy story indi-cates 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 presi-dents less savoury intermediaries, Grigory Luchansky. The ambitious Georgian saw an early chance to gain advantage over his older rival by exerting pressure against the local warlord Aslan Abashidze, who ruled the southwest Georgian province of Adzharia as his fiefdom.</p><p>Putin obliged by removing Abashidzes Russian security force chief General Netkachiov (it helped that Abashidze was an ally of Putins own rival, Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow). An added incentive was that Shevardnadze had earned the hatred of Putins KGB and the Russian military because of his role </p><p>in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By the time the foundations of Abashidzes rule had been undermined and Adzharia returned to rule by Tbilisi, Saakashvili was Georgias president and could take the credit for this first step in a would-be national-reintegration project.</p><p>The turnaround is complete. Vladimir Putins (and Dmitri Medvedevs) loathing of Saakashvili is reflected in Medvedevs use of the vulgar term otmorozok (some-thing between imbecile and scum). The Georgian president has earned this mantle in the Russian leaders eyes by political decisions and economic policies that have taken him as far away as possible from Russias orbit including heavy reliance on American military aid.</p><p>Mikheil Saakashvili returned the rheto-ric 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? And, having taken such a hare-brained decision, why did Georgian troops not concentrate wholly on closing the Roki tunnel, to prevent the col-umns of Russian tanks streaming through? 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.</p><p>The true death-toll in Tskhinvali, and the extent of Georgian responsibility, is a further shadow over Saakashvili; now that the wild figure of 1,500 circulated widely as proof of genocide by Ossetians and Russians has been whittled down to something like 130, the action nevertheless remains a monstrous and (to use one of Saakashvilis favourite words but only of his enemies) barbarous outrage commit-ted by a national army trying to retake a separatist provincial town, even if it is little more than the collateral damage inflicted on Afghan civilians by a NATO air strike. </p><p>PPR sept 08.indd 129 2/10/08 13:44:03</p></li><li><p>public policy research September-November 2008130</p><p> 2</p><p>008 </p><p>The</p><p> Aut</p><p>hor.</p><p> Jou</p><p>rnal</p><p> com</p><p>pila</p><p>tion </p><p> 2</p><p>008 </p><p>ippr</p><p>All this is good reason why despite all the embraces and handshakes, and the smiling welcome given to Condoleezza Rice and every other emissary of United States and European Union visiting Tbilisi many of Saakashvilis Western allies are now as anxious as the Russians to find a more reasonable man to replace him, although, of course, they will have very different can-didates in mind.</p><p>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 far fainter to the point of being inconceivable than it was before his misguided misadventure. As so often, the projection of zealous Georgian nationalism defeats its own intended purposes.</p><p>Abkhazia: the waves recedeIn one respect at least it was surprising that the open conflict between Georgia and Russia broke out over South Ossetia rather than Georgias other lost territory, Abkhazia in that the issues dividing Georgia and Abkhazia are far more deep-rooted and seri-ous (and because Georgian military forces had held part of Abkhazia, the Kodori gorge region, from July 2006 until their retreat amid the August 2008 war).</p><p>If South Ossetia was integrated with Georgian kingdoms and republics for centuries, of Abkhazia it can only be said that it was an integral part of a uni-fied Georgian state certainly for only a fraction of the latters history: between about 900 and 1225 (the golden age of </p><p>the Georgian kingdom), and from 1936 to 1992 (from the murder of the Abkhaz leader Nestor Lakoba by Lavrenti Beria to separation, war and ethnic cleansing under the leadership of Ardzinba).</p><p>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 popula-tion that outnumbered the native Abkhaz (whose population was severely depleted in 1864, when Russia expelled half of them to Turkey). Georgias claims to sovereignty over Abkhazia rest, therefore, more on the modern post-1945 principle of inviolability of borders, than on long and continuous historical association.</p><p>More important, Abkhazia with its pro-ductive soil, its once attractive seaside and mountain resorts is genuinely coveted by its neighbour. Russian officials and business-men have been buying up property from Stalins old villas to abandoned Yugoslav-built hotels on the only too farsighted assumption that as soon Abkhazias status is redefined, their purchases will be both legal and profitable. Abkhazia also has run-ning through it the main road and railway, restored by the Russian military a few months ago, that join pro-Russian Armenia to the rest of the world.</p><p>Russias peacekeepers, after their not-very-covert support of a war of separation in 199293, 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 199293 campaign have decided that Russian overlordship is far preferable. (Anyone who reads Fazil Iskanders 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 ethnicall...</p></li></ul>


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