Piecing Together the Conflict in the Caucasus

Piecing Together the Conflict in the Caucasus

Cease-Fire in the Caucasus?

Almost two weeks after the Georgia-Russia crisis began we have seen no shortage of dramatic developments. While the important question of whether the Georgians were provoked by Russian-backed militants in their initial attempt to retake South Ossetia remains unanswered, there are a number of things we have learned.

For one, Georgia has made it clear that it is just as intent on holding onto Abkhazia and South Ossetia as the breakaway regions are of becoming independent. Prior to the hostilities, the regions existed in an uneasy tension with Georgia regarding their future that dated back to the breakup of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, the country experienced a civil war, featuring a brutal conflict in Abkhazia where the separatists engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that resulted in the expulsion of 250,000 Georgians from the region, another 15,000 dead (negotiations for the gradual return of the displaced people collapsed in 2006 under right wing pressure from both sides). Since then, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have proclaimed de facto independence but have not had any form of international recognition.

Attempts to negotiate resolution of the conflict have been unsuccessful, with both regions seeing any further incorporation into Georgia as a violation of their own territorial integrity and autonomy. Abkhazians and Ossetians are people culturally and historically distinct from Georgians, and their calls for independence have been internationally overshadowed by higher profile movements in Southern and Eastern Europe, such as in Kosovo and Chechnya. During the 2003 Rose Revolution that put President Mikheil Saakashvili in power, he promised to restore a unified Georgia, although by means of diplomacy rather than force. From the Georgians’ point of view, the regions have historically comprised an important part of their nation, and it was only recently that they no longer represented a majority of the population in those areas. The decision to invade South Ossetia was a bold and badly miscalculated move, particularly because Saakashvili knew the extent of Russian interest in the area.

Clearly, Saakashvili drastically underestimated Russia’s reaction. Russian involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been widely known in the international community. Russian forces had been stationed in the regions since the conflicts of the early 1990s under the pretense of being peacekeepers, but also without doubt functioning as a mode of Russian influence. Considering the fact that for years Russia has been waging an intensive campaign for greater influence in Ossetia by encouraging Ossetians to become Russian citizens, the Georgian incursion was all the justification that Russia needed in order to retaliate full force by claiming it was acting in their protection.

While its actions have been internationally condemned, at the moment Russia is holding all the cards. Although French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated a tentative cease-fire, currently there is little leverage that Western governments can use to punish Russia. With Europe heavily dependent on Russia’s natural gas and oil wealth, it is unlikely that the member countries of the EU will be able to come to a joint agreement on a new, harsher policy toward it. Russia has previously suspended its delivery of natural gas to Ukraine over a price dispute back in 2006, and it could use this threat again as leverage against any form of sanctions or international exclusion. Recent international developments have given Russians what they see as a valid moral precedent for their actions, namely the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the recognition of Kosovo’s independence earlier this year.

The violation of Iraq’s national sovereignty was justified by invoking human rights; in the same manner, Russia points to the casualties and mass displacement suffered by Ossetians during the initial Georgian invasion. Likewise in the case of Kosovo, Russia alludes to Western hypocrisy in recognizing the legitimacy of a breakaway region and encouraging its drive to independence when it is politically convenient, but turning a blind eye toward other instances when the situation involves their allies. The moral validity of these claims is debatable, of course. As Russia’s two wars in Chechnya show, the violation of human rights and the right for all peoples to have their own homeland is of little concern when Russia’s own territorial status is in question. But with the U.S. completely ruling out military involvement beyond the point of humanitarian relief, coercing Russia into a deal that is disadvantageous for them is not very likely at this moment.

To make matters worse, representation of the crisis in the media has been drastically uneven on both sides. Since access to Russian-controlled zones has been limited for international journalists, the Western media has been uniformly reporting on the conflict from the Georgian perspective as an invasion and occupation of the country. In most polemics and op-eds, little is mentioned or asked about the initial Georgian offensive to overtake South Ossetia and the subsequent damages suffered by civilians in the Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali prior to Russian involvement. Saakashvili has made the most of his press opportunities by drawing historical analogies, claiming that Russia was forcing Georgia to accept a “Munich-type of deal,” parallel to the German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. Saakashvili has also insisted that this incident makes Georgia’s NATO membership—one of the main goals of his presidency—all the more necessary. Likewise, the Russian media has been fiercely defending the legitimacy of their country’s involvement on the basis of a humanitarian mission to defend the Ossetians against Georgian aggression and occupation.

Neither side does justice to the complexity of the issue and the implications that it will have on international politics in the future. In America, the neoconservative columnist William Kristol has alluded to American indebtedness to Georgia for its support of the Iraq War (Georgia had 2,000 troops stationed there when Russia invaded), and Senator John McCain, known for his hawkish stance on Russia, has long been calling to exclude it from the G8.

On the Russian side, the Western reaction is seen as part of a long history of anti-Russian bias and attempts at containment, which only strengthens the country’s willingness to use force, rather than diplomacy, for geopolitical influence. In a New York Times editorial former head of state Mikhail Gorbachev wholeheartedly defended Russia’s actions, subtly implying that the West was complicit in the crisis by encouraging Georgian assertiveness and supplying it with arms and training. Moreover, Gorbachev argued, “the West then mounted a propaganda attack against Russia, with the American news media leading the way.” As he explained, at the root of Russian displeasure is the American “habit of talking to Russia in a condescending way, without regard for its positions and interests.”

Gorbachev’s piece shows us that it would be a mistake to believe that contemporary Russia is now acting with no regards for international opinion. On the contrary, it sheds light on Russia’s desire for recognition and equal-partner status with the West. But the means and intensity with which it attempts to do so now have changed. Russia’s attempts at reasserting its Soviet-era regional influence have been increasingly clear since the early part of the decade but the conflict certainly marks a new low in its relations with the West. Concerns over any future Russian aggression have forced Poland and Ukraine to create even closer ties with the U.S. and Europe: Poland finally agreed to a deal to host U.S. missile interceptors on its territory while Ukraine has offered to make its missile early warning systems available to Europe.

As for the future of Georgia, much remains to be seen. Amid recent reports of Ossetian attacks and lootings against Georgian settlements in the zones controlled by Russia, it is certain that ethnic tensions will make any form of reconciliation very difficult, if not impossible, at this point. This development works in Russia’s favor, providing it with a reason to keep troops there for an extended period of time. By contrast, control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia still remains Georgia’s goal, with the Bush administration intent on recognizing the territories as rightfully existing only within Georgian borders.

In the absence of international mediation, where does this leave the U.S.? The Bush administration has been highly critical of Russia’s action, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates claiming: “If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the US-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.” But the American threats are empty ones. The United States has only bad options. The Bush administration’s enthusiastic backing of Saakashvili without a nuanced understanding of Georgian politics has left the U.S. in a conundrum. Continuing to support Georgia threatens further disintegration of U.S.-Russian relations, which are crucial for resolving key international issues. But if the U.S. drops its outright pro-Georgia stance, it sends a terrible message to countries like Ukraine, who have thrown their lot in with the West as a means of protection against the threat of a rising Russia.

Rafael Khachaturian is a graduate student at the New School for Social Research and a former intern at Dissent.