10 August 2008

The Georgian Side

The Georgian side of the Ossetian question is now coming out. Saakashvili is claiming that Georgia didn't move against S. Ossetia until after Russian forces entered it. The cold war warrior element is making the point that S. Ossetia's status for the last fifteen years has rested on Russian support.

I have no confidence in being able to get to the truth of the conflicting views. I dwell on the question because, as unclear as the facts of the matter are, the principles that should guide us are just as unclear too.

We can't really talk about the reasons why South Ossetia might "deserve" to have independence from Georgia, without talking about why Georgia "deserved" to get its independence in 1991. I don't recall any such principles being argued, but of course Croatia and Slovenia were getting all the attention at the time.

The argument for having clear and explicit rules is the formalist one that if you know in advance what position the most powerful actors are going to take, violent conflict is unlikely.

That is a weaker argument if the rules, clear-cut as they are, depend on facts which are unclear. But even so, I think it would help. One reason the facts are so unclear is that, at the end of the day, the outcome won't depend on the facts. If it did there would be a more concerted attempt to determine what they actually are.

Retreating to what I can say in the absence of clear rules or reliable facts, I was interested that in his interview linked above, Saakashvili did not argue on the basis of Georgian claims to South Ossetia. Instead he emphasised the attacks by Russia on targets outside of Ossetia, and claimed that Ossetia was just a pretext for a Russian attack on the rest of Georgia.

Here, at last, we really do have the Kosovo precedents coming into relevance. If TV stations in Belgrade were legitimate targets in the protection of Kosovan rebels, then what gives the oil pipeline at Poti its immunity?

Another point is the effect of time. If outsiders now want to argue that Ossetia should rightly be controlled by Tbilisi, it's too late. They've been successfully calling for ceasefires for over a decade, and the outcome of any genuine negotiation is never likely to be that one side totally gives in. A ceasfire is always tempting, but sometimes it can mean giving up without noticing. Sometimes the best route to peace is to fight it out. I'm not saying that was or is the case in Georgia - that depends on those pesky facts again.

Just in case you're wondering, the sort of things I would be interested in, if there were any way of reliably establishing them, would be:

  • Why are the South Ossetians more friendly to Russia than to Georgia?
  • Would there be a reasonable way to establish borders for South Ossetia?
  • Are there internal conflicts within Ossetia?
  • What problems does independent South Ossetia cause for the Georgia? Smuggling, organised crime, control of resources?
  • What is the economic situation in Ossetia?
  • What provoked the recent Georgian offensive against S.O.?
  • How does the situation affect other issues in the region?
  • What are Russia's other interests in the region? - I believe there were claims that Chechen terrorists were using parts of Georgia as refuges..
  • All the same questions again with respect to Abkhazia.


A Nonny Mouse said...

Another troublespot caused by a major gap in our conflict resolution. Basically we all concede that rule by the majority is good and that minority rule is wrong. Your ambitious minority then turn the tables by inventing a new country in which they are the majority, sometimes a numerically doubtful one. Typically of course they then act to ensure that this trick is not played on them.

Whether they get away with doing so depends on the amount of firepower they can muster, and the amount of clout they have with interested world powers. When this happens we have a troublespot.

Now the Americans have very well developed rules governing secession. States can break off to form new states, and even suburbs can break away to form new cities. As well as Chicago, where I once lived, there is a North Chicago which seceded from the larger city. But these reasonable measures are not for export. Secessions elsewhere are vetoed or allowed solely on whether they further the interests of the U.S., or whichever other power is dominant in the region.

Mark Almond in the Guardian writes: If westerners readily conceded non-Russian republics' right to secede from the USSR in 1991, what is the logic of insisting that non-Georgians must remain inside a microempire which happens to be pro-western?

The logic is of course that the micro-empire is pro-western. No other is to be expected. Why were the inhabitents of Krajina forced from their homes, while foreign armies intervened to protect the Kossovans? Why are pre-existing state/province borders sacrosanct in Yugoslavia, but not in Ireland? Don’t expect consistency.

South Ossetia, with a population of 70,000, less than an English consituency, is comparable to somewhere like Willesden.

The Ossetes seem to be advancing their cause by pretending to be loyal patriotic Russians, though given that there are so few of them and they have no coastline, this is probably their best option.

The Georgians have decided to get their way by seceding from Russia, snuggling up to the US by sending troops to Iraq, spending 70% of their budget on the military and attacking the nasty separatists right at the moment that Putin was in China. A very bad miscalculation on their part. Total indifference is the best strategy all round. It’s not worth starting World War III to protect/thwart Neasden’s right to secede from the London Borough of Brent.

A Nonny Mouse said...

Of course the real question is not why the Ossetes prefer the Russians to the Georgians but why the Russians care about the Ossetes. The real agenda seems to be pipelines. A lot of shit is happening in Poti. (I couldn't resist that one).

neil craig said...

If Saakashvilli had really believed the Russians were sending tanks into Ossetia what is the very last thing it would have been sane of him to do. Thats right - invade it with weaker forces.

Ergo he is lying which hardly seems a surprise.

He & presumably the hundreds of American soldiers & advisors in the place, deliberately launched an invasion hoping to catch the Russians flatfooted with Putin in Beijing. It was an attempt at genocide patterned on the Krajina genocide.

And the Russians surprised them by kicking their asses which is why they are screaming & calling it unfair.

The formalist point is very valid. There were rules of international law which, on the dubious assumption that Ossetia was part of Georgia (it has never been ruled by an independent Georgia) Russia has bent. The problem is that all those rules had already been shattered by NATO in Yugoslavia. Iraq too but in my opinion Yugoslavia is much more important.

The world desperately needs some consistent rules of international law if everything is not to be solved by firepower. If for no other reason that it is inevitable people will disagree about the amount of firepower immediately available in a particular spot - eg south Ossetia. The NATO countries have a particular responsibility to recreate such rules.