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Kevin View Drop Down
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Joined: 27-Apr-2007
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  Quote Kevin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: Put out even more flags
    Posted: 31-Aug-2008 at 06:30

A FEW months ago Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s new president, did not think he would be recognising the independence of two separatist regions of Georgia and heading into direct confrontation with the West. When he met Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, in St Petersburg in June, both seemed happy. War did not feature in Mr Medvedev’s plans; he was even considering an early visit to Tbilisi. But when the two leaders met again in early July, the temperature was far chillier. The night before, South Ossetian and Georgian forces had exchanged fire. Mr Medvedev never made it to Tbilisi: instead Russian tanks poured into Georgia.

Did Russia’s security chiefs fear that the two presidents might agree on something that would spoil their long-planned conflict? Did Vladimir Putin, Mr Medvedev’s patron and prime minister, crave a small, victorious war? Or did Mr Saakashvili think Mr Medvedev was too soft to respond to Georgia’s attempt to regain control over South Ossetia? The answer may never be known. But after barely 100 days in office, the soft-spoken Mr Medvedev was cast in the unlikely role of war leader.


His initial job appeared to be as Mr Putin’s spokesman. But he quickly got a taste for war. This former lawyer may have been overcompensating for his civilian background. At any rate, on August 26th he stood beneath the two-headed Russian eagle and solemnly announced the Kremlin’s decision to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A day earlier the Russian parliament had demanded that Mr Medvedev do just that.

Mr Medvedev said he had no choice and had to protect human lives. The decision, he argued, was forced on him by Georgia’s aggression and “genocide” against South Ossetia. But the argument is spurious. It is true that, in the early 1990s, when Georgia was barely a state, its nationalistic leaders (one military commander is still hiding in Russia) committed atrocities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But it is also true that more than 200,000 Georgians were driven out of Abkhazia in a burst of ethnic cleansing, and that Russia backed Abkhazia militarily.

Abkhazia had the trappings of a nascent state, but South Ossetia was a chessboard of villages (Georgian and Ossetian) which suffered under a Moscow-sponsored, thuggish and corrupt regime whose main job seemed to be to provoke Georgia. Mr Saakashvili made mistakes: he was in too much of a rush to take back the enclaves and did too little to disown Georgia’s nationalist past. His worst mistake (which he does not admit to) was to order the shelling of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital, on August 7th. But this was not, as Russia claimed, genocide; the death toll was fewer than 200. Moreover, the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in South Ossetia is all too evident: Georgian villages have been destroyed and thousands of Georgians displaced by South Ossetian militia under Russia’s watch.

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If Russia had really wanted to resolve the separatist conflicts in Georgia, it had opportunities. It might have begun by not handing out Russian passports and then claiming a purported need to defend its “citizens”. It might also have avoided unleashing anti-Georgian and anti-Western hysteria in the Russian media.

And although the latest conflict was triggered by Georgia, the deeper roots of Russia’s invasion lie in domestic events that go back as far as 2003-04: the destruction of the Yukos oil company, and Russia’s perception of the colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine as a Western plot to undermine its sovereignty. Mr Saakashvili’s support for Ukraine’s orange revolution particularly irked Mr Putin.

Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Centre argues that the political system built by Mr Putin requires the images of an enemy and a besieged fortress. “This war is not about South Ossetia, Abkhazia or Georgia,” she says. “It is about the matrix of the Russian state and its survival. The beast needs feeding.” Konstantin Zatulin, a Duma deputy handling relations with former Soviet republics, is more belligerent. “The time when we needed Western applause is over,” he says. “Mikhail Gorbachev made military and political concessions to the West: he agreed to the unification of Germany and the liquidation of the Warsaw Pact but a few years later the country where he was president fell apart.”

After years of cultivating xenophobic sentiment and persuading Russians that they face an enemy, the Kremlin had prepared the population psychologically for war. That, says Boris Dubin, a sociologist, is why Russia’s propaganda fell on fertile ground. In the public mind, he claims, the cause of the war is to be found in “America’s expansionist plans and desire to establish control over Russia’s neighbours.”

In practice, Russia’s recognition of the two territories may not change much. Russia already had almost full control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia and dealt openly with its self-proclaimed presidents. Few countries will follow Russia’s recognition. With its troops still in Georgia, Russia has also made a mockery of the French-negotiated ceasefire that demanded their withdrawal to pre-war positions and an international discussion about the enclaves. But overall the war has cemented the victory of isolationist ideology in Russia, which will shape both domestic politics and foreign relations for years to come.

The partition of Georgia may cause a long-term confrontation between Russia and the West, with echoes of the cold war. Too bad, Mr Medvedev said this week: “Nothing scares us, including the prospect of a cold war…we have lived in different situations and we will survive.” (“If it’s only cold, that’s not a problem,” Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister retorted.) Russia’s elite is convinced that the West is weak and will swallow Russia’s decision. “When you cross the road you have to check for dangers,” declares Mr Zatulin. “The West can apply psychological pressure. But Europe cannot afford to turn down our gas and America needs our help with Afghanistan and Iran.”

The fallout may be felt most inside Russia itself. Hopes for liberalisation and modernisation under Mr Medvedev have evaporated. In the past few days the Kremlin has rejected Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s parole application, refused to grant Russian citizenship to an investigative Moldovan journalist from Russia and briefly detained protesters in Red Square who held a banner “For Your Freedom and Ours” in a repeat of a protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia staged by dissidents 40 years ago. Views once considered extreme are creeping into the mainstream. For example, Alexander Dugin, a nationalist ideologue, greeted events in Georgia by celebrating the removal of the previous “masks”. “We are at war,” he proclaimed. “Now the country should fight not only against its external enemies but also with the fifth column. Pro-Western liberals …should be interned. War is war. The time of patriots is coming: the time for revenge for all the humiliation from these people that we have been suffering for years.”

Mr Medvedev’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia may also have unpredictable consequences for Russia’s north Caucasus. Russia has bolstered separatism in Georgia but crushed it brutally in Chechnya. “Talking about the right for independence, about genocide and the war crimes of Mr Saakashvili, Russia’s leaders are perhaps forgetting about the tens of thousands of civilians who were killed by Russia’s bombardment of Grozny and who were executed, cleansed and tortured by the Russian military in Chechnya,” says Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya of Memorial, a human-rights group.

Indeed, Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia could easily reignite separatist sentiment in the north Caucasus. Chechnya may be too exhausted to fight another war with Russia at present, but in ten years’ time “the question of independence of Chechnya will arise again,” says Ms Sokiryanskaya. Russia maintains stability in the Caucasus by military force and fear. Even as Russia was “liberating” South Ossetia, its security services were intimidating human-rights activists in Ingushetia and Dagestan. The methods they use differ little from those of the separatists and terrorists they are fighting. Inevitably, this leads to further radicalisation of the population, says Magomet Mutsolgov, a human-rights activist in Ingushetia.

Mr Mutsolgov says the war in Georgia found little support in Ingushetia, not long ago engaged in a bitter ethnic conflict with North Ossetia. Rather, Russia’s actions in Georgia have created a general sense of injustice, says Mr Mutsolgov. “What about the thousands of Ingush who have been forced out of their homes by Ossetians?” Many Ingush refused to fight in Georgia. “People here say ‘it is not our war’ ”. The seeds of many conflicts in the Caucasus, as of Russia’s own problems, were planted by Stalin’s ruthless nationalist policies in the 1930s and 1940s. Today’s Russia is planting new ones.

I hope the Russian leadership realizes just what type of genie it's released from the bottle.

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pikeshot1600 View Drop Down

Joined: 22-Jan-2005
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  Quote pikeshot1600 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 31-Aug-2008 at 16:19
As so often, the disconnects in this region (as in the Balkans or Mesopotamia) may make these issues insoluble.  The Russians have been dealing with this in the Caucasus since at least the early decades of the 19th century, if not before.
Russia, whatever the regime, may long since have concluded that the passions and resulting emotions are so complicated; so divisive, and so frustrating, that Russia maintains stability on this vital front by "military force and fear" because that is the only option that really attains her ultimate goal:  security and control where Russia perceives she needs it.
Geopolitics rarely include reconciliation and magnanimity high on the list of important considerations.
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