Georgia and Russia: delusions and realities
J. and I visited the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the Georgian town of Gori, in the early 1970s, a decade and a half after Khrushchev's "secret speech" denouncing Stalin and the cult of personality. Gori was one of the very few places in the then Soviet Union where a huge statue of Stalin dominated the town square, as it still does today: the Stalin cult was still in full swing, for Gori is where the great leader, dictator, mass murderer and general monster was born. We visited the birthplace itself, then as now a Stalin museum, full of framed photographs of the great man in his early days, often in groups of co-conspirators from which Trotsky and other non-persons had been amateurishly air-brushed out. With a few creditable exceptions, UK media comments on the current conflict in Georgia, with all the references to Russian tanks in Gori, have failed to make the connection with Stalin, even though there can be very few Russians or Georgians who read and hear the name Gori without Stalin's name coming instantly to mind. In a recent Russian poll in which people have been voting for the greatest ever Russian, Stalin has so far led the field; and he wasn't even a Russian.
This all helps to illustrate the strong Russian feeling that Georgia, whatever its current legal status as a sovereign independent state since 1991, just before the break-up of the USSR, is an intrinsic part of Russia's long and turbulent history. Georgia was not forced into the Russian orbit by the Bolsheviks' incorporation of the country into the Soviet Union after 1918: it was incorporated into the Russian Empire in December 1800, having been under formal Russian protection since 1783, 225 years ago. Perhaps this helps to explain Russia's reactions to the strident efforts by NATO and the EU to sign up Georgia as a member of these two western alliances and thus to place it under western, meaning in effect American, German, French and British protection — all part of the expansion of both NATO and the EU to Russia's own borders, removing its one-time defensive cordon sanitaire and inevitably feeding traditional Russian paranoia about its traditional enemies to the west.
None of this is meant to condone the brutality of Russia's incursion into the breakaway statelet of South Ossetia, still less into Georgia proper; nor does it excuse the way the leaders of the Soviet Union, including Stalin, held the constituent republics, including Georgia, as virtual colonies for the mere 73 years in which the USSR existed. But in judging the rights and wrongs of the current conflict, we do well to remember the salient facts of the history of the Caucasus and its implications for the way that the people most closely concerned see each other and themselves.
As so often, Simon Jenkins has written the definitive analysis of the conflict in his Guardian column of 13 August 2008. It's well worth reading in full. Here are some of his principal points:
This week's operation in Georgia has displayed the failure of the west's policy of belligerence towards Vladimir Putin's Russia. The policy was meant to weaken Russia, and has strengthened it. The policy was meant to humiliate Russia with Nato encirclement, and has merely fed its neo-imperialism. The policy was meant to show that Russia "understands only firmness" and instead has shown the west as a bunch of tough-talking windbags….
Bush says that great powers should not go about "toppling governments in the 21st century", as if he had never done such a thing. Cheney says that the invasion has "damaged Russia's standing in the world", as if Cheney gave a damn. The lobby for sanctions against Russia is reduced to threatening to boycott the winter Olympics. Big deal….
In South Ossetia both sides appear to have committed appalling atrocities, and can thus generate a sense of outrage in front of whatever camera is pointed at them. Georgia's government claimed the right to assert military control over its two dissident provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, even if they were openly in league with Russia. Equally, Russia felt justified in stopping the consequent evictions and killings of its nationals in these provinces, in which it had a humanitarian locus as "peacekeeper". The difficulty is that entitlement and good sense are rarely in accord. Georgia may have been entitled to act, but was clearly unwise to do so. Russia may have been entitled to aid its people against an oppressor, but that is different from unleashing its notoriously inept and ruthless army, let alone bombing Georgia's capital and demanding a change in its government….
Saakashvili thought he could call on the support of his neoconservative allies in Washington… It turned out that such "support" was mere words. America is otherwise engaged in wars that bear a marked resemblance to those waged by Putin. It defended the Kurdish enclaves against Saddam Hussein. It sought regime change in Serbia and Afghanistan. As Putin's troops in South Ossetia were staging a passable imitation of the US 101st Airborne entering Iraq, Bush was studiously watching beach volleyball in Beijing….
Once such conflicts could be quarantined by the United Nations' requirement to respect national sovereignty. That has been shot to pieces by the liberal interventionism of George Bush and Tony Blair. The result has reinvigorated separatist movements across the world….
The west's eagerness to intervene in favour of partition, manifest in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Sudan, is more than meddling. It encouraged every oppressed people and province on earth to be "the mouse that roared", to think it could ensnare a great power in its cause.
The parallels are glaring. If we backed Kosovo against the Serbs, why not back South Ossetia against the Georgians? But if we backed the Kurds against the Iraqis, why not the Georgians against Russia? Indeed, had Nato admitted Georgia to full membership, there is no knowing what Caucasian horror might have ensued from the resulting treaty obligation. Decisions which in Washington and London may seem casual gestures of ideological solidarity can mean peace and war on the ground….
The west has done everything to isolate Putin, as he rides the tiger of Russian emergence from everlasting dictatorship. This has encouraged him to care not a fig for world opinion. Equally the west has encouraged Saakashvili to taunt Putin beyond endurance. The policy has led to war. If ever there were a place just to leave alone, it is surely the Caucasus.
In this tragic melée there are no good guys and bad guys, only bad guys — leaving aside the innocent civilians of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia who are its victims. Until just a few days ago the Georgian President Saakashvili seemed to be groping for a peaceful resolution of the quarrels besetting the region. In the words of Thomas de Waal in an essential account of these events,
On 7 August, after days of shooting incidents in the South Ossetian conflict-zone, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia made a speech in which he said that he had given the Georgian villagers orders not to fire, that he wanted to offer South Ossetia "unlimited autonomy" within the Georgian state, with Russia to be a guarantor of the arrangement.
Both sides said they were discussing a meeting the next day to discuss how to defuse the clashes. That evening, however, Saakashvili went for the military option. The Georgian military launched a massive artillery attack on Tskhinvali, followed the next day by a ground assault involving tanks. This against a city with no pure military targets, full of civilians who had been given no warning and were expecting peace talks at any moment.
This sudden abandonment of his peace initiative and recourse to military force against the South Ossetians seems to have been intended to provoke the inevitable Russian military intervention which Saakashvili apparently believed would bring his American friends and their NATO allies riding over the hill to his support. A moment's thought would have convinced him that even George W Bush was unlikely to walk into yet another war on behalf of distant Georgia, especially a war against a still formidable and nuclear-armed Russia. The Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein (and its successor Iraqi nationalists) and the Taliban in Afghanistan are a quite different order of enemy for the American neo-cons to take on, and even they are currently keeping the Americans fully occupied. So the Georgian attack gave Putin a golden and virtually risk-free opportunity to send his tanks and artillery into South Ossetia and beyond, nominally to defend the substantial numbers of Russian citizens there from the Georgian assault, but actually to reassert Russia's military and other dominance in the area, to warn Saakashvili and the west against any idea of bringing Georgia into the west's sphere of influence and to punish the Georgian régime for its impertinent challenge to Russia's superior might. He has demonstrated the powerlessness of the west, when the Russian chips were down, to protect Georgia against its powerful neighbour. We can all shout as loudly as we like that the Russian response has been unforgivably violent and excessive; Putin is unlikely to take any notice. He has achieved everything that he set out to achieve; Georgia has achieved nothing apart from the loss, probably now irretrievable, of any hope of reincorporating South Ossetia (or by analogy Abkhazia either) even loosely into Georgia.
There are some salutary lessons to be learned from all this, many of them eloquently spelled out by Simon Jenkins:
- The eastward expansion of NATO has aggravated Russian paranoia to a dangerous degree, and any further expansion would risk further destabilising the whole anyway perennially unstable region.
- If NATO had yielded to the temptation, and to Georgian blandishments, to admit Georgia as a NATO member at its meeting in Bucharest earlier this year, Saakashvili would have been encouraged to use his army against South Ossetia even earlier than he did, and Russia is unlikely to have been deterred from sending in its tanks in response. The whole of NATO would then have been committed by treaty to come to Georgia's defence against Russia. Averting a third world war would have been a test for western statesmanship that the west might well have failed.
- The west's attitudes to small secessionist movements within sovereign states have been disastrously confused, inconsistent and unprincipled. We intervened illegally and violently in support of Kosovo's terrorist movement for secession from Serbia and actively helped to bring it about, while stridently denouncing Russia's much less violent support for the South Ossetians against Georgia; and we seem to regard Russia's insoluble problem with secessionist Chechnya as just another excuse for criticising the Russian government. With a serious and unsolved secessionist problem of our own (Scotland), it's about time that we stopped telling others how to cope with theirs.
- The illegal attack by NATO on Yugoslavia in 1999, and by the US, UK and a few others on Iraq in 2003, have disqualified the leading countries of the west from holding up their hands in mock horror when Russia uses its army, some of it already there in an accepted peace-keeping capacity, to retaliate, however excessively, against Georgian military intervention in South Ossetia — that disqualification being another malign consequence of the Iraq misadventure.
- For oil and many other reasons, it's time we learned to live with the reality of Russia, however much we may dislike much of what goes on there since its conversion to raw capitalism. We could start by terminating our pointless demands for the extradition of a Russian citizen to Britain when such extradition is expressly forbidden by the Russian constitution (a pity we don't have a similar provision in ours).
- Above all, we should recognise the reality that a country like Russia is going to maximise its influence and power in neighbouring countries, being as much entitled in realpolitik terms to a sphere of influence as any other — including the United States. Western attempts to create a sphere of influence in Russia's back yard are bound to lead to instability, conflict and ultimately bloodshed; no Russian government could acquiesce in them. We should stop misrepresenting Russian resistance to such western expansionism as if it was Russia that was reverting to some kind of imperialism. Russia's neighbours are condemned by geography to accommodate Russian interests and security requirements, just as Ireland, Mexico and Canada, and much of Latin America have had to do in respect of their bigger or more powerful neighbours. Get used to it!
Update (13 Aug 08): Another brilliant commentary on this affair — as brilliant, I mean, as Simon Jenkins's — appeared in today's Times. Michael Binyon's column provides a comprehensive catalogue of all the ways in which western policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union has failed to accommodate itself to the realities of the new Russia, and has thereby walked into this week's trap so patiently and lethally prepared for it by Mr Putin. Obligatory reading.