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A Play of Villains: Conflict in Georgia

A Play of Villains: Conflict in Georgia

by Binoy Kampmark

A play of villains, where the only victims (as always) are civilians. The Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has announced a halt to military operations of Russian forces in Georgia, but skirmishes continue. Fears that the entire Georgian state would be occupied haven’t materialized, though this chapter of conflict is far from over.

The Georgian administration, led by the impulsive, even reckless President Mikhail Saakashvili has blundered. He had made it a policy goal to unite the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia proper during his time in office. A day before the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, he made true his word, failing in the attempt.

The only question was, why? Having sought NATO membership, this venture may well have jeopardized Georgia’s goals. Nor could Saakashvili have hoped for NATO assistance in the first place. There is little doubt that traces of American involvement are to be found – Georgia has performed well in America’s ‘anti-terrorist’ classroom. Logistical support and some funding has been forthcoming, including aid to relocate some 2000 Georgian troops located in Iraq.

The brutal assault on Tskhinvali in South Ossetia left numerous civilians dead within hours, including several Russian peacekeepers. The Russians responded with furious force. At this stage, any notion of peacekeeping has been dispelled in favour of classic Realpolitik. A two-front war has opened up, with Russian forces committing to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The town of Gori was also attacked.

Perhaps the only mystery to this conflict was why it didn’t happen sooner. In 2004, South Ossetians seized Georgian policemen, an act which was heavily criticized by the Office of Security and Corporation in Europe and officials in Washington. Despite an agreement reached by both sides to withdraw their respective forces, reports refused to dispel any notion that any peace agreement had been reached. If anything they suggested the reverse: war was imminent.

The Russian picture in all of this is no less dire than their Georgian counterparts. The saber is being rattled and deployed with purpose. Such acts resemble the darkest excesses of petro-nationalism, but they also show Vladimir Putin (as opposed to Medvedev) to be in total control. Moscow has been ‘Russianising’ Abkhazia and South Ossetia for years, even as it claims to deny other nationalities similar rights to secede (Chechnya and Kosovo). Russian citizenship has been dolled out like ice cream on a summer’s day to Ossetians suspicious of Tbilisi’s grouchy nationalism.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s break-up, countries like Georgia re-asserted their blood and soil credentials. The South Ossetians, while notionally part of Georgia, wanted little in the way of the pro-Georgian project. The Abkhazians concurred. ‘When the Soviet Union collapsed,’ Vladimir Putin is on record as saying, ‘no one asked the Ossetians and the Abkhaz whether they wanted to stay in Georgia.’ Subsequent fighting in the early 1990s resulted in a tense truce between the groups.

The Georgian president has been given a dusting down in the Russian media. Everything, from his courage (purportedly absent, a stooge of Western interests) to his sexuality (purportedly skewed), has been savaged. Medvedev casually dismissed him as a lunatic not worth discussing. He has also been likened to Hitler.

A Russian investigative team is apparently readying itself to capture the wandering Georgian for a show trial on war crimes charges. All sides in this conflict, from the ‘genocidal’ Russians, to the ‘genocidal’ Georgians, have been accused of various degrees of mass murder and ethnic cleansing. The landscape of the Caucasus, it seems, is dotted with rogues and villains.

The patterns of interventions and involvements in Georgia by Russia have the tedium of historical consistency. Georgia’s politicians were perhaps foolish to have believed that this case would be any different. Like Tibet’s relationship with China, Georgia fell under the ‘umbrella’ of a larger protective power in the eighteenth century. The pretense ended when Georgia was annexed by the Russian empire in 1801. With cruel irony, the Caucasus began producing its own blood curdling despots, notably for the Soviet machine. Both Stalin (born in Gori) and Lavrenti Beria of the secret police, were Georgian exports.

Suggestions that Saakashvili is a representative of Western appeasement, a threat to Russian interests in the way Hitler was has a ring of historical perversity to it. He might have been a villain of sorts – the assault on the South Ossetians might be cited as a case in point. But Russia’s actions demonstrate an unquestionable resurgence. EU members and the United States have taken notice. Both have proven fairly ineffectual in quelling the conflict. And Russia still has a few cards to play.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He taught history at the University of Queensland.

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