South (and North) Ossetia, Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia, and war

Added general improvements on 9th Aug and updates at the bottom.

The main media reporting is bad on this because of the Olympics and the rapid pace of events, so I had to sort myself out.

Added 12/08: Best map I’ve found so far, status on 12th – click for full-size (source: The Financial Times, Tues 12 Aug, p6). More maps – detailed background ones with smaller conurbations from UN (PDF) and geology.com, and a satellite-type more topographic one from Der Spiegel. Maps relating to the conflict include PDF from The Guardian (undated it so who knows if there are still 9000 Russian paras in Abkhazia), one at the New York Times giving the status on 11th, and the one I scanned from the FT at the top giving the status on 12th. If you go to Google Earth you can really see how tiny Tskhinvali is.

On relations between Russia and Georgia you can go back much further than 1921 when Lenin gave Stalin, the hardline centraliser, permission to engineer the Soviet Russian Red Army’s invasion of the Menshevik Social Democratic Republic of Georgia, forcibly sovietising it, stripping its identity by subsuming it into the Transcaucasian Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics, and installing a Bolshevik administration. The Soviet Socialist republic endured until 1990. Since independence Georgia, like Ukraine, has moved towards joining NATO and other European institutions. Russia strongly objects – it’s trying to grow its Federation.

The Ossetians are an ethnic group descended from the Alans (I find this very hard to cope with – they all have walking sticks and flat caps – not you Alan, a different Alan). North Ossetia(-Alania) is a republic of the Russian Federation and South Ossetia is an adjacent 3,200km square de facto autonomous region about 60m from the Georgian capital Tbilisi. It has a population of about 70k and possibly falling (they are moving to Russia), and many have Russian passports and work in Russia. In 1989 the tiny region of South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia, an assertion which it has continued to reinforce, most recently in an unofficial referendum for independence in 2006. A vicious conflict followed which was chilled by the OSCE and a joint peace-keeping force, but unresolved. The UN does not recognise this independence, and Georgia has done as much as it could to suppress national aspirations including making Georgian the principal language there and refusing to refer to ‘South Ossetia’. The unofficial South Ossetian president, Eduard Kokoiti, warns Tbilisi that South Ossetians seek a unified Ossetia within the Russian Federation, and that they do not consider themselves part of Georgia. This is an interesting type of national liberation struggle to me – that’s if it can even be thought of as a national liberation struggle, considering the South Ossetian desire to join the Russian Federation. By the way, these groups are majority Russian Orthodox Christian.

Why is South Ossetia important to Georgia? The South Ossetian economy has been bad for years – most of the people are subsistence farmers – but there is the Roki Tunnel which links Russia and Georgia under the Caucasus range. A great part of South Ossetian revenue is from tunnel-related taxation.

In the area, but passing 55km from South Ossetia at its nearest, is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline which vastly reduces Georgia dependence on Russia (and incidentally Iran and the Middle East) for energy and makes Georgia strategically important for other similarly-inclined states Basically, the South Caucasus is a hugely strategically important area. There are security fears for the BTC – Kurdish separatists bombed it in Turkey the other day.

Why is South Ossetia important to Russia? It’s well understood that the BTC undermines Russia’s market and also fosters economic independence which will reduce the prospect of the former soviet republics ever reunited with Russia. Russia is therefore threatened by Georgia. Vladimir Socor in the Eurasia Daily Monitor (a Jamestown Foundation publication I come to via Duck of Minerva) suggests that Russia aims to control negotiations between Georgia and its break-away territories, to capture territory, and to bleed it economically to make it a bad bet for NATO and more economically dependent on Russia.

Why is Russia important to South Ossetia? I can’t find anything on this.

Russia and Georgia are currently embroiled in a war that has been predicted for some time.

South Ossetian separatists, backed by Russia via the Roki Tunnel, have been shelling Georgian targets over the last few days. Last night, while world leaders were in Beijing for the Olympic opening ceremony and – unclear why – after pledging a ceasefire and arranging talks about increased autonomy for South Ossetians, Georgia mobilised a military operation in South Ossetia. Ostensibly this was to suppress a South Ossetian separatist movement backed and armed by Russia. Moscow reports ethnic cleansing of South Ossetian villages. Georgia reports Russian air incursions (timed for many EU officials’ recesses?) killing Georgian solidiers, and separatist shelling of Georgian villages. Back on July 3rd somebody tried to blow up the Tbilisi-backed interim administrator of South Ossetia, Dmitry Sanakoyev. Russia, on the pretext of peacekeeping and protecting its citizens from ethnic cleansing, sent 150 tanks and armoured personnel carriers, operated by Cossacks apparently, and is demanding that Georgia sign a legally binding document not to use force in the region. Georgia can militarily overwhelm South Ossetia. Russia can militarily overwhelm Georgia – and Russia refers to the South Ossetians as its ‘Russian citizens’ (maybe as many as two thirds have passports), has imperial designs, and everybody seems to refer to its ‘peacekeeping force’ in inverted commas.

They’ve been fighting for the capital, Tskhinvali, and it’s unclear who has the upper hand.

Kosovo is relevant here – Putin said that Kosovar independence was “a terrible precedent” that “breaks up the entire system of international relations” and the Kremlin seems to be acting on this. Georgia also refused to recognise Kosovo and clearly plans to hang onto the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

You may ask what the North Ossetians (who number about 700k and revived the name Alania for the region when the Soviet Union broke up) think of these developments. Are they mainly for independence, reunification with the South, or what? This is hard to find out conclusively – but in 1990 when things were fragmenting and Georgia abolished South Ossetia, an influx of c. 70k South Ossetians into North Ossetia sparked the Ossetian-Ingush War when Ossetians sought to expel Ingush (mostly Sunni Muslims) from the Prigorodny Distric (on the west bank of the Terek river and, until Stalin’s intervention in 1944, part of the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of Chechnya-Ingushia), killing 600 and expelling 60k. Although the North Ossetia is known for loyalty to the Kremlin, it is harried by separatists such as those who stormed the North Ossetian school in Beslan in September 2004. I get the impression that North Ossetians are happy with the idea of a unified Ossetia within the Russian federation, too.

There are reports from Russia and Kokoiti that 1,400 South Ossetians have died and many more have become refugees. Once again, refugees are flowing into North Ossetia. I can’t find confirmation but it is on this pretext that Russia invaded. Newsnight showed us one body only, so there’s room for hope that it is much less. Like I say, everybody seems to put ‘peacekeeping’ in inverted commas when it’s Russia that’s doing it in South Ossetia.

The place is the definitive ethnic tinderbox with a strategically important pipeline in it.

Added 13/08 – for links, Bob From Brockley has found some high quality dispatches and comment, James Sturke is live-blogging at The Guardian and there’s plenty more around now. Read also the political academic blog Duck of Minerva (inclining to be critical of Georgia, referring to it as a client state of the US, not to say that they support Russia). Also the (Washington DC thinktank) Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor including Vladimir Socor’s assessment of Russia’s goals – more critical of Russia. The Independent’s Moscow correspondent blames Georgia. There’s a South Ossetia Q & A in The Guardian, but it is no longer safe to put too much faith in The Guardian on such things so also see the BBC’s country profile.

I went to Socialist Unity and was confronted with ‘End The Siege of Gaza’ and nothing on South Ossetia. How about the Socialist Worker? Something turgid about sport reflecting the ideology of a capitalist society.

Update 09/08: The Georgian parliament voted for 14 days of war. Still no reliable reports of how many have died – witnesses say hundreds and mostly as a result of Georgian bombardment of the capital Tskhinvali. Putin reports 34k refugees to Russia. Georgian bombs have hit apartment buildings (i.e. civilian homes). Georgia says it has has taken out 40 Russian tanks. AP reports of Russian bombardment of the Georgian military base of Gori and the the St Petersburg Times reports the bombardments of the Vaziani military base on the outskirts of the Georgian capital and near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, as reprisal for Georgia declaring war on it. Georgia is fighting on two fronts because Abkhazia has also launched air and artillery strikes to drive Georgian troops from their bridgehead. I think that Abkhazians (around 50% ethnic Abkhaz, the others are ethnic Georgian Greek, Armenian and Russian) also want to be part of the Russian Federation. General feeling that Russia will do all it can to make Georgia a bad bet for NATO. Nobody seems to be explaining why Ossetians and Abkhazians lean to Russia rather than the West, or what the precise threat to Georgia is if South Ossetia and Abkhazia were permitted to secede.

Update 10/08 Georgia has withdrawn and is badly isolated in the Caucasus and internationally. Russia, obviously militarily superior, bombed Tblisi airport and sank a Georgian ship. Now, with South Ossetia under its control, it is telling the UN Security Council that it wants “regime change” in Georgia and is brushing off a ceasefire.

In The Observer Peter Beaumont reports the death of 60 Georgian civilians of Gori and the Black Sea resort of Poti, killed when Russia fired on civilians. Russia is continuing to fire on Georgian civilians and this death count must be rising. The Guardian today reports at least 2000 South Ossetians dead and 20k refugees. The Georgian military is reported to have practically flattened the capital Tskhinvali, killing its civilians and eliminating the hospital and university. Russian, Georgian and South Ossetian combatants are also dead in unverified numbers. One commentator, James Nixey of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) cited in the same Observer article says that the 40-year-old Georgian president Saakashvili has blown his NATO and EU chances overnight. Also reports that Saakashvili speaks moderate democratese to EU officials, but when he speaks in Georgian it’s hardline nationalism. Although having Russia as a hostile neighbour would bring out the worst in most people, Saakashvili’s flattening of South Ossetia and slaughtering its people is the policy of a hardline nationalist who holds the lives of his secessionist contingent to be inconvenient; the reports of ethnic cleansing are growing. Is there anything more? Is there anything more to Russia’s policy than imperialism? Not likely to find out from the British media – maybe the bloggers…

Update 12/08 – Georgia is under Russian control. Medvedev denies that it is occupied and has just ordered a ceasefire. BP has shut the BTC pipeline (so where are we getting our oil from?) In yesterday’s Sun Trevor Kavanagh wanted us to look at the situation as a democracy (Georgia) v. a dangerous thug (Russia). I found a rare Financial Times on the train today which embarks on ‘Decoding the messages in Moscow’s movements‘, citing the assessment of one analyst, Dmitry Trenin from the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, that Russia is bent on resisting Nato encirclement by: separating South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia; making Georgia a bad candidate for Nato; asserting itself as the principle power in the region; exposing the US’s inability to control or defend its ally Georgia. Another analyst adds destroying “the reserves and second echelon of the Georgian army”. Toppling Saakashvili is also an aim, but not a military one. Russia has been organising chaos in the non-recognised independent regions for years as a way of pressurising the West, isolating Georgia (and with it, Armenia). One columnist on the Russian Novaya Gazeta (cited in the FT) even predicts that Putin will take over the presidency again, justifying this as firm leadership at a time of crisis. Not much talk about the dead or displaced – I am quite astounded about how little. I mean, there was a responsibility to protect South Ossetian civilians, wasn’t there (Russia, as regional arm twister and serial Georgia-baiter, is the last power that could this well).

Update 12/08 (2) – the ceasefire is broadly holding although there are skirmishes. Newsnight was a hard watch tonight – two tiny Georgian girls and their mother at a clinic in Gori riddled with bullets. The mother was in so much pain. Georgian fields are alight – how is that “protecting Russian peacekeepers”? Refugee numbers are estimated at 100k. News at Ten on Radio 4 talked to somebody from the economist urging the EU and Nato to penalise Russia by excluding it from activities, but simultaneously predicting a flabby response because of our disarray over Iraq and our dependency on Russian fuel. He counselled building as many nuclear power stations as possible as quickly as possible. He said that now Georgia, Ukraine and Armenia know that Europe cares more about its fuel relationship with Russia than about them. We have got to shake this oil habit, and we will. I also read Marko Attila Hoare from May 28th and the Russian provocation and activity in South Ossetia and Abkhazia became clear.  What has changed since he wrote it, though, is whether South Ossetians can be persuaded away from Russia after losing a large proportion of their tiny population to Georgian aggression. Marko says that the West and EU should be doing all it can, as we did in the Cold War, as a matter of urgency, to make us an attractive proposition to the former soviet states and – crucially – to support them against the Russian empire.

Update 13/08 – the terms of the set of agreements signed by Russia and Georgia and brokered by the Sarkozi-led EU aim to return things to the way they were. In searching for them I found this Jamestown Foundation piece about a prior bilateral agreement – the May ’05 Joint Statement by Russia and Georgia on Russian withdrawal from Georgia by 2008 – which I hadn’t realised existed. For some reason it’s hard to find the actual agreement document – is it public? The BBC outlines the five point plan: no more use of force; stop all military actions for good; free access to humanitarian aid; Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment; Russian troops return to pre-conflict positions; a sixth which was deleted (says the BBC) about holding international discussions on the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Deleted at the behest of Sakaashvili it seems – Russia Today includes the sixth point. I’m sure there was something about refugees. Nothing about prosecuting Saakashvili in the Hague – Russia has been making noises about this – but it is Georgia which has filed a complaint of ethnic cleansing against the Russian Federation with the International Criminal Court.

There was a cyber attack on Georgia too, coinciding with the Russian attacks.

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5 thoughts on “South (and North) Ossetia, Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia, and war

  1. Your last sentence is curious. Georgia is not exactly ‘the West’.
    Are examples of ‘rational’ nationalistic behaviour frequent in
    history?
    Even if we consider their economic development, is it obvious Georgia
    will help these (strategic) areas (Abkhazia + Ossetia) more than Russia?

    Massive corruption and banditism in the whole of
    Caucasus is omitted from your considerations. They do seem
    to rule these societies, and they are used by all participants
    into this power ‘game’.

  2. Which sentence, Smadja?

    I am poor on precedents for ‘rational nationalism’ – though I can think of a few. Is the Russian Federation the only choice for South Ossetians who want to secede from Georgia?

    You’re right – I omitted massive corruption and banditism. I began this post from a position of zero knowledge, and corruption and banditism didn’t come up in what I read. Do you have any examples?

    On economic development, is it boiling down to a choice about whether Abkhazia and Ossetia would rather hitch their economic development to Russian Federation or to the EU and general West? And if so, why the popular support for Russia?

  3. As I predicted (to myself) Andy Newman at Socialist Unity blames Washington for the conflict. He supports Russia with a classic bit of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

    He is right about the forcible incorporation of South Ossetia – will South Ossetians ever want to be part of Georgia again after Saakashvili rased their capital city to the ground and killed hundreds of civilians? But then again as somebody said from the foreign office said, in order to secede and be recognised you need a critical mass of international recognition. Russia does not seek this – it seeks a military resolution. For Russia this doesn’t seem to be about the welfare of the South Ossetians at all.

    http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=2709.

  4. Marko Attila Hoare is strongly for Georgia. I haven’t read his links yet but he makes a case why South Ossetia is different from Kosovo. My current questions are about whether Saakashvili is hardline nationalist and how this has affected the conflict, about what South Ossetian autonomy under Georgia would actually involve, about what Russia hopes to achieve, and about why Georgia thought it was worth however many hundreds of South Ossetian lives and 20k refugees to make this incursion (or in the way it made it).

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