Saturday, August 16, 2008

Three actions we can take for Georgia

While there's plenty of blame to go round, who is to blame for starting the war between Georgia and Russia is now irrelevant. Georgian forces have been utterly defeated and Russian forces are in control in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

They were always committing as many war crimes as the Georgians - now the Russians and their Ossetian, Chechen, Abkhazian and other militias are the only ones committing these crimes (1), (2), (3). Russian claims to be withdrawing their forces also seem to be empty (4).

The same Russian troops and pro-Russian Chechen militia-men who tortured, stole, murdered and raped their way across Chechnya for a decade, when Chechnya attempted to declare independence from the Russian Federation, are now burning Georgian villages, raping women and stealing from and firing at journalists, UN staff and foreign aid workers in central Georgia and South Ossetia - or at least the militia-men are while the Russian regulars (probably under orders from superiors) let them. Georgian men and boys considered 'of military age' are being taken away to unknown fates - possibly killed (5), (6), (7), (8), (9).

The EU and the US aren't prepared to put troops in to stop this, given the serious risk of a major war - and possibly even nuclear war. There are still actions we and our governments can take (one already taken by Bush being to send unarmed troops to Tbilisi to discourage Russian forces from entering it).

First our governments can put forward a motion to the General Assembly of the UN calling for an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces (including all militias allied to them) from central Georgia and from those villages in South Ossetia mostly inhabited by Georgians. The motion should also provide authority for the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force to deploy on both sides of the border between the South Ossetian region and central Georgia and along the main roads from Tbilisi airport to South Ossetia to protect civilians and allow humanitarian aid to be distributed.
This will not have the same weight as a UN Security Council motion but the Russian government will be unable to veto it and it's the next best thing to a UNSC motion.

A second motion should call for the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to be determined by referenda organised by the UN on independence, autonomy within Georgia or re-unification with Georgia. If these republics vote to become independent they can hold their own referenda on whether to then join the Russian federation. Russia cannot be allowed to conquer territory through war in breach of the UN Charter.

Second they could expel Russia from the G8 economic policy making group and refuse it entry to the World Trade Organisation. Third we could make it clear EU governments won't pay for Russian oil or gas until Russian forces and allied militias withdraw from central Georgian and allow UN peacekeepers into it and South Ossetia. Since Russia's economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas exports this would hurt Russia's economy as much as the EU's. They may be able to re-direct some exports to China and the far East - but the price they get for them would drop.

Georgian civilians lives are important enough to make it worth suffering power cuts until the Russian government relents or we can get alternative energy sources or reduce energy use through energy efficiency measures like government subsidised home insulation. It's also necessary to send a message to Russia that while we accept its right to defend itself and Russian citizens in South Ossetia we won't stand by, mute while they annexe territory by force or let militias murder civilians.

Of course we can also donate to the ICRC or other charities providing aid to Georgians, Ossetians and others - but the first three measures would make it easier and safer to get more aid to those who need it as soon as it's needed.

(1) = Herald (Scotland), 'Civilians allege militias raped and killed',

(2) = Human Rights Watch 14 Aug 2008, 'Russia/Georgia: Investigate Civilian Deaths
High Toll from Attacks on Populated Areas',

(3) = Human Rights Watch 15 Aug 2008, 'Georgia: Russian Cluster Bombs Kill Civilians'

(4) = BBC News 15 Aug 2008, 'Day-by-day: Georgia-Russia crisis',

(5) = see (1) above

(6) = Channel 4 News 14 Aug 2008, 'War of words breaks out between Russia and the US; tanks remain in Gori', , (see first video on that page)

(7) = Human Rights Watch 13 Aug 2008, 'Georgian Villages in South Ossetia Burnt, Looted',

(8) = Amnesty International 14 aug 2008, 'Georgia, Russia: Suffering of civilians must stop and abuses must be investigated',

(9) = Amnesty International 14 Aug 2008, 'Civilians vulnerable after hostilities in Georgia',

Friday, August 15, 2008

I should have said we should favour the weaker side as their civilians are likely to make up most of the victims of any conflict

I've made a mistake in saying the EU should stay entirely neutral in the conflict between Georgia and Russia.

I still suspect President Saakashvili of Georgia wanted this conflict, thinking it might bring enough pressure on Russia from the EU and US to get Russian troops to leave South Ossetia and Abkhazia and allow him to fulfill his election pledge to re-unify Georgia, despite the majority of the populations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia never having wanted to be part of Georgia - and fearing a repeat of the ethnic cleansing carried out by both sides in the 1992 civil war.

I still suspect the Bush administration has fuelled the conflict by encouraging Saakashvili not to compromise with the Russians or separatists and vague but tough sounding promises of support.

However the Russian government and the South Ossetian and Abkhazian militias all have a record of ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses as bad and probably even worse than that of the Georgian government - and South Ossetian forces bombardment of Georgian villages on August 1st may have been co-ordinated with Russian forces which built up rapidly in the area in the months before war broke out. What's more Russia's military is so much larger and better equipped than Georgia's was that it should have been obvious that Russian forces would win and so the biggest threat was of Russian and South Ossetian forces killing Georgian civilians rather than Georgian forces killing South Ossetians.

Western journalists and UN observers have reported that Russian forces are standing by while South Ossetian militia-men steal from, rape and murder Georgian civilians (e.g watch the first video on this page from Channel 4 News, UK).
HRW Report the militias have burned Georgian villages in South Ossetia.

Nor do Russian forces have any right to still be in the main part of Georgia - where the majority of the population want to be part of Georgia, or to have continued airstrikes even after the Georgian military was defeated. Human Rights Watch observers say Russian planes have killed civilians by using cluster bombs on Georgian towns. This is a war crime - just like the same practice by NATO forces in Kosovo in 1999 - and one war crime does not cancel out another. Both sides have also used rocket launchers in town centres, killing civilians - the Russians in Gori in Georgia and (before Georgian forces' defeat) by both sides in Tkhsinvali in South Ossetia.
Russia's government and military are responsible for this and for the actions of the Ossetian militia-men they arm, train and fight alongside.

Russian troops have also aided Ossetian civilians in south Ossetia to escape from the war zone to North Ossetia - but this may be as much for propaganda value as for humanitarian motives.

This all seems like another set of moves in the international chess game among governments for power and influence. None of the players can be entirely absolved of responsibility for treating their own and other countries' people as pawns whose lives can be sacrificed to achieve 'strategic aims, but when, as with Georgia and Russia, the two sides are so unequal in power, we should favour the weaker side to try and prevent the stronger one allowing its proxies to run riot killing Georgian civilians.

That probably requires a new UN peacekeeping force in a zone on either side of the border between central Georgia and South Ossetia. This would help humanitarian aid and observers to get to civilians and internally displaced refugees of all ethnic groups. A UN General Assembly resolution calling for this and for Russian forces to withdraw back to their positions of July 31st this year and prevent Ossetian militias targeting Georgian civilians in Ossetia could also be put forward, since Russia could veto any Security Council resolution.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Russian government is in the ascendant now - but it should remember it may need to build up good will for when the wheel of fortune turns again

It seems now that Russian regulars and Ossetian and Abkhaz militias are burning Georgian villages on the road to Tbilisi.

Ideally the soveriegnty of democratic states should be upheld unless their governments have started killing instead of protecting their own citizens. The UN's Responsibility to Protect report called this 'conditional sovereignty' - meaning that a government's sovereignty is not absolute but conditional on it carrying out its responsibility to protect the lives of its own citizens.

The report laid out a duty to intervene militarily if necessary to prevent other governments killing civilians - but also made it clear that this should only be done if widespread massacres or genocide were taking place, since otherwise military intervention would be likely to kill more people than it saved. Since in every conflict around half the casualties are civilians this is a wise provision.

The west is not prepared to go to war over Georgia - a country which is not an EU or NATO member and whose government's democratic and human rights record is almost as bad as Russia's and includes ethnic cleansing of Ossetians in the 1992 civil war just as Ossetian separatists and Russian forces seem to be forcing out Georgians. Russia is prepared to go to war to re-establish it's influence over a former client state of the Soviet Union and a part of the Russian Empire before that.

In these circumstances any NATO military intervention would only change who was ethnically cleansing or massacring who - and probably expand the war into other countries and lead to a huge rise in casualties. Without clear evidence of one side committing large scale massacres against the other's civilians it would also be likely to end up killing more people - and more civilians - than it saved.

Russia's claim that it's motives are humanitarian - to prevent the massacre of Ossetian civilians in South Ossetia by Georgian forces - is dubious. There is no doubt that in the civil war of the early 1990s Georgian forces targeted Ossetian civilians and vice-versa - and the same has probably happened again now, but Human Rights Watch reports that Russian claims of 1,500 to 2,000 civilians killed by Georgian rocket attacks are exaggerations - and are causing revenge attacks on Georgian civilians by Ossetian militias.

Russian public opinion may have been brought behind military action by the argument that Russia must protect Ossetians with Russian citizenship, but Putin has never shown any concern for the lives or human rights of Chechen - or Georgian - civilians so the humanitarian war claim is weak.

Control of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and preventing Georgia joining NATO or the EU are probably his main motives.

The option of economic sanctions on Russia or expelling it from the G8 have also been raised, but Russia would almost certainly respond by cutting off gas supplies to the EU, leading to, at the least, black outs across much of Europe. So this is unlikely.

So the options are limited to putting some troops into Tbilisi - which Bush is already doing by sending them to For once this seems like a well judged move by Washington, making it clear that it will not stand for Russian troops entering Tbilisi and overthrowing its government, but without threatening Russia.

The only other thing we can do is warn the Russians that the wheel will keep turning.
The Russian government were enraged by NATO's similar campaign in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 and by Kosovo's declaration of independence under the protection of NATO peacekeepers. Their proposal now for referenda on independence and joining the Russian federation in the South Ossetian and Abkhazian regions of what Georgia claims is its territory may be revenge for Kosovo.

The US has lost a lot of respect and influence internationally and made many enemies through its ruthless invasion of Iraq. The US is undoubtedly the world's strongest power but as it's power wanes it will have to rely more and more on the good-will which it's current administration has squandered through ruthless brutality. Even Clinton's decision to allow a third phase of bombing of civilian targets in Kosovo and Serbia had a similar effect.

Russia's government should consider whether it's now about to make the same mistake - and remember that the wheel of fortune will turn again. With new technologies, such as a breakthrough in solar power's use to fuel hydrogen cells, Russian oil and gas may one day not be so vital to the EU - so in the present Russia would be wise to build up good-will with other states that it may well need in future rather than squander it through reliance on force alone.

Apart from that it should consider whether it is now aiding or committing exactly the same crimes it accuses Saakashvili and his forces of.

Nations don't die or grieve - People Do - so why kill and die for empty words?

What the fighting in Georgia comes down to is a struggle between competing nationalisms. Russian nationalists believe this war shows Russia is a 'Great Power' again, it's past 'humiliations' put behind it, just as American nationalists believed the 1991 Iraq war had 'exorcised the ghost of Vietnam'. Saakashvili as a Georgian nationalist hoped to reassert Georgian 'sovereignty' and 'national unity' by reintegrating the secessionist region of South Ossetia into Georgia.
If success in imposing their will on other people by killing large numbers of them - half of whom are always civilians - gives anyone a feeling of 'pride' it's a sad reflection on them.

At the end of the day all these 'nations' , 'sovereignties','prides' and 'humiliations' are just abstract ideas compounded by primitive instincts. No nation ever suffered the agony of physical pain that actual wounded and dying people do. No nation ever grieved its 'humiliation' the way someone grieves the death of a loved one.

There is no moral high ground for either side either. In the 1992-4 civil war Georgian forces ethnically cleansed Ossetian and Abkhazian civilians. Ossetian and Abkhazian paramilitaries have almost certainly done the same now. Putin and the Russians may provide protection to Ossetians but its unlikely they provide much to Georgians in South Ossetia, especially given the history of massacres and systematic torture of Chechen civilians by Russian forces under Putin in Chechnya.

So it's merely sickening for either side's political leaders to talk of high principles - 'the nation', 'pride', 'sovereignty', 'preventing genocide' while the fighting goes on. If Russia's or Georgia's governments want the respect of the world the best way to get it would be to end all military action and negotiate whatever compromises they each need to make to satisfy both sides. Above all they need to start talking and stop killing now.

If that means abstract ideas like 'sovereignty' or 'the pride of the nation' need to be compromised by both sides those are casualties far more acceptable than one more life.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Saakashvili's conditional unconditional ceasefire

It turns out that Saakashvili's ceasefire offer includes a demand for Russian withdrawal from South Ossetia. He must know they'll refuse.

The Herald newspaper reports :

Yesterday's military developments came as Saakashvili said he had signed an internationally-brokered ceasefire proposal that will be taken to Moscow by the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will also visit Moscow today in another attempt to broker a ceasefire.

A Georgian National Security Council official said the document signed by Saakashvili called for an unconditional ceasefire, a non-use of force agreement and a withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory, including the South Ossetia region.

Whether Russia will agree to a ceasefire even if Georgia makes an unconditional offer remains to be seen. Putin may well be aiming at installing a pro-Russian government in Georgia anyway, but until Saakashvili makes a genuine unconditional ceasefire offer we won't know, it'll be impossible for the EU to put much effective pressure on Russia and people will keep dying.

So does Saakashvili want peace or is he determined to try to reconquer South Ossetia at all costs?

Monday, August 11, 2008

P.S on South Ossetia, Georgia and Russia

After the confirmation that Russian troops have invaded the main part of Georgia - and a reply from Ola Szkudlapska on my first post on South Ossetia - i'd like to make it clear that i don't think Russian forces have any right to be in any part of Georgia outside of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and also that Russian airstrikes on civilians are not justified in any way.

I also realise that Putin and the Russian government are attempting to re-build the Russian empire that never ended, even under the Soviet Union.

Saakashvili's government is guilty of human rights abuses - including attacks on civilians in South Ossetia, dubious elections and jailing of political opponents - but then so is the Russian government on an even larger scale.

The overthrow of the Georgian government by military force would make things worse, not better and western governments are right to call on Russia not to take any such action and to withdraw its troops from central Georgia.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

This is not another Prague Spring – More Like Another Yugoslavia and the New Great Game

Georgia’s President Saakashvili has presented the war between Georgia and Russia as another Prague Spring or German invasion of Poland, as ‘freedom’ threatened by dictatorship (1). Certainly Russia’s elections are rigged and it has a bad human rights record. Georgia’s not much different though. OSCE election monitors found that the Presidential elections in Georgia in January this year involved intimidation of voters, effectively bribery through handouts of ‘social vouchers’ and that many complaints of electoral “irregularities” were never properly investigated (2). Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report that Georgian police have carried out violent attacks on peaceful anti-government protests and torture prisoners (sometimes to death) – just like Russian police. Political opponents of the Georgian government have also been jailed after unfair trials, just as in Russia. (3), (4).

The fighting in South Ossetia and Georgia is not the result of an attack by Russia on Georgia but an attack by Georgian forces on the separatist ‘Republic of South Ossetia’. South Ossetia has many Ossetians who want to be part of Russia among its population (North Ossetia being a Republic within Russia).

There have been Russian troops in Georgia’s separatist regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia since separatist groups in both defeated Georgian forces in a civil war in 1992, the year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During that civil war both sides targeted civilians, leading to 100,000 Ossetians fleeing from South Ossetia to Russian North Ossetia and thousands of Georgians fleeing towards Tbilisi in Georgia. This will almost certainly be matched by more ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the current fighting (5), (6).

Neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia have been formally recognized as independent states by any government – not even Russia’s, but they have had independence in practice, guarded by Russian ‘peacekeepers’ for over a decade. This is not that different from the status of Kosovo, formally part of Yugoslavia, then Serbia, but in practice independent under NATO peacekeeping forces until its formal recognition as an independent state by the US and various EU governments this year. This may have heightened the Georgian government’s fear of South Ossetia being formally recognized as independent by Russia.

Georgia’s President Saakashvili was well aware of the presence of Russian forces and must have known that any movement by Georgian forces into South Ossetia would mean war with Russia. He would also be aware that Georgian forces would almost certainly lose that war. So his aim must have been to raise the profile of the South Ossetian issue and get international pressure for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region. The Bush administration may well have promised him support – certainly political support such as the UN Security Council tabled by the US condemning Russian actions in Georgia - and possibly even arms and training for Georgian forces.

Georgia has applied for membership of NATO – something the Russian government is keen to prevent. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline bringing Caspian oil and gas to the Mediterranean also passes through Georgia’s capital Tbilisi – making influence over Georgia’s government a prize for both Russia and the US and EU to fight over (7), (8). A Georgian government spokesmen interviewed on the BBC’s News 24 presented Russian troops’ presence as a threat to western energy supplies from the Caspian (9).

This is not another Prague Spring. It’s more similar to the break-up of Yugoslavia, in which both Croat and Serb forces under extreme nationalist authoritarian governments committed atrocities against civilians euphemized as ‘ethnic cleansing’ – or Afghanistan, where conflict over another potential oil pipeline route providing western companies with an export route for former Soviet republics’ oil and gas is one ulterior motive for the conflict.

The best response the EU and the British government could make would be to remain neutral and call for a ceasefire involving the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Georgia (excluding South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and a negotiated solution to both the Ossetian and the Abkhazian issues – allowing either autonomy or autonomy leading to independence for both. War will only lead to the killing and ethnic cleansing of civilians by both sides – and then by whichever wins.

(1) = BBC 9 Aug 2008, ‘No quick fix to S Ossetia conflict’,

(2) = Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights
OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report ,

(3) = Amnesty International Report 2008 – Georgia ,

(4) = Human Rights Watch reports on Georgia,

(5) = Human Rights Watch 1992, ‘BLOODSHED IN THE CAUCASUS
Violations of Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in
the Georgia-South Ossetia Conflict’,

(6) = Kleveman, Lutz (2003) , ‘The New Great Game’, Chapter 3, pages 31-50

(7) = Kleveman, Lutz (2003) , ‘The New Great Game’, Chapter 3, pages 31-50

(8) =

(9) = BBC News 24 10 Aug 2008

Friday, August 01, 2008

Policy Changes - or clear policy positions from politicians - would make a difference - vague talk about 'change' or a change of Prime Minister or Party in Government will make none in themselves

David Miliband’s Guardian article was remarkable only for recycling Blairite rhetoric from 1997 and for the complete absence of any clear policy positions whatsoever, making it fairly obvious that his policies don’t differ from Blair’s, Brown’s, Cameron’s or most of the Lib Dem’s.

His ‘for the many not the few’ rhetoric repeats the existing gap between rhetoric and policy.

Do we need yet another politician who talks about change while failing to explain what kind of change and continuing to back the same disastrous policies? Do we need another politician who won’t do anything significant about the two main causes of unemployment – the shortage of apprenticeships in trades and unconditional trade deals with repressive governments like China’s that allow them to keep jailing, torturing and organ harvesting their own people and banning independent trade unions? Trade deals that exploit people abroad on slave labour, 19th century, wages and conditions which allow their country’s exports to undercut ours on price and cause unemployment here?

Do we want to keep paying more taxes to increase NHS spending only for the result to be cuts in the total number of beds and staff as all the new money goes to PFI consortia and investors? Do we want to keep paying to subsidise private rail companies with public money while they raise our train fares at rates several times higher than inflation?

Do we want to keep increasing taxes on the majority to fund tax cuts for high earners and big firms?

Do we want more nuclear power stations when the current cost of decommissioning the old ones is an estimated £73 billion and rising, plus more leukaemia deaths? Even when a recent report found that relatively modest increases in government subsidies to help with energy saving measures such as home insulation could save as much energy annually as five nuclear power stations could produce?

Do we want another war against a non-existent ‘threat’ from a Middle Eastern country, despite it’s government having shown itself unwilling to commit suicide in the past and willing to negotiate, so a ‘threat’ easily deterred, then negotiated with?

If so vote for Brown, or Miliband, or Cameron, or for the Lib Dems (who, to be fair, are at least against war on Iran). Everyone has their own preferences on personalities, but at the end of the day rivalries between different personalities in politics are trivia. What matters are the policies – they are what make a difference to people’s lives – or cause their deaths. A new Prime Minister or a new party in government will make no difference without real policy change.