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

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