24 August, 2008

More Georgia action

And here is an interesting article on Open Democracy by veteran sensible person Neal Ascherson: After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia

He reckons Georgia would be better off cutting its losses on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and accepting their permanent separation from the Georgian state. South Ossetia is probably doomed to absorption into the Russian federation (not necessarily a disastrous outcome for many South Ossetians, obv.), but Ascherson reckons that Abkhazia could ultimately go it alone. It was a separate republic within the USSR for a bit, and the place apparently has a good climate for tourism and high value agricultural production.

One thing Ascherson points out is that the Georgian authorities seem to have a fondness for cackhanded attempts to resolve secessionist conflicts by force. In 1993, Georgia's President Shevardnadze launched an offensive to crush the Abkhazian separatists, but Russian intervention tipped the balance. Saakashvili experimented with a more creative approach to his country's separatist regions when he recruited Boney M to headline a free concert that was meant to persuade South Ossetians that things would be better for them within Georgia. In launching his recent military offensive against them, Saakashvili seems to be reverting to more normal behaviour for Georgian leaders.

It is a shame that Russia's disproportionate response to Georgia's initial offensive has led to this conflict being largely covered as one of Russian aggression against a weak neighbour. The Irish Times is at least to be saluted for carrying an article suggesting that Saakashvili will soon be coming under increasing domestic pressure to resign, with many Georgians likely to blame him for bringing disaster upon the country through his reckless gamble against the separatists.

17 August, 2008

Phantom Countries: South Ossetia

A topical one this time! To have one phantom country occupying your claimed national territory would be unfortunate, to have two looks rather suspicious. This is the situation in which Georgia finds itself, with South Ossetia being the second of its secessionist regions. Like Abkhazia, South Ossetian secessionism has an ethnic base, with the region having many people who apparently consider themselves ethnic Ossetians. Stalin had drawn the internal borders of the USSR such that South Ossetia was part of Georgia (while neighbouring North Ossetia was in the Russian Federation). I have a vague memory of there being some trouble in South Ossetia even before the break-up of the Soviet Union, but it was when Georgia became independent that things seriously deteriorated. A war between South Ossetian separatists and the Georgian centre erupted in the 1990s, ending with an unrecognised regime being established in the enclave and Russian troops deployed there as "peace-keepers" to protect it. Until the start of the current unpleasantness, the conflict has remained frozen.

I can't tell you too much about the nature of the South Ossetian regime, or whether its leaders aspire to full independence or to joining their North Ossetian friends as part of Russia. The region looks chunky enough on a map, but from media reports I gather that its population (before the current unfortunate events) was pretty small, so maybe independence is not a realistic aspiration. It looks also like the South Ossetian regime is so dependent on Russia for protection from Georgia that it is hard to imagine it ever trying to pursue a fully independent course.

And so to current events. The rights and wrongs of the situation depend on your view of whether sub-regions of a state have a right to secede, and whether a state has the right to use force against secessionists. My impression is that international law hates secessionists, but then international law is written by national governments so this is not too surprising. Whatever about the morality of the situation, Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, comes across as something of a clown. The first rule of statecraft is never start a war you can’t win. Georgia had previously tried to undermine South Ossetian separatism using the disco power of Boney M, but then earlier this month Saakashvili escalated the frozen conflict, launching an offensive against the separatists and bombarding their capital. Maybe he thought that his US-trained army could over-run South Ossetia before the Russians reacted. Unfortunately for him, the Russian response was rapid and Israel-like in its disproportion to the initial Georgian attacks. Georgian forces were rapidly shattered and Russian soldiers moved beyond South Ossetia into Georgia-proper while Russian jets ranged at will over the country. If Saakashvili thought that his American pals would bail him out then he must now be cruelly disappointed; Bush and Rice issued statements about how concerned they are, but they are plainly not going to risk a direct confrontation with Russia.

For South Ossetia, I reckon that the net effect of Saakashvili's rash offensive is to make that region forever outside effective Georgian control, with its future destiny likely to be in ever closer links to Russia. The same is probably true of Abkhazia. For Georgia itself, I reckon its chances of joining NATO are now dead. If the country was in NATO now, then the alliance would be at war with Russia. Anyone with half a brain will not want the alliance expanded to include a country led by adventurists who could embroil them in a third world war at the drop of a hat. The Georgians themselves might be wise to replace Saakashvili with someone with a more realistic appreciation of their country's capabilities and a less reckless approach to conflict resolution. Ironically, Putin and Medvedev's declared unwillingness to deal with Saakashvili might just be enough to keep him in office, as no one likes an external actor telling you whom to have as your leader.

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