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.

image source


Bock the Robber said...

It looks like Putin laid a trap and Saakashvili obligingly blundered into it. This is a textbook case of political ineptitude.

Anonymous said...

I found some very educational reading on this subject here:


It may be cynicism, but I am increasingly of the opinion that most modern foreign policy is based on pipeline politics.

Ken said...

Regarding Georgia's chances of joining NATO, it is interesting to note that Merkel is now backing Georgia's membership, a reverse of Germany's position 4 months ago, though this may be a case of trying to establish some political leverage over Russia.

Adam said...

The Georgians were sucked into this, although their president was naive to assume EU support. No country who attacks its own people can ever dream of claiming back territory.

Georgia is a failed state after this failed expedition into South Ossetia. The people are disgruntled, but they certainly did not deserve to be attacked by force.

Georgian did loose territory as long as South Ossetia remains isolated, hence they do not need to force them except extending hands of friendship for what little its worth.

Adam said...

Just one lasted I wanted to say about the word "phantom". As you can clearly see, such "phantom" countries are the reality and no push-overs.

Isolating such countries would only prolong conflicts which is only good for arms dealers. So I guess the people involved has to solve their problems locally cos nor Russia or USA has the solutions.

ian said...

This thing about Putin setting a fiendish trap for Georgia - It seems like a way of making Saakashvili look like less like an idiot. No matter what provocation he was getting from Russia and their South Ossetian pals, it is really hard to see what he could realistically hope to gain by launching an offensive against the separatists.

ian said...

And on oil and oil pipelines - I think this is maybe overstated as a cause of the conflict. The Georgians did not attack South Ossetia to protect or cut a pipeline, and the Russians did not occupy part of the Georgian pipeline's route when they launched their counter-attack (they may have bombed it, but that would make for only temporary damage).

ian said...

Just on phantom countries, all I mean by the term is a sense of the entity not being quite "real" - the various phantom countries have territory but little or no recognition, or an amount of recognition but no territory. Or something else about them that makes them not a full member of the family of nations. I am using the term as an umbrella category, and it should be clear to everyone that these entities are very different from each other, with different prospects for acquiring actual statehood.

ian said...

And I do not really get Angela Merkel switching to backing Georgian membership of NATO. She may be playing a deep game.