Tuesday, 12 August 2008

What about the South Ossetians? - Sean's Russian Blog

Sean’s Russian Blog carries two wonderful pieces which raise an important point about the war in Georgia which seems increasingly to have been missed in its coverage – what about the South Ossetians?

“How quickly the South Ossetian War has become more about Russia and the United States, East and West, George Bush and Vladimir Putin, than about the poor South Ossetians caught in the middle.”

In a searing indictment of Georgia’s president Saakashvilli, Sean examines the roots of South Ossetian aversion to Georgian hegemony. Of course paradoxical Soviet attitudes to ethnic self-government played a part. On one hand they carved out administrative regions on the basis of titular ethnic nationality, on the other hand they did a slapdash and arbitrary job.

“When the Bolsheviks drew up its Republics, Autonomous Regions, and autonomous oblasts in 1936, the North Caucuses was an artificially crafted mosaic where political borders ran counter to (emergent) ethnic ones.”

The frozen conflict which Saaskashvilli has so ruthlessly defrosted has more recent origins. Sean quotes Human Rights Watch.

“Between 1989 and 1992, fighting flared in the South Ossetian A.O. and in Georgia between ethnic Ossetian paramilitary troops and Georgian Interior Ministry (MVD) units and paramilitaries. South Ossetia had demanded to secede, and Georgia cracked down on the renegade area by sending in troops. Approximately 100,000 ethnic Ossetians fled Georgia and South Ossetia, and another 23,000 Georgians headed in the other direction. One hundred villages were reportedly destroyed in South Ossetia.”

Or in synopsis,

“When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the South Ossetians became one of the many internal ‘Others’ for the Georgians to proclaim their new found nationalism [against]. That is, Great Georgian Nationalism was predicated on its vicious denial to the ‘Other’”.

Ethnic nationalist conflicts have characterised the post Cold War world and this is no different.

“However much people want to point to South Ossetia as a Russian proxy, they still have to somehow account for the fact that South Ossetians gleefully take those passports, use Russian currency, and are running not into Georgia but into Russia to escape the violence. I think we have to remember that however one wants to attribute blame for the conflict, there are some real reasons why the South Ossetians want to ditch Georgia altogether. Yet in all the reporting that has come out in the last few days, the South Ossentian voice as an agent of his or her own present and future has been more or less muted. In its place have stood a number of metonyms: Russia, Putin, Georgia, rebels, proxies, oil pipelines, NATO, the United States.”

Sean turns to Human Rights Watch again in order to highlight the misery which has been suffered in the crucible of this conflict – South Ossetia itself.

“from 8 August to the afternoon of 10 August, the Russian Federal Migration Service recorded 24,032 people crossing the border to Russia. Given that the population of South Ossetia is a mere 70,000, that is quite a large percentage of the population.”

“Human Rights Watch visited a camp for the displaced in the village of Alagir and interviewed more than a dozen individuals, including those from Tskhinvali and neighboring villages. Those from the city reported spending more than three days in the basements of their houses, unable to come out because of the incessant shelling. Two individuals from Tskhinvali – a mother and her pregnant daughter – said their apartment building was severely damaged by shells and they only dared to come out of the basement on the fourth day, early in the morning of August 10, when Russian troops took full control of the city and started transporting local residents to a safe zone. They said the convoy consisted of six buses (about 27 people each), escorted by the military to the safety zone.”

“Residents of Satskhenet village told Human Rights Watch that after the village came under heavy artillery fire on the night of August 7, all women, children and elderly (more than 100 people) started fleeing their homes; most of them spent the next two days hiding in the woods and then trying to make their way toward the Russian border. They were assisted by the Russian military in the village of Ger and transported to North Ossetia.”

“Eduard Kokoity told Interfax that up to 1,400 killed by Georgian troops. The Independent quoted Ludmila Ostayeva, 50, a resident of Tskinvali who fled to the Russian border, “I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.”

Yet Saaskashvilli can present a with a straight face a piece in the Wall Street Journal presenting Georgia as an innocent victim of untrammelled Russian aggression.

““This war is not of Georgia’s making, nor is it Georgia’s choice….. [rather it is about] the future of freedom in Europe.”

Such hyperbole is now being echoed in American statements.

“’Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century,’ Bush said. Cheney declared that Russia’s actions ‘must not go unanswered.’ Presidential Candidates McCain and Obama, always ready to look Presidential, also weighed in. McCain called for NATO intervention and reminded Russia that to be part of the civilized world means to respect its values. Obama condemned Russia’s military push saying that “There is no possible justification for these attacks.”

Sean brings us back to the most pertinent question.

“And what about the people caught in the middle? South Ossetians are finally beginning to bury their dead.”


Anonymous said...

“’Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century,’ Bush said.

Much as I dislike Dubya, he's correct and the fact that Russian forces pushed beyond SO and Abkhazia into central Georgia, killing innocent civilians along the way, is an appaling breach of international law. Now that their bloody show of strength has abatted
I wonder what action the international community will take to prevent similar incursions in future. Georgia's actions in SO were equally reprehensible but a diplomatic solution should have been the proper course of action as opposed to a military invasion across an international border.

Anonymous said...

What diplomatic solution to Georgia's move into South Ossetia could possibly have been put in place, in time?

Saakashvili thought he could have (and very nearly did have) a fait accompli on the ground in 48 hours, with Georgian troops in charge of Tsinkhvali and the rest of South Ossetia. He was wrong, but he would only have turned to diplomacy after taking South Ossetia, in order to forestall a Russian reaction.

Chekov said...

Indeed anon. Georgia aggressed against Russian citizens, peacekeepers and S Ossetian citizens. There was every reason for Russia to debilitate and humiliate the Georgian armed forces and to deliver as sound a blow to Saakashvili as possible. The willful ignorance of the chronology of this situation and the attempt to pinpoint Russia as the aggressor is absolutely disgusting. If Russia had wished to aggress it could have parked its armies throughout Russia without broaching serious argument. What the international community needs to do, rather than shrilly castigating Russia, is to ensure that it fosters no more loose cannons such as Saakashvili. The west in particular needs to examine exactly who it is sponsoring. This thug had already beaten opposition activists to a pulp on the streets.

Chekov said...

parked its armies throughout Georgia

Anonymous said...

Of course Russia is the aggressor, their armies marched across an international border into a neighbouring sovereign state. With a neighbour like this, it's obvious why Georgia wants to join NATO. Concerns about the internal politics of Georgia and wrong-doings in SO should be taken to the UN.

Chekov said...

Right. I'll make it clear from now on that ANY more comments spewing this simplistic drivel will be removed.

Anonymous said...

(from the 1st Anonymous)

I'm left wondering whether the bashers of Russia's actions would agree that they are implicitly and retroactively OKing both Russian actions in Chechnya in 1994 and Serbian actions in Kosovo.

1) both areas were internationally recognised as being part of a larger, legitimate entity.

2) the autonomous area's population is only a fraction of that of the larger state entity.

3) in both, irregular armed formations began shooting at government forces.

4) the government responded with crushing force, only after it was no longer possible to tolerate the provocation.

That, after all, in the essence of the Georgian position on South Ossetia.

So...liberal Westerners: what do you think?