Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tragedy in Georgia

The war in Georgia has been much on my mind in recent days. I was out of town when the war began. Upon returning home, I made some inquiries and learned that my acquaintances were out of Tbilisi, in the relative safety of Sighnaghi. For that I am thankful.

There is plenty of blame to pass around for this mess--Russians, Georgians and Ossetes all: the Russian government and military for being heavy-handed in the way only Russians can, the Georgian government for trusting too much in their far-away western allies, and the Ossetes themselves for persisting in a quixotic effort to extract themselves out of the very center of Georgia. But as is always the case, governments don't suffer, people do.

In all my travels, no country has affected me as has Georgia. This is not due to the spectacular scenery, for other countries have snow-capped mountains and lush valleys. Nor is it the history and architecture, for Europe is chock-a-block with historical set-pieces. And besides that, Georgia can still be a bit scruffy around the edges. Rather, it is the soul of the Georgian people themselves, evidenced in so many ways, that attracts me: hospitality and graciousness, a resurgent faith, joy in savoring the small things of life, the singing and chanting which still haunts my memory, a cup of good wine and a toast, their love of family and ancestors...And it is these things, not geographic boundaries, that are at risk in this fighting. The reporting and pictures have just reminded me of how much I miss the country.

I am frankly surprised that Russia is pushing past South Ossetia towards Gori itself. Clearly, they are trying to topple the current Georgian government, an administration that has aggressively pursued ties with western Europe, the U.S. and NATO. The impulse behind Georgia's policy is understandable enough. Eager to throw off the Russian yoke, the 17 years of independence have been marked by massive de-Russification of the country. English, not Russian, is the second language, and the Georgians--who see themselves as the last outpost of Europe--seem desperate to solidify their ties with the West.

But a quick look at the map shows that little Georgia will always have to work out some accommodation with Russia. I hardly see how they will ever be out of the Russian sphere of influence. And no country--whether the U.S. or the NATO alliance--is in any position to offer unconditional protection from such a powerful neighbor. The Georgian bid for NATO membership is totally wrong-headed, in my view--much like poking a sharp stick into the side of the sleeping bear you are nestled against. That said, Russian heavy-handedness in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia is despicable.

And the Bush Administration comes in for no small criticism, encouraging Georgia as they did in the belief that we had their backs covered. The country is awakening to the fact that the U.S. was never in a position to do anything substantive. This, from today's Times:

As Russian forces massed Sunday on two fronts, Georgians were heading south with whatever they could carry. When they met Western journalists, they all said the same thing: Where is the United States? When is NATO coming?

Also, I suspect Russia may be trying to make a point here, as well. This conflict cannot be separated from recent events in Kosovo, as Russian diplomats suggested before that region's independence. The same reasoning that supports an independent Kosovo must also back South Ossetia. The poorest region in a poor country, with only 70,000 Ossetians, is hardly in a position to demand independence. Only Russian support has allowed them to maintain this farce. Watching the Kosovo debacle unfold earlier this year, I feared it would only be a matter of time before Georgia would be paying the price of our misguided Kosovo policy. In recent days, we have heard the Bush Administration speak gravely about respecting the "territorial integrity" of Georgia. Such language would have been more believable had we heard similar concern for the territorial integrity of Serbia.

Ossetian claims for independence are a bit thin. What we call South Ossetia is the Georgian province of Samachablo, bordered on the east, south and west by other Georgian provinces, the north being a common border along the Caucasus Mountains with Russia and "North" Ossetia. I have been on the Russian border on both sides of Samachablo--at Kazbegi to the east, and in Svaneti to the west. Except for a few hazardous, warm-weather passes, the mountains are impenetrable--a natural border if there ever was one. In Svaneti, I stood at the base of these snow-capped mountains. Chechnya lay just on the other side, but as a practical matter, it might as well have been a 1,000 miles away. My point is this: North Ossetia does not just "flow" into South Ossetia, across some arbitrary Russo-Georgian border. Again, the Caucasus Mountains are a defining border. While admittedly remote, the valleys of "South" Ossetia do seem to be a natural component within Georgia. Russian support is the only way the de-facto South Ossetian "government" has been able to survive.

There have long been ethnic enclaves within Georgia. But the current crisis has much more to do with contemporary Russian geo-political stategy than it does any historical validity to the Ossetian claims.

The Times makes some good points in their analysis here and here.


James the Thickheaded said...

Cogent comments. Hungary all over again... the guilt of over-reach, the guilt of half-witted foreign policy, and the guilt of toying with innocent lives is definitely on our hands... and a lot of others as well.

Juxtaposed so starkly against optimism on Russia voiced earlier (Friedman), I'm feeling a tad foolishly premature. The thugs remain firmly in charge at the moment.

Wonder whether you saw the contrast between Bush's statement on looking into Putin's eyes... and McCain's comment that when he looked, he saw "a K, a G and a B". Not that it makes a difference... just amusing.

Ian said...

Thank you for your personal, and informed, views.

Lord, have mercy.

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for that, I was hoping you would comment on it. I've been trying to get news from non-Russian and non-US/Nato sources, but everyone it seems, has an axe to grind, and their own spin to put on it.

There is one consolation -- that people cannot claim, as they did in the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, that this is a "religious war".

And more than a little hypocritical of Russia and the USA, both of them flip-flopping from their Kosovo position.