Europe, Headlines

GEORGIA: How the Hawks Won

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Aug 12 2008 (IPS) - Georgia’s step towards military confrontation comes after an increase in authoritarian and militaristic tendencies in a country that dealt catastrophically with Russia’s pressure.

On Aug. 8 Georgian troops tried to take control of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, de facto independent since 1992, by engaging in heavy fighting in the regional capital Tskhinvali, 100 km north-west of the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

Russia, officially in South Ossetian territory on a peacekeeping mission, responded by launching an extensive military operation in South Ossetia and beyond.

Abkhazia, another breakaway region in Western Georgia that proclaimed independence in the same year, has taken Russia’s side.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accuses the northern neighbour of attempting to overthrow him in a premeditated action.

Pressured by Russian economic sanctions and Moscow’s support for the separatist regions, Saakashvili has opted for a confrontational and nationalistic stance counting on Western support.

Georgia, a nation of 4.6 million, claims that Russia uses the regions to obstruct Tbilisi’s path towards North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) membership, a move harshly contested in Moscow but that many Georgians see as affirming their commitment to ‘democracy’ and ‘Western civilisation’.

In recent months hawks have gained the upper hand in Georgia, making the military option more realistic, in spite of Western warnings to abstain from aggressive rhetoric and military action.

Last May Archil Gegeshidze from the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies wrote in the Russian Analytical Digest that Georgia lacked “political discussion and open public debate on how to solve the problem by peaceful means.”

This month Georgian Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili warned it would be “foolish to engage in a confrontation in the Tskhinvali region (i.e. South Ossetia) because it is bound to affect civilians immediately.”

Yet fighting took place in Tskhinvali, and if the unconfirmed Russian reports of a humanitarian catastrophe are true, Georgia may have definitely lost any hopes of ever reintegrating the separatist regions.

Allowing the forcible reunification of Georgia could have brought a delicate price for Russia to pay in terms of an even greater flood of refugees, and accusations of failing to protect its own citizens.

Moscow has issued Russian passports to 80 percent of South Ossetia’s citizens in recognition of the strong links the otherwise isolated and blocked population had with the Soviet Union and its successor state.

Over the years the two mutually suspicious sides have had few negotiating breakthroughs, and while Georgia says Moscow’s involvement is the only impediment, it has done little to improve its image in the separatist areas.

Ossetians and Abkhazians are generally supportive of their leadership and overwhelmingly against reintegration in Georgia, a state they don’t see as capable of guaranteeing their security, as was shown by recent referenda.

Although there are no official numbers, it is estimated that 70 percent of South Ossetia’s 62,000 strong population is Ossetian, the remainder 30 percent being of Georgian ethnicity.

The leadership and populations of the secessionist regions also fear the return of hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees that could re-inflame ethnic tension. Instead, they are increasing their dependence on Russia while rejecting European projects for economic rehabilitation and ethnic reconciliation.

Citizens in the separatist regions have been living off remittances, international and Russian aid, and smuggling to the extent that local leadership has come to profit from non-resolution of the conflict.

South Ossetia rejected an extensive autonomy offer by Georgia in 2005, but this offer came amid Georgian measures against the Ossetian economy and the set-up of competing power structures along with the presence of Georgian security services and paramilitaries.

Saakashvili’s promises of a successful liberal economy and a western-type democracy did not make Georgia a more attractive state to Abkhazians and Ossetians either, as many Georgians themselves have become disillusioned with the President.

Saakashvili’s recent claims that Russia’s intervention is only aimed at overthrowing him bear resemblance to his justifications for violently repressing massive peaceful protests last November.

Charging opposition activists and leaders with conspiracy to overthrow him, and linking opponents to Russian espionage, Saakashvili began to curtail civil liberties, control the press and use state resources in his favour.

His victory in the January presidential elections led to accusations of vote rigging, but the results had the approval of the West.

More than ever, South Ossetians and Abkhazians suspect that Saakashvili’s promises of ethnic harmony are pretty much in line with his rhetorical tools for a ‘naive’ Western audience.

South Ossetians are striving for annexation by Russia so that they could join the relatively wealthy North Ossetian republic in the Russian federation. But the region would be an economic burden for the northern ethnic kin, as well as for Russia, which moreover fears the international and regional consequences of such a move.

The Georgian military intervention sought to thwart Russia’s peacekeeping role by internationalising the conflict and changing the nature of the peacekeeping mission.

The mission, established after the 1992 war, comprises representatives of Russia, North and South Ossetia, and Georgia, but Georgia now says the balance of forces is unfair.

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