Europe, Headlines | Analysis

GEORGIA: Where the Cold War Never Ended

Analysis by Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Aug 11 2008 (IPS) - As war breaks out in Georgia, the geopolitical struggle between the U.S. and Russia becomes more violent and closer to Russia’s border than ever.

The conflict started after Georgian troops tried to take control of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, which had been de facto independent and protected by Russian peacekeeping forces since 1992.

Russia has responded by launching an extensive military operation in South Ossetia, repelling Georgian forces from regional capital Tskhinvali, 100 km northwest of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, and advancing into Georgian territory.

Mikheil Saakashvili, President of the 4.6 million Caucasus country, claims the Russian “invasion” was premeditated.

Abkhazia, another breakaway region in Western Georgia that proclaimed independence in the same year, has also become entangled in the conflict by taking Russia’s side.

Sporadic clashes between Georgian and separatist soldiers were not rare, but hostilities never reached the current extent.

The Georgian move apparently took Western leaders, who had warned against attempting a military solution, by surprise.

Ivan Sukhov, a journalist specialised in the region told Radio Free Europe on Friday that Saakashvili had taken “a position that is awkward for the West, since Georgia has consistently positioned itself as a principled opponent of military action. Even if the Georgian actions were provoked by the South Ossetians, this is a serious political mistake.”

Georgia seemed determined to expose Russia’s involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and present the conflict as one between Western democracy and Eastern authoritarianism, possibly hoping to obtain a more decisive Western intervention in the conflict.

The attempt to revive cold war rhetoric was palpable in Saakashvili’s parallels of Georgia’s situation with the 1956 Hungarian and 1968 Czechoslovak interventions by the Soviet Union.

One possible goal of the Georgian leadership’s military intervention was to internationalise the conflict so as to change the format of the present Russian-dominated peacekeeping mission, and facilitate the regions’ peaceful or forcible reintegration.

Many have seen in Georgia’s rash decision the first consequence of Kosovo’s unilateral independence from Serbia last February.

The move has encouraged the separatist claims of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz leaderships, and Georgia’s renewed determination to fully regain its territorial sovereignty.

The leaders of the separatist regions trust that after Kosovo’s independence, the consent of the sovereign state is no longer necessary if a greater power can guarantee its security.

Moreover they have deployed similar arguments to those applied in Kosovo: a past of ethnic-driven war which left thousands of civilians dead and countless displaced on both sides.

Unhappy with the U.S.-promoted Kosovo independence, Moscow had promised an adequate response to the latest violation in international law, and its first step came with the institutionalisation of ties with Georgia’s two breakaway regions in March.

Unlike the West in Kosovo, Russia can claim the conflict in its southern regions directly affects its own security, and above all, that of a population of which 80 percent hold Russian passports.

Russian claims of arbitrary killings of up to 1,600 civilians by Georgian forces have not been independently verified, although a few Western journalists have started to take interest in testimonies by Ossetian refugees allegedly witness to human rights abuses by Georgian troops.

If the claims were to be at least partially verified and Russia was to show self-restraint and restore order, its ambition of a role as a legitimate world power and a regional pacifier could gain credibility.

Besides Kosovo, Russia was irritated by Washington’s enthusiastic promotion of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) membership for two of Russia’s neighbours, Ukraine and Georgia, as well as U.S. plans to build a missile defence system in Eastern Europe which it claims will alter the balance of forces in Europe.

Georgia’s NATO bid was presented by the U.S. and Georgia’s former communist Eastern European allies as a chance to expand the area of freedom and democracy and to limit the expansion of Moscow’s authoritarian tendencies in Russia’s near abroad.

Many elites in the post-communist countries tend to believe that Russia is inherently inclined towards authoritarianism and expansionism and that the Soviet Union was just another expression of this impulse.

But the Western European member states, aware that Georgia’s commitment to liberal democracy was dubious and territorial tensions on the rise, decided to postpone the discussion on Georgia’s membership of NATO.

Many have noted an increase in Saakashvili’s authoritarian tendencies over the last year, with the arrest of opposition activists and the abuse of state resources by merely citing the “Russian threat”.

The U.S. has also been openly providing military support and training to the Georgian army while often encouraging Georgia to see itself as a crusader for democracy in the midst of authoritarianism. But as a member of NATO, a young and nationalistic state like Georgia could have drawn the entire alliance into a direct military confrontation with Russia.

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