Revisiting the Russia-Georgia Conflict

Now that Russia, following the agreements reached between Sarkozy, speaking as President of the European Union, and Russia, has withdrawn its troops from the Georgia territory that it had occupied in the course of hostilities, it may be worth looking at the issues behind the conflict (“the history”) and the facts of the conflict (“what actually happened”) and, considering the way the conflict ended, what are the implications for Catalonia, Spain and the European Union and the relations between the UE and Russia/Georgia and the USA and Russia/Georgia.

Revisiting the conflict is necessary for two reasons.  First because it is important to redress the unbalanced and inaccurate summary of the conflict increasingly made by most of the Spanish and the Catalan press, which at the very least oversimplifies the issues.  And this oversimplification of the war is summarized as: “the Russian invasion of Georgia, as part of the new Russian imperialism”.  It is as if the media was fearful that presenting to the public at large the complexities of the issue may overtax the public’s intelligence.  This is at least surprising since our people, and this was clearly demonstrated in the case of Irak, if given proper, sufficient and unbiased information and if the issues are debated openly, will always come to the right conclusion.

The second reason that the conflict needs to be revisited is because it does raise two important issues.  One, European foreign policy (or lack thereof).  The second, the rights of minorities or of regions to secede versus the legal or constitutional  rights of central governments to restrict such secessions.  Coming in quick succession after the secession of Kosovo from Serbia, the issues related to Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s rights should be important to Catalans.

The Issues

Georgia has a historical claim that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are part of their historical borders.  Thus, shortly after Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Georgia attacked these two regions, but lost the war and withdrew from both regions.  As a result, since about 1992, these two regions have been de facto independent from the Georgian government.  That first conflict was ended by establishing a UN-sponsored peace force between the two regions and Georgia.  The force was composed of Russian and Georgian troops under the UN mandate.  This is important in terms of the claims one hears that Russia “invaded Georgia” because for over 15 years there had been Russian troops within territory claimed by Georgia without this resulting in any “invasion by” or conflict with the Russians.  Clearly, however, the relationship between Georgia and the two regions over the past 15 years has not been easy, oscillating between discussions and difficult negotiations about the autonomy “conditions” under which both regions would return to Georgian sovereignity, and the sporadic shelling or shooting between both sides.   In the event, the status quo established in 1992 was maintained until the time the latest military conflict started.

It may be worth pointing out that Abkhazians and South Ossetians, few as they may be, are ethnically, culturally and linguistically different from Georgians (their names for instance, are typically different from Georgian names) and, in the case of South Ossetians, who are ethnically similar to the North Ossetians in the other side of the Caucasus, they also have a different religion than Georgians.

The facts of the Conflict

There is now wide agreement that it was Georgia, as it happened in 1992, that attacked South Ossetia, although reading the newspapers accusations about the Russian “invasion”, this fact seems to be generally overlooked.  But it is clear that it was not South Ossetia that attacked Georgia.  Georgian troops briefly occupied the capital of  S. Ossetia which was defended only by irregular Ossetian forces that did not constitute an army.  The Georgian army did cause a great deal of damage to the capital and many Ossetians had to flee.  Thus, the claims made by Russia about “ethnic cleansing” carried out by Georgian troops at the beginning of the war.   Claims that were counterbalanced by similar claims by Georgia of “cleansing” of ethnic Georgians in south Ossetia once the Georgina troops withdrew.   Both claims are probably true at least to some extent and quite reminiscent, sadly, of what took place, by all sides, in the Balkans in the 90s.

Concerning the Russian reaction, two facts must be mentioned.  First, there was a mandated UN-force to maintain the truce between Georgia and the two regions.  Georgia by attacking was in violation of the UN-sanctioned truce.  Second, most South Ossetians held Russian passports and thus they were de facto Russian nationals.  One can argue that this was simply a matter of security for the Ossetians and of convenience for the Russians.  But it certainly provided a strong and reasonable excuse for Russia to come to the aid of its citizens in Ossetia (S).

Let’s be realistic.   There is no love lost between Georgia and Russia.  But the fault is not only Russia’s:   Georgia had asked to join NATO (as a preliminary step to join the UE, as most new member countries have done – a topic worth returning to in a subsequent note).  Being a sovereign nation, Georgia is perfectly entitled to choose which group or alliance to join.   However, in the same realistic vein, one cannot ignore the geopolitical sensibilities of Russia to such a request by Georgia, in the same way that the USA was extremely sensitive to Cuba being too close to the old Soviet Union.   By attacking Ossetia, Georgia  provided a wonderful excuse for Russia to “teach a lesson” to Georgia, all couched in the most exquisite terms:  “we come to the aid of our citizens that are being massacred”.

Related to the Georgia attack, there is a most interesting question which, surprisingly, has not been investigated by the Western press.   Is it realistic to assume that Georgia attacked South Ossetia without informing in advance the USA and the European Union?   Not to this writer.    If so, what and when did the EU and the USA know about the planned attacked and, more importantly, what advice did they provide to the Georgian authorities?   Some day, perhaps a few years down the road, we shall find out whether Georgia was misled into attacking under some sort of guarantee of support by the West or a belief that such a guarantee existed.

Related to the response by Russia, some Western governments have complained about the lack of “proportionality” of the response.  According to this view, a view which the Western press has broadly embraced, Russia used too much force and was not justified in “occupying” Georgia.   The facts are that Russia did not occupy Tbilisi or the rest of the country militarily, as it could have easily done following the total disintegration of the Georgian army, the proximity of Tbilisi to the South Ossetia border and the relatively small size of the country.  Russia only occupied those areas in Georgia that are adjacent to the two regions or that were logistically important to defend the two regions from further attacks. Moreover in terms of the degree of “violence” used, as one Russian authority mentioned, the Russian air force never bombed Tbilisi.   A point he made to contrast the approach taken by NATO airforces in Serbia (well, mostly the USA airforce under NATO) that DID bomb Belgrade.

In conclusion, there is no evidence whatsoever that Russia entered Georgia with the intention to retake the country as part of the “new Russian imperialism” as many journalists and politicians would make the public believe.  It occupied temporarily and for security reasons relatively small areas of Georgia, adjacent to two regions that have been de facto independent from Georgia and that had been attacked by Georgia twice, in the case of South Ossetia, over the past 15 years.  And Russia withdrew its troops from these areas of Georgia very quickly once it established proper security guarantees for the two regions.

A few concluding points

There is an interesting argument that is not heard anymore but that was made at the beginning of the conflict.  And this relates to the cynicism of Russia in supporting the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia while it has been killing Chechens for untold years, because they want to be independent.  Indeed, crass cynicism.  But is the West far behind in cynicism, or do we just simply hide it better?  Why does not the West support the right of these two regions to decide whether they want to be independent of Georgia, while supporting – no, forcing – the independence of Kosovo.   This question was raised in a number of interviews in the English and European press (never in the USA, of course).  And the answer was always an unconvincing “this is different” without further explanation as to what were the differences.

Kosovo and the two regions are different regions in different countries.  But could the difference be related to the fact that Serbia has traditionally been a strong ally of Russia, while Georgia is a strong ally (and a ‘darling’) of the West and potentially a strategic NATO member?  It is not difficult to surmise that forcing Serbia to surrender an area which has historically (and legally) been Serbian and is the cradle of Serbian culture and identity is an acceptable way to weaken the country.  And, simultaneously to give a resounding slap in the face to Russia, a country that was adamant in rejecting the secession of Kosovo.    On this premise, don’t the Abkhazians and the Ossetians have the same right to decide than the (Albanian) kosovars?   Well, to the Western press, in general, the answer is a resounding no, but an equally resounding yes to Kosovo’s independence.  Of course, the story of Kosovo’s independence is not finished yet.   Serbia is going to the The Hague tribunal for them to determine whether the independence is legal – a point in which most international law experts agree it was not, or that at least it was in defiance of several UN resolutions.

A final remark about the implications for Catalonia, Spain and the EU.   Spain has been one of the few countries that have not recognized Kosovo’s independence.  Greece and Cyprus have not recognized Kosovo either.   This is no accident.   If the EU can force a country to declare a region independent, why can’t the EU decide to declare the Basque country independent – following a referendum, of course, to provide the adequate democratic credentials.   And, more to the point,  can the EU maintain that 40% of the population of Cyprus does not even exist?  (the argument of Turkish occupation is a half-baked argument:  had it not been for Turkey’s intervention, the Turkish minority would have become an even smaller minority as part of Greece, as the military junta wanted to do).   If the EU pushed for a referendum in Kosovo (knowing full well what would be the result), shouldn’t the EU be consistent and help run a referendum in the Turkish part of the island and if the referendum favors  independence, force Cyprus – and Greece – to accept the decision?

What Kosovo and the Georgia conflict show is that the EU has no foreign policy.  This is, self-evident.   Instead there are 27 foreign policy interests that come to play in different ways in different situations.  This means that the EU by not having a single voice, becomes dependent on the views of the USA and overly intertwined in the interests of the USA, even when they may not be in the best interests of the EU (is it in the best interest of Europe to confront Russia on issues that do not affect European security?), or when they lead to policy decisions which are laughably inconsistent.   Defining the real political interests for Europe and the role of NATO in this Europe is a pending issue which Europe needs to resolve.

Finally, it would be hoped that the Catalan press would provide a better analysis of issues such as the Georgia conflict and the issue of minority rights both for the benefit of the Catalan government and for the public opinion of our country.  With sounder information and a more open debate (as it happened with Irak) we will be better equipped to understand obvious cases of double-faced behavior concerning foreign policy issues, regardless of whether double-faced behavior on minority rights is done by Russia, the USA, or, God-forbid, the EU.   Because we are Europeans and not Russian or American, we should work to ensure that Europe stands for “right” and that it seeks just solutions and not only political expediency.  Hopefully, Europe should stand for the people’s right to decide in all cases.   But so far the record in Europe in terms of political consensus in most foreign issues, including minorities’ rights is dismal.

Vicenç Ferrer és membre d’Horitzó Europa