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11 Sep, 2008 10:50

RT Expert View: South Ossetian fallout

RT Expert View: South Ossetian fallout

We launch a new weekly series of publications called ‘RT Expert View’. World experts share their ideas and comments on the hottest issues on the agenda. We start with discussion about the fallout from the South Ossetian war and prospects of a peace proces

Peter Lavelle, RT's political commentator and anchor.

An EU-sponsored ceasefire has been agreed to resolve the “Georgian crisis.” Where do we go from here? Tbilisi has signed a document on the non-use of force and will have EU-sponsored monitors on its soil. Russian forces will then leave Georgia “proper.” In essence, it will be the EU monitoring the Georgians more than the South Ossetians and Abkhazians. Even though the EU strongly objects – in a rhetorical sense – to Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, in fact they have done so as well. The updated version of the ceasefire agreement remains remarkably vague about their future status. Has the EU simply recognized the new political reality on the ground?

Patrick Armstrong retired in 2008 after 30 years as an analyst for the Canadian government, specializing in, first the USSR and then, Russia.

It seems to me that the Europeans, or at least those who were in Moscow on Monday, have recognised reality. The reality that Tbilisi tried to solve its secessionist problems by force and lost; that the Russians are on the ground; that the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia welcome them as saviours and protectors; that Tbilisi has lost these two areas for the foreseeable future; that there is nothing much that anyone can do about it. There also appears to be the beginnings, at least, of an understanding that these problems are much more complicated and deeply rooted than was previously thought: a realisation that simply repeating the mantra of “Georgia’s territorial integrity” is not a sufficient answer to the fact that neither Ossetians nor Abkhazians want to be within the borders where they were placed by, after all, Gori’s favourite son, Iosep Besarionisdze Jughashvili.

We would all have been wiser if, after the collapse of the USSR, we had recognised the Soviet Union's borders – mostly the gift of Stalin – with the condition that secessionist areas were accommodated in a civilised fashion, as, for example, Ukraine did with Crimea and Moldova with the Gagauz people. We are now reaping the fruits of those ill-considered recognitions. It is to be hoped that the Europeans will now turn their attention to the two other areas that don’t want to be where Stalin put them: Transdnestr and Karabakh.

Robert Bruce Ware is a professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.  (His book on Dagestan: Russian Hegemony and Islamic Resistance is forthcoming.)

The EU and the United States have yet to grasp current circumstances, as evidenced by their rhetoric.  Instead, they have simply found themselves unable to think of anything to do.  Over the past 15 years, the West has so bungled its relations with Russia that it can presently aspire to little more than irrelevance. 

The United States finds itself at a long-time low on political leverage with Russia.  As some Americans have noted, Vice President Cheney promised $1 Billion in aid to the Georgia that lies between Russia and Turkey, while the Georgia that lies between Florida and Tennessee languishes in disrepair. 

On the other hand, the best thing that Russia could now do, to restore justice and to strengthen its own positions in the Caucasus and internationally, is to restore the Prigorodny District to the North Caucasian Republic of Ingushetia.

There is a symmetry between the fates of South Ossetia and the Prigorodny District.  Both of these districts are the detritus of Russian expansionism throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Russia annexed South Ossetia along with Georgia in 1801.  There followed a series of Ossetian rebellions that variously pitted Ossetians against Russians and Georgians.  During the Soviet period, South Ossetia remained a part of Georgia, but was granted broad autonomy which included recognition of the Ossetian language.  A series of Ossetian uprisings began in 1989, culminating in warfare between Ossetia and Georgia in 1991.  About 1,000 Ossetians died, and ten times as many fled across the border into Russia’s North Ossetia.  Many of these refugees settled in the Prigorodny District.

The Prigorodny District had been part of the neighboring Checheno-Ingush Republic until 1944.  In that year, Stalin brutally deported the entire Chechen and Ingush populations to Central Asia.  In the 1950s and 1960s many of the Ingushi returned to their homeland, but they found Ossetians living in their homes and occupying their lands.  Though the Checheno-Ingush Republic was partially restored, the Prigorodny District remained part of North Ossetia.

In 1991, the Ingush declared their right to Prigorodny under Soviet law.  Occasional skirmishes erupted into a brief-but-bloody war between the Ingush and the Ossetians in 1992.  Russian troops backed the Christian Ossetians against the predominantly Muslim Ingush, just as they supported the Ossetians against the Georgians.

Earlier in 1992 the Ingush separated from the Chechens in order to avoid the radicalism that was overtaking the latter group at the time.  Torn between Chechnya and Ossetia, Ingushetia now became a narrow splinter of a North Caucasian republic without an urban center or an intellectual culture to call its own.

Yet the loss of the Prigorodny District remained a bitter pill for the Ingush. Many of the Ingush who were forcibly ejected from this land have spent two generations as political refugees, often inhabiting miserable squatters' settlements.

The failure of Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov to address the Prigorodny issue has done more than anything else to leave him without a local political base.  Without the loyalty of his people, Zyazikov—a former security service colonel—has depended upon the law enforcement apparatus to maintain control.  Since 2004, the result has been a vicious cycle of police brutality, political alienation, and radicalism.  Attacks on security personnel have become near-daily events in Ingushetia.  On August 31, the Ingushi opposition leader, Magomed Yevloyev, died “accidentally” from a bullet in his temple while he was in police custody.

The Prigorodny District is nearly identical in size to South Ossetia.  The latter is now irrevocably restored to the Russian sphere of influence.  Since the North Ossetians now stand to gain South Ossetia, they finally should be asked to give up Prigorodny.  Doing so would restore justice to the Ingush, reduce violence, and improve stability in the Caucasus over the long term.

Janusz Bugajski, Director, New European Democracies Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. His new book, entitled “Expanding Eurasia: Russia's European Ambitions,” will be published in November.

From the onset of the armed conflict, the EU has been duped by the Kremlin. Russia's leaders understand that the Union is fractured and incapable of using any effective tools to reverse the partition of Georgia. Moscow is now seeking to seal the protection of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from any further attempts by Tbilisi to retake its territories. Hence EU monitors will be assisting Russian combat troops posing as peacekeepers to consolidate their gains. Both the EU and NATO have displayed impotence in the face of Russia's strategy to dominate the south Caucasus region. Exclusion from the G8, WTO, or the NATO-Russia Council are viewed by Putin and Medvedev as mere distractions from grand strategy. They are convinced that the West needs Russia much more than Russia needs the West and not only in energy supplies. Moscow's cooperation will be necessary to resolve problems, which it has contributed to creating, in order to pose as an indispensable power – from Iran's nuclear program to the spread of jihadist terrorism and WMD. The EU will not formally recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia but it will simply go through the motions of censuring Russia.

Sergei Roy, editor, www.guardian-psj.ru security website.

The situation in the Caucasus in the wake of the Five-day War, including the role of EU monitors, the effect of the updated version of the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan, and the recognition or otherwise of the two new states by the EU, has to be considered in a broad geopolitical setting. Here, the context is more important than what actually occurs on the ground, as the context critically determines the events.

Briefly, this geopolitical context can be described as a heated up version of the Cold War. The cast of characters in this play has changed somewhat, but the principals are the same, the U.S. vs. Russia.

In the case of the U.S., the ideology has been unaltered – world hegemony. In Russia’s case, the ideology has changed dramatically; it has been reduced to sheer survival and self-defense, with not a vestige left of the former ambition of fostering a world anti-capitalist revolution, Russia itself having become a proponent of capitalism in its crudest form.

Just as in the Iraq venture, in handling the Caucasus crisis, created by itself, the U.S. will disregard the UN, the EU, or any other alphabetical organization and knock together another “coalition of the willing” to play brinkmanship or engage in yet another local war, a sequel to Saakashvili’s failed aggression, against Russia.

Such a coalition is, in fact, already in existence. It comprises the countries that financed, equipped, and trained the Georgian army and sicced it on South Ossetia, with plans to attack Abkhazia after victory over that tiny republic. Most shockingly, the Russian General Staff has presented evidence of physical participation of foreign, non-Georgian servicemen in the hostilities. The “willing” also include the NATO nations that hurried to send their warships to the Black Sea on a “humanitarian mission” – with Tomahawks on board.

The EU nations’ reaction to the Caucasus crisis will continue to be characterized by varying degrees of duplicity. While realizing clearly that the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is in no way different from that of Kosovo (except that Albanians are fairly recent newcomers to Kosovo, whereas Abkhazians and Ossetians are autochthonous inhabitants of their respective lands, deprived of their self-determination by Stalin), they will continue to talk of Georgia’s territorial integrity and condemn Russia’s “aggression,” “disproportionate use of force,” recognition of the two republics, etc. The more rabidly Russophobic governments, like those of the Baltics, Poland, Ukraine, Sweden and the UK, will continue to indulge in Goebbelsian propaganda warfare against Russia and lend the U.S. every kind of support that will be required of them.

As for future EU monitors, we have seen European monitors in that area in action. While Georgia for years engaged in systematic violations of internationally approved bans on the concentration of heavily equipped troops in designated areas, those monitors did not lift a finger in protest and were in fact guilty of covering up those infringements and provocations. So those new EU monitors’ role will be mostly determined by the policies of their respective governments, their personal attitudes, and their willingness and ability to bring their observations to the attention of the international community. In short – not much to expect, unless one is suffering from a bad case of malignant optimism.

Joera Mulders, independent Russia watcher, Holland

There is no easy solution to this conflict. South Ossetia will not be part of this Georgia. An independent South Ossetia will remain a stagnating backwater and a South-Ossetia part of the Russian Federation will create a geographical anomaly in a very volatile region. Abkhazia has only slightly more potential for independence as a Black Sea Riviera.

Because there are no easy solutions, in the mid term both conflicts will refreeze into observed ceasefire agreements. In the long term the region needs conflict resolution. For the coming centuries, Ossetians and Abkhazians will have to live with other ethnic groups in Georgia as good neighbors or more.

The main questions, therefore, are: Why were the former conflict settlement agreements not able to reconcile the parties? And did this conflict change anything in the configuration of the parties that will improve or reduce the chances for a resolution of the conflict?

I will limit myself to the case of South-Ossetia. The former agreement and its Joint Control Commission had two inequalities that inhibited reconciliation. First, within the JCC Georgia, got stuck in a minority position against South-Ossetia, North-Ossetia and Russia. Georgia therefore had every incentive to frustrate and break-up the JCC, which by now it has done. Second, without any international status South-Ossetia could not represent itself in international institutions, where Georgia was advocating its plans. South-Ossetia could only but rely on Russia to defend its interests. As a result of these two inequalities, both parties where talking past each other.

Have there been any changes? For starters, the first inequality has disappeared now the EU/OSCE has committed itself to a larger role. Yet, there are some fundamental differences in perception that will lead to a new unbalance. Georgians want to see themselves as the victims not as the aggressors. For them the alleged Russian invasion has proven that this is a conflict between Georgia and Russia, not Georgia and South Ossetia. As long as there is no timeline of the events up to and after the 7th and 8th of September, accepted upon by all parties and making clear that this is primarily a conflict between Georgia and South-Ossetia, we will continue to see Georgia trying to discredit Russia's observer status and so divert our attention from the settlement of the conflict. Russia should expect the EU/OSCE to be strict on Georgia, but in turn Russia should be equally interested in misconduct by the Ossetian leadership and militia against local ethnic Georgians.

Vlad Sobell, senior economist, Daiwa Research, London

It seems that the EU is coming to terms with the inevitable and implicitly accepting the new realities on the ground. Having recognised the independence of Kosovo, the Europeans surely must understand that their refusal to do the same in the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would not only be the height of hypocrisy but an affront to common sense that would fuel more tension on the Continent.

It is high time that European grandees start facing the facts, since their failure to do so has, in fact, been one of the reasons why Europe is now in such a dangerous mess. The same hypocrisy has also led them to believe that Saakashvili's regime is a model of democracy (that, at least, is their formal position) in the name of which Europe should risk a war with an “autocratic” Russia.

The notion that Russia – a key European country, a decisive force in the defeat of Nazi Germany and a former superpower – would endlessly allow itself to be pushed around by the West was always wholly unrealistic.
Unfortunately, Western Europe, de facto a satellite of the United States, has gone along with this fantasy. It has continued to keep Russia in quarantine and demanded that Moscow indefinitely follow the diktats of Washington's empire, otherwise it will not be accepted into their “democratic” club.

In February 2007 Putin informed the West that the time of appeasement was over. Ironically this happened in a speech delivered in Munich, the very city, which came to be associated with the appeasement of Adolf Hitler.
Putin did so politely but firmly and unambiguously. Instead of carefully listening to his message, Western leaders intensified their demonising of Russia. Washington, for its part, pushed for Ukraine and Georgia's membership of NATO, while surging ahead with negotiations for the installation of the anti-missile defences in Central Europe – this in full knowledge that Russia would find it an unacceptable menace to its security.

In August, the Kremlin finally acted on the notice it had issued in Munich eighteen months earlier, although unfortunately it waited until provoked by Washington's puppet Saakashvili, an error that cost dozens of military and hundreds of civilian lives on both sides. Thus the wisdom that appeasement does not pay, learned in Munich before the Second World War, has once again been vindicated.

Having repelled the Georgian aggressor, Russia must stick to its guns, figuratively, if not – in case of further provocation – literally, and continue to roll back the Washington-led campaign against it. Indeed, the so called “Medvedev Doctrine”, a succinct summary of the Kremlin's foreign policy objectives formulated at the end of August, includes the rejection of the notion that the globe must be led by the United States. Russia argues that the uni-polar system promoted by Washington is not only immoral and undemocratic; it is also unstable, dysfunctional and dangerous. After the Georgian attack on South Ossetia, there can no longer be any doubt that this, indeed, is the case.

Although Russia has the wherewithal to withstand the onslaught, it cannot ultimately win this fight on its own. Indeed, it should not have to be on its own. Europe will be normalised and the global uni-polar system consigned to the garbage heap of history only if it emancipates itself from Washington's anachronistic Cold War empire. It would be unrealistic to expect West European governments to challenge Washington openly and directly, as they have become accustomed to an easy life under the US's protective umbrella. Old habits die hard and European societies are ill equipped to undertake such a radical psychological and structural change.

Nevertheless, the Georgian conflict has delivered a much needed wake-up call. Western Europe may have finally embarked on the secular process of asserting its post-Cold War sovereignty.