09 August 2008

A Quarrel in a Faraway Country

For some reason, Neville Chamberlain's soundbite about the Sudeten crisis (yes, soundbites existed in 1938) has been ringing in my ears today. He described the increasing tensions between Germany and Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia but with a German ethnic majority) "as a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing", and somehow, the South Ossetia Crisis could fall into that category.

The parallels are alarming: Hitler wanted to "protect" the Sudeten Germans; Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev want to "protect" the large Russian population of South Ossetia, the situation is spinning out of control.

The problem is, this has been a long-term problem that's been simmering away in the background since the collapse of the Soviet Union: South Ossetia was never happy about being ruled from Tbilisi - neither was Abkhazia. When Edvard Shevardnadze was in charge of Georgia, there was an uneasy peace: he was an ally of Russia (he had been a former USSR Foreign Minister, after all) and the two Republics acted as though Georgia simply didn't apply to them.

Then, in 2003, things went loopy. Shevardnadze had a Parliamentary election rigged, the people noticed that he had done this, and he was booted out of office during the Rose Revolution. Opposition Leader Mikhail Saakhashvili emerged as President. Now, Saakhashvili can call on some powerful friends: the US and EU. The problem is, there's a strong opposition, and a strong opposition media - they are pro-Russian. And there are the pro-Russian enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. To say nothing of Russia itself right on the border. None of them will be altogether happy with a pro-Western President in Tbilisi.

So with the Opposition attempting and failing to move against Saakhasvili earlier on in the year, Moscow had to turn somewhere else. And where better than those two troublesome breakaway republics? The pot was duly stirred, and Georgia has, in effect, invaded South Ossetia. The Russians have moved in as "protection" and are hitting targets outside the region.

Now, the international law situation is probably a thorny one: on the one hand, the Georgian move into South Ossetia, coupled with their Parliament's declaration of a state of war (though that's more of an internal issue by the looks of things) would point to them being the aggressor. On the other, South Ossetia is not recognised by, well, anyone, not even the Russians - at least, not officially.

But my sympathies do lie with the South Ossetians. Firstly, they appear to be caught in the crossfire between a Russian Federation that has no love for Saakhasvili, and a Georgian government that appears to despise Russia. Secondly, the fact that they seemed happy enough to put up with their de facto independence suggests that they themselves are, in the main, not pro-Tbilisi and that they want out of Georgia. Given my own politics, you'll not be surprised when I say that if self-determination is what I think is right for Scotland, it should be right for South Ossetia. And Abkhazia.

Meanwhile, there's another dimension at work here: the Russians can credibly argue that the situation that developed in Kosovo - where the West intervened, bombing all of Serbia, and now promotes an independent Kosovar state - set a precedent. If NATO can act in that way in Kosovo, they can attack Georgia to protect South Ossetia, they can occupy the area and then formalise the breakaway republic's status. Prime Minister Putin has already said that South Ossetia won't be able to re-integrate with Georgia after this, and Russian forces claim to have "liberated" Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital (didn't US forces "liberate" Baghdad?). After South Ossetia will come Abkhazia, whose forces are already attacking Georgian positions. Then Moldova should watch itself as Transdnistria will be next.

Of course, I don't believe that Russia's motives are pure. Is this about the South Ossetians, or protecting Russian passport-holders? No. This is about destabilising a pro-Western government on its doorstep. This is about doing Saakhashvili in just after he's been knocked back by NATO (for fear of upsetting Russia by letting Georgia into the alliance). And it's an escalation in a new phase of aggression from the Russian Federation that only now has turned into military action. Think of Gazprom's control over gas pipelines, with fuel supply being used as an instrument of foreign policy. Think of the DOS attacks on Estonian government networks, said to have emanated from the Kremlin. No, Russia is wanting to put a bit of stick about again, and any former "partner" (I put the word in inverted commas as in almost every case, it was quite literally a shotgun partnership) who has gone a different way is now at risk of getting it in the neck.

And while Russia can talk about the rights of South Ossetians and the Abkhaz all it likes (even going so far as to cite Kosovo as a precedent), remember that Russia itself set a precedent for how to treat separatism within its borders: the Chechen military campaign that saw Grozny levelled.

But the media will, as always, play its part: the Western press is preparing to dress the Tbilisi government up as "plucky little Georgia, standing up to the Russian Evil Empire". The Russian press will, meanwhile, describe Tskhinvali as "plucky little South Ossetia, standing up to the Western puppet regime in Georgia".

This is wartime reporting at work: everything is black-and-white. Yet all the various shades of grey are still around, ignored by everyone. Opinions have a way of polarising at times like this, and the truth is often in between the two camps.

So if you'll excuse me, I'm off to find my Russian dictionary. I need to find the other side of the story.

1 comment:

boxthejack said...

Thanks for a very thoughtful and informative post.