Opinion: Of Helpless Hotheads and Half-Baked Warriors
The escalating war in the Caucasus region is an example of political stubbornness on both sides. Diplomacy is ineffectual and, aside from warm words, can deliver nothing. The West, where speaking plainly to Russia went out of vogue long ago, is also partly to blame.
How is this conflict to be resolved? The answer -- in all honesty, at least from today's perspective -- is not at all.
"War in South Ossetia," "General Mobilization in Georgia," "Russia Invades." These are the headlines of a weekend in which newspaper publishers had expected the Olympics in Beijing to dominate the front page. The surprise, or rather, irritation over this conflict that has suddenly pushed its way into the limelight is so great that even the International Olympic Committee -- which, as we well know, is a master of political sensitivity -- criticized the escalation of fighting. "Conflict is not what we want to see," IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said.
For once, the IOC is right. South Ossetia -- excuse me, where? Tskhinvali? Never heard of it! A tiny mountainous realm one-and-a-half times the size of Luxembourg, and all of this happening less than 3,000 kilometers (1,875 miles) from Berlin? And in that not-so-faraway place, Russian and Georgian tanks on the move, while Russian fighter jets launch strikes into the Georgian hinterland? It sounds crazy, but what is now coming back to haunt us is the consequence of everyone -- for a full 20 years -- having disavowed this small, simmering trouble spot in the oh-so-inscrutable Caucasus, the home of breakaway regions like Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Mikhail Saakashvili, the young hothead sitting in the president's chair in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, wants to rein in two breakaway provinces lost in the bloody wars of secession in the early 1990s, a period when hundreds of thousands of his countrymen were forced to leave their homes overnight. One of Saakashvili's key campaign promises was to enable them to return to their ancestral home, an understandable wish that no Georgian president could ignore. It is as if the Lusatian Sorbs, a tiny Slavic ethnic group that settled in the border region between modern-day Germany and Poland in the 6th century A.D., had suddenly taken control of a slice of the German state of Brandenburg and driven everyone else out, or as if the Bavarians ... But let's leave it at that.
A Futile Effort to Join NATO
Saakashvili's logic is supported by the fact that the (Western) international community has been making it clear to him for years that Georgia would not be welcomed into NATO or the European Union as long as its conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained unresolved. But membership in these two alliances is near and dear to Saakashvili's heart, since it would enable the Georgian leader and his country to finally escape from the gravitational field of their domineering neighbor, Russia.
And, to the trained lawyer's credit, the half-baked leadership in tiny separatist South Ossetia, whose so-called president came to the job with prior experience as a freestyle wrestler, generally boycotted Saakashvili's offers to discuss autonomy. This suggests that it has never been truly interested in a serious political solution, because it has enough Russian backing for its cause. Even Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotzky characterized the Ossetians as a crude and violent people, which, of course, was meant polemically and was mostly directed at his arch rival, Josef Stalin.
All of this suggests that Saakashvili may have believed that nothing could be achieved in the Caucasus with diplomacy anymore, and that the conflict, therefore, could only be resolved militarily -- and resolved now, while his most powerful benefactor, US President George W. Bush, is still in office. The West's appeals to end the violence immediately are merely evidence of its own helplessness. And German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's plan to return the Georgian refugees to their old homeland and settle the issue of the disputed regions' status at a later date also seems naïve.
Stalin's Arbitrary Borders
Who is really at fault for all of this? Stalin, of course. He was the one who drew the arbitrary borders of the Soviet Union to make it easier for the Kremlin to assert control over its multiethnic country. This strategy affected the Ossetians directly, because it meant dividing their region into a northern and a southern part. The former went to the "Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic" and the latter to the Soviet Republic of Georgia -- a difference that, at the time, was irrelevant, since it was all part of the same country. Only when the Soviet Union perished and Georgia seized its opportunity to become independent once again were the Ossetians suddenly truly divided. It was at that point that the Caucasus ridge bisecting their little realm became a national border.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili: Embraced by the West -- and abandoned.
This brings us to the next guilty parties. In their newly awakened patriotic ardor of the early 1990s, the once-so-cosmopolitan Georgians were convinced of the importance of a strictly centralized state, instead of offering new forms of autonomy to the other ethnic groups on their territory. This stance almost cost Shevardnadze his life in the Abkhazian war. But at least the former Soviet foreign minister had a more levelheaded personality, which is certainly not something that can be said of his successor, Saakashvili.
A Pawn of a Wounded Superpower
Map: Georgia and the Caucusus
So how is this conflict to be resolved? The answer -- in all honesty, at least from today's perspective -- is not at all. A possible solution down the road could be for the South Ossetians to be resettled in Russia, which, of course, would come with the bitter aftertaste of a deportation and be reminiscent of Stalin's deportations in the 1940s. The Abkhazians, on the other hand, ought to be given extensive autonomy.
The West Vacillates
And the West? It -- in an approach we have almost come to expect by now -- has only aggravated the situation with its ambiguities. It supports Georgia's "territorial integrity," and yet, just as poor Mr. Saakashvili tries to enforce that same integrity, the West is suddenly tight-lipped on the issue. Its diplomatic efforts seem to be in vain, and yet the military route is frowned upon (and rightfully so).
The main problem lies in the stance the West has adopted toward Russia in the past 20 years or so. Speaking plainly to Russia went out of vogue long ago, which the Russians have consistently interpreted as weakness. On the other hand, they certainly take clear words seriously. Since the first war in Chechnya in 1994, the West's aim has been to be "inclusive" when it comes to Russia and to make allowances for Moscow's sensitivities. This policy has failed to prevent Russia's brutal course of action in Grozny, the war over Nagorno-Karabakh or the massacres of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali.
With the West suffering from self-delusion, fear of a highly unpredictable major power, ignorance of the region's ethnic problems and hopeless differences of opinion within the EU, it can hardly be expected to exert any influence over the Caucasus.
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