Appeasing Russia will not work
In a week dominated by harrowing scenes of civilian suffering in the ongoing Russian-Georgian conflict over the separatist region of South Ossetia. There are shades of the Sudetenland crisis in 1938, when Hitler, on the pretext of defending a ‘persecuted’ German minority in that region of Czechoslovakia, was appeased and allowed to annex it, followed by the conquest of the entire country 6 months later. Russia is seeking Anschluss with Russocentric regions in its former Soviet empire. While the Russian state-owned broadcast media such as Russia Today continue to bleat out false claims of “genocide” against South Ossetians, the Western media report that Russia has reduced by 90% its supposed South Ossetian death-toll from the Georgian offensive. As an Irish nationalist, I have mixed feelings on the matter of self-determination for Georgia’s separatist regions. While anxious that Russia must not be appeased, I instinctively sympathise with nationalities seeking to go their own way in an historic homeland. Even so, I think the merits of their independence-bids are not universally clear to those with a knowledge of the history of the South Ossettian and Abkhazian conflicts which have led to 2 Russian puppet-states on internationally-recognised Georgian soil.
Abkhazia seems undeserving of independence, given that its pro-independence demographic is a creation of ethnic-cleansing of Georgians - before the 1992-4 war 46% of the population and a majority in the capital Sukhumi – resulting in the Abkhaz, who were never a majority in the region, becoming the largest ethnic-group. The 1989 census said that the Abkhaz were 18% of the population, whereas now they are closer to 40% according to the 2003 census. Around 190,000 ethnic-Georgians were expelled and 15,000 massacred by Abkhaz, pro-Moscow militias and probably Russian troops too. The Sukhumi massacre was a gruesome attocity against the ethnic-Georgians. The late Russian journalist Dmitry Kholodov, later assassinated on a suspected contract-killijng for investigating corruption in the Russian military, witnessed the massacre and reported seeing the following: “They captured a young girl. She was hiding in the bushes near the house where they killed her parents. She was raped several times. One of the soldiers killed her and mutilated her. She was cut in half. Near her body they left a message: as this corpse will never be as one piece, Abkhazia and Georgia will never be united either.” They could not have driven the Georgians out without massive military-aid from Moscow, which connived to help the separatists. It treacherously negotiated ceasefires in Sukhumi and Gagra in 1992 in which Georgian troops were promised the shelling of these cities would end if they left these cities. In fact they were stormed by the separatists and massacres ensued in which thousands of Georgians were butchered – some of them, ironically, by Chechen militia led by Shamil Basayev – the later mastermind of the Beslan massacre and prominent Chechen separatist rebel in the wars that began in Chechnya in 1994. So to grant Abkhazia international recognition as an independent state would be to reward ethnic-cleansing and should be unacceptable to the international community. The Georgian refugees expelled in the 1990′s must be allowed return and then perhaps take part in a referendum on independence. But the existing yes votes cannot stand, considering their basis in ethnic-cleansing and their non-recognition by the international community, and their defiance of UNSC resolutions respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity. Abkhazia’s place in Georgia goes back to the ancient kingdom of Colchis, with a break during the independent kingdom of Abkhazia, which nonetheless may have been a primarily ethnic-Georgian kingdom, judging by the names of its kings. It was reunited with Georgia by marriage.On South Ossetia, the Ossetians have been a majority since at least 1926, with a 26% Georgian minority prior to this conflict. But the Georgian claim on the territory is legitimate in moral terms because they were there first and the Ossetians migrated to SO in the 1300′s following expulsion from parts of European Russia by the Mongols. In any case, North Ossetia, a Russian republic, has 10 times the Ossetian population, and as such the Ossetians already have a homeland (considering they don’t want independence and have always been remarkably loyal to Russia). There is evidence that pro-Russian militia are ethnic-cleansing Georgian villages according to Human Rights Watch. I do not agree with the Georgian military-intervention here, and regard it as them falling into Russia’s carefully laid trap. Russian troops have poured into the region since the NATO summit in Bucharest that refused to give Georgia and Ukraine a date for admission to the alliance. Furthermore, the Russians have been intermittently bombing parts of Georgia in a previously unsuccessfull attempt to provoke Tbilisi. Now Russia has the excuse it needs to meddle in Georgian affairs with something approaching an occupation. As with Abkhazia, the old pattern of ethnic-cleansing, destruction and looting of ethnic-Georgian villages in South Ossetia seems to be repeating itself. Human Rights Watch claims that it witnessed the destruction of the four Georgian villages of Kekhvi, Nizhnie Achaveti, Verkhnie Achaveti and Tamarasheni. In the village of Nizhnie Achaveti, Human Rights Watch researchers spoke to an elderly man who was desperately trying to rescue his smoldering house using two half-empty buckets of dirty water brought from a spring. He told Human Rights Watch that the vast majority of the residents, including his family, fled the village when active fighting between Georgian forces and South Ossetian militias broke out on August 8, but he decided to stay to look after the cattle. He said members of the South Ossetian militia came to his house on August 11, and tried to take away some household items. When he protested, they set the house on fire and left. The man said he had no food or drinking water; his hands were burned and hair was singed – apparently as he was unsuccessfully trying to extinguish the fire – and he appeared to be in a state of shock. He said that there were about five to ten elderly and sick people left in the village, all in a similar desperate condition, and many of the houses were burned.
Russian influence in the region has been the real winner here. The word has gone out that the US cannot be relied on to defend its non-NATO allies. This may well deter some from pursuing NATO membership and closer ties with the West, while in the case of the stronger Ukraine, it may cause them to push harder for it. Meanwhile the crucial Baku-Ceyhan-Tblisi oil pipeline, owned by BP and carrying 1 million barrels worth of oil a day from Azerbaijan to Turkey (before it was temporarily put out of action by a terrorist attack in Turkey) and on to the Mediterranean, risks falling into Russia’s hands. A number of attempts were allegedly made by them to bomb it already. A crucial part of exerting leverage on Russia is to develop pipelines bypassing the country. Without Georgia, this strategy is dealt a crushing blow, as Armenia – occupying 20% of Azerbaijan in a war over the ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabkah – is hardly going to help the Azeris sell their oil. One thing I would say to those naive enough to believe the Russians on their ‘humanitarian’ motives for intervention, is to remember the lack of concern by the Kremlin for Chechnya’s right to self-determination and its destruction of Grozny and the litany of reports of genocide from the region since 1999, as well as the curious refusal in the Sarkozy peace-plan of Russia to agree to an amendment to Point 4 (on humanitarian agencies access to the region) that would have guaranteed the right of return of refugees to their homes. Today’s Irish Independent carries a harrowing report of the ethnic-cleansing of Georgian villages in South Ossetia, where villagers were informed that Putin had ordered them to be expelled or killed. Does this tally with a Russia supposedly motivated in this crisis not by territorial ambition but rather by humanitarianism and concern for the self-determination of small nations? Not to me it doesn’t, but judge for yourselves. The reality is that Russia has been deliberately stoking the separatist conflicts in its former Soviet republics in order to frustrate them from NATO membership and from forging closer links to the West. That Point 5 of the Sarkozy peace plan makes no references to the right of Georgian of refugees to their homes as the Georgian side had demanded, should dispel any doubts as to what is going on. This conflict bears all the hallmarks of a landgrab by Russia at the hands of its tiny neighbour. What is it about Putin’s Russia that it can’t pick on someone their own size?