Saturday, 9 August 2008

Why South Ossetia, why now?

By Peter Lavelle

There are more than rumours of war in Georgia’s breakaway republic of South Ossetia. People are being killed. And the way things are going, it is very likely some kind of war is on the horizon. However, South Ossetia does not want war, nor does Russia. That cannot be said of Georgia. If this is the case, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili will sorely regret it.

Why South Ossetia and why now? The broader picture is of course Saakashvili’s NATO ambitions. He needs to unite his country for NATO to deliver on its promise of a MAP (Membership Action Program) to enter the Western military-political block. And Saakashvili desperately wants to have this completed by December when the alliance again meets.

The fact that Saakashvili is pressuring South Ossetia now is obvious – the whole world is watching the Summer Olympics in Beijing. And it goes without saying the US will turn a blind eye to Saakashvili’s senseless aggression. NATO will probably do the same, though with the usual pinch of moralising and some fluff about respecting human rights.

I fully expect that Georgia will bring overwhelming military force to bear at some point. Many civilians will be killed. The whole operation will be called a “police action.” Saakashvili will claim that the status quo was untenable. (This of course strikes me as odd; the current status quo is far from perfect, but at least civilian deaths were low).

Can military action against South Ossetia succeed? Certainly. Georgia can invade and occupy South Ossetia. Western countries and Ukraine have supplied Georgia with an arsenal of heavy weaponry. And American military personnel have trained the new Georgian armed forces. Will Abkhazia honor its commitment to assist South Ossetia if it is invaded? Will Russian irregulars enter the fray? We have heard a lot of grand statements about this, but both claims are problematic at best.

Let’s assume Tbilisi can “win on the battlefield”. But will it be able to re-assimilate South Ossetia and South Ossetians? That will be very hard indeed. For about 15 years –almost a generation – this separatist republic has lived without Georgia, few Georgians, and the Georgian language. And Tbilisi’s brutal behaviour to stop South Ossetia’s bid for independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union literally created a lot of bad blood. To top it off, most citizens of South Ossetia have Russian passports. And there is strong evidence a South Ossetian identity now exists (and that identity is defined by not being Georgian or part of the Georgian state).

What will Russia do if there is a military strike against South Ossetia? Directly, I suspect it will do very little. It should be completely ruled out that Russia will use military force. But this does not mean Russia will remain neutral. Russia’s people-to-people contacts and trade links with South Ossetia are strong. Tbilisi will have to offer a lot of money and reconstruction – not to mention an apology for killing its civilians - to bring South Ossetia back into the fold. And this is the optimistic scenario!

This is where Russia will play an indirect role. South Ossetians look to Russia for help. And Russia has done that. Tbilisi’s trade blockade against South Ossetia (a very poor region) has seen Russia step-in to render a hand. Russia has brought peace and stability to this breakaway republic and it wants things to stay that way. A military conflict will completely upset the current arrangement.

By going to war, Tbilisi will have its hands full. It will cut South Ossetian-Russian ties. Not only will the financial costs be high for Tbilisi, but there will be South Ossetian resentment at being cut off from Russia’s North Ossetia. And Russia will object that its fellow passport holders will be subject to civil and human rights limitations and violations.

Georgia is poised to invade South Ossetia because it can. But South Ossetia is not the real aim of this. Abkhazia is the real target. South Ossetia is a test to gauge Russia’s reaction. Once active resistance is subdued in South Ossetia, Tbilisi will taunt Abkhazia with “See, your Russian friends didn’t do much for South Ossetia, nor will they really help you. Now come to the table and surrender.” This will be a huge miscalculation. Abkhazia is not South Ossetia.

Abkhazia is stable, self-confident and even rich - if investment continues. Abkhazia can also defend itself. A Georgian military operation against South Ossetia will have the opposite impact on Abkhazia – the latter will turn inward and cease to be part of any negotiated arrangement with Tbilisi. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Russia drew a line in the sand – that it will henceforth protect Russian citizens anywhere in the world (just like the US does today).

What will all of this lead to? South Ossetia, if invaded and occupied, will become a long-term headache for Tbilisi. A low-level insurgency will harass the Georgian occupiers. South Ossetian identity will only grow. NATO will also turn its back on Saakashvili - it will not induct a new member that is domestically unstable. Abkhazia will wait it out. Maybe in another 15 years the world will finally recognize the inevitable – Abkhazia is a viable nation-state worthy of independence. I am sure the Abkhazians are more than willing to wait for this to happen. Returning to Tbilisi’s fold is simply not an option anymore.

A parting thought: Saakashvili has it all wrong. The use of force or the threat of force demonstrates just how bankrupt his vision for a united Georgia is. He wants reconciliation by use of a gun. How can one truly and honestly resolve differences when one party puts a gun to the head of the other?

I have said time and again that Tbilisi has to take the hard road to unite the country. And that way is the “demonstration effect.” Make Tbilisi-controlled Georgia prosperous, safe, with a future, and not anti-Russia. When all of this really happens, then South Ossetia and Abkhazia might take a moment to reconsider their positions. Nothing succeeds like success!

To date, Saakashvili is one big loser

Peter Lavelle is the host of Russia Today's week in review programme In Context, and was the anchor of the commentary series IMHO (In my humble opinion) . And Russia Today viewers can expect to find Peter in the news studio commenting on breaking events. This includes live press conferences and when decision makers meet anywhere in the world.Peter Lavelle has extensive experience in academia and the world of business. He did his doctoral studies at the University of California in Eastern European and Russian studies. He has lived in Eastern Europe and Russia for a better part of the last 25 years. During that time he was a lecturer at the University of Warsaw, a market researcher for Colgate-Palmolive, an investment analyst for a number of respected brokerage firms, including Russia’s Alfa Bank.In the realm of media, Peter Lavelle is widely published. He has written for Asia Times Online, Moscow Times, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, United Press International, In the National Interest, and Current History - to mention only a few. Peter enjoys reading, films, long walks through Moscow, and caring for his two dogs. Viewers are invited to read his daily blog, below.Peter Lavelle also has an Internet discussion group on Russia:

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