Tuesday, 25 August 2009

openDemocracy: Abkhazia, Georgia, and history: a response

openDemocracy, 25 August 2009

by George Hewitt

An anniversary article on the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 from the perspective of Abkhazia has provoked a vigorous reaction focusing on questions of linguistics, settlement, and current politics. Its author, George Hewitt, responds to some of the points raised.

The article I was invited to contribute to openDemocracy to mark the anniversary of the events of August 2008 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia has occasioned an exchange of lengthy and sometimes heated comments (see "Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on", 11 August 2009). Some bear on substantive matters of history and linguistics as well as the interpretation of these recent political events; others include personal remarks directed at the author. This article responds to the former, though it begins with a few words on the latter.

When, as the first reactions came in, openDemocracy's deputy editor David Hayes (who commissioned the article) consulted me over possible responses to the more personal comments, I replied that it was best if everything was published exactly as submitted. This is in order that unbiased readers might see for themselves the sort of reaction (including attempts to discredit the author) that any questioning of the standard Georgian position on the Georgia-Abkhazia dispute always evokes and thus reach their own conclusions about (i) which side has the stronger arguments and (ii) whether there is any value in engaging in this kind of debate, when representatives of one side see in a text what they want to see rather than what is actually written there.

I had not intended myself to look at the comments attached to my article, as the content of the negative reactions was entirely predictable. A few individuals did, however, urge me to do so; and a reading of this material (forty-one postings at the time of writing) leads me to offer a few further observations, which gradually ascend from a response to the low currency of gratuitous insinuation to matters of scholarly record and relevance.

Since "Georgia" is a fluid concept, it is problematic to say definitively when I last set foot there. However, since the location of the capital, Tbilisi, is not in doubt, I can state that I have not visited there since the end of 1987 and have absolutely no intention of doing so again. But I was indeed lucky to be "in the right place at the right time": namely, two academic years spent in Soviet Georgia (1975-76; 1979-80) plus various stays there up to the mid-1980s. In these years, the atmosphere was that of a happy-go-lucky, hail-fellow-well-met, and (in Soviet terms) prosperous society, whose only (if privately expressed) rhetorical venom was directed against its northern overlord - a sentiment, however, never associated with Georgia's then communist party boss, Eduard Shevardnadze, for whom (notoriously) the sun rose from that direction.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Georgia's descent into the maelstrom of nationalism was alarmingly swift and depressing to watch. Sadly, it would appear that, far from learning the lessons and drawing the appropriate conclusions, this fundamental problem has not yet been recognised.

If my being married to an Abkhazian is irrelevant to the discussion, why mention it (though I normally do so myself in conversation in order not to be accused of withholding the fact)? But since it has been raised, a simple fact may be of interest to those who do so - including the poet Tariel Chanturia, who first cast the "aspersion" in his Georgian disquisition of 1989 on the importance of the boudoir in history. This is that my wife's advice in May 1989, when I first proposed contributing to the Georgian-Abkhazian debate, was that I should not become involved, as she accurately foresaw the nature of the reaction and predicted (contrary to my naïve belief) that reason and common sense would not prevail. >>Read more...

Production of feature film Cherkess starts in October 2009 in Jordan

Production of a feature film Cherkess (Al Sharakissa) starts in October 2009 in Jordan. The film story covers the arrival of immigrant Circassians to Ottoman Transjordan in the year 1900.
Dostoyevsky once said 'Beauty will save the world'... and this film is based on such a perception.

The film shows the different aspects of two cultures, the Bedouin and the Circassian, who were unwillingly thrown together by historical providence, creating a perfect recipe for controversy and violence but saved by the miraculous powers of innocent, unexpected love. This is a story of two young souls who fall passionately in love and by so doing bring about the reason for conflict and bloodshed... as well as for potential harmony and peaceful coexistence; the quintessence of drama, when the pendulum could swing in either direction.

Starring Sahar Bishara, Azamat Bekov, Mohamad Al Abadi, Mohadeen Komakhov, Jamil Barahme, Bacir Shibzoukhov, Mahmoud Al Dmour, Ludmila Sharemeteva, Ibrahim Abu El Kher, Bella Bja'omikhova, Rifaat Al Najaar, Jana Hamoukova, Ashraf Abaza, Mohamed Keshokov, Basila El Ali, Kemal Jalouka.

Does Turkey want war?

by Yiğit Günay, sOL (Turkey) - 24 August 2009

One of our neighbour states declares that it is in preparation for a war against another one of our neighbours, and we train the troops of this country. Do we demand a war?

The USA has declared formally that it is training Georgian army recently and it has given a start to the trainings by consigning a group of navy experts in the country. Previously, the USA used to train Georgian army by means of NATO or in other ways; however, now this has now acquired a more formal character.

As of September 1st, 65 American marines will begin training the troops that will go to Helmand region, where Obama has launched a total warfare, to partake into occupation of Afghanistan.

Vasil Sikharulidze, Georgia Defence Minister, interviewing with Associated Press, said that training the training by the U.S. Marine Corps will not only give his troops the skills necessary to fight alongside NATO allies in Afghanistan, but also could come into play if another war broke out between Georgia and Russia.. Asked whether he was referring to the possibility of another war with Russia, he said, "In general, yes."

Diplomatic Scandal
The statement of Georgian Defence Minister displayed the truth of the USA is preparing Georgian army for war with Russia by words of the most authoritative person. These remarks are an exact scandal in diplomatic field, because by these words, Georgia has also declared that it is getting prepared to fight against Russia one more time.

The USA was disturbed due to the explanation of Georgian Minister. General James Conway, Commandant of Marine Corps of US, visited Georgia on Friday and claimed that skills in trainings don’t have the qualities to be used in a war with Russia.

Other Georgian government officials, backing the explanations of Conway, didn’t admit the assertion that Georgia is being trained to fight against Russia. David Nardaya, spokesman of Defence Minister Vasil Sikharulidze, explained that he would bring the remarks of minister to light on Friday. However, the Defence Minister didn’t speak to the press after this explanation and he didn’t retract.* This created a much bigger scandal.

Turkey training the army that demands war
Turkey also has close relations with Georgia and its army. In February, 2007, General Yüksel Öztekin, Military Attaché of Republic of Turkey in Georgia, explained that elements of Georgia Ministry of Defence and border guards were trained by officers from Turkey and 12 civil experts on the themes of border security, transboundary crimes and similar topics.

This training is given in the framework of “Antiterrorism Accomplishment Center”. This center was founded in Turkey due to infusion of the USA in NATO summit, which took place amid mass protests in Istanbul, 2004. Turkey took the responsibility to prepare the armies of certaincountries like Georgia having a coast on Black Sea for NATO.

In May 2007 Turkey had made a military equipment aid to Georgia. Undersecretary of Turkey’s Embassy in Tbilisi Fırat Sunel announced that until that day Turkey had given military training to roughly 700 Georgian military personnel.

In June 2008, only 3 months before the war Georgia had initiated war in August, Turkey had signed a new cooperation protocol with Georgian navy. During the war Georgia waged on Russia, South Ossetia and Abhasia Turkey had supplied Georgia extra electricity. After the war Turkey’s relations with Russia had become tense. Russia had blamed Turkey for taking sides with Georgia, and then had argued that mercenaries of Turkish nationality had fought against Russia in an investigation report issued thereafter.

Right after the war, Izvestia newspaper of Russia had emphasized that Turkey has provided a military aid of 45 million US dollars and this aid was even bigger than the aid provided by the USA. Izvestia wrote that Turkey had supplied a great amount of advanced weapons and ammunition to Georgian army and gave the breakdown of the aid as follows: “100 vehicles, 50 PZRK type missile launchers, Sword 2 and Hawk warships, Sky-Watcher air early warning system, 80 MP5 automatic guns, 1800 M72 hand grenades, 10 million bullets, and 160 MP5A3 submachine guns.”

Russian news agencies asserted that right after the visit of a US official to Georgia in April this year Turkey had another consignment of weapons to Georgia.

Two weeks ago member of Abhazia parliament Soner Gogua said, “ Training of the Georgian officers by Turkish officers gave great courage to Georgians. Turkey and NATO have made a unilateral aid. Weapons aid have strengthened georgia’s hand.

Turkey shall quit military cooperation with Georgia
We have this scene: One of our neighbors says the main imperialist country far end of the world is preparing its own army to fight against our Black Sea neighbor. We face an open reality. AKP government, frequently talking of “carrying out multi-directional diplomacy”, “assuring stability in the region”, “getting along with everybody”, gives military support to the country which scandalously states it is preparing for a war with another neighbor of Turkey in implausible way.

And also the government, reminding “Peace at home, peace in the world”, immediately shall quit military cooperation developing gradually by the cooperation agreement signed in 1996 with Georgia to stand by its word.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

UNPO: Celebrating World Indigenous People Day‏

August 9th is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

The survival of indigenous traditions, history and culture is of great importance to UNPO. Their survival is jeopardized with the increasingly violence and destruction of the social and physical environments where they live. To survive, the process of recognition of indigenous rights is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of indigenous cultures.

UNPO is dedicated to creating collaborative relationships across indigenous members. A lot has been accomplished since NGOs and indigenous communities ignited a long struggle to halt their marginalization.

This issue of UNPO Newsletter celebrates our indigenous members, but also takes the opportunity to highlight their struggles in defending their culture and land rights.

Click here to download the UNPO Newsletter (August Issue).

Valery Gergiev's “Ring” Caucasian circle

From The Economist print edition - by Natasha Razina

EVEN at the heart of the Richard Wagner cult in Bayreuth, it takes nine days to stage the German composer’s four-part epic, “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. The demands on the leading singers are so great that after the curtain falls on the first piece, “Das Rheingold”, there are breaks of at least 40 hours between the three other parts: “Die Walküre”, “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung”.

But the Russian Mariinsky Theatre has produced a version for people in a hurry. By double-casting the principal roles, with singers such as Leonid Zakhozhaev as Siegfried and Mlada Khudoley as Sieglinde, all home-grown talents from within the Mariinsky, it offers you total immersion over four evenings. This cycle was first shown in St Petersburg in 2003 and has since appeared in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Seoul and at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. After a second relaunch of the cycle in St Petersburg, the doyenne of Russian music, Lilian Hochhauser, brings the marathon to London’s Royal Opera House (ROH) later this month.

Conceived by the Mariinsky’s powerful conductor, Valery Gergiev, with George Tsypin designing, the production has the distinction of being “Russian”. Its principle features borrow heavily from the mythology of the Caucasus region, from where Mr Gergiev hails. But the staging has notably failed to draw the rave reviews that the Mariinsky has come to expect from its productions abroad. Having suffered a series of defections, including as many as four directors, it was coolly received at Cardiff in 2006, where critics labelled it “lifeless” and complained of “unidiomatic singing” from the all-Russian cast. Will the production work better this time round?

In its first incarnation, even America’s diehard Mariinsky fans had reservations. Describing the sets and costumes as “cheap and tacky”, the New York Times wondered if the “rubbery battle shields” had been found “in the Halloween costume bin at Wal-Mart”. Mr Gergiev went on to blame the failure in Cardiff on the “horizontal shape of the proscenium”. But the inescapable fact is that his “Ring” was assembled haphazardly and had something of a false start.

Johannes Schaaf, Mr Gergiev’s first choice to direct the whole cycle, withdrew after “Das Rheingold” in 2000. Mr Schaaf’s designer, Gottfried Piltz, then directed “Die Walküre”. Unsatisfied, Mr Gergiev decided to start again from scratch. Enlisting Mr Tsypin, he then unveiled a “Ring” he describes as “iconic but simple, and free of the conceptual approach of so many German productions”. But his decision now to engage yet another director—24-year-old Alexander Zeldin—suggests that he is aware of a dramaturgic vacuum at the centre of this production.

Born to an Australian mother and Russian-Jewish father, Mr Zeldin attended Oxford, was influenced by Peter Brook and Robert Lepage, and travelled widely in the Middle East to learn about theatre production and performance there. He gave an “Egyptian” makeover to Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1629 historical comedy, “The Constant Prince”, that was acclaimed in both Cairo and at London’s Arcola theatre.

Mr Zeldin’s adoption into what he calls the “Mariinsky family” began in 2007 with the Russian premiere of a well-known contemporary opera, “Powder Her Face”, by Thomas Adès, a British composer. Impressed, Mr Gergiev handed Mr Zeldin new productions of “L’Heure Espagnole” and “Gianni Schicchi”.

For the “Ring”, Mr Zeldin has been invited “to provide focus and drama”. New video installations by Sven Ortel add welcome scenic relief to the production, but Mr Zeldin was nevertheless obliged to take on the old set, which is dominated by four 12-foot-high giants, the primordial gods of Ossetian mythology.

He is excited by the challenge. According to Mr Zeldin, the Caucasian gods and their Nibelungen equivalents have a lot in common. “Wotan bears a striking resemblance to the Nart god, Warzameg, who is betrayed as both leader of the Nart gods and as their most fallible man,” he explains. He also sees other parallels. “Wagner was writing during the industrial revolution, when man first attempted to control circumstances that exist beyond nature,” says Mr Zeldin. “Today science is driving us further: in the DNA era we are inventing things that are beyond our comprehension, so the very business of being human is under threat.”

Mr Zeldin wants the first night to be a surprise. For London audiences he will reveal only that Nibelheim is a “factory producing clones” and Valhalla a “laboratory”. This Rheingold is more than just another lump of gold, he says; it is an example of the fabric of the natural world, designed to look like “fleshy tissue, a beautiful living organism in the water”.

Ms Hochhauser need not worry about difficult concepts—the cycle, which begins on July 29th, is virtually sold out despite the recession and a top ticket price of £840 ($1,380). The event represents a professional rapprochement with Mr Gergiev. The two fell out when Ms Hochhauser rejected Mr Gergiev’s commercially unsafe choice of an all-Shostakovich programme for the ROH. Vindication came quickly. Mr Gergiev took his season to the English National Opera in 2006 with financially disastrous results. In the Mariinsky’s place Ms Hochhauser invited the rival Bolshoi for a sold-out and critically triumphant season of popular opera and ballet. Whether the gods will smile on their newly remade friendship effort remains to be seen.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Who is the agressor? Quotes from Saakashvili

On the anniversary of the Georgian assault on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinval, and its environs, and in view of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's article yesterday in The Washington Post, it might be useful to remind ourselves of some earlier words that rolled off Saakashvili's lips.

Below is what Saakashvili said in his article in Washington Post ''Georgia, On the Rebound'', by Mikheil Saakashvili, 7 August 2009

''On the night of Aug. 7, 2008, Russia's 58th Army crossed over Georgia's internationally recognized borders. Thus began what the evidence shows was a long-planned invasion aimed at toppling my government and increasing Moscow's control over our region.''


Below is what Civil Georgia reported in 8 August 2008 in its entirety.

“President Saakashvili said he had announced a general mobilization of reserve troops amid “large-scale military aggression” by Russia.

In a live televised address on August 8, Saakashvili said Georgian government troops had gone “on the offensive” after South Ossetian militias responded to his peace initiative on August 7 by shelling Georgian villages.

As a result, he said, Georgian forces now controlled “most of South Ossetia.”

He said the breakaway region’s districts of Znauri, Tsinagari, as well as the villages of Dmenisi, Gromi, and Khetagurovo, were “already liberated” by Georgian forces.

[It's reminds another president: ''US will liberate Iraq, says Bush.'' 3 January, 2003, BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2625981.stm 3 January, 2003 - CW Admin.]

“A large part of Tskhinvali is now liberated and fighting is ongoing in the center of Tskhinvali,” he added.

He also said that Georgia had come
under aerial attack from Russian warplanes on August 8, which was an obvious sign of “large-scale military aggression” against Georgia.

The Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs said that three SU-24 Fencer attack aircraft had breeched Georgian airspace on August 8, and one of them had dropped two bombs close to a police station in Kareli, slightly injuring several people.

“Immediately stop the bombing of Georgian towns,” Saakashvili told Russia. “Georgia did not start this confrontation and Georgia will not give up its territories; Georgia will not say no to its freedom… We have already mobilized tens of thousands of reserve troops. Mobilization is ongoing.”

“Hundreds of thousands of Georgians should stand together and save Georgia,” he added.


Note there is no mention of Russian forces in the Roki Tunnel: He gives quite different reasons.

Saakashvili’s story has changed: see Patrick Armstrong's piece (with Georgian sources) on JRL/2009/ (http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/2008-170-21.cfm) documenting these changes. The “Russians are already in the Roki Tunnel” excuse – of which Saakashvili put forth two variations) only appeared after the operation went so badly wrong.

And BTW – here’s the Civil Georgia report of the Kurashvili statement from 8 August (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=18941&search=). So, if it's a "fabrication", it's not a recent one.

A senior official from the Georgian Ministry of Defense said Georgia had “decided to restore constitutional order in the entire region” of South Ossetia. Mamuka Kurashvili, an MoD official in charge of overseeing peacekeeping operations, told journalists late on August 7 that the South Ossetian side had rejected Tbilisi’s earlier decision to unilaterally cease fire and had resumed shelling of Georgian villages in the conflict zone.


The War He Actually Got
by Patrick Armstrong

President Saakashvili of Georgia is now (since 25 August) claiming that the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia on 7 August was a response to the movement of Russian forces through the Roki Tunnel into South Ossetia. (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=19282).

First, we know this claim to be false because, in his “victory speech” on 8 August (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=18955&search=control ossetia ), he did not say so. His excuse then was that the Ossetians had not responded to his ceasefire proposal made a few hours earlier and he also claimed a rather ineffective air attack by Russian forces. Second, deputy defence minister Batu Kutelia was quoted on 21 August saying Tbilisi did not expect a Russian response (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0d8beefe-6fad-11dd-986f-0000779fd18c.html?nclick_check=1). Third, Georgia’s former defence minister, Irakly Okruashvili, (now, like many of Saakashvili’s former colleagues, in opposition) has admitted that Tbilisi always had plans to conquer South Ossetia and Abkhazia (http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSLD12378020080914?sp=true).

But, let us assume ­ pretend ­ that on 7 August, the Russian 58th Army had started through Roki and ignore the fact that, had it done so, the Georgian forces would have met Russian soldiers in the early hours of the next day in Tskhinvali ­ the road distance from Roki to Tskhinvali is only about 55 kilometres. But there are no reports that they did.

But nevertheless, even if we assume this to be true, two serious questions remain. First, Tbilisi still has to explain the indiscriminate bombardment of a town that Saakashvili considers to be full of Georgian citizens: “liberated” being the word he used on the 8th. (A list of 312 Ossetians, by name, so far identified as killed is here http://www.osetinfo.ru/victims). (Although Saakashvili has the brass to blame Russia for that: “They leveled city of Tskhinvali with carpet bombardments and came around and blamed Georgians for that.” (or so he told Ms Rice on 15 August http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2008/08/108289.htm). Second, we have to explain what the Georgian army thought it was doing in attempting a race up the single road hoping to beat the Russians, with their supposed head start, to Didi-Gupta or Roki. The “Russians moved first” accusation is a red herring.

Surely there is a much simpler explanation: Saakashvili always intended to re-gain South Ossetia, by war if necessary (we have Okruashvili’s testimony). The whole thing was supposed to have been more-or-less complete by Friday night; indeed, Saakashvili thought it was nearly over then and on the 8th he claimed that Georgian forces already controlled “most of South Ossetia”. Georgia's friends in the West would be then be calling for a ceasefire in place. (Okruashvili’s assessment: “Saakashvili's offensive only aimed at taking Tskhinvali, because he thought the U.S. would block a Russian reaction through diplomatic channels.”) Therefore, by Friday or Saturday, it would have been a done deal. A large percentage of Ossetians would have fled to the north away from the bombardment (a third to a half already had), more would be leaving, the Russians would be blocked and everyone would be looking at a fait accompli.

In short, the war that Tbilisi thought it was starting was a one- or two-day war which would have left South Ossetia empty of Ossetians and the Russians unable to do anything about it. And, as Okruashvili made clear, it would then be the turn of Abkhazia (“Abkhazia was our strategic priority, but we drew up military plans in 2005 for taking both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well”). In short a coup de main producing a quick fait accompli. Had the Georgian forces got through Tskhinvali and blocked the bridge at Didi-Gupta by Friday night, we’d be looking at a very different situation today.

A weakness of much analysis about wars is that analysts often try to explain why the war that actually happened began: how could Tbilisi have expected “little Georgia” to prevail against “mighty Russia”? But the real effort is to explain the war that the attacker thought he was starting. On the night of 7 August, Tbilisi, as many others in history have done (vide NATO’s 78-day, 20,000 sortie campaign in Kosovo and Serbia), began an operation that was expected to be short and victorious. But, as Field Marshal von Moltke observed: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. Tbilisi’s hopes were stopped, first by the resolute action of Ossetian defenders (some Tskhinvali combat footage in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgSvYtjzZt8 ; go to 7:50) and the arrival of Russian ground forces on Friday.

Saakashvili today has a different war to explain than he did on 8 August. Then it was the successful “liberation” of Georgia territory. Today he’s trying to justify something rather more apocalyptic: “Russia intends to destroy not just a country, but an idea…. This war threatens not only Georgia but security and liberty around the world.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/aug/15/georgia.russia, 15 August). He needs a new, bigger, explanation in which Georgia is the defender of “security and liberty around the world” against a Russia that wants to “demolish the post-cold war system of international relations in Europe”.

Patrick Armstrong,

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The west's moral failure over Georgia, by Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity

Guardian - 6 August 2009 - The free nations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are threatened by western complicity in our isolation and intimidation by Georgia

One year ago, Georgia's leaders ordered a military attack on unarmed civilians in South Ossetia. By any common understanding this action was a war crime and the ensuing conflict led to recognised independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, of which we are the elected leaders.

From the moment of the Georgian attack there has been a vast moral abdication in the west, among politicians, intellectuals and media – a failure to honestly confront what Georgia did. This moral failure has profound consequences for us and it is preventing western leadership from dealing realistically with the new boundaries of nationhood here.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are free and independent countries, goals sought by our people for centuries. We will never again be a part of Georgia. Over the past two decades, we have worked hard to prepare for our place in the community of nations; by promoting development of a civil society, by encouraging a free press and by holding contested elections in which our citizens chose their leaders. The same cannot be said of Georgia, whose last two leaders have come to power through revolution.
We want to raise our children without worrying every day about a reckless leader with a US arsenal at his disposal. Yet instead of demanding truth and accountability about atrocities committed by Georgia's US-trained and equipped military last August, the west is rearming our neighbour and committing billions of dollars in aid to the same rash leadership.

After independent observers, journalists and human rights groups began confirming the Georgian actions, some US and western leaders – against all reason and justice – said that it was no longer important who started the August war. Military aggression against civilians is never unimportant.

In the long run Abkhazians and South Ossetians will achieve our goals of political freedom and economic opportunity which are universal to people all over the world. But in the near term our progress is thwarted by western acquiescence in Georgia's policy of isolation and intimidation toward us.

US leaders say that unquestioning military and financial support for Georgia is the surest path to freedom and democracy in the region. But even the US has acknowledged President Mikheil Saakashvili's failure to uphold his democratic credentials, including the silencing of critics in the media and the crushing of political dissent.

In fact, the west is defending the borders of the Soviet Republic of Georgia, not historic Georgia, and embracing an ugly strain of Georgian nationalism and territorialism. It was Joseph Stalin who forced South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgia in 1931 under the Soviet Union, against the wishes of our people.

We believe our young democracies have great potential for bringing about peace, stability, freedom and democracy in the region. Yet the west has declined even to learn about our nation-building efforts. Our citizens, including students and desperately sick children, have been denied visas to the US and Germany, among other countries. Last year the US state department, under pressure from Georgia, refused to meet six human rights activists from South Ossetia visiting Washington. Why are they so afraid to listen?

Part of this resistance comes from a group of leaders in the west so steeped in a cold war mentality that they can only view our countries as pawns in an endless geopolitical struggle between Russia and the US and Europe. That leaves our republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in the unfortunate position described in an African proverb: when the elephants dance, the grass gets trampled.

We have no intention of accepting that fate. We will continue to insist that the world address the truth and accept its consequences.

The truth is that on 7 August 2008 an irrational Georgian leader used US military support to launch a brutal attack on South Ossetia, hours after publicly assuring Ossetian civilians that he had ordered a ceasefire. The truth is that Grad rockets and cluster bombs killed women, children and the elderly in the middle of the night, and only Russian intervention prevented an even greater atrocity.

Georgia does not need more weapons; it needs more tolerance and political freedom. If the Obama administration genuinely wanted to promote peace, stability and democratic values in our region, it would insist that Georgia sign a pact of non-aggression against our countries.

The language of US leaders says peace, but their actions communicate otherwise. In his visit to Tbilisi last month, US vice-president Joseph Biden made the following comment: "It's a sad certainty but it is true," he said. "there is no military option to reintegration [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia]."

Why would it be "sad" that Georgia should not use its military to attack our people?

In the end, we would ask the following: are Georgian freedoms more important than Abkhazian or South Ossetian freedoms? Is a Georgian child worth more than a South Ossetian or Abkhazian child?

We in Abkhazia and South Ossetia urge Georgia and its western supporters to join us in building a future based on shared values and a desire for peace.

Come to Sukhum and Tskhinval and see for yourself. Talk to those seeking to rebuild our war-damaged villages, meet the students who have been denied visas to attend peace camp in Germany, visit the entrepreneurs trying to grab a piece of the global market in spite of the Georgian blockade. We welcome your scrutiny and advice. We are not afraid of the truth.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Central Europe Digest: Georgia’s Post-War Fallout

Issue Brief No. 106: Georgia’s Post-War Fallout, by Jonathan Hayes

3 August 2009

CEPA Associate Scholar Jonathan Hayes assesses the dramatic reversal of fortune in Georgia’s relations with the west. Faced with a change in Western support and tarnished by a slipping commitment to democracy, “Saakashvili’s ability to effectively lead Georgia is diminishing,” writes Hayes. Going forward, Washington is unlikely to push for a Georgian MAP until it sees the fruits of the “reset” with Moscow.

As the anniversary of the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia approaches, Tbilisi finds itself in a more difficult position than this time last year. Under the Obama administration, Georgia’s American ally is less interested in promoting NATO membership for the small Caucasian state than in “resetting” relations with Russia. Questions about President Mikhail Saakashvili’s commitment to democratic governance have not gone away.

What has happened since the August War?

Since the onset of the conflict twelve months ago, Georgia has changed in two dramatic ways. First, the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have grown more intractable than ever, sabotaging Georgia’s bid for a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Second, Georgia’s domestic political turmoil has intensified, with a growing number of observers questioning Saakashvili’s credentials as a democrat and reformer. Meanwhile, America’s rapprochement with Russia has converged with the policy of Western Europe governments, sparking concern among Central European states over Washington’s commitment to the region.

The previous U.S. administration invested considerable energy into the securing MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine. Many European allies, particularly Germany, resisted the proposal. In the case of Georgia, alliance members stressed concern over the status of “frozen conflicts” in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Since the outbreak of hostilities in South Ossetia in 2008, the international status of both regions has remained unresolved. Russia recognized them as independent countries, but only Nicaragua followed suit. Georgia’s NATO candidacy is indefinitely on hold. After taking office in January, President Barack Obama has made reengagement with Russia, rather than NATO expansion, the top priority in the region. The president’s visit to Moscow and the bilateral nuclear arms reduction agreement announced in July are demonstrations of the White House’s intention to “reset” relations with the Kremlin. Though Obama has reiterated that Georgia and Ukraine have the right to join whatever military alliance they wish, he has stopped short of providing strong public endorsements for their candidacy.

Why is this change significant?

Faced with a change in Washington’s once assertive support, Saakashvili’s ability to effectively lead Georgia is diminishing. Official restrictions on the press and a crackdown on opposition protests have tarnished the president’s democratic credentials. The opposition has taken advantage of the geopolitical turmoil to mount a challenge to Saakashvili’s rule. Former close political allies such as Nino Burjanadze (the former parliamentary chair) and Irakli Alasania (the former ambassador to the United Nations) have defected from the president’s camp.

Despite these challenges, Central European states have been keen to continue promoting NATO candidacy for Ukraine and Georgia. As seen from the recent “Open Letter to the Obama Administration,” many officials in the region view America’s rapprochement with Russia as a threat to their own foreign-policy priorities. Closer relations between the United States and Russia, coupled with little progress on negotiating the deployment of the missile defense system, is especially worrisome to leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic. Both governments took risks by ratifying the missile defense agreement. They now fear that the new administration will leave them holding the bag.

What’s next?

Tbilisi’s backslide in democracy and lingering questions over its viability as an ally will present obstacles to substantive western support. In the worst case, Georgia will become nearly irrelevant to European and U.S. foreign policy priorities. Already, the United States and Western Europe have shown an unwillingness to expend valuable political capital on Georgia at the expense of building a positive relationship with Russia. This lowers the chances for a western-lead settlement on South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the near term. In addition, Washington will be unlikely to push for a Georgian MAP until it sees the fruits of the “reset” with Moscow. Meanwhile, opposition figures inside Georgia will continue to position themselves as a alternative to Saakashvili – even if his official term in office does not expire until 2013.

Jonathan Hayes is a CEPA Associate Scholar and a Senior Analyst for Jane's Strategic Advisory Services.