Thursday, August 6, 2009

The South Ossetian War: One year later

A year ago this week, Georgia attacked Russia. It was like Jamaica attacking the United States. It was such a foolish and foredoomed act that at first most people believed the Georgian propaganda blaming it all on the Russians. Surely Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili wouldn't do something so utterly stupid. But he did - and he lost, of course.

There are two hang-overs from the week-long war that still have not cleared up, however. One is the lingering impression in the West, left over from the way that Western media reported the conflict at the time, that the "Russian bear" has turned nasty and expansionist. The other is a promise to Georgia that should never have been made.

In the year since the war, it has become clear that the Georgian attack, which sought to regain control of the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, was planned well in advance. The Russians only responded after their peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia came under Georgian attack, but the Georgians won the propaganda battle.

Saakashvili painted the Russians as evil aggressors, relying on Cold War stereotypes: "Russia's war on Georgia echoes events in Finland in 1939, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968," he told the Washington Post in August, 2008. It fitted Western preconceptions, so the media went along with it.

So did U.S. presidential candidate John McCain, condemning Russia's "violent aggression" and claiming that "Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21 century Europe." Barack Obama was more circumspect, but in the midst of an election campaign he chose not to expose his flank to the Cold Warriors of the Republican Party by openly challenging their version of events.

The other problem, from a European perspective, was U.S. President George W. Bush's push to get Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, admitted to the NATO alliance. These countries are to the south of Russia, not between it and Western Europe, and bringing them into the Western alliance would alarm and alienate the Russians. Yet there is no practical way that NATO could defend them if they got into a fight with the Russians.

Indeed, this concern may have been the main motive behind the creation of a European Union commission to investigate the origins of the war. The commission is led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who has served in the area as an observer, and it has been gathering evidence for almost a year now. If its conclusions blame the war on Georgia, as seems likely, they will not be unwelcome in Brussels.

Some of those conclusions were leaked last spring to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, and they support the contention that Georgia deliberately concentrated its troops and launched a surprise attack on South Ossetia, with the aim of seizing control of the province before Russia could respond.

Between 16,000 and 20,000 Georgian troops, all equipped with modern U.S. weapons, attacked the South Ossetian militia and about 1,000 Russian peacekeeping troops who were stationed there on the night of 7 August. Even the Georgian "peacekeeping" battalion that was also stationed in the province took part in the attack. The local capital, Tskhinvali, fell into Georgian hands within hours, and dozens of Russian troops were killed or injured.

Moscow responded quickly, and a large Russian force, including heavy armour, was sent south from the Russian province of North Ossetia through the tunnel under the main Caucasus range (which the Georgians had failed to secure) on Aug. 8. In one more day Georgian troops had been driven out of South Ossetia, and the Russians even followed them some distance into Georgia proper before withdrawing again at the end of the month.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia's former ambassador to Moscow and a former confidant of Saakashvili's, testified to the Georgian parliament last November that Georgian officials told him in April 2008 that they planned to start a war to recover Abkhazia, one of Georgia's two breakaway regions, and had received a green light from the United States government to do so. He said the Georgian government later decided to start the war in South Ossetia, the other region, and continue into Abkhazia.

Both the evidence of observers on the ground and the testimony of disillusioned Georgian officials like Kitsmarishvili are driving the EU commission toward the conclusion that Russia merely responded to the Georgian aggression. It will be helpful to have an authoritative Western body acknowledge that Russia has not undergone some fundamental change of strategy.
The EU commission, whose report has been postponed until next month, will not formally recommend against Georgia joining NATO, but the implication there will also be clear. Nobody really believed that NATO would ever fight World War Three to save Georgia, even it were the innocent victim of Russian aggression, but by attacking Russia Saakashvili got everybody off the hook.

Retired British army colonel Christopher Langton, senior fellow for conflict and defence diplomacy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, summed it up only weeks after the war. "Georgia's dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that."

By Gwynne Dyer,

Friday, May 8, 2009

Georgia, Russia put off S. Ossetia talks

A second round of security talks between Georgia, Russia and the rebel Georgian region of South Ossetia has been postponed amid rising Moscow-Tbilisi tensions, officials said on Thursday.

The discussions, aimed at reducing the risk of violence in the area around South Ossetia, were due to take place on Thursday in line with an agreement reached in April during a first meeting. "It has been postponed because we could not agree on a suitable location," a spokesman for European Union ceasefire monitors in Georgia, Steve Bird, told AFP. "We tried a number of different locations but they weren't acceptable," he said.

Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili blamed Russia and South Ossetia for the cancellation. He said that after initially agreeing to hold the meeting further inside Georgian-controlled territory, the Russians and South Ossetians said late on Wednesday that was no longer acceptable.

"We regret their refusal to participate," he said. But an official with Russian military forces in South Ossetia blamed Georgia, saying the meeting "has been indefinitely postponed due to the unconstructive position of the Georgian side".

He told the Itar-Tass news agency that Georgia had initially agreed the meeting could be held in the same location as the first round of talks, the border village of Ergneti, but later insisted on other locations. Sporadic violence has continued around South Ossetia since an EU-brokered ceasefire was signed in August, ending a brief conflict over the rebel region. Tensions between Georgia and Russia have remained high since the war. Moscow has been fiercely critical of Nato military exercises that began in Georgia on Wednesday. A new round of talks aimed at preventing another war is to take place in Geneva on May 18-19.

Georgia row escalating

The reset button in Russia-NATO relations appears to have well and truly jammed after Moscow and the Brussels-based military alliance both threw out diplomats in a messy spy scandal. Unraveling against the backdrop of this latest row is a curious mutiny by a Georgian battalion slated to take part in joint NATO exercises in the Caucasus country, which Moscow has vigorously opposed.

While the Georgian government has accused Russia of trying an attempted coup, the Georgian opposition insists that it was President Mikhail Saakashvili who staged a theatrical show so he could blame Russia and brag before his NATO allies. Russia, meanwhile, is claiming that NATO is just trying to provoke a White House bent on restoring positive relations.

All this has cast a heavy shadow over Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to Washington this week, where he is expected to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"I am certain that a pro-war faction has formed within NATO," Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO, said by telephone from Brussels when asked about the expulsion of two Russian diplomats this week. "There are people in NATO whose teeth are set on edge by all those peaceful statements by Barack Obama. And they are going to get in the way of normal, improving relations between Russia and NATO. For them, it is important to present Russia as an enemy. This creates a basis for their reactionary plans to develop NATO based on the old, Cold War scenario. This is a provocation, a conspiracy against Obama."

Rogozin said he drew these conclusions from the way the decision to expel the diplomats was revealed. "I was told of this decision only after a session of the Russia-NATO Council had ended, giving me no chance to react. A considerable number of ambassadors from NATO countries called me the other day to express their anger at this decision, they too had not been informed beforehand."

Asked how exactly these hawkish elements hoped to provoke the U.S. administration, he explained: "They are certain that we will react adequately, symmetrically. All those plans that we had agreed on, had shaken hands on, they are all being suspended indefinitely."

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already canceled a NATO meeting scheduled for May 19 as a protest against the NATO exercises, while Rogozin said this was also a response to the diplomatic expulsions.

An EU-brokered meeting between Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia that was scheduled for Thursday was cancelled, although officials did not attribute it directly to the diplomatic row. Meanwhile, Russian allies in the CIS, Armenia and Kazakhstan, have pulled out of the joint exercises after President Dmitry Medvedev said it was unwise to hold them so soon after August's military conflict in Georgia over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

NATO has pressed on with the exercises, which started on Wednesday and will run through until June 1.

On Tuesday, the Mukhrovani armored tank battalion near Tbilisi refused orders to take part in the exercises and called for dialogue between the government and the opposition, which has been rallying in the capital for weeks for Saakashvili's resignation. Georgia's Defence Ministry that day claimed it had not only suppressed an armed coup, but also infiltrated a plot to assassinate Saakashvili.

The Georgian opposition claims that the government's exaggerated response was staged by Saakashvili. "There was no mutiny, it was all staged to distract attention away from the real problems and blame it on Russia," said Bidzina Gudjabidze, a member of parliament for the opposition Conservative Party.

His party is campaigning for Saakashvili's resignation, but has strongly condemned Russia's military action in South Ossetia and its recognition of the republic's independence. Moscow-based military analysts said that NATO's insistence on holding the exercises is puzzling, given their relatively low military significance.

"These are General Staff exercises held in headquarters, not on the field," said Ivan Safranchuk, a defence analyst. "The level of these games has declined. NATO is in a delicate situation regarding Saakashvili. On the one hand, they find him a liability. But they keep up the obligations."

Rogozin said that NATO officials had explained the necessity of the exercises to him by saying that the organisation "had to save face."

"We had warned the alliance through diplomatic channels that it is quite possible during the exercises that Saakashvili will stage some sort of provocation against foreign military personnel," he said.

"I don't think the mutiny was entirely a spectacle, there could have been some genuine dissent," says Alexander Tchatchia, a Tbilisi-based political analyst at the Institute for Globalisation Problems. "But I do think the mutiny was deliberately provoked. It plays into the hands of Saakashvili and NATO" because it shows genuine decent and pluralism on the one hand, and the president's ability to peacefully deal with it on the other.

On the Russian side, officials were "deliberately overreacting to underscore our vigilance over Saakashvili," said Safranchuk.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Russian-Georgian talks on South Ossetia postponed indefinitely

A scheduled meeting between Russia, the European Union, Georgia and its breakaway region of South Ossetia will not take place because of Georgia's rigid position, a spokesman for Russia's Defense Ministry has said.

"The four-party talks on averting an incident in the border zone scheduled for today has been postponed indefinitely because of Georgia's non-constructive position," commander of the Russian military base in South Ossetia told Itar Tass news agency on Thursday.

Georgia met officials from the region for the first time in the conflict zone on April 23 at talks facilitated by the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"Contrary to the agreement reached earlier, Georgia refused to host the meeting in the Ergneti settlement not far from South Ossetia border, and offered to hold it in the town of Gori, further away from the borderline. South Ossetia rejected the offer," the spokesman said.

2nd Caucasus normalisation talks disrupted by Georgia

Another, second meeting of officials of Russia, South Ossetia, Georgia and the European Union on the normalisation of the situation in Georgia's border region with South Ossetia has been disrupted through Georgia's fault, a representative of the command of the Russian military base in South Ossetia told Itar-Tass on Thursday.

"The planned for today second four-sided meeting on matters of preventing incidents in the border zone has been indefinitely postponed due to unconstructive position of the Georgian sided," he said.

"The Georgian side, contrary to the earlier reached agreement, refused to hold this meeting in its territory in the Ergneti village near the border with South Ossetia, but proposed to hold it in the city of Gori located far from the border. This proposal for a number of reasons, including security considerations, was not satisfactory to the South Ossetian side that refused to go to Gori," the Russian military base official explained.

"Thus the second four-sided meeting on the normalisation of the situation in the Caucasus has been indefinitely postponed through the Georgian side's fault," he said.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fewer in Georgia Want to Join NATO

Fewer people in Georgia-yet still a majority-are expressing support for their country to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), according to a poll by the Institute of Polling and Marketing, Baltic Surveys/Gallup, and the International Republican Institute. 63 per cent of respondents back NATO accession, down 24 points since September.

NATO was originally formed in 1949 as an agreement of collaboration designed to prevent a possible attack from the Soviet Union on North America or Western Europe during the Cold War. In March 2004, NATO added seven more nations, six of which were once members of the Warsaw Pact-a military alliance of Eastern European Soviet countries.

According to international regulations, South Ossetia and Abkhazia belong to Georgia-a former Soviet republic. In the early 1990s, both pro-Russian regions became de facto independent but failed to be fully recognized as sovereign nations. Separatist factions operate in both regions.
In August 2008, a military conflict broke out between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where many Russian citizens live. On Aug. 8, Georgian forces entered South Ossetia to assert sovereignty over the region, and Russia responded with a full military operation that saw Russian soldiers take control of Georgian territory beyond South Ossetia. A ceasefire was later brokered by the European Union (EU). On Aug. 26, the Russian government officially recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgia is currently led by pro-Western politicians. Last year, it was promised access to NATO.
On May 3, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev accused NATO of "muscle-flexing" as it was confirmed that close to 1,000 NATO soldiers will conduct military exercises at a Georgian army base east of Tbilisi this month.

Polling Data

Do you support Georgia joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?

Feb. 2009 Sept. 2008

Support 63% 87%

Oppose 17% 8%

Not sure 11% 6%

Nato to begin Georgia exercises

Nato is to start a series of military exercises in Georgia, a day after the government thwarted an attempt by its own soldiers to stage a mutiny.

Soldiers from 18 countries are taking part in the drills at a Georgian army base close to the capital, Tbilisi.
But Russia has said the exercises amount to a provocation.
They come just nine months after Russia's short war with Georgia and are taking place close to areas where Russian troops are stationed.

More than 1,000 soldiers will take part in the exercises over a period of more than three weeks.
For Georgia, which has been promised eventual Nato membership, they are a sign that, despite doubts over its candidate status after last year's war with Russia, it has not been forgotten.
Russia views the exercises as a provocation and has turned down an invitation to send observers.

In recent days its security forces have officially begun patrolling the border between South Ossetia, the epicentre of last summer's conflict, and Georgia. The Georgian government has repeatedly said Russia's actions are to blame for raising tension in the region.

It also accuses Moscow of backing the mutiny at an army base on Tuesday and supporting an alleged coup plot. Russia has denied the allegations.

The Georgian government is hopeful that the Nato exercises will give it a chance to prove to its Western allies that it can host an important international event without further disturbances.