I was in Georgia as a
stringer for The Times (London)
when the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict first erupted at the end of 1990, in
the context of the gathering decay of the Soviet Union.
I must say that I never could have imagined then that this obscure dispute
would one day hold the potential for creating a major international crisis.
This conflict has its roots in three factors: First is the desire of the
Southern Ossetes, who up until 1990 formed an autonomous region of the Georgian
Soviet republic, to unite in one state with their co-ethnics in North Ossetia,
an autonomous republic of the Russian Soviet republic (now the Russian Federation.)
This desire was further increased by Ossete fear of violent Georgian
nationalism and hatred of ethnic minorities under then Georgian leader Zviad
Gamsakhurdia, a tradition that the Ossetes see as having been revived under the
present Georgian President, Mikhel Saakashvili. Spurred by this nationalism,
the Georgians in December 1990 sent troops into South Ossetia after the region
declared its own sovereignty - like the Russians in Chechnya or the Moldovans
in Transdniestria, but unlike the peaceful Russian response to Tatarstan's
declaration of sovereignty, or the Ukrainian response to Crimean independence
moves. This Georgian move was defeated by Soviet Interior Ministry troops, but
began the war which has rumbled on intermittently ever since. It was followed
by the Georgian government declaring the abolition of the South Ossete
autonomous region and its incorporation into Georgia proper.
Finally, of critical importance ever since 1990 has been first Soviet and
now Russian military support for the Southern Ossetes.
This comes from a mixture of strategic and emotional motives. Initially,
backing the Ossetes (and their allies the Abkhaz) in their opposition to Georgia was seen as a way of blocking first
Georgian independence from the Soviet Union
and then moves to ally with the West. Increasingly, however, Russians have
accepted that maintaining influence over Georgia
is hopeless, but they are deeply unwilling to see Georgia join NATO, since it would
further Russian humiliation. In addition, the Ossetes are the oldest Russian
allies in the Caucasus who have provided
troops to the Russian army in many wars. Russia
does not wish to abandon them and the Abkhaz, and fuel yet more ethnic unrest
among their compatriots in the Russian North Caucasus.
As far as the Georgians are concerned, of course, South
Ossetia and Abkhazia are simply part of their national territory,
guaranteed as such under international law, and to be recovered at all costs.
Promises by NATO leaders to bring Georgia
into the alliance at some stage in future, and ostentatious declarations of
support from Washington, appear to have
convinced the Georgian administration that if they began a new war with Russia over South Ossetia,
the West would be compelled to come to their aid. Hence the Georgian military
move into South Ossetia in recent days.
In this however the Georgians appear to have miscalculated very badly. Russia has made it clear over the years that it
has no intention of suffering defeat in South Ossetia
or Abkhazia. It is exceptionally unlikely that the U.S.
will send troops to fight for Georgia,
or even impose serious sanctions on Moscow,
given the certainty of a Russian response against vital U.S. interests in other areas (notably Iran). And if Russia exerts
even a fraction of its strength, the Georgian forces will be crushed. The only
very faint hope from this miserable situation is that yet another defeat might
conceivably persuade the Georgians to let South Ossetia
and Abkhazia go, at which point Georgia's path to join NATO and perhaps even
one day the EU would be vastly easier.