Soon after August 2008 war in South Ossetia I tried to publish Op-Eds on the situation there. Either because my Op-Eds were so bad or I sent them to the first rank U.S. papers, they never were published. So I thought, why not to publish them at least in my blog, just for general information.
It has become common wisdom that the Russian government is to blame for every negative development inside Russia and in the surrounding countries. Still, I was astonished to observe how readily the American media followed the Georgian version of the conflict with Russia, without looking much into the substance of this story.
The bulk of the discussion focuses on geopolitics and hardly anyone asks the Ossetians, whose homes were destroyed at the beginning of this latest war in August, for their opinions and concerns. Meanwhile, the fighting has forced more than 30,000 South Ossetians to flee to Russia – the third wave of Ossetian refugees running from Georgia in the past century.
Ossetians are a half-a-million strong, predominantly Christian, people, who speak a language related to Persian and inhabit the northern and southern slopes of the Caucasus mountain range. The last exodus of Ossetians from Georgia took place in the early 1990s, during the conflict that brought about the de facto independence of South Ossetia that Georgia tried to end militarily last week. Back then, the Russian autonomous republic of North Ossetia just across the Russian-Georgian border (familiar to Americans as the location of the 2004 school hostage crisis in Beslan), received around 100,000 Ossetian refugees from Georgia. The vast majority of these refugees had not even lived in the conflict zone in Georgia; they suffered from attacks and harassment by Georgian official and irregular forces merely because they were ethnic Ossetians.
Few experts in the West bother to ask why ethnic Ossetians do not wish to be part of Georgia or why they see no alternative to fighting the Georgians. Most analysts completely disregard the Ossetians’ central role in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, instead repeating the Georgian mantra about Russian destructive influence. It has been one of the main mistakes of the Georgian government to only see Russia’s hand behind the conflict in South Ossetia (although I’m not denying that there is a great deal of Russian involvement) and to ignore the Ossetians’ real concerns and problems. For centuries Ossetians on both sides of the mountains lived in the same political entity. When Georgians formed their own, post-Soviet state, the South Ossetians resolved to stay with North Ossetia, which is part of Russia. Georgia, despite its undeniable progress in democratic reform, repeatedly denied Georgia repeatedly denied the South Ossetians the right to self-determination, but also never engaged them as partners in peacemaking, let alone as valued fellow citizens. Within months of coming to power in Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, Mikhail Saakashvili tried to retake South Ossetia by force. When he failed and was even reportedly rebuked by US officials for his actions, the Georgian government started publicizing peaceful conflict resolution plans that they hardly discussed with anyone in South Ossetia while trumpeting them in Washington and Brussels. Instead of holding good faith negotiations with the actual South Ossetian government, Tbilisi denounced it as criminal and created a puppet pro-Georgian government with which it could have a make-belief settlement, a cynical and utterly transparent ploy that not surprisingly went nowhere.
While expulsions of ethnic Georgians took place in Abkhazia, Georgia’s other separatist territory, South Ossetia never perpetrated large scale ethnic cleansing prior to this current war. Indeed, during the conflict in the 1990s the South Ossetian leadership protected ethnic Georgians from reprisals, even after documented atrocities against Ossetians by Georgian forces. Tragically, the recent war has brought an abrupt and probably irreversible end to the largely peaceful co-existence of Georgians and Ossetians in South Ossetia.
Most American coverage fails to note that the disparity of forces between South Ossetia and Georgia is about the same as that between Georgia and Russia. Thus, when the Georgian military attacked South Ossetia, it supplied Russia with a unique opportunity not just to reassert itself as a regional power, to defy the West and to unite Russians around the flag, but to fight a “just war” to protect a small people.
Immediately after the Georgian army started its heavy bombardment of Tskhinvali on August 7, the North Ossetian leadership and people closed ranks with South Ossetia. Ossetians on both the northern and southern slopes of the Caucasus mountains have shown extraordinary determination to protect their homeland and people. In these circumstances Russia would have experienced tremendous political turmoil, especially in its already troubled North Caucasus region, if it had not intervened. Russia could not allow itself to sit back and watch the Georgian military destroy South Ossetia, not just because of its broader international agenda, but for internal political reasons.
There is no doubt that Russia has used South Ossetia, along with Abkhazia, to exert influence on Georgian politics. This is no great secret among Ossetians, including those living in South Ossetia. However, Russia was the only major player that would take their grievances into consideration and provide assistance on a wide range of needs.
Some people in the West argue that the rights of Ossetians would be much better protected in democratic Georgia than in authoritarian Russia. It is certainly better to live in a democracy than in an authoritarian state, a statement most Ossetians will surely agree with. However, so far Georgian democracy has meant ethnic purges and massive armed attacks for Ossetians, so they have little choice but to stick to authoritarian, but somewhat less unsafe, Russia. After all, if you are killed, what does it matter whether it was done by a democratically elected government or by a tsar?