Russia invaded Georgia partly to help maintain the loyalty of its own southern republicsby Daniel J Gerstle / August 31, 2008 / Leave a comment
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According to Russia, up to 2,000 people have died in the Russo-Georgia conflict and 30,000 have been displaced in South Ossetia. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that the crisis may have created as many as 100,000 refugees across Georgia.
The conflict has its roots not only in South Ossetia, where the fighting began last week, but also over the Caucasus mountain border in the southern Russian republics, primarily North Ossetia. According to Russian news agencies, Russia’s federal and interior forces—including those of the southern republics North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, Ingushetia and Chechnya—participated in a joint military exercise along the Russo-Georgia border in mid-July. Then, on 5th August, three days before the Russian invasion of Georgia began, the leaders of North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia released a joint statement describing their plan for military and humanitarian action should Georgia advance on South Ossetia.
What explains the bond of loyalty between the Ossetians and Russia? As an American serving as an aid worker in North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Chechnya in 2006, I had a unique opportunity to find out who the Ossetians are. I also learned their pivotal role in Russian national security.
The Ossetians are a Persiatic, largely Christian people who live on both sides of the Russo-Georgian border. They call themselves “Iron Adem” and their nation “Alania.” Villagers guard memorials of their past civilisation: castle towers, ruined stone villages and open-air tombs called “Houses of the Dead.” Lowland Ossetians celebrate their nationhood in theatres, churches and forested culture parks, and are known for their prowess at football and delicious feta cheese pies.
The Ossetians fought off tsarist Russia from mountain fortresses until 1830, when they were forcibly incorporated into the empire. In the 1930s, Stalin authorised the division of Ossetia between his native Georgia and Russia by drawing a line along the high mountain ridge geographically dividing the republics, perhaps handing South Ossetia as a gift to his people back home. In 1942, the Ossetians stopped the German army advance at the doorstep of their largest city, Vladikavkaz, earning the respect of Stalin. Once mountain herders, they were now national heroes.
In 1944, when Stalin ordered the mass deportation of Chechens, Ingush, Karachai, Balkars and other groups from southern Russia to central Asia for their apparent lack of loyalty, he allowed the Ossetians to remain and climb into the Soviet power structure. The Ossetians remained loyal to the Kremlin—while they were unhappy about the partition of their nation, until Georgian independence its purpose was merely administrative.
National Ossetian feeling remains strong. In the post-Soviet era, North and South Ossetians alike regularly crossed their mutual border to find work, shop, visit relatives or simply to holiday. Local newspapers and websites call for the union of South and North, even if that unity lands both entities within the borders of Russia. As for Georgia, its behaviour in the early days of independence, when it fought hard against South Ossetian rebels (as well as those of its other restive province, Abkhazia) set a tone of distrust that the Ossetians never overcame. Had Russia not responded to the Georgian campaign against South Ossetia last week, North Ossetians may have abandoned Russia’s counter-insurgency at home to lend a hand to their ethnic brethren over the border, as they did in the early 1990s.
Russia had many motivations for the invasion of Georgia. The Kremlin wants to maintain a military presence beyond its southern border to prevent Nato from stepping in, and to protect Russian citizens, including South Ossetians. The Kremlin may also have wanted to punish Georgia for allegedly lending secret support to insurgents in southern Russia. But to understand why Russia’s response to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was so strong, it helps to understand the role played by Russia’s southern ethnic minorities.
Today, Russia’s top national security concern is the Islamic radical insurgency ravaging its southern republics. The insurgency and the two Chechen wars which spawned it have killed well over 100,000 Russian citizens. By 2001, Russian federal and Chechen loyalist forces had largely beaten Islamic rebels. But with its attention focused on Chechnya, the Kremlin lost an advantage. Islamic radicals began recruiting disgruntled Muslim fighters all across the southern federal district and the conflict spread to the neighbouring Russian republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kalbardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia. The Kremlin has succeeded in securing the loyalties of all of the minority governments across the southern republics, including Chechnya, but the insurgency persists in a series of shootouts and bombings throughout southern Russia.
With the insurgency still threatening to undermine regional governments, including that of North Ossetia, Russia desperately needed to find a way to re-consolidate its alliances among southern leaders. Russia’s protection of threatened South Ossetians in Georgia, in co-operation with North Ossetia, has done more to rally Kremlin allies there than any other political event since the terror attack on Beslan, North Ossetia, in 2004. Even Chechen special forces loyal to Moscow, who had taken a break from fighting insurgents at home, were spotted waving to photographers on their ride into battle in Tskhinvali, the devastated capitol of South Ossetia, on the frontline of Russia’s advance.
Because of Russia’s action in Georgia, not only did North Ossetians move closer to union with South Ossetia, but southern leaders who represent minorities like the Cherkess, Kabardins, and Adyg, were able to bring their people closer to their ethnic brethren in Abkhazia. Southern leaders without ties to Georgia, like the Chechens and Ingush, joined in this fight to win points from Moscow as well as to repay neighbouring governments for the blood they sacrificed in the ongoing counter-insurgency.
What now? Any future agreement between Russia, Georgia and the minority leadership, according to Jenik Radon, Georgia’s chief negotiator on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, should recognise the virtual ethnic unity of North and South Ossetia. The agreement should offer an open border, dual-state solution in which Ossetians can move back and forth freely but national borders are respected. But Lincoln Mitchell urges caution on the redrawing of frontiers. “The notion that borders in that region are not final is not one that will end well for Russia. Too many groups in southern Russia are not enamoured at the idea of being part of the Russian Federation.”
Russia has acted to secure its foothold in the south Caucasus and to solidify alliances with key ethnic allies like the Ossetians in the ongoing counter-insurgency along its southern border. But while calling Georgia’s borders into question may win the Kremlin public relations victories at home, it may backfire by bringing its own side of the border back into the spotlight.
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