There are no winners in Georgia's crisis. It shows how great power games can easily get out of handby Thomas de Waal / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
If all politics is local, then we need to know what happened in the Georgian villages of Avnevi, Tamarasheni and Kurta on the evening of 7th August, just before Georgia and Russia plunged the world into crisis.
Georgian officials say that these three villages of ethnic Georgians around the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali came under sustained attack just after President Mikheil Saakashvili had announced a unilateral ceasefire in the local skirmishes between the two sides in South Ossetia. The Ossetian side says that the evening of 7th August was relatively quiet before Saakashvili launched a major assault, which then triggered the brutal Russian response.
In the Caucasus, local politics matter, but few outsiders understand it. Instead, the region is seen through the wrong end of a geopolitical telescope, written into large-scale strategic scenarios which overlook the inhabitants of places like Avnevi or Tskhinvali.
South Ossetia is a tiny place, its population, 70,000, the size of an English market town. Tskhinvali, the so-called capital, is an overgrown village with a semi-rural economy. Before it was turned to rubble by this crisis, it was home to barely 20,000 people.
Between 1990 and 1992, fighting over this territory cost around 1,000 lives and caused great bitterness, but the conflict was solvable. Throughout the 1990s, Ossetians and Georgians got on well despite their differences. They did a roaring trade with one another at a market in the village of Ergneti: Georgian farmers sold their produce; the Ossetians offloaded petrol, cigarettes and consumer goods—none of it taxed.
Divisions widened again after Saakashvili shut down Ergneti in 2004, saying it undermined Georgian statehood, while Moscow started handing out Russian citizenship to the Ossetians. A new low-level conflict began, in which numerous relationships carried on by day, but the snipers began firing at each other every night. An Ossetian friend told me that just a week before the war, Georgian workers from Gori were still doing repair work on her sister’s house in Tskhinvali.
Now Tskhinvali lies in ruins from Georgian artillery, Gori has been pillaged by Russian soldiers and Ossetian irregulars, and the Georgian villages of South Ossetia are empty and burned. Some of the same villagers who used to do business with one another will have been swept up in the current of violence and taken part in the looting and killing of their…