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
Published in September 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 former neighbours. I don’t blame the Ossetians and local Georgians for this—not wholly, at least. If it had been up to them they could probably have avoided conflict. But both Russian neoimperialism and Georgian nationalism played their dangerous part. If Vladimir Putin was itching to re-enact the aggressive reflexes of the tsars and the Soviets, Saakashvili was still too much the heir of what Andrei Sakharov called Georgia’s “little empire” complex, its nationalist desire to assimilate minorities. Both Moscow and Tbilisi exploited insecurities on the ground and eventually pushed the locals over the edge. Once the heavy guns started firing, the inhabitants of South Ossetia were caught up in a fast-closing trap of “kill or be killed.” Their misfortune is to live in a region which has had no proper security architecture since the end of the Soviet Union, and which picked up in 1991 where it had left off in 1921 when the Bolsheviks conquered it. The south Caucasus nations of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are still the “lands in between,” stuck in a region whose location between the Caspian and Black seas is strategically important to the wider world, but where Russia is the only power to have invested deeply in its local politics. In the Russian worldview, their role in the Caucasus has been earned in blood—and memorialised in poems by Pushkin and Lermontov—ever since Georgia voluntarily joined the Russian empire in 1801. By contrast, the westerners who intermittently express an interest are seen as dilettantes. In the last era of turmoil in the Caucasus between 1915 and 1921—which was far bloodier than anything in the modern era—the European powers rushed into the south Caucasus, then slowly surrendered it. When defending the region against the advancing Bolsheviks was deemed too difficult, the British pulled their troops out of Baku and the Black sea port of Batumi—which were at either end of the world’s first oil pipeline. Small wonder that in this latest crisis, Russia again calculated it could call the west’s bluff—and was proved right, at least militarily. Before August, Georgia had for a decade figured in the thinking of some western post-cold war strategists as a pawn in the “grand chessboard,” in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s unfortunate phrase. Initially, the focus of interest was the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, first discussed in the mid-1990s but only realised in 2006. It is the not-Russia-not-Iran-not-Saudi-Arabia pipeline, a route for oil exports which bypasses big unfriendly countries and is entirely under the control of a western company, BP. Its output—it is due to export 1m barrels of oil a day by the end of 2008—is not huge by world standards, but big enough to help European energy security. And key to its success was that the transit country in the middle would be a compliant western ally, Georgia. But oil did not figure in this war. The BTC was shaken by one nearby bombing raid, but was otherwise left unscathed. Moscow knows it would be suicidal to disrupt this oil route. Georgia’s 2003 “rose” revolution brought new enthusiasts, especially from Washington, who saw the country as a new model post-Soviet state challenging Russia. They marvelled at its economic growth. In an extravagant speech in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square in 2005, George W Bush called Georgia a “beacon of democracy.” But in the words of political analyst Ivlian Khaindrava, Saakashvili has a “government by day,” on show to western visitors like Bush or John McCain, and a “government by night,” led by men like interior minister Vano Merabishvili, who ordered the tear-gassing of demonstrators in Tbilisi last November. It was the nighttime lot who took up the fight with the Russians over South Ossetia and ordered the attack on 7th August. The Nato enlargement issue made the chess game even more dangerous. This crisis began to heat up after the Bucharest Nato summit in April, when Putin called the prospect of Georgia and Ukraine joining the alliance a “direct threat” to Russia. The final communiqué said that both countries “will be members of Nato,” but stopped short of giving them a direct route to membership. This was the cue for both sides to up their game of brinkmanship. If Russia is guilty of playing 19th-century power games, so are the policymakers who pushed Georgia too hard and too fast towards Nato. If anything good is to come out of this conflict, it is that the Caucasus and its complexities may begin to command interest in themselves, and not just as part of a broader squabble with Russia. David Cameron and other visitors to Tbilisi would be advised to bear this in mind. This crisis could actually mark the limit of Russian power in the Caucasus. Georgian statehood has survived, with the important exception of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—but they were basically lost anyway. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are politically closer to Russia, will have shuddered and vowed to make themselves less dependent on Russian power. With Moscow and Washington busy playing their own games, the EU, with its lumbering lowest common denominator foreign policy, has a chance to engage properly with the south Caucasus, as it did with the Balkans in the mid-1990s. As then, there is no way of doing this cheaply and no substitute for large numbers of people on the ground. There were just nine European monitors on the ground in South Ossetia when the war broke out. In another unresolved neighbourhood conflict, in the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh, there are just six. There, a ceasefire line dividing tens of thousands of troops belonging to Armenia and Azerbaijan runs just ten miles from the BTC pipeline. Behind the lines, the Armenians have since 1994 held both the disputed territory of Karabakh itself and a large swathe of surrounding Azerbaijani territory. Azerbaijan, fuelled by oil dollars, is now talking of recapturing its lost lands, while Armenian officers hint that, if attacked, their first target will be Azerbaijan’s oil and gas infrastructure. The two armies almost had their doomsday moment on 3rd March near the village of Levonarkh, when they fired mortars at one another for 24 hours. But they stopped. The Georgian crisis that kicked off in Avnevi is a reminder of how a small skirmish in fissiparous borderlands like the Balkans or Caucasus can ignite an international crisis. It will take years to pick up the pieces. let us hope Levonarkh is not next.