The war in Georgia has been on my mind of late. I find its moral complexities enthralling, its human tragedy humbling and its implications for the West unsettling. It deserves this kind of consideration, deserves some print space, and so I’m spending this sultry Sunday covering each of these points in a rant about a struggle I know only in jarring, fragmented glimpses.
On the first point – its complexity – I have a strong visceral reaction to some of the core components of the conflict.
Foremost is the Ossetian desire for national statehood. I am an admirer and avid scholar of the Ossetian culture, and fully support their efforts for autonomy. In this, I recognize I’m admitting a degree of bias. However, I think it to be well founded.
Beyond an ingrained, Liberal-Democratic desire to see people who crave freedom and self-representation have it, I think the Ossetians exhausted all other avenues available to them. While still part of the USSR, the district governments of South Ossetia expressed interest in autonomy from the nascent nation of Georgia through several democratic means – voting, referendum and demonstration.
The response from Georgia was, first, to establish Georgian as the lawful, principal language, then to ban regional political parties, then to revoke South Ossetia’s autonomy. When that didn’t work to quash Ossetia’s aspirations, the Georgians responded with some low-intensity genocide: A terror campaign in South Ossetia that left around a thousand South Ossetians dead and over a hundred thousand fleeing their centuries-old homes for their lives. It was textbook ethnic cleansing.
Things didn’t get better come the fall of the USSR. Only Russian intervention stopped Georgia from cleansing all of South Ossetia in 1992. South Ossetia’s rebel militias and parties have since developed thick ties to Moscow, becoming a cat’s paw for Russian ambition.
The cease-fire and respect for South Ossetia’s de facto autonomy continued, until Georgia got an anabolic shot in the arm from the West in the form of the War on Terror. It devoted troops to Iraq, worked with our forces and, in 2004, decided to roll the dice and crack down on smuggling in South Ossetia. The pot has been risking boiling over since.
Which brings me to my last emotional impression of this complex situation. That is, though I know many Georgians and Ossetians are intermarried in South Ossetia; though I know Georgia claims the territory even though the territory has denied their rule since before Georgia’s independence; and though I know Russia clearly hankers for a land grab in the Caucasus with Ossetian secession as excuse for its appetite, I come back to one glaring factor – one point that shatters the lucidity of any parallel with historic examples of an empire exploiting a local turf war to expand its margins on the map:
The Georgians took advantage of other nations’ good faith and amity to back stab Ossetia.
I’ll recount events:
On August 7th, after a week of suspicious, bloody probes into South Ossetia by the Georgian military, the Georgian government reached out its hands in peace:
[President] Saakashvili ordered a unilateral ceasefire. Saakashvili called for talks “in any format”; reaffirmed the long-standing offer of full autonomy for South Ossetia; proposed that Russia should guarantee that solution; offered a general amnesty; and pleaded for international intercession to stop the hostilities (Rustavi-2 TV, August 7).
Russia and the world went to the Olympics. The South Ossetian rebels went back to their homes and families. It looked like life would go on peacefully, with diplomacy prevailing.
Then the Georgians began shelling South Ossetia – especially its civilian centers. They rolled in tanks and APCs. This was due, they claimed, to shelling hitting outlying Georgian villages. But if that was so, why did they just happen to have a full-scale offensive ready to absorb, in their own estimation, “two-thirds” of South Ossetia in less than 24-hours? Why did they kill 2,000 South Ossetians?
Why attack in the first place?
The response from Russia was devastating. As I noted in my previous article, Russia had to win that war by thrashing Georgia so that it couldn’t get forces into South Ossetia to dig in. It did so by blasting almost every major part of the Georgian infrastructure – pipelines, ports, roads – and inflicting some vicious casualties.
The photography work of a friend of mine, currently in country recording the conflict, shows some of the suffering and carnage the Georgians are enduring.
That is the humbling human tragedy I refer to – the sickening notion that for the sake of the vying ambitions of governments, so many people can suffer so horribly.
Still, for all that complexity – for the “Great Game” aspect played by Moscow’s strategic planners and Georgia’s West-dependent defense department gamblers; for the nationalist ideologies in conflict here and the inordinately brutal damage so casually inflicted by Georgia and Russia’s governments – this catastrophe elicits a clean, clear emotional response from me.
The Ossetians want and deserve a homeland – Georgia is slaughtering them by the hundreds, shredding their rights, conniving to look like the victim in this – and so I am outraged. Russia’s cold-hearted imperialism, the pro-West polish of Georgia; those matter little.
As much as many in the West might want to paint this as Russia snatching back the fragments of its empire, the fact is that they would not have had the opportunity had not Georgia launched a very large, very, very bloody campaign against the Ossetians.
The murderous ambition I see here – despite what CNN may say and try to slant – is that of Georgia.
And that brings us to the final point. It’s an old saw I’ve played, and so lest you suffer from rust poisoning, I’ll get right to the mettle of the matter:
The media is entirely painting this as Russian aggression – another “Anschluss”, another conquest masked as humanitarian intervention. The article that lists 2,000 South Ossetians dead is headlined, “RUSSIAN WARPLANES TARGET GEORGIA”, and no effort to make clear that most – if not all – of those 2,000 were massacred by Georgian shelling.
It mentions international calls for Russia to stand down, but not that Georgia had been assaulting an enclave of civilians, technically its own save for that they have less rights, in an effort to disembowel their nearly two decade-long fight for freedom.
It could invest the qualities and mantle of our own Founding Fathers – ignored and antagonized by English oppression past endurance – in the Ossetians; it could talk of the efforts they made, the sorry infiltration of their desperate ranks by Russian control; the horrible fate that its people face under Georgian occupation that succeeds, a second Chechnya.
It does not. It talks of Russian aggression, plucking the old strains of the Tom Clancy novel reality Americans best understand, keeping as much blood off of the USA’s regional buddy as it can manage.
It proves, once again, that the press is worse than just biased. The media – the very tenor and tune of the information we are given – is bought and sold.
Not all voices are, not initially. Obviously, I can read between the lines and follow the trail well enough to discern a picture of events with depth and clarity. But the message being yelled loudest, the one easiest to digest, is one manufactured for the sake of dumbing down the conflict – keeping the Russians in their black hats and the Georgians tucked close under our arm.
And that is almost as disturbing as the thought of another raw, brutal Caucasus War. Almost.