Archive for August 9th, 2008

Georgia on my mind

Hearing the hyperbolic rhetoric from McCain and Obama – -and most of the American media — about Russia’s military action in Georgia, it strikes me that we’re being a bit hypocritical. The situation involving South Ossetia is complicated, and Georgian policies have themselves been brutal and repressive. If the shoe was on the other foot, we’d like be doing the same thing Russia is. Yet it’s being painted as an attack by the big bad bear on poor old Georgia. All this gets me a bit worried, small things can lurch out of control if the leaders aren’t careful.

On June 28, 1914, news came from Sarajevo that the arch duke Franz Ferdinand had been killed by Serb terrorists. At that time Austria and Russia each wanted to fill the vacuum left in the Balkans by the withdrawing Ottoman Turks. Austria bordered the Balkans, and hoped that Bosnia would agree to become part of the Austrian Empire — Franz Ferdinand wanted to assure them that they would have relative autonomy, which would be far better than if they joined the Serbs. The Serbs saw themselves as rightful leaders of the region since the Kingdom of Serbia had lost to the Ottomans in the battle of Kosovo in 1389, and wanted to create a southern slavic state (Yugo-slavia), which they would lead. They feared Austria’s overtures to Bosnia. Russia feared them more, since this might allow Austria to expand into the Balkans, and Russia’s status as a great power would diminish.

In this assassination, Austria sensed opportunity. If they could blame Serbia for the war, and issue an ultimatum Serbia could not accept, they could attack and defeat the Serbs and essentially win the region outright. The German Kaiser assured Austria of his support (though he probably didn’t realize what he was getting himself into) and for a month diplomatic games were played as the Europeans watched the minor little spectacle in the Balkans play itself out. By the end of the month, though, the crisis grew out of porpotions, and ultimately exploded into World War I as alliance structures, secret treaties, citizens driven by nationalist emotion and poor leadership let the minor crisis become a European cataclysm.

Today fighting broke out in Georgia, a former Soviet Republic. Georgia is in a strategically important position, bordering the Black Sea, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey (not far from Iran and Iraq). A lot of oil flows through here, and instability here could influence world oil markets as well as other states in the region. The fighting involves South Ossetia, a part of Georgia where most of the inhabitants feel closer to Russia than to Georgia, and wish to rejoin North Ossetia, which is now part of Russia. South Ossetia is in the center-north of the country, it’s border not far from the Georgian capital of Tblisi.

Georgia has been adamant that they retain control of South Ossetia, but have been unable to hold it. Separatists have managed to forge a semi-autonomous region, and many if not most citizens there hold Russian passports and use Russian currency. The Georgians have recently decided to take on the separatists and try to regain control of the entire region. Russia has responded, essentially claiming that the rights of the South Ossetians for their self-determination trumps Geogia’s legal sovereignty.

Could this minor war spiral out of control as well? Probably not. But consider: Georgia has been the third largest coalition partner in Iraq, something the US greatly appreciates. That’s ending though — in response to this attack, they’re bringing their troops back home. In fact Georgia wants the US to airlift those troops back to Georgia to fight the Russians! One wonders about the conversations Putin and Bush are having at the Olympics. The US has been a strong supporter of Georgia’s claim for sovereignty, and put a lot of pressure on the Europeans to support Georgia’s bid to join NATO back in April. The Europeans, skeptical of Georgia’s crisis in South Ossetia, and not wanting to anger Russia, refused, leaving Georgia (as well as Ukraine) out of the organization.

In general, there has been bipartisan support for Georgia in the US. After NATO rejected Georgia’s effort to join, powerful Democrat Joe Biden demanded NATO not leave Georgia in the lurch after all the country has done to support the West. Indeed, Georgia has embraced the US as tightly as it could, having Americans train its troops, giving the US access to intelligence information, supported a US backed oil pipeline through Central Asia, and often acted as if Russia wouldn’t dare hurt it, given Georgia’s powerful friend. The US reciprocated by intense lobbying to get Georgia in NATO, as well as strong support of Georgia’s claim over South Ossetia, despite the fact most Ossetians would prefer to be part of Russia.

That’s why one can get worried that this could spiral out of control. I’m not worried about a US attack on Russia to protect Georgia — of all the things worth risking total annihilation, a small country in central Asia is not one. However, neighboring countries might find it useful to build on the chaos there, and a spread of regional instability could create problems that might impact Iraq, Iran, or other parts of Russia. Any time a spark is lit, one can’t be certain of the implications.

Moreover, just as the apparently minor assassination of Franz Ferdinand sparked a powder keg that was likely to go off eventually, the struggle for power and resources in that region of the world may be a similar powderkeg. Corrupt regimes, a Russia wanting influence, America believing itself the dominant power, Iran, China…all converging on a part of the world with considerable oil and natural gas at a time when an energy crisis threatens world economic conditions.

More than likely this is just a small ethnic conflict that will be resolved through diplomacy, with Russia simply showing that it can’t be ignored, and Georgia learning the limits of American friendship — we’ll give you aid and support, but we won’t die for you or risk war with a nuclear Russia! Also, we need to beware of oversimplified analyzes. A lot of people will posit this as an evil Russia attacking a poor pro-western state and demand we do more. But from the stand point of the South Ossetians struggling for self-determination, Georgia is the ruthless actor. And to many Georgians, the South Ossetians are traitors whose violence in their separatist movement requires a crack down. It’s complex.

So while this is likely just another story about a small war in a distant land, this could also be a start of a series of events in a brittle part of the world which could explode into something much bigger. It’s a conflict worth keeping an eye on.