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Russia, Georgia, Ossetia and the whole world’s dog fight

August 13, 2008

I’m attempting to understand what underlies the conflict going on in Georgia, trying to read smatterings of what makes these people tick. I have neither expertise nor allegiance to any expert. I have just enough of a dribble of Ukrainian blood to appreciate a bit about Slavic tribalism, but not all of these people are Slavic. Ethnically, this part of the world looks like 17-bean soup. And ethnicity is a big deal in this part of the world.

Moreover, I’m a Southern sympathizer when it comes to my own country’s Civil War. I’m not big on the idea that “The Union” is more important than who people are. This attitude colors my sympathies, though the American South had a lot more going for it than Ossetia appears to have.

Ossetians and Georgians are not the same people. Their languages are distinct; they use different currencies. Ossetians speak Russian and Ossetian; Georgians officially speak Georgian, though Russian is spoken as well. Georgian uses a unique alphabet. Ossetian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, as does Russian. Ossetia’s currency is the Russian ruble; Georgia’s is the Lari. Georgia’s population is 4.6 million. South Ossetia’s is about 70,000. It seems the Ossetians have never been happy campers in Georgia.

South Ossetians just aren’t happy campers anywhere. Very basically, South Ossetia aspires to join North Ossetia but has been part of Georgia since 1921 and Georgia has no interest in giving it up. South Ossetia’s referendum for independence in 2006 was overwhelming popular. Georgia denounced it as “politically absurd.”

So Ossetia made the move to cede from Georgia, Georgia clobbered Ossetia, and Russia clobbered Georgia. Russia, after all, had an interest in protecting “Russian” Ossetians from Georgian aggression. Russia has a much larger interest in all of this than little Ossetia, a convenient excuse to flex major muscle and threaten to cut off Europe’s oil supply and see what the U.S. is going to do about it.

I was interested in what Zbignew Brzezinski had to say about it, because he, in this 80th year of his life, is advising Obama. Brzezinski was Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor; he is a Polish-born, Harvard and Johns Hopkins-educated scientist turned statesman. For you conspiracy theorists, he serves on the Executive Committee of the Trilateral Commission, an organization promoting “interdependence” between North America, Japan, and Europe. Basically, Brzezinski’s take on the Russia-Georgia situation (he apparently sees Ossetia as a mere pretextual pawn, not as a credible region reasonably aspiring to independence) is that Putin’s aggression against Georgia is reminiscent of Stalin’s aggression against Finland. I don’t disagree that Russia’s attack is unwarranted and ominous, but I don’t see Georgia as innocent, either. I admit it’s a stretch to see South Ossetia as potentially competent as a nation, but whose problem is that….

In our either-or mental economy, it’s too easy to assume that if Russia is wrong, Georgia is right. Russia is being a big bad dog, but Georgia is a bad dog, too. Ossetia is the pugnacious little dog that just got its tail bitten off, but it wanted to fight the big dogs. 

International factfinders have given South Ossetia dismal marks for potential nationhood.  Nevertheless, South Ossetians favored secession from Georgia.  Shouldn’t that be enough?

Brzezinski argues that Russia would cut the West off from the Caspian Sea, Western Asia, and Europe’s oil supply if Georgia is “subverted.” It doesn’t seem likely that a new little Republic of Ossetia would be able to keep these open in the event of Russian aggression, either, though it would certainly be in its interest to do so.

I agree that containing Russian aggression is a necessary and proper course. I don’t agree that Georgia is a virtuous party with an unmitigated right to quelch South Ossetia.  Europe and the United States (because the U.S. is a NATO member) have the moral ascendancy to shun, snub, and sanction Russia for its attacks on Georgia.  And if South Ossetia broke from Georgia, and Russia aggressed against South Ossetia, we could shun, snub, and sanction the Russians for attacking Ossetia with the same moral ascendancy.  For now, the border conflict belays Georgia’s aspirations to NATO and EU membership.

South Ossetia, a region of just 1,500 square miles, actually has two governments in place. The Republic of South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia in 1991. Its capital is Tskhinvali, and its President is Eduard Kokoity. Its official languages are Ossetian and Russian. The Provisional Administration of South Ossetia was declared in 2007 by opponents to Ossetian secession. Its capital is Kurta, and its president is Dmitry Sanakoyev. Its official languages are Ossetian and Georgian.

The situation is complicated and seems impossible. Georgia is heavy- handed, Russia is heavier-handed, and Ossetia has demonstrated no aptitude for self-governance. Again, my favorite question: Whose problem is that?

What escapes me is Ossetia’s apparent fearlessness of Russia, just because Ossetians think of themselves as Russian. It’s hard to imagine enduring independence in Ossetia’s future. Ossetia’s so-called economy depends heavily on Russian revenues. The rest of its GNP comes from freight and tunnel levies, boosted by a homegrown counterfeiting industry. (Source)

I think of Buffalo Springfield’s lyric, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” It certainly seems to fit this situation, but nations require rectitude to legitimize action. Georgia’s method of acquisition of rectitude is to bellow “ethnic cleansing.”

Nicolas Sarkozy knows a lot about Russian aggression; his father was Hungarian. I was impressed with his diplomatic action and shuttle mediation.  But already the Russians have apparently broken the truce Sarkozy negotiated on behalf of the EU. But my thinking has changed about the EU. I was never a fan before, but I now see it as necessary and inevitable. I don’t know whether any European nation could individually withstand Russia’s exercised ambition to become huge and terrible. 

I’m a second-generation American who has never lived with tank-mounted missiles taking down city blocks around me. My limited knowledge and experience gives rise to one over-arching thought on this situation: what a mess.

  1. August 13, 2008 12:25 pm

    What a mess is right.

    Pretty good summary I think: the nations are raging and the kings are not wise.

  2. August 13, 2008 12:31 pm

    “the nations are raging and the kings are not wise.” I wish I’d thought of that for the title. :/

  3. 1or0 permalink
    August 15, 2008 10:15 am

    “Russia is being a big bad dog, but Georgia is a bad dog, too. Ossetia is the pugnacious little dog that just got its tail bitten off, but it wanted to fight the big dogs.”
    What a unhumane cynicism!? It can only match with cenicism of US government! It’s not a bitten tail! It’s a over 2000 civilians lives! How you, europeans, can thought this way!? Come to your senses!!!

  4. August 15, 2008 11:56 am

    Please invoke yours.

    My analogy was not to the civilian casualties, but to state-initiated aggression on all sides. I contend that there are no innocent governmental parties. I am horrified at the civilian lives for which I hold each aggressing state accountable.

    I can’t speak for how Europeans think; I’m American.

  5. August 18, 2008 12:12 am


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