In the Caucasus, a fake cold war

It has been said that the only "lessons from history" are that there are none, that each generation forges its own fate anew. This might or might not be so, but if there is anything worse than ignoring history, it is to try imposing the wrong historical analogy on current events.

And if the Iraq war has been primordially a failure of political analysis (as one wag put it, attacking Iraq after 9/11 was the equivalent of invading Mexico after Pearl Harbour), much of the hysteria aroused in the West by developments in and around Georgia can be faulted for the same.

It is a bit rich for John McCain to say that "in the 21st century nations do not invade other nations" - (this after the United States invaded one in 2001 and another in 2003, and keeps threatening to do the same with several others). Similarly puzzling has been the statement by Robert Kagan, a leading neo-conservative ideologue, that "the details of who did what to precipitate Russia's war against Georgia are not very important".

Facts don't count

If the issue of who actually launches a war is irrelevant, facts don't count - it is just a question of blaming whomever one wishes. The parallels to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia invoked by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are also inexistent. Soviet troops crossed the border into Prague at the time to put an end to political developments disliked by Moscow, not to respond to an attack in the middle of the night on innocent civilians and Russian peacekeepers like that undertaken by the Georgian military with Grad multiple-launch missiles on Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia on August 7. The latter region refused to follow Georgia into independence in 1991, and has kept an ambiguous status since then.

Russia then responded to this unprovoked aggression - the logical reaction by any state, but especially so by a former superpower coming back on to its own. The Georgian troops were trounced, and Georgian young men are now fleeing to Russia to escape conscription. The formal recognition by Russia of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is the logical outcome of this - these are regions with different languages (Ossetian is similar to Persian, and Abkhazian is also very different from Georgian) and ethnicities frm Georgia, a country they never wanted to be part of. After earlier this year the West pushed so hard for the secession of Kosovo from Serbia on similar grounds - against Belgrade's and Moscow's opposition - it is difficult to object to it on matters of principle, as UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband has done.

International relations

What is happening in the Caucasus has nothing to do with communism, with Stalin (who, being Georgian and originally from Gori, has now been conveniently revived for these purposes), with the oil pipes passing through Georgia, and certainly not with a new cold war. It has to do with the way international relations work since the days of Thucydides, and responds to the natural behaviour of great powers.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia went into a tailspin. Because he was weak, Boris Yeltsin was popular in the West. It was only with the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000 that Russia started to get back on track. By now, it has paid its debts, supplies 40 per cent of Europe's energy needs, is establishing one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, and has tripled its per capita income.

During a visit to St Petersburg and Moscow in 2006, I had the feeling of a country on the upsurge, bent on recovering its rightful place in the world, something reflected in the splendid and freshly repainted palaces and elegant boulevards of the former Leningrad (the city Putin hails from) and in rumours that he wanted to make it once again the capital of Russia. I also sensed it in a masterful, four-hour performance in the Kirov theatre of the opera 'Mazeppa' by Tchaikovsky which I much enjoyed.

For almost 20 years Western powers have been kicking and humiliating Russia. If the very act of keeping NATO alive after the purpose of its existence (to counter Soviet communism) had disappeared was not bad enough, it was followed by the cheery recruitment of many Eastern and Central European countries into it, something now being extended to the republics of the former Soviet Union like Georgia and Ukraine.

Goaded into attack

The reasons why Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (a rather mercurial young man, of whom it is said does not go to the bathroom without first checking with Washington, and who has been armed to the teeth by the US in gratitude for his sending of troops to Iraq and to Afghanistan) was goaded into attacking South Ossetia three months before a US election are quite obvious. John McCain received a welcome bump in the polls. The announced visits by Cindy McCain to Georgia and by Vice-President Dick Cheney to Ukraine and Georgia have let the cat out of the bag.

What would happen if Venezuela were to bomb St Thomas (Virgin Islands) and kill a dozen US marines? Would the United States not react instantly and forcefully? To pose the question is to answer it. The bear has been baited for too long, and it has now reacted. The United States, hamstrung by two wars it is losing badly, is unable to do anything, but it never intended to. The Georgians have been led down the garden path. While it may be understandable why the bulk of the US media has played along with this little farce, it is less apparent why so much of the rest of the world has done the same.

[Source: By Jorge Heine, Jamaica Gleaner News, 31Aug08. Jorge Heine is professor of global governance at Wilfrid Laurier University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario. He serves currently as vice-president of the International Political Science Association]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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