Georgia: the messy truth behind the morality tale
The black-and-white reading of the horrific violence in South Ossetia overlooks the role of the ‘war on terror’ in destabilising the region.
It is remarkable how quickly other people’s bloody tragedies can be transformed into simple morality tales by Western observers sitting in cushioned, air-conditioned offices.
Almost as soon as the terrible violence broke out in Georgia and South Ossetia, voices in the West were insisting that this was a straightforward tale of a plucky independent republic (Georgia) standing up to a ‘bully wreaking havoc’ (Russia). Georgia is presented as bravely defending its democratic writ by wishing to hold on to South Ossetia, while Russia is accused of ‘dismembering’ a nation state by supporting the South Ossetians’ separatist sensibilities (1). There have been demands for the Western powers, in particular America, to defend Georgia – a rare representative of ‘freedom and civilisation’ in the East (2) – and to chastise the Russians. One commentator says Russia should be ‘denied the prestige that comes with membership of the G8’ (3).
The problem with this fairytale script that is being cut-and-pasted on to the horrendous massacres of people in South Ossetia and Georgia is that it is almost entirely wrong. Georgia is no free-spirited, democratic republic, but an increasingly authoritarian regime that bans overly critical media outlets and criminalises opposition parties (4). Russia is acting not from an imperialist, expansionist standpoint but out of desperation, behaving recklessly because it feels its sovereign authority challenged by numerous ex-Soviet republics.
And, most importantly, far from Western involvement being the solution in Georgia, there has already been far too much of it: Washington’s arming, goading and cajoling of former Soviet republics has intensified instability across the Caucasus and Central Asia and around the rim of one of the most populous, powerful nations on Earth: Russia.
The bloodshed that occurred over the weekend, as Georgian forces bombed the breakaway territory of South Ossetia and Russia responded by attacking Georgia, can be seen as the destructive outcome of Washington’s increasingly hungry and erratic foreign policy. What is missing from much of the Western morality tale of Georgia vs Russia is any serious assessment of Washington’s role in militarising former Soviet republics and giving a green light to their anti-Russian posturing. From the Ukraine to Uzbekistan to Georgia, Washington has backed a string of dodgy ruling parties and dictatorial leaders as they have upped the ante with their former rulers in the Kremlin. The end result has been more authoritarianism in the East and unpredictability in world affairs.
Georgia, like many of the former Soviet republics, is a state with no real reason to exist. Lacking a unified national elite or identity, it is another of those Caucasian and Central Asian states that were born by default when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is fragile, changeable, and has various ethnic or ‘national’ groups within its borders – not only in South Ossetia (which wants to join with North Ossetia) but also in Abkhazia, a Black Sea region that has largely run its own affairs since defeating Georgian forces in a war in 1992-1993.
Over the past decade, Washington’s foreign policy – increasingly patternless and self-defeating – has helped to make the unstable state of affairs in the former Soviet republics worse. America has sought to turn these republics into outposts in its ‘war on terror’. On the ostensible basis of protecting Georgia, and the world more broadly, from the threat of al-Qaeda-style Chechen terrorism, Washington has pumped more than £100million into Georgia’s security forces (5). It has provided the Georgian military with Huey helicopters, tonnes of weaponry, and high-level training – just last month it was reported that 1,200 US servicemen and 800 Georgians were undergoing intensive ‘joint military training’ at the Vaziani military base near the Georgian capital, Tbilisi (6).
Washington has also discussed building vast new anti-missile radar systems in the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and possibly Georgia, in order to guard the Western world against missile attacks from Iran or North Korea; the Kremlin has described these plans as a ‘threat’ to Russia (7). Georgian troops have been deployed as part of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq, and America wants to reward Georgia by making it a permanent member of the NATO alliance. NATO, lest we forget, was founded in a very different era as a North Atlantic alliance against the Soviet Union (8).
The impact of what we might term Washington’s ‘emotional occupation’ of the former Soviet republics – its celebration of these states as ‘beacons of liberty’ in the East and brave warriors in the global ‘war on terror’ – has been twofold. First, it has given a blank cheque to isolated, opportunistic, sometimes illegitimate rulers in the former Soviet republics to crack down on their political opponents and media critics. In Georgia and Uzbekistan in particular, both of which have been granted new post-Soviet purpose as frontline states in America’s ‘war on terror’, increasingly dictatorial rulers have taken Washington’s political and military backing as a green light to preserve their power by any means necessary.
The American eagle soaring over parts of the Caucasus and Central Asia artificially bolsters certain local elites. The transformation of the republics into life-and-death states in a civilisational war against terror (Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has said the current clash with Russia is about defending the ‘freedom of the world’) allows rulers to take extraordinary measures to protect their internal authority. Last year, Saakashvili clamped down on his political and media opponents by accusing them of plotting a coup and thus effectively ‘aiding terrorism’ (9). In Uzbekistan in 2005, President Islam Karimov rounded up scores of oppositionists claiming they were sinister Islamic militants. When some Uzbeks rebelled against his authoritarianism – freeing local prisoners in the eastern town of Andijan and taking over government buildings – the Uzbek military, bolstered by American aid, arms and moral support, had no qualms about opening fire. The ‘terrorisation’ of former Soviet republics warps their internal dynamic, allowing rulers to present every protest or criticism as part of an ‘Islamic threat’ that must be put down with their American arms.
Second, Washington’s outposting of former Soviet republics has heightened instability in the East. From the dying years of the Soviet Union, when various Soviet republics began to rediscover their old nationalist identities and cultural heritage, to the often-difficult breakaway process of 1990 and 1991, there have been tensions between Soviet republics and the Kremlin. In many ways, these tensions have been exacerbated and even crystallised – made more global and earth-shatteringly serious – by Washington’s invitation to some of the former republics to join the ‘Western fold’ and its war for the preservation of Western civilisation (10). The exportation of the ‘war on terror’ to the East has added a highly politicised dimension to the unstable relationship between the republics and the Kremlin.
Just as Western backing has encouraged Georgian officials to crush ‘coup-minded’ oppositionists, so it has bolstered their standoff with the Russians, too. Armed and goaded by Washington, Georgia took the brash, irrational step of launching a real-world military venture to take back South Ossetia from its Russian ‘peacekeepers’. And claims by American officials and commentators that Georgia is standing up for important ‘principles’ such as ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’ – and that for Washington to ‘abandon Georgia and its fragile democratic Rose Revolution would send a terrible signal to other former Soviet republics that… are working towards democracy’ (11) – can no doubt only intensify this grubby local conflict as Western observers cynically attach their pet hopes and ideals to the horrific fighting.
Not surprisingly, Russia has exploited the affair to re-assert its punctured and waning authority in its neighbouring state. Its terrible assaults on Georgian territory and military buildings are an attempt not only to weaken Georgia but also to send a message to the other former Soviet republics and to Washington itself. And anyone with even a ‘C’ grade in international relations should know that, if Russia were to send forces to Mexico to arm Mexicans and flatter their anti-American sentiments, then Washington would respond in a very similar way.
Events in Georgia and South Ossetia really reveal how patternless and unpredictable is Western foreign policy today. Some radical critics have responded to the Western media’s morality tale about brave Georgia battling evil Russia by arguing that, in fact, America has cynically armed the Georgians in order to preserve its oil and gas interests or to start a new global Cold War. Actually, this war in the East demonstrates the clumsy, self-defeating and short-termist nature of Western meddling around the world. Unanchored by any clear self-interest, and unguided by a properly thought-through realpolitik, Washington’s foreign policy in the post-Cold War era appears increasingly erratic, designed to win quickfire boosts to America’s moral standing rather than to influence world affairs in a clear, all-American direction. The end result is that in Georgia, Uzbekistan and elsewhere, the West has created difficulties and new enemies not only for Russia, but for itself too.
Yet many of these awkward facts – about the exporting of the ‘war on terror’ to the East, the corresponding rise in authoritarianism and instability, and both America and Russia’s rather desperate foreign policies – have been suppressed, sometimes knowingly so, in the Western coverage of the Georgia/South Ossetia conflict. As one columnist says, ‘The history behind Georgia’s “frozen conflicts” is long and complex… but complexity is no excuse for abdicating moral judgement in situations of this importance.’ (12) In short? Don’t let the facts – pesky complexity – get in the way of a good morality tale. People in South Ossetia and Georgia have suffered the double horror of being attacked, maimed and killed in a conflict unleashed by new post-Cold War instabilities, and then being marshalled like political ghosts in a morality tale that is likely to make things worse.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
James Heartfield looked at the popular support for President Putin. Tara McCormack analysed the return to power in the Ukraine of Viktor Yanukovich. In 2004, Brendan O’Neill explained the international context to the Beslan school killings. Philip Cunliffe looked at Kosovo in terms of Balkanisation. Or read more at spiked issue: Russia
(1) The west can no longer stand idle while the Russian bully wreaks havoc, Guardian, 11 August 2008
(2) Saakashvili Signs Cease-Fire Pledge; Russia Launches New Raids on Georgia, Wall Street Journal, 11 August 2008
(3) The west can no longer stand idle while the Russian bully wreaks havoc, Guardian, 11 August 2008
(4) As Georgia reforms, judiciary under scrutiny, Christian Science Monitor, 17 September 2007
(5) Oil fuels US army role in Georgia, Observer, 12 May 2002
(6) Georgian, US troops start military exercise amid escalating tensions with Russia, International Herald Tribune, 15 July 2008
(7) Russia in Ukraine missile threat, BBC News, 12 February 2008
(8) NATO, Wikipedia
(9) Georgia: espionage charges brought against opposition leaders, Eurasia, 9 November 2007
(10) Oil fuels US army role in Georgia, Observer, 12 May 2002
(11) Stopping Russia, Washington Post, 9 August 2008
(12) The west can no longer stand idle while the Russian bully wreaks havoc, Guardian, 11 August 2008