Now, at last, we know the truth about Georgia
The myth of a plucky republic being ‘ethnically cleansed’ by an evil Russian regime was just that: a myth.
If the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s provided a moral mission for a generation of narcissistic academics and journalists looking for a cause after the end of the Cold War (it was ‘their’ Spanish Civil War, they said), then some contemporary commentators have desperately seized upon the recent Georgia-Russia conflict as ‘their’ Bosnia. And in the process, they, like their predecessors did with Bosnia, have distorted the truth and turned a complex conflict into a simple morality tale. Newly revealed facts demonstrate that their depiction of the short but brutal war in Georgia was mythical and deceptive.
In the UK Guardian, for example, Luke Harding’s reports on the conflict portrayed Georgia as a devastated country in flames and under brutal assault. Harding claimed that in South Ossetia he witnessed the worst ‘ethnic cleansing since the war in the Balkans’, and said that Russian forces were intent on creating an ‘ethnically pure’, Georgian-free region in South Ossetia.
He was only one among many overexcited Western journalists and commentators who sought to portray the conflict as a monumental struggle between democracy (Georgia) and autocracy (Russia), between freedom and tyranny, a clear case of good guys and bad guys in which a brave fledgling democracy was striving to break free from the borderline genocidal Russians. Ian Traynor and Helen Womak argued that the conflict in Georgia showed nothing less than Putin’s expansionist ambitions and ultimately his plans to challenge American and EU power.
David Clark stressed that despite the ‘long and complex’ history behind the stand-off between Georgia and Russia, there was no excuse for ‘abdicating moral judgements’. As Brendan O’Neill paraphrased him on spiked, ‘Don’t let the facts – pesky complexity – get in the way of a good morality tale’ (see Georgia: the messy truth behind the morality tale). Clark also argued that the aggressive and sinister actions of Russia should be punished by the EU. The Washington Times said Russia had embarked on an expansionist and imperialistic course of action.
Not to be outdone by journalists, politicians enthusiastically leapt upon the conflict, eager to show their ‘commitment to democracy’ by condemning Russia and praising Georgia. Political heavyweights such as Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, argued that the conflict was reminiscent of the Yugoslav wars. NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer – as well as Britain’s David Miliband and Gordon Brown and the US president George W Bush – condemned Russian aggression and called for a defence of Georgian sovereignty. Condoleezza Rice warned Russia that it was ‘not 1968’, referring to the Soviets’ violent crushing of the Prague Spring.
Revealing much about what a future Conservative government might look like, David Cameron actually flew to Tbilisi to be photographed having a convivial chat with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili and to ‘show solidarity’. Cameron called for Georgia to be admitted to NATO and for Russian aggression to be punished. Labour minister Denis McShane argued that by ordering a full-scale invasion of Georgia, Putin had shown the true authoritarian nature of his regime . Jim Murphy, Britain’s Europe minister, sent himself into raptures as he spoke of Georgia as a ‘small and beautiful democracy’.
With a few exceptions, the war in Georgia was presented in the British and American media as a simple tale of good and evil; a story of the cunning Russian bear smashing the noble and Western-looking Georgia. The problem with this depiction of events, with the Western enthusiasm for simple morality tales, is that it had very little to do with the reality on the ground in Georgia and Russia. We now know for certain (though some of us argued it at the time) that ‘Brave Georgia vs Evil Russia’ was simply a made-up story that Western observers cut-and-pasted on to the scrappy, bloody events in the Caucasus.
In the first place, as I have argued previously on spiked, the tale of Georgia as a plucky little democracy is very far from the reality of Saakashvili’s authoritarian and corrupt regime, which has effectively been installed, and certainly armed and militarised, by the US government (see The myth of a plucky republic, by Tara McCormack). Furthermore, over the past few weeks the presentation of the conflict as a tale of ruthless Russian aggression has been challenged by some more serious, in-depth reporting. On BBC TV’s Newsnight of 28 October, Tim Whewell presented evidence which showed that, far from being a democracy on the defensive against Russia, it was actually Georgia that launched an aggressive and destructive assault on the capital of South Ossetia without any provocation from Russia or separatist South Ossetian forces.
Whewell argued that there is now substantial evidence to show that Georgian troops deliberately shelled civilians in South Ossetia. A recent article in the New York Times analysed reports from OSCE observers to the Georgian conflict, which confirm that Georgia was the aggressor and recklessly shelled both civilians and Russian ‘peacekeepers’ in the absence of any provocation from Russia or separatist forces in South Ossetia. As the NYT says, ‘The accounts suggest that Georgia’s inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on 7 August with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.’
It is good, of course, that more sceptical accounts are emerging, and that, rather than relying on Georgian press officers, there are still some journalists for whom establishing what actually happened is more important than getting a warm glow from a sense of moral clarity. However, even establishing the actual chain of events in the Georgian war only takes us so far in terms of understanding the broader dynamic behind the conflict.
As spiked argued in August, the real dynamic behind the conflict is to be found in Western policies towards the Caucasus. America and its allies have sponsored petty authoritarian states formed after the end of the Soviet Union, and Georgia is a prime example. Rather than emerging through independent political development, successive leaders in Georgia have been reliant on external sponsors for their political power. Georgia has also been heavily armed by America, under the auspices of the ‘war on terror’, and has been encouraged to hope for membership of NATO. It is little surprise, then, that with the backing of such powerful friends, and without having to answer to his own population in any meaningful way, Saakashvili thought he could take on his more powerful neighbour and reintegrate the secessionist provinces into Georgia.
Sponsoring compliant governments and funding proxy wars was a staple of Cold War politics, of course – yet today, Western policy seems to lack any clear political or material rationale. Whatever one thinks of Putin, Russia today is nothing like the Soviet Union. Far from being a powerful and assertive state, Russia has not launched any counterattacks as more and more of its former satellites have joined the EU and NATO’s Partnership for Peace. Instead it was, we now know, Georgia’s provocation that drew retaliation from Russia rather than any kind of imperialist desire on Russia’s part to reassert control over breakaway territories. Equally, Russia’s subsequent recognition of the secessionist areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be understood as a consequence of the conflict in August, not its cause. Western policy in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus is helping to fuel local tensions and promote instability, and for no definable strategic purpose.
None of this was discussed or analysed by the Western moralists who besieged Georgia in search of a ‘new Bosnia’, a new black-and-white morality tale in which they could pose as being on the side of the angels against an evil Russian regime. Such moralising of international affairs is part of a trend. As Philip Hammond has argued on spiked, Western journalists and politicians have used other people’s conflicts as a source of moral clarity for themselves and for their societies. This might have provided a fleeting feeling of inner warmth, even narcissistic historic purpose, for the Camerons, Kouchners and liberal crusaders of the West – but in further simplifying and moralising a messy conflict, they both distorted the truth and also upped the ante in a grubby little conflict that should never have taken place.
Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international relations at Brunel University.
The ‘Bosnian model’ is no model for Georgia, by David Chandler
Why the West can’t kick its Cold War habit, by Frank Furedi
Georgia: the messy truth behind the morality tale, by Brendan O’Neill
British statesmen? More like stuntmen, by Mick Hume
The politics of recognition, by Philip Hammond
NATO, but not as they know it, by Mick Hume
Russia’s first ‘Western-style’ war, by David Chandler
The ‘Bosnian model’ is no model for Georgia, by David Chandler
The myth of a plucky republic, by Tara McCormack
Or read more at spiked issue Georgia.
(1) Russia’s cruel intention, Guardian, 1 September 2008
(2) A dirty little war, Guardian, 17 August 2008
(3) The west can no longer stand idle while the Russian bully wreaks havoc, 11 August 2008
(4) Editorial: Russian aggression, Washington Times, 11 August 2008
(5) Georgia: France spearheads international efforts to broker peace, Sunday Telegraph, 10 August 2008
(6) Georgia: We must unite to resist Russian aggression, Daily Telegraph, 11 August 2008
(7) Georgia Claims on Russia War Called Into Question, New York Times, 6 November 2008
(8) Darfur: the dangers of celebrity imperialism, by Philip Hammond
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