The latest outbreak of violence in the Caucasus has left thousands dead, thousands more displaced and plunged the people of the region into terrifying uncertainty amidst talk of a ‘new cold war’. Deconstructing the trite simplifications and ideological rhetoric in order to understand the conflict and its fall out requires us to examine the geopolitical and historical hinterlands of the conflict, as well as the Western construction of Russia and Russians. By Benjamin Tallis
Long before its forces crossed the nominal border of South Ossetia, Russia’s response to the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali was condemned in the West as the action of an aggressive bully, violating international law and the etiquette of the world’s elite clubs. In light of the Iraq debacle, the American and British appeal to principle in their condemnation of Russia’s military action in Georgia is a little like a pair of wolves, their wool-tangled teeth still dripping with blood, telling the fox to stay out of the henhouse.
New World Disorder or New World’s Order?
The collapse of the Soviet Union sparked a scramble for territory, influence and resources, with independence and collective identity claims coming thick and fast. Nasty, brutal, although mercifully short conflicts erupted along ethnic and political dividing lines that had been kept in the deep freeze of history by the overriding imperatives of Soviet unity. Breakaway republics in Moldova (Transnistria) and Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) retained defacto independence and the soviet successor states found themselves not only dealing with ‘Frozen Conflicts’, but also caught in the international crossfire over energy resources, strategic influence and security provision in the post-cold war world.
At the time, the West was focused on the bloody conflicts Europe’s Balkan backyard which provided a mawkish re-living of Europe’s holocaust nightmares as the post-modern security architecture collapsed under the weight of its own ineffectiveness. The belated, US-led military action allowed Europeans and Americans to exorcise these demons and believe that they had ‘done the right thing’ and learn particular lessons about power and intervention. As Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff put it,
“We intervened not only to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies. We wanted to show that the West ‘meant’ something.” (Ignatieff quoted by David Chandler)
The unmandated intervention in Kosovo and the push for its independence by America and its allies violated international law (The NATO war against Yugoslavia only received retrospective endorsement and independence violated Security Council Resolution 1244 which guaranteed the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia with regard to Kosovo and later applied to Serbia & Montenegro and finally to Serbia), which all too often remains little more than a convenient and disposable, mask for power. Crucially, the West also effectively told Russia that it did not belong at the top table of international decision making. Despite the talk of human rights and self-determination, all sides learned that power remains the deciding factor in international relations.
Guns and Roses
Georgia followed an unexceptional post-soviet path under former Soviet foreign minister Edvard Shevernadze. A collapse in living standards was followed by economic recovery marked by massive inequality, grinding poverty, cronyism, corruption and the prevalence of organised crime. The independence claims of its separatist regions took a back seat to the division of the spoils of transition, while allowing for patriotic posturing, with the presence of Russian ‘peacekeeping’ forces acting as a deterrent to Georgian irredentism.
The situation changed dramatically following Shevardnardze’s attempt to rig an election in late 2003. With Western support, the protestors showed that they had learned the lessons from the Serbian overthrow of Milosevic and developed the demonstrations into the Rose Revolution , with the young, English speaking, Harvard-trained lawyer Mikheil Saakashvilli at its head. With the situation in Iraq worsening, this provided a much needed showcase for the US project to spread democracy-lite throughout the world. The US also irresponsibly encouraged Georgia to push for early NATO membership, which only fuelled Saakashvilli’s hubristic antagonism of Russia.
The optimism of the Rose Revolution soon gave way to allegations of improper conduct, authoritarianism and corruption, which came against a backdrop of rapidly deteriorating relations with Russia and continued economic hardship. Having imposed martial law in response to anti-government demonstrations, Saakashvilli won a snap election in January 2008, although with a massively reduced majority, leaving him in need of a unifying second term project. This need led him to massively miscalculate both the Russian response to an incursion into Ossetia and his support in the West.
Friends, Foes & Faux Friends
It should now be clear to Georgians that despite the lofty rhetoric that met their Rose Revolution, for the West they are little more than a pawn in the greater game, a well positioned fly in Russia’s ointment. Tragically for the Georgians’, their misadventure has only furthered Russia’s drive to force its way back onto the top table of international affairs, putting them in the position of being instrumentalised by both sides.
EU accession is a distant prospect and the idea of NATO membership (and protection under the article 5 mutual defence clause), now seems vaguely ridiculous. Can we really imagine the combined forces of Europe and North America riding to the rescue of the Georgians, with the potential to provoke a full-scale conflict with Russia in its own back yard. The irony of Bernard Kouchner, the high priest of interventionism calling on Russia to halt their military action exposes the West’s rules – legitimate interventions are only those that the US, NATO or the EU can put a stop to.
How to lose friends and alienate peoples
It would seem that America is determined to go back-to-the-future and recreate Russia as nemesis, playing on long-learned fears and nostalgia for old certainties, in the vein of the Straussian political philosophy (particularly its need for enemies) that has underpinned so much of the neo-con project. The diffuse, lurking threat of Al Qaeda may no longer be seen as sufficient for these ends and recasting Russia in the role of ‘Evil Empire’ provides an easily identifiable potential menace. This project has been made easier by the Russians’ clumsy attempts to re-assert themselves on the world stage as they stumbled out of the chaos of the Yeltsin years. Intimidation of former Soviet Republics, politically motivated murders, aggressive energy policy and the imposition of a new Russian corporatism in place of Western style turbo-capitalism have all served to fan the flames of Russophobia.
While these concerns are legitimate, the Western media’s coverage of these issues, and the current conflict, has been notable for its anti-Russian bias. Typically, on the first night of the conflict the BBC showed speeches from Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev and Georgian leader Saakashvilli. Medvedev’s appearance was restricted to a translated one-liner boiling down to “we will find those responsible and they will be punished”, while Saakashvilli, speaking in English, was given much lengthier airtime as he pleaded his case in front of a carefully positioned EU flag. Writing in The Guardian, David Clarke described Russia as a bully wreaking havoc, while in Canada’s Globe & Mail, John O’Sullivan asked us to consider whether Russia is morphing into another USSR.
This long-standing media positioning had the effect of casting Russia in the role of a calculating bully, smarting over its lost empire, while the West’s ally du jour is seen as a noble, plucky and innocent victim appealing to the right of self determination. Consequently the image of Russia as a wild, unknowable and ungovernable place, populated by gangsters and unstable, hard-drinking serfs crying out to be ruled by a strong leader is a common one in much of the Western public perception. Our leaders have done little to dispel this image as it allows their conduct in relation to Russia to come under far less intense scrutiny.
Constructing Russia as an enemy makes it much harder to engage in a mutually beneficial way, with Western policy makers vacillating between aggression and fear. If we are to really make the world safer and avoid the kind of tragedy that has befallen the peoples of Georgia, Russia and South Ossetia, then we need a genuinely collective approach to security, which seeks to include rather than demonise. Only in this way can legal norms and values be prioritised over the exercise of power, with genuine human security taking precedence over the power games of elites and vested interests. The first step towards this is to hold our own leaders to account for the crashing hypocrisy they have displayed in dealing with this conflict. A reasonable second step would be to demand a more balanced view from our media.
Benjamin Tallis is a political and security specialist with experience in the Balkans and former Soviet Union currently living in Prague. He facilitates the “Everything is Political: Prague Political Discussion Space.”
The copyrights fall under Creative Commons („Stop War“ by pntphoto/ „Demonstration“ by eyec@cher) and GNU Free Documentation License („Former Soviet Republics“ by Aris Katsaris).
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