Five days after Georgia invaded and seized the breakaway separatist region of South Ossetia, sparking a larger-scale Russian invasion to drive Georgian forces back and punish their leaders, Russia surprised its Western detractors by calling a halt to the country’s offensive. After all, the mainstream media, egged on by hawkish neocon pundits and their candidate John McCain, had everyone believing that Russia was hellbent on the full-scale annihilation and annexation of democratic Georgia.
But then came Tuesday’s cease-fire announcement–and we’re now forced to ask ourselves serious questions about the recent conflict: what really started it, how dangerous was it and what, with serious careful consideration, could be done to prevent it from turning into a worst-case scenario?
Up until now, this war was framed as a simple tale of Good Helpless Democratic Guy Georgia versus Bad Savage Fascist Guy Russia. In fact, it is far more complex than this, morally and historically. Then there are two concentric David and Goliath narratives here. The initial war pitted the Goliath Georgia–a nation of 4.4 million, with vastly superior numbers, equipment and training thanks to US and Israeli advisers–against David-Ossetia, with a population of between 50,000-70,000 and a local militia force that is barely battalion strength. Reports coming out of South Ossetia tell of Georgian rockets and artillery leveling every building in the capital city, Tskhinvali, and of Georgian troops lobbing grenades into bomb shelters and basements sheltering women and children. Although true casualty figures are hard to come by, reports that up to 2,000 Ossetians, mostly civilians, were killed are certainly believable, given the intensity of the initial Georgian bombardment, the wanton destruction of the city and surrounding regions and the generally savage nature of Caucasus warfare, a very personal game where old rules apply.
But you don’t hear about this story from the Western media. Indeed, you hear little if anything about the Ossetians, who seem to hardly exist in the West’s eyes, even though their grievance is the root cause of this war.
While Russia and America see the conflict in abstract terms about spheres of influence and protecting allies, for Ossetians, who still recall the centuries of massacres Georgians committed against them, it is highly personal. They will still recall the Georgian massacres in the early 1920s, when Georgia was briefly independent, which exterminated up to 8 percent of the Ossetian population. In 1990, when Georgia was again moving towards independence, the ultranationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia abolished Ossetia’s limited autonomy, leading to another Ossetian rebellion that was only quelled by a peace agreement signed by Georgia, Russia and the Ossetians. Gamsakhurdia was subsequently deposed, and Georgia’s ethnic chauvinism was shelved until the rise of current president Mikhail Saakashvili in 2003.
Ossetians have traditionally relied on their powerful northern neighbor Russia for protection against Georgia. The Georgians, in turn, have tried to counter Russian hegemony, for which they are no match, by aligning closely with the United States, finding friendly ears among old cold warriors and Bush-era neocons.
When he first rose to prominence, the American-educated Saakashvili was often referred to as “Georgia’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky”–the Russian ultranationalist firebrand who once promised to retake Alaska. Although Saakashvili was subsequently rebranded as a Euro-democrat, he promised to reunite Georgia and bring his separatist regions to heel, by force if necessary, whether the aggrieved ethnic groups liked it or not.