South Ossetia is a pawn, writes James Turley
The conflict between the Russian Federation and the former Soviet republic of Georgia is a reflection of growing divisions in the imperialist order. On August 6 renewed skirmishes took place between Georgian government forces and those of the breakaway province of South Ossetia (whose de facto independence, declared in 1992, remains unrecognised by any UN state). Russian ‘peacekeeping’ troops were killed in the crossfire, and subsequently Russia invaded with a full military force.
In doing so, Russian troops went far further than the Ossetian border, occupying the major city of Gori (birthplace of one JV Stalin) and dragging out subsequent troop withdrawal as much as possible. At the time of writing, Russian troops still occupy Poti, a port on the Black Sea, far from the main combat zones.
Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili initially responded with belligerent rhetoric, and formally declared war on August 8. However, as the conflict became increasingly obviously lopsided (and as the ‘international community’ dithered over coming to Saakashvili’s aid), he made moves towards a ceasefire, formally obtaining it on August 15.
To put it mildly, the Georgian military was woefully under-equipped in comparison to Russia, which has two thirds as many tanks as Georgia has soldiers, and the latter’s recent acquisition of American ordinance and expertise has done little to redress the balance. Saakashvili clearly counted on imperialist support for his attacks on South Ossetia; the swift and brutal retaliation by Russian troops may even have taken him by surprise. Either way, it is difficult not to see his actions as a momentous gaffe, which has acted as a MacGuffin to incite a more serious drama between Russia and the west.
The Georgian-Ossetian conflict had been simmering since even before the break-up of the USSR. Ossetia has been a longstanding minor inmate of Russia’s ‘prison house of nations’; there is a common identity and culture throughout the region, as well as a common Ossetian language. In administrative terms, however, it has long been divided between Georgia and Russia, due to Ossetia’s bisection by the Caucasus ridge, which forms the border between the two countries.
In the early 1990s, Ossetians were involved in ethnic conflicts both sides of the mountains, with Georgians in the south and Ingush in the north. Russia, however, managed to stabilise the territory, both through repression and concessions to the local population. In the south, escalating armed skirmishes resulted in a unilateral declaration of independence by the rebel province, and as Georgian-Russian relations deteriorated (particularly over nearby Chechnya), Russia began to provide material support to the separatists. South Ossetia has since become highly ‘Russified’, with over 90% of the population holding Russian passports and a president, Eduard Kokoity, who was very much an establishment figure in the days of the USSR.
So why did Georgia attack at this time? It is difficult to tell, but life has not been a rose garden for Saakashvili since the celebrated and quickly forgotten 2003 ‘Rose revolution’. While he was touted as a beacon of democracy during that (totally stage-managed) event, which brought him to power to replace the extremely corrupt despot, Eduard Shevardnadze, he has been revealed rather as much the same kind of pro-west strong man (only weaker). The ‘revolution’ had less in common with the 1989 collapse of the eastern bloc than the quiet US-sanctioned coup that saw their former ally, South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, deposed in 1965.
Domestically, it seems, the knives are out for Saakashvili – a faltering economy and, ironically enough, rampant corruption saw popular protests and demonstrations against him last November. His response was to declare a state of emergency and clamp down on opposition groups. Hence speculation that the Georgian attack was an attempt to rescue Saakashvili’s domestic reputation in cahoots with his international allies.
It is clear that the western political establishment is deeply uncomfortable with the course of events. All attempts at enforcing a ceasefire so far have failed, and agreements have been violated by both sides. Though Russia has behaved badly enough that it can be plausibly described as a bully, it is plain that Georgia provoked the conflict, and moreover had already caused an exodus of ethnic Ossetians from the rebel province before Russia even invaded – the NGO, Human Rights Watch, issued a report condemning disproportionate force on both sides (see http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/08/17/georgi19633.htm). As the war drew on, NGOs become more one-sidedly critical of Russia, but this has more to do with the technical superiority of Russian forces than their moral decrepitude, or political spinelessness on the part of the NGOs.
Why, then, have Medvedev and Putin dragged out the conflict? The most obvious reason is that it gives them a bargaining chip. It has become increasingly clear that sections of the western bourgeoisie have entirely lost any faith they might have had in Russia’s ruling class after the USSR’s collapse. The attempt to establish capitalist ‘normalcy’ in the former Soviet territories has been little short of disastrous and, while capitalists in primary-extractive industries have occasionally been able to secure lucrative contracts, Russia has not been integrated into the world economy with anything like the success hoped for.
The sharpest consequence of this isolation has been a concomitant political isolation. The much vaunted ‘dictatorial’ tendencies of the Putin-Medvedev era are rather of a piece with political culture across the world in a period which has seen the Patriot Act in America, 42 days detention in the UK and clampdowns on left organisations elsewhere in the former Stalinist bloc. But while those other ex-Stalinist countries have grown closer to the west, and particularly the US, Russia has been refused entry to the World Trade Organisation and increasingly finds itself subject to hostility from imperialism.
Attempts by various commentators to paint this as some kind of ‘new cold war’ rather miss the point. Russia has no possibility of becoming a rival to US hegemony, either alone or with any feasible bloc of states. It is likely that, as and when the price of oil and other raw fossil fuels drops significantly, the significance of Russia for the international bourgeoisie will recede appreciably. Russia’s military strength ensures it a degree of influence over affairs in eastern Europe and Asia, but its dislocation from the global financial centres preclude it from rising again as a superpower.
As things stand, however, it is increasingly important for the US and its allies to compete robustly with Russia for influence in central Asia particularly. Pivotal to this strategy has been the signing up of new states to Nato.
Most of the former Stalinist bloc are now members, with seven more states joining up in 2004. Ukraine is being courted, and so – until recently, at least – is Georgia. The plan is to produce a ‘buffer zone’ around Russia, which will not only militarily hem it in, but also offer a degree of control over the movement of resources in and out of Russia.
Russia is using the South Ossetian war to subvert this process in two main ways. Firstly, by propping up the rebel republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it makes Georgian entry into Nato much more difficult, since Georgian de jure sovereignty over these republics would effectively force the alliance into support for Georgia’s plans to reintegrate the provinces – a prospect which deeply divides the member-states.
Secondly, Russia can use the political status of South Ossetia as a stick to beat the west over its own manipulation of nationalist and separatist forces, particularly in the case of Kosova’s new independence from Serbia. “If we had the territorial integrity of Serbia in the case of Kosovo, then we would have the territorial integrity of Georgia. … with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” declared Dmitri Rogozin, the Russian ambassador to Nato.