War in Georgia War beyond the territories
of South Ossetia and Abkhazia
Added on August 13, 2008 at 18:27 German time
According to an article in the
International Herald Tribune of August 13, US secretary of state
Condoleezza Rice warned president Saakashvili on July 9 not to get into a
military conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win. Until hours before
Georgia launched its attack on South Ossetia last week, Washington's top
envoy for the region, assistant secretary of state Daniel Fried and other
officials warned the Georgians not to allow the conflict to escalate.
Article added on August 11, 2008
In ancient times, during the
Olympic Games, the Greek states respected peace. In August 2008, the Russian
and Georgian leaders had very different ideas. The Russians thought it to be
an ideal time for provocations, and the Georgian president Mikheil
Saakashvili fell into the trap and tried to re-establish control in the
secessionist territory of South Ossetia by using force.
Russia has brought the war beyond the territories of South Ossetia and
Abkhazia, bombing targets in other parts of Georgia, including its capital
President Saakashvili's nationalist and populist adventure was doomed from the beginning.
Georgia's military is in quality and quantity many times inferior to
Russia's and therefore no serious adversary
to its northern neighbor.
Today, August 11, together with the EU envoys, the French and the Finnish
foreign ministers, Bernard Kouchner and Alexander Stubb, president Mikheil Saakashvili had no other choice
than to sign a unilateral ceasefire pledge in order to limit the military,
political and humanitarian disaster. The US and the EU urged Russia to sign
it too, allowing the civilian and military victims to be assisted.
However, Russia seems not yet ready to stop the fighting.
The Caucasus is a region of an impressive ethnic, linguistic and religious
diversity. Regional conflicts have been raging here for years,
the most infamous one being the Chechen war.
At the center of the present conflict between Russia and Georgia are the
legally Georgian, but de facto breakaway territories of South Ossetia and
Abkhazia, which both opted for
“protection”. Both, the Abkhaz and the Ossetians, seem to be happy to live under
The Ossetians are an ethnic minority with their own language, Ossetic, an
Iranian language. North Ossetia - Alania is already a Russian territory.
South Ossetia is a de facto breakaway territory from Georgia, but which is
not internationally recognized as being independent.
According to the 2002 census, in the Republic of North Ossetia - Alania,
some 445,000 people or about 63% of the population were ethnic Ossetians,
some 23% Russian and only about 1.5% Georgian.
Legally a part of Georgia, South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in a war
after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. With the help of Russia, it
became de facto independent, under the protection of Russia.
Today, some 70% of all South Ossetians have a Russian passport. In 1989, the
65,000 Ossetians counted for about two-thirds of the total population of
Ossetia, whereas some 29% were ethnic Georgians. The ethnic distribution was
pretty stable throughout the 20th century. Furthermore, in a referendum in
1992, over 90% of South Ossetians voted for the independence from Georgia
and for joining Russia.
Unlike the Kosovo with its Kosovo Field for Serbia, South Ossetia has no
such historic importance for Georgia. The only rational reason why president
Saakashvili tried to reconquer South Ossetia would be a strategic one: as
seen on the map on the right of this page, South Ossetia points directly
into the heart of the Georgian territory.
However, as pointed out above, Saakashvili's nationalist decision to regain
control of South Ossetia was a gamble destined to fail from the very
beginning. He may have to pay a high political price for this and lose his
office earlier than in the next election.
Russia has opened a second front in the August 2008 war against Georgia:
Abkhazia, another breakaway territory from Georgia. Incidentally, Abkhaz is
a West Caucasian language.
According to Wikipedia, in 1864, when Russia took hold of
Abkhazia definitively, almost the entire population of Abkhazia was of Abkhaz origin. The
Russian Tsar forced some 60% of the Abkhaz into exile or deported them.
Ironically, today, the Abkhaz want to be part of Russia. In 2008, an
estimated 450,000 ethnic Abkhaz live in Turkey.
According to the last Soviet census in 1989, some 525,000 people lived in
Abkhazia, among them some 240,000 or 48% of Georgian, some 93,000 or 17% of
Abkhaz origin, and some 75,000 or less than 15% of Russian origin.
According to the 2003 census, not recognized by Georgian authorities, some
46,000 Georgians, some 95,000 Abkhaz, some 45,000 Armenians and some 23,000
Russians lived in Abkhazia.
The demographic transformation of the region is important: since the end of
the Soviet Union, some 200,000 or 80% of all Georgians have been forced to
leave Abkhazia. In short, this was ethnic cleansing.
Sadly, already a
UN report pointed out to
some 250,000 refugees and displaced persons in Georgia. The situation has
not improved since then, because the
UNHCR Global Report 2007
counted 222,000 internally displaced people (IDP), since both South Ossetia
and Abkhazia are legally still part of Georgia, refugees from these regions
count as IDP. Together with all people in an IDP like situation, the 2007
report numbered even 275,000 people still removed from their homes.
Russian methods of recent years have often reminded us of Soviet times, be
it the liquidation of Litvinenko in London, the assassination of
Politkovskaya in Moscow, the de facto re-nationalization of large parts of
the media and the energy sector in Russia, including Yukos and the
imprisonment of Khodorkovsky, to name just a few events.
In Georgia, Moscow's “heavy hand” was
for instance felt when Russia banned import of wine and mineral water from
Georgia. In 2006, Putin asked the Russian parliament to levy travel and
economic sanctions against Georgians and Georgia. At the end of 2006,
Gazprom, the Russian monopoly importer of gaz into Georgia, threatened to
double its prices of gas supplies to Georgia from 2007. In short, on the
military, economic and energy level, Georgia and Russia are in an asymmetric
Saakashvili is the president of a largely open society in which protest can
be formulated. Russian troops and airplanes attacked military and civilian
targets not only in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but in other Georgian areas,
terrorizing large parts of the Georgian population. They may well turn
against Saakashvili and his imprudent decision to use force against a much
stronger adversary. The president was re-elected in January 2008. His term
may end much sooner than expected.
President Saakashvili pushed for integration into the European Union and
NATO. The EU integration is an illusion. The NATO integration however was a
not so far fetched goal. Georgia has sent some 2000 troops to Iraq.
Subsequently, President Bush heavily lobbied in favor of Georgia's entry
Since October 2004, Georgia is tied to NATO trough the Individual
Partnership Action Plan. However, in April 2008, the European NATO allies
blocked Georgia's entry into the NATO Membership Action Plan. German
chancellor Merkel made an error by declaring that a country with numerous
open conflicts cannot join NATO. Russia's leaders concluded that keeping
these conflicts alive was the best way to prevent Georgia from joining NATO.
President Saakashvili should have been warned that his good relations with
the West would never bring him more than diplomatic and moral support in his
dealings with Russia. The EU, NATO and even the US cannot enter into an open
conflict with Russia, a nuclear power.
It remains a mystery what pushed the Georgian president to try to retake
South Ossetia by force. He gave Putin the perfect pretext to use the
military means himself. Saakashvili's legalistic arguments are unconvincing.
In any case, the majority of the population of South Ossetia prefers joining
At the end of this war, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia may join Russia, and
Saakashvili could be partly blamed. That both ethnic minorities may well
regret their decision in a few years, if Russia should continue to move
towards an authoritarian regime, ignoring the rule of law, being hampered by
corruption and incompetence in a large state sector, that's another story.