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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 Tbilisi.

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 Russian “protection”. Both, the Abkhaz and the Ossetians, seem to be happy to live under Russian rule.

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.

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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
1995 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 situation.

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 into NATO.

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 Russia.

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.





Map of Georgia © Copyright World Sites Atlas. If you would like to use this or a similar map, contact
Michael Borop at World Sites Atlas.









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