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The conflict in Georgia - THE BACKGROUND PDF Print E-mail

'This is no longer about the future of a tiny far-away country but about the nature of the world order in the 21st century'


By Rob Parsons, former BBC Moscow correspondent

THERE NEEDS TO BE CLARITY ABOUT one thing: the South Ossetian war has nothing to do with Russian support for the rights of ethnic minorities in Georgia. It has nothing to do either with keeping the peace or the issues of self-determination and territorial integrity. This is about hubris, anger and resentment. Georgia is paying the price for its pro-Western foreign policy and its insistence on the right to choose its own friends.

ImagePutin's pretext for Russia's actions - and one has to assume he is still the man taking the key decisions - was that Georgian forces had killed Russian peacekeepers and Russian citizens during an operation launched on Thursday night to reassert Georgian control over South Ossetia. It made no difference to Moscow that those Russian citizens were South Ossetians issued with Russian passports over the past 10 years in defiance of the Georgian government's frequently stated objections.

That much is clear. But almost everything else is lost in the swirling smoke of a little war that could yet suck the entire Caucasus into a cauldron of uncertainty and chaos.

Why, for instance, has the American reaction been so muted? Why hasn't George W Bush, who has done so much to promote Georgia's cause, made a far stronger statement condemning Russian agression? And what of the EU? Is it to be reduced again to paralysis and hand-wringing on the sidelines?

As Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili appealed on CNN and the BBC and warned that, if Russia got away with this, the whole democratic world would suffer along with Georgia, rumours swirled of possible deals. A Western intelligence source suggested Bush might let the Russians get away with Georgia if they backed Washington to the hilt on sanctions against Iran.

And in South Ossetia itself, after 14 years of semi-frozen conflict, what was it that triggered the spasm of rage that has brought Russia and Georgia into open warfare?

Two key events this year have poured fuel on Russia's gathering fury: the recognition by Western states of Kosovo's independence in February, and Nato's pledge to Georgia and Ukraine that it was not a matter of if, but when, they would receive full Nato membership.

ImageRussia was quick to respond. Putin said that he could see no reason why Georgia's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should not also be recognised. Action soon followed words, with Moscow giving the go-ahead to set up relations with Abkhaz government departments and coming as close to recognition of Abkhazia's independence as decency allowed.

But after Georgia refused to rise to the bait in Abkhazia, Russia turned its attention to South Ossetia instead. The presence of the Russian military peacekeepers in the region has been a protracted exercise in cynicism. While its armed forces have squeezed the life out of separatism in Chechnya, its troops have propped up the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaderships.

The cynicism of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, as he sought to accuse the Georgians of ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia, has been breathtaking. Has Moscow already forgotten that it razed Grozny, the Chechnyan capital, to the ground and fought a war for re-control of separatist Chechnya that cost the lives of more than 100,000 people?

The perspective from Tbilisi is very different. The Georgians say that over the past two weeks, the Ossetians, tacitly backed by the Russians, have progressively stepped up their efforts to draw the Georgians into a fight.

South Ossetia is a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages, each protected by rival armed forces. According to the Georgians, Ossetian artillery has been firing indiscriminately on Georgian villages and targeting Georgian peacekeepers and policemen.

Georgian patience was reaching breaking point. The final straw came on Wednesday night when the Ossetian response to a Georgian ceasefire was to shell another Georgian village. On Thursday night, Georgian forces launched a lightning attack that brushed aside Ossetian resistance within hours. By Friday afternoon, they had taken control of the Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

The Georgians have modernised and restructured their armed forces to bring them into line with Nato standards, and their special forces now serve regularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are well-trained and battle-hardened. But the Georgians miscalculated. They thought that if they moved quickly before the Russians could act, the international community would then act to ensure the conflict was contained.

The Russians were indeed caught off balance. Moscow had a tough choice: face the humiliation of accepting a fait accompli or incur the anger of the international community by effectively going to war against a Western ally.

With Putin at the helm, there was never really any question what the Russians would do - at least not once Russian peacekeepers died. The ferocity of the Russian response, though, has caught the West by surprise. An attack on Georgian positions in South Ossetia could have been expected. The aerial bombardment of Georgian towns hundreds of miles from the conflict was quite another matter.

What, though, of the Western response? What message will it send to burgeoning democracies anywhere in the world if it cringes meekly before Moscow's attempt to reassert a Russian sphere of influence in the Caucasus?

ImageAs Saakashvili warned, this is no longer about the future of a tiny far-away country but about the nature of the world order in the 21st century. By its actions, Russia has stripped away its mask and revealed a bully still aching for the wars of the 20th century. If Moscow gets away with this, it will be encouraged to use its growing muscle and energy clout elsewhere. Eastern Europeans should be watching closely.

If principle is not enough, the West's self-interest is also at stake. When the Russians bombed Marneuli military airport on Friday, they were within just a few miles of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil and gas pipelines that the US and Europe are increasingly counting on to escape a Russian energy monopoly. If Russia is allowed to crush Georgia's independence, BTC may soon become just another offshoot of Gazprom.

But, in truth, it is not just the West but Russia, too, that should be worried by its actions these past few days. However much Putin detests the government of Saakashvili, he should be wary of provoking its collapse. Georgia's political stability is still a fragile thing. If central authority disintegrates, the consequences could be felt all over the region and beyond. Georgia is the key to the stability of the Caucasus. If there is a vacuum of power, it could quickly become a haven for terrorism and the smuggling of drugs, weapons and nuclear materials. No one wants that, not even Vladimir Putin.

Rob Parsons is a former BBC Moscow correspondent and has lived and worked in Georgia for many years