Georgia’s Ethnic Cleansing Lawsuit Against Russia & Troubling Questions About Georgia’s Attack on the South Ossetians
[Updated here, with further clarification] We’re Americans. We like to divide up opponents in any conflict into Good Guys and Bad Guys. Since reality tends to be more complicated than that, we can easily be misled by politicians and media pundits whose personal agendas are served by telling us which are the Good Guys and which the Bad Guys.
Russia has agreed to “stand down” (NYT); and Georgia has apparently filed a lawsuit against Russia in in the International Court of Justice for ethnic cleansing. (Newsmeat; Examiner.com) But Russia made similar claims against Georgia when it went into South Ossetia. Is either side telling the truth? Are both?
Both sides have traded accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Russia has accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians… The claim couldn’t be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the area over the weekend said hundreds had died. (Examiner.com)
During the course of trying to fit together the pieces of the media jig-saw (speaking of trust, lack of), a number of quotes snagged my attention.
Yesterday, Vladimir Putin said:
“The ferocity in which the actions of the Georgian side were carried out cannot be called anything else but genocide, because they acquired a mass character and were directed against individuals, the civilian population, peacekeepers who carried out their functions of maintaining peace.” (BBC News Key Statements)
But Bush said on Aug. 11:
“Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st Century. The Russian government must reverse the course it appears to be on and accept this peace agreement as a first step toward solving this conflict.” (BBC News Key Statements)
It’s not as if I had ever gazed into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul. On top of that, I grew up during the Cold War years. I don’t trust him. Sadly, based on hard experience, I don’t trust Bush either. If it were up to me—which it is not—I’d probably rate their souls about equally. (Fortunately for them—this is me speaking as a Quaker now—God’s empathy, understanding, and mercy in judging any given soul infinitely exceeds mine.)
Anyway: Putin. Is he just making up these allegations of ethnic cleansing to justify Russia’s action against Georgia?
The tension between Georgia and South Ossetia, one of two separatist enclaves, is fueled by “the dark politics of ethnic revival and territorial struggle. The region is home to scores of brewing border disputes and dreams of nationalist homelands.” (Charles King) At The Times of London, Professor Anatol Lieven of Kings College, London, (senior fellow at the New America Foundation in DC, and former correspondent for the Times in the erstwhile Soviet Union) writes:
Many factors are involved in the present conflict but the central one is straightforward: the majority of the Ossetes living south of the main Caucasus range in Georgia wish to unite with the Ossetes living to the north, in an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation; and the Georgians, regarding South Ossetia as both a legal and an historic part of their national territory, refuse to accept this…. (ToL)
The alliances and animosities go back hundreds of years. And the reality, like all reality, is complex.
Russia’s policy is driven by a mixture of emotion and calculation. The Russian security establishment likes the Ossetes, who have been Russian allies for more than 250 years. They loathe the Georgians for their antiRussian nationalism and alliance with the US. For a long time they hoped to use South Ossetia initially to keep Georgia within the Soviet Union and later in a Russian sphere of influence.
That Russian ambition has been abandoned largely in the face of the Georgians’ determination to escape from this influence.
What remains is an absolute determination not to be defeated by Georgia and not to suffer the humiliation of having to abandon Russia’s South Ossete client state, with everything that this would mean for Russian prestige in other areas. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin made it clear again and again that if Georgia attacked South Ossetia, Russia would fight. Georgian advocates in the West claimed that Moscow was only bluffing. It wasn’t. (ToL; emphasis added)
So perhaps the attempts of pundits, American politicians (including the Bush administration) to frame this dispute as a two-dimensional cartoon—the unprovoked attack by the Big Bear on the small, hapless victim— aren’t quite accurate. (On the other hand, this cartoon sort of is.)
After all (and again), if “President Saakashvili has made restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity a priority in his political project”, this more or less means that he has made it a priority to compel people who wish to be independent from Georgia to be a part of it. (BBC News 04-30-08).
Last week, the Russian’s side went like this: they have a CIS -prescribed peacekeeping role in the region, which they argue required them to intervene. The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that “Georgia had violated a peace deal under which Georgia had agreed not to use force in the South Ossetian dispute.” (BBC News 08-09-08).
Speaking to the BBC, the Russian foreign minister insisted his country did not want all-out war with Georgia, but was prepared to do whatever was necessary to restore the situation in South Ossetia and to defend its civilian population, most of whom have been given Russian citizenship.
“Mr Saakashvili keeps saying that we want to chop off a part of Georgian territory,” Mr Lavrov said.
He’s also saying that this is not just about Georgia, this is about the future of Europe because he says Russia is also making territorial claims to other [countries], including the Baltic states, which is rubbish.” (BBC News 08-09-08).
Lavrov said last week that Georgia had been engaging in “ethnic cleansing.” (NYT) Is he just making this up? Who knows? In Georgia’s “extremely vicious” conflict in the nineties with Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia, “both sides carried out ethnic cleansing, mass killings and wanton destruction of property.” (BBC News 04-30-08) In an article today, Bridget Kendall at BBC News notes in passing re: Georgia’s action against South Ossetia that “considerable violence had been used against the South Ossetians, including civilians.” (BBC News 08-12-04)
Here’s a report from August 8, when most of the American news media, and consequently the blogging public, were still busy dealing with John Edwards:
Violence has spiraled across Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, prompting deep concerns over the fate of the province’s 75,000 residents.
Georgian forces overnight began pounding the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, in a large-scale operation to regain control of the Moscow-backed separatist region. Both sides accuse each other of initiating the hostilities….
Death tolls have been raising on all sides throughout the day; South Ossetia’s rebel leader Eduard Kokoity claimed hundreds of civilians have already been killed in Tskhinvali.
Television stations around the world broadcast footage of panic-stricken South Ossetians fleeing the bloodshed after Georgia imposed a three-hour humanitarian cease-fire. According to the commander of the Russian peacekeeping force in the region, Tskhinvali is “almost completely destroyed.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross warned of a humanitarian crisis, saying local hospitals were overflowing and people were sheltering in their basements with no electricity or access to the outside world. Water is also reportedly in short supply, and shops are running out of food.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was receiving reports that ethnic cleansing was taking place in South Ossetia.
“We see panic rising among the population and the number of refugees trying to save their own lives and the lives of their children and families growing,” Lavrov said. “A humanitarian catastrophe is at hand.” (GlobalSecurity.org)
The South Ossetian crisis began with escalating tension between Georgia and the South Ossetians.
The crisis began spiralling when Georgian forces launched a surprise attack on Thursday night to regain control of South Ossetia, which has had de facto independence since the end of a civil war in 1992.
The move followed days of exchanges of heavy fire with the Russian-backed separatists.
In response to the Georgian crackdown, Moscow sent armoured units across the border into South Ossetia. (BBC News 8-9-08)
Russia is now saying that the Georgians “have been punished enough.”
In Moscow, Medvedev said Georgia had been punished enough for its attack on South Ossetia. Georgia launched an offensive late Thursday to regain control over the separatist province, which has close ties to Russia.
“The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized,” Medvedev said. (Examiner.com)
At BBC News, Bridget Kendall wrote:
Immediately following the Georgian attack on South Ossetia’s capital overnight on Thursday, it seemed Moscow felt it was occupying the moral high ground, confident it could make a legal and humanitarian argument for its incursion into what is, strictly speaking, Georgian territory.
Both Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev insisted that Russia had the legal right to move in to protect Russian peacekeepers who had come under fire and suffered casualties
Mr Putin spoke of Russia’s “historical role” to act as a “guarantor of security” in the Caucasus, which he said no-one should dispute.
And both he and Mr Medvedev repeatedly stressed that the Russian constitution required the government to protect the safety and dignity of Russian citizens, regardless of where they were situated. (BBC News 08-12-04)
As she said, the seeming reasonableness and rightness of their argument would depend on your perspective.
All of this would] probably [sound] reassuring if you were a South Ossetian refugee, or a Tskhinvali resident, still cowering in a cellar.
[It] may also have sounded reasonable and right if you were a Russian citizen watching television at home, appalled at the scenes of carnage and destruction that showed considerable violence had been used in South Ossetia, including against civilians
But if you were Georgian, worried about neo-colonialist Russian ambitions to undermine Georgian independence and bring it back under Russia’s thumb, Moscow claiming the right to guarantee security in the Caucasus must have been downright scary.
And if you lived in other former Soviet republics with sizeable Russian populations or disputed territories – the simmering row between Ukraine and Russia over the Crimea comes to mind – then talk of troops being constitutionally obliged to cross borders to help out Russian citizens in trouble would also have sent a shiver down your spine.(BBC News 08-12-04)
Russian president Dmitri Medvedev today said:
“You know, the difference between lunatics and other people is that when they smell blood it is very difficult to stop them. So you have to use surgery. As for claims by the Georgian president that the ceasefire has been observed for two days – that’s a lie. Georgian forces continued to fire at peacekeepers, unfortunately people were killed yesterday. There was no ceasefire from the Georgian side. (BBC News Key Statements)
And Putin said yesterday:
“They [the Americans] of course had to hang Saddam Hussein for destroying several Shia villages. But the current Georgian rulers who in one hour simply wiped 10 Ossetian villages from the face of the earth, the Georgian rulers which used tanks to run over children and the elderly, which threw civilians into cellars and burnt them – they [Georgian leaders] are players that have to be protected. (BBC News Key Statements)
At The Christian Science Monitor, Professor Charles King of Georgetown University says:
Speaking on CNN, Mr. Saakashvili compared Russia’s intervention in Georgia to the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979. Russia has massively overreacted to the situation in Georgia. It has hit targets across Georgia, well beyond South Ossetia, and has killed both Georgian military personnel as well as civilians. The international community is right to condemn this illegal attack on an independent country and United Nations member.
But this is not a repeat of the Soviet Union’s aggressive behavior of the last century. So far at least, Russia’s aims have been clear: to oust Georgian forces from the territory of South Ossetia, one of two secessionist enclaves in Georgia, and to chasten a Saakashvili government that Russia perceives as hot-headed and unpredictable. (King)
Though I may live to retract this, I have a feeling at this point that this isn’t actually a case that can be easily sorted into victims and oppressors/good guys and bad guys/white hats and bad hats/Davids and Goliaths. ETA: What is clear is that Russia has no moral high ground since it seems to have been helping to fan the hatred that argues it had to to stop from playing out.
My colleague Adam commented:
As I gather more information, it’s starting to seem more and more clear that there’s no good guy here. Russia is attempting to reassert their military/political hegemony over the former Soviet Union, and Georgia is acting like 1990s Serbia.
True? False? Partly true and partly false? Draw your own conclusions.