The Conflict Over South Ossetia

by Nathan Hamm on 7/23/2004 · 3 comments

First, I found Vladimir Socor’s latest from the Jamestown Foundation to be quite instructive in understanding the nature of the current conflict and the motivations of the parties. I reccomend reading the whole thing, but this stood out to me

Ossetian villages have welcomed the provision of Georgian aid. South Ossetia’s security troops and their Russian handlers responded by blocking most deliveries of Georgian aid and trying to turn what Tbilisi envisages as a peaceful process into a military standoff — the only type of contest that Russia and the secessionist leadership can win.

I think this goes a long way towards explaining why South Ossetia and Russia seem so hellbent on moving to the brink of war and trying to elicit a Georgian response. Congratulations are in order to Saakashvili for sticking to his strategy (which involves a lot of personal warmth towards Putin to try to encourage him to rein in those who are pushing the conflict).

For a look at Saakashvili’s personality and how it plays out in policy, check out this article from the Economist.

The past few days have seen some serious deterioration in the conflict, with Russia cutting gas to Georgia (argument one for not allowing Russian companies into your energy sector) and Georgia moving additional armor into the area in response to the Russian transfer of armored vehicles to South Ossetia.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Alexei July 28, 2004 at 10:28 am

Socor’s article is biased against Russia, and, as far as I remember, Socor has always been a knee-jerk Russophobe. He misrepresents facts to begin with. “Tbilisi is determined to avoid a repetition of 1991-93, when it was dragged into armed clashes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Wrong; Tbilisi initiated the clashes, trying to beat the “separatists” into submission. Georgian troops took to butchering Abkhasians, who reacted by expelling ethnic Georgians. Ossetians have every reason to fear a replay on their own soil.

“Ossetian villages have welcomed the provision of Georgian aid. South Ossetia’s security troops and their Russian handlers responded by blocking most deliveries of Georgian aid…” It’s hard not to welcome any aid in general. Ossetians will never take the Georgian side in exchange for aid or money unless they are 100% sure Georgia will not ethnically cleanse them. They feel safer under Russian protection, especially as their semi-independent country borders on the Russian republic of Northern Ossetia. Only a plebiscite can ultimately solve this problem, followed, if necessary, by a resettlement.

On the gas side: “The Tbilgaz official said Gazprom was demanding payments from the impoverished republic that dated back to January.” What, they’ve been getting free gas for six months? I think it’s a mighty argument in favor of doing business with Russian companies.

Nathan July 28, 2004 at 11:17 am

Only a plebiscite can ultimately solve this problem, followed, if necessary, by a resettlement
No plebiscite will either be: 1) allowed; or, 2) fairly run, so long as South Ossetia is run by a thug whose position is bolstered by the Russian military. I have a very hard time believing the Russian line on its “pocket empire” with the way it behaves. It’s not like Gamsakhurdia is still calling the shots in Georgia.

Georgia has been right to insist that the issue is one between itself and Russia and that South Ossetian leaders don’t really come into play. It’s Russia that’s calling the shots and it’s Russia that is key to solving things.

Over the past few years, I’ve been very disappoint with the way that Russia has acted. I think that the US, Europe, and Russia can be great partners. We share many interests (and I think the US and Russia probably share more), but for some reason, a large segment of Russia’s powerful see the world as little changed since the Cold War. They are almost insisting on conflict–never give an inch, when that’s not what we want. The people insisting on holding South Ossetia and Abkhazia (and breaking the CFE treaty, etc) don’t give a damn about ethnic cleansing or watching out for the little guy, they care about power.

I think Russia’s got one helluva president. Not perfect, but probably the best thing for Russia right now. I also think he’s got his head screwed on pretty straight and see’s the value of partnership with the US and good relations with Russia’s neighbors. When crises in Georgia have reached the ministerial/presidential level in the Russian government (which happens to be when it reaches that level in ours), the outcome has been reasonable and positive. Here’s for him laying down the law with his subordinates in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

As for the gas, I’m not going to dispute the payments. But then again, everyone seems to be eternally behind in their payments for Russian gas. It doesn’t get cut off until Russia’s upset though. That’s where the “don’t let them dominate your energy sector” comment comes from.

Alexei August 11, 2004 at 3:35 am

I’m sorry for being silent so long–I managed to forget where I left this comment. As a Russian citizen, I would be happy if Russia could extricate itself from all its Caucasian entanglements, including Chechnya, and leave them all to their own means. Ideally, build a wall, Israel-style. It’s not going to happen, of course.

I hate the thought of a conflict with Georgia, one of Russia’s very few brotherly nations. I hope it never comes to that. But suppose Russia withdraws from Abkhazia and S. Ossetia and leaves them with no means to confront the Georgian army. Within days or weeks, the Georgians will start massacring Abkhazians and Ossetians — I can almost guarantee it. And it’s Russia who’s going to be responsible for that, having betrayed its clients.

Make no mistake, Saakashvili is just another charismatic Georgian prince, his US law degree and Euro-wife notwithstanding. He just happens to have been quite popular for a while, hence the Rose Revolution and an illusion of democracy. In fact, Georgia is even more socially backward than Russia, that is, even less prepared for liberal democracy. Which means, among other things, that nothing will stop Georgian troops from repeating their bloody feats of the early 1990s.

Yes indeed, I am certain the rulers of Abkhazia and S. Ossetia are corrupt. Corruption is the way of life throughout the Caucasus. Most people there won’t even denounce it–that’s how generations have lived. For now, though, there is peace there, thanks to the Russian bayonets. It is inconceivable that most ethnic Abkhazians and Ossetians will ever agree to rejoin Georgia unless given firm guarantees against Georgian aggression. Those would have to include a defense force of their own.

Saakashvili is not going to allow that unless he sees no other way out. It’s he who insists on changing the status quo and acting aggressively. Why? I guess because he relies on the US for support. Perhaps Russia should talk directly to the US if it is indeed Saakashvili’s patron?

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