by Joshua Foust on 11/13/2006 · 2 comments

In Georgia, the citizens of the rebellious province of South Ossetia voted this weekend on whether or not to reaffirm their declaration of independence. South Ossetia is a textbook example of ethnic nationalism gone violent: a region overwhelmingly populated by an ethnic minority, with strong ethnic ties to a neighboring country (North Ossetia, an autonomous region within the Russian Federation, and site of the 2004 Beslan Massacre), seeking independence from a country it feels little relation to. As usually happens in these crises, the neighboring country, Russia, has supported the separatist movement, even going so far as to participate in “peacekeeping activities” in the province.

There has been a lot of argument and disagreement between Georgia and Russia over how best to resolve the crisis, mostly chronicled here. Recently, tensions have escalated to an alarming degree, from Georgia making several Russian soldiers persona non grata to Russia deporting hundreds of Georgian immigrants, to both sides reflexively pleading for world sympathy while subtly brandishing armies. Despite its honorable rhetoric, Russia sees South Ossetia as a way of punishing the pro-Western president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili. Georgia sees it as an issue of territorial sovereignty. The Ossetians see it as national independence.

That they overwhelmingly voted for independence isn’t very surprising; what is surprising, and undoubtedly helpful, is Georgia’s possibly softened stance. The past few weeks have seen a slight thaw in Georgian-Russian relations, partially spurred by the State Department’s head-shaking at Saakashvili. Although everyone should mistrust an election Russia certifies as “free and fair,” and the official government line hasn’t changed much, the removal of Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili may indicate a softening on the issue. Okruashvili was born in South Ossetia, and has been a vocal hardliner against independence; removing him from the Ministry of Defense right after an historic vote on national sovereignty is clearly significant.

But significant in what way? The vote has clearly weakened Saakashvili’s position within the Georgian government; was he merely removing a potential competitor? Worse yet, was Saakashvili placing a Russian irritant in a position to irritate even more than before, as the new Minister of Economic Development, by further reducing Georgia’s economic ties to Russia and strengthening its relationship with Europe? Or was it, as a lot of people are cautiously guessing, a move that Tblisi’s official stance on South Ossetia may become more amendable?

In the interim, Russia still supports the unpopular side in the dispute: despite the thousands killed and misplaced in a decade of fighting, South Ossetia is not recognized by any country save Russia. No other country certified or even recognized the vote. And Georgia’s claim of territorial sovereignty retains international legitimacy. So while there probably won’t be any huge increase in military action (despite the alarmist rhetoric from some in the Caucasus), there is the slight chance of some actual improvement. And that’s something we can all get behind.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Aris Katsaris November 13, 2006 at 10:55 am

South Ossetia (combined and Abkhazia) is the modern-day Sudetenland, with Georgia being Czechoslovakia and Putin’s Russia playing the role of Nazi Germany.

The parallels are undeniable. Nobody is truly deluded into thinking that South Ossetia is striving for “independence” — it’s the Russian conquest of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two pieces of Georgia, that we are talking about: same as Sudetenland back then.

So, let’s not pretend that Russia just “supports” the unpopular side. Russia *is* the unpopular side: There’s no actual distinguishing line between South Ossetian ambitions to disengage from Georgia and Russia’s own imperialistic ambitions — just the puppet and the puppetmaster.

chris November 15, 2006 at 1:30 am

Surely these boundaries are based on Lenin and Stalin’s dispensations? Odd that they should be supported still…

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