by Melissa Hahn
- USA -
The stunning Caucasus soar nobly over their valleys, sheltering quilt squares of villages below. Sadly, this bucolic landscape harbors ancient animosities and modern hostilities in its crags; a simmering violence which this month threatened to escalate into full-scale war.
On August 7th, Russian peacekeeping troops responded to a Georgian military action in the latter’s breakaway province of South Ossetia. Before a French-brokered cease-fire could be reached five days later, 1,500 people had died, with 100,000 more displaced. Only hours after the agreement’s announcement, fresh allegations re-emerged from both sides, dampening international hopes for peace.
With South Ossetia seizing the opportunity for self-determination, Georgia battling to escape its geographic reality, and Russia striving to regain its influence in the “near-abroad,” each refuses to back down without a fight.
Containing a sizable anti-secession Georgian population, the province itself is internally divided. Holding Russian passports and conducting trade with the Ruble, however, many Ossetians regard their present incorporation into Georgia as a historical mistake and seek to join what they call North Ossetia across the Russia-Georgia border. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili rejects the very name South Ossetia, insisting on the Georgian name, Tskhinvali. Railing against the perceived violation of its territorial integrity, Tbilisi believes that the troubled province serves as a pretext for Moscow’s reassertion of power in the region.
Georgia has endured wave after wave of invasion and occupation for nearly all of its 1,000 year history. Roman, Persian, Turkish, Arab, Mongol and finally Russian conquerors have in turn swept across its rugged peaks. Situated on a land bridge along the Black Sea, the mountainous nation has been cursed by a lack of its own mineral and energy resources while possessing the very geographical features required by its neighbors.
Conversely, energy-rich Russia has faced the opposite problem - a wealth of reserves but a dearth of available shipping routes. Russian leaders realized that controlling the Black Sea and Caucuses would not only extend Russia’s borders right up to Iran’s door in the south, but would also provide an outlet to the Atlantic, via the narrow Turkish Straits.
Mixed Legacy: Defender or Conqueror?
Emerging from its own isolation after centuries of Mongol occupation at the end of the 15th century, Russia scrambled to catch up to an increasingly sophisticated and imperial Europe. Following their example of enhancing national prestige and treasure through colonization and territorial acquisition, Russia expanded into its “near-abroad” across Siberia and Eastern Europe. The Romanov Dynasty forcibly annexed Georgia in the early 1800s.
Besides outright expansion, Russia historically sought to increase its soft power by establishing itself as the rightful protector of Russian and Christian minorities within surrounding empires. By negotiating with the Ottoman Sultans on behalf of that empire’s restless Orthodox and Slavic peoples, Moscow was able to assert its own manifest destiny. Once this right had been acknowledged by the neighboring empire, Moscow had cause to engage in the internal affairs of the Sultanate itself.
Initially, many Ottoman Slavs and Christians prospered under the arrangement, emboldened by Mother Russia as their protector. Moscow’s recognition of the emerging nations bestowed upon them a sense of identity and esteem, guaranteeing a certain level of cultural and territorial integrity to the many smaller peoples under its umbrella.
Failing to understand nuances and appreciate local cultural differences, however, Tsarist efforts never made significant headway in the Caucasus. As an Orthodox Christian kingdom sandwiched between the Muslim empires of Persia and Turkey, Georgia should have been a natural ally to Russia. But Tsarist Russia’s aspirations extended beyond simply being present - its grand empirical visions required increasingly harsh political and military control. Tsarist-imposed Russification programs, the destruction of its ancient social institutions, and the repopulation of ancestral lands with competing tribes, ensured that Georgians recall the Russians only as brutal conquerors. All but the most enthusiastic fans of the empire were eventually disillusioned.
Russia feels a deep obligation to control affairs in its environs. As the largest nation on the planet, Russia cannot help but have a magnetic influence on every smaller nation in its orbit.Russians have a grudging admiration for - and fear of - the indomitable Georgian spirit, claiming it as part of Russia’s own heritage when it suits them and disowning it when it bites them. Having adopted their fast-stepping mountain dance and melancholy music as their own, Russians find perhaps the best of themselves in the Georgians’ romantic and hearty souls.
Yet despite this co-opting of Georgian folk culture, Russia maintains the enduring belief that such obdurate people cannot possibly govern themselves. Recalling their history of policing the quarrels of the region’s many ethnicities during the Soviet era, Russians feel a genuine sense of obligation and responsibility in continuing to administer their near-abroad. Likewise demonstrating Russia’s conflicting approach, Joseph Stalin, the ruthless Georgian-born Soviet icon, is a true Russian when idealized, but Georgian when vilified.
Polarized Politics, Fragmented Ethnicities
In nearly every nation touched by Russia’s shadow, politics are polarized between those who look upon the power as their greatest defender and those who see the mega-state as their archenemy. This results in political fragmentation and civil conflict within these republics, creating unstable democracies, questionable human rights records and civic distrust. Many of these states contain a hodgepodge of ethnicities, not all of whom are pleased to find themselves under the new republics. Additionally, most of these republics contain substantial Russian minority populations as a result of the Soviet Union’s overt encouragement of Russian migration to increase the state’s presence. Finally achieving their independence in the early 1990s, every single republic has experienced waves of anti-minority sentiment alongside the converse desire to incorporate the minorities into the new state.
Georgia, unfortunately has not been able to reconcile these to contradictory aims, and in failing to do so, provided Russia with the classic pretext to begin a war.
Georgia currently has several ongoing ethnic and border issues. The borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan remain unresolved; Armenian groups desire greater autonomy, and the breakaway provinces of South Ossettia and Abkhazia are seeking separation altogether. One thousand displaced Russian citizens remain within Georgian borders, with perhaps another 240,000 displaced Abkhazians and South Ossettians. (This last statistic is disputed by Georgians, who say that it is they who are displaced in these numbers, not the ethnic minorities).
A researcher working in the region on conflict resolution spoke on condition of anonymity, out of fear of alienating contacts on both sides.
“The situation is much more complicated than simply a break-down in Georgian-Russian relations. One must also consider the Georgian-South Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhazian relations.”The trouble which spilled over into a near all-out war was unfortunately brewing and simmering for a long time, without any resolution acceptable to both the Georgian government and its disaffected ethnic citizens. Long-standing disaffection was only enhanced by current Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s campaign promise to crack down on separatist movements.
“There are substantial differences among non-Georgians,” observes the researcher. “Abkhazians in particular are equally afraid of annexation by Russia. Nevertheless, many non-Georgians truly and deeply fear Saakashvili’s leadership, and they have legitimate reasons to feel that way.”
Pausing to reflect, he elucidates the fundamental contradiction in the relationship between the Georgian republic and its minority groups. “Georgians see the conflict only in terms of being united in a fight against Russia. They don’t see that for the Ossetians as well as the Abkhazians, Georgia is the big empire.”
By allowing the situation to simmer for so long and attempting to crush the resistance militarily, Georgia practically forced Russia to intervene on behalf of its “weaker citizens with Russian passports”. Under the watchful eye of NATO and the UN, it is unlikely that Russia will try to re-conquer Georgia, but it doesn’t have to. Moscow has made its point, and Tbilisi finds itself again trapped in its geopolitical reality. South Ossetia, in whose name the war is waged, may find itself with a Pyrrhic victory. Each convinced of its righteousness, the fight continues.
About the Author
Melissa Hahn is a freelance writer and world traveler whose projects include foreign affairs analysis, children's literature, and creative nonfiction. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, she completed her B.A. in Russian Area Studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and is currently a graduate student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She is an associate analyst at The Power and Interest Report and currently writes for the English-language edition of the Pan-Korean Peacemaking Webzine.
A photojournalist and amateur artist, Melissa aims to bring small joys to people's lives and to enable Americans to release their fear of the rest of the world. Through her works, she hopes to inspire her readers to seize the day and experience the wonder of humanity that exists both around the globe and in their own backyards.