Sending the wrong signals

Twelve days after they first rolled in, Russian tanks are still in Georgia and show no signs of pulling out. A small column left the strategic town of Gori this week, but Russian troops were still in the Black Sea port of Poti, taking 20 Georgian servicemen at gunpoint, and still encamped at Igoeti, 43km from the capital, Tbilisi. Nor is this likely to change.

Having signed a ceasefire agreement which requires it to pull back to the position it occupied before the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali on August 7, Russia continues to dismantle Georgia’s military machine. Russian forces have not only occupied the areas of South Ossetia that were previously under Georgian control but drilled a large ‘security zone” around the enclave, occupying villages like Igoeti which were wholly Georgian.

Every day this occupation continues, Russia undermines its own case — which was to stop Georgia’s ethnic cleansing of Ossetia. Every day Russian tanks rumble around Georgia, or greater Ossetia, is another day when Georgia’s leaders claim that the real object of Russia’s invasion is to dismember an independent and sovereign state. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, wrote this week in the International Herald Tribune that the Russian military did not ‘subject civil objects and civilians on the territory of Georgia to deliberate attacks”. There are countless smouldering Georgian villages that say otherwise.

All of which obscures Georgia’s historic aim to seize its breakaway provinces back by force. Georgia’s previous attempts to solve its separatist conflicts with tanks and bombardments (they did it to South Ossetia in 1990-92 and Abkhazia in 1992-93) are glossed over by those who cast this conflict as a demonstration of Russian imperialism. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, claimed Ossetians only appeared in Georgia on the coat-tails of the Red Army’s invasion in 1921. Georgia’s current president Mikheil Saakashvili said in an interview with the BBC that the only Russian citizens in South Ossetia were the ones that Russia had just created by handing out passports. Each Georgian leader peddles the same myth, which is to deny Ossetians or the Abkhaz their history, identity and land.

Widen the field of vision, and what happened in South Ossetia could be repeated and amplified in the Crimea, a pro-Russian enclave that has always disputed its inclusion into Ukraine. Pull back the lens still further and there are more than eight million ethnic Russians in Ukraine and 1,2-million in the Baltic states, where they are significant minorities in the populations of Estonia and Latvia. Old memories die hard. Last year a man was killed in a Russian demonstration in Tallinn after the Estonian­ authorities moved a Soviet-era war memorial. When former Baltic leaders write that Europe must stand up to Russia­, what does that mean for sizable­ portions of their own populations? Sovereignty is not the only principle at stake. How successfully independent states cope with the legacy of their history also matters.

There was no international settlement when the Soviet Union broke up. The map could easily be redrawn again, and it is in no one’s interests that it is done either by Russian tanks or by western security guarantees. Nato’s eastward expansion must not only be judged by the benefits enjoyed by its new members, but by the reaction it causes elsewhere. It may have just shifted the line of confrontation eastwards. Without Russia’s participation, Nato’s ability to solve conflict in the Caucasus is limited. Its ability to spread it, however, is unlimited. Nato’s decision this week to create a special consultative council for Georgia, and to suspend the one it has with Russia, may appear today to be a useful diplomatic lever. But in the long term the exclusion of Russia from the collective security arrangements of a region where millions of ethnic Russians live is a recipe for conflict. —

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