Georgia on our minds

20.08.2008

Cold war or Politics as usual?

As Russia slowly begins to withdraw its forces from Georgia, many have begun to ponder what the entire incident was about. On the one side there is a feeling that the US and NATO had given the green light to Georgia to try and re-establish control over South Ossetia. On the other is the view that Russia had lured Georgia into the conflict. Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: the Georgian leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili made a huge miscalculation.

It's ironic that from the very outset Georgia's military gamble was received positively by the western media. Yet when Russia reacted with full force, the conflict suddenly took on the undertones of the cold war. A recent media advisory released by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) reveals how the media in the US frequently evoked the Cold War as a key to understanding the conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia, donning "black hats or white hats on the actors involved depending on whether they were allied with Moscow or Washington."

This same type of media spin has been apparent in the media of Central and Eastern Europe as well. In Hungary, state television reported on Tuesday how the lightening offensive by Russian troops has been replaced by a cold war standoff between the rivals. This despite the fact that the so-called "cold war" standoff between rivals has been going on for more than a decade, ever since South Ossetia and Abkhazia had declared themselves independent of Georgia shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Indeed, tensions in the area have repeatedly broken out into open combat. Hence, the fighting of the past few weeks is merely the latest round in an ongoing standoff and not the start of a new "Cold War" between Russia and Georgia or Russia and the West as it is often depicted.

Hypocrisy on the part of the EU and the US

Oddly enough, while media pundits in the west and its client states have been unified in their condemnation of Russia, what has been often overlooked is that the Georgian military was responsible for starting the latest bloodbath. It attacked first with the intensive shelling of civilian areas which reportedly caused many noncombatant deaths and prompted a large proportion of the population in the affected area to seek safety in Russia. Reports from Human Rights Watch as well as Western reporters on the scene attest to the aggressive actions of the Georgian military. The White House, the EU, and NATO, however, all seemed to overlook this and even condoned this aggressive behaviour by noting that Georgia was simply reasserting its sovereignty over the territories.

Ironically, when the same was done by Serbia in Kosovo during the 1990s these same governments cried foul, ultimately prompting a war between NATO and Serbia. What is more, although neither the US nor the EU recognizes the so-called independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, citing the right of Georgia to preserve its territorial integrity, there were no qualms of forcing Serbia to forego its own territorial integrity when they recognized Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence. While some may argue that Kosovo was never really a part of Serbia and had enjoyed a measure of autonomy under the former Yugoslavia, the same can also be said about the northern region of Vojvodina -- but isn't. The hypocrisy on the part of the EU and the US in this case is plain to see.

Such hypocrisy also extends to how western-based media viewed Russia intervention. Whether Russia was justified in its intervention is a moot point; what is interesting is the double standard that is applied when the invasion of a sovereign country is at issue. As the FAIR media advisory brilliantly points out: "A striking feature of the coverage was the ability of pundits who have enthusiastically advocated for U.S. invasions of sovereign countries, dismissing concerns that these would violate international law, to demand that Russia be punished for breaking that same law by violating Georgian sovereignty. These commentators seemed blissfully unaware of the contradiction […]." Iraq is a prime example of this contradiction.

Global game of chess

What most observers appear to miss is that the conflict in Georgia is actually part of a much broader issue. It's perhaps of no coincidence that as the conflict in Georgia raged Poland formally signed an agreement with the US over the proposed missile defense shield in Central and Eastern Europe. Throughout the region there has been growing opposition to the plan. Hence, the conflict in Georgia came in handy in two ways: first, it helped to divert attention elsewhere; second, it provided a perfect example of why it was necessary to place missiles once again in these countries (albeit faced in a different direction). Fears of a resurgent Russia were stoked by images of Russian tanks moving into Georgia.

Although the US has repeatedly stated that the missile defense shield in Central and Eastern Europe is not aimed at Russia but at Iran, most people think otherwise. Indeed, Poland went so far as to say as much, revealing that the agreement signed between Washington and Warsaw contains a clause in where the US will provide assistance to Poland should it ever be attacked.

For some this is a little deja-vu. Similar promises were made by western powers to both Poland and the former Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s which, in the end, were left unfulfilled. Coincidentally, analogies with the present conflict in Georgia and the Second World War have been rife. In addition to comparing the Russian intervention to a "blitzkrieg" of sorts some journalists, such as L.A. Times columnist Max Boot and Robert Kagan of the Washington Post, have gone so far as to compare Russia to Nazi Germany.

While most would view such an analogy as a little stretched, what is similar between then and now is how smaller client states are used by larger powers as mere pawns in a global game of chess. Smaller client states are often made grand promises, only to be left in the lurch when push comes to shove. Both Poland and the former Czechoslovakia know only too well how they had been betrayed in the past. And yet, as with the missile defense shield of the present, the lessons of the past are not always learned.

With Saakashvili's popularity at a low point the present conflict no doubt had come in handy

It appears the same may have happened this time with Georgia. If Saakashvili thought that NATO or the US would come to his assistance then he was badly mistaken. Israel's decision to stop sending arms to Georgia on account of the fighting perhaps best demonstrates how reliable such connections are. In other words, when the going gets tough, everyone leaves.

To what extent Saakashvili was duped by the EU, US, and NATO is hard to say. However, there is no doubt that he had his own personal reason for antagonizing Russia. It's a political axiom that people tend to unite and rally against a common enemy, and with Saakashvili's popularity at a low point the present conflict no doubt had come in handy.

While western leaders praise Saakashvili for his free market reforms and his friendly relations with western countries, they tend to overlook and euphemize his dictatorial hold on power as well as his crackdowns on dissent and independent media outlets. Opposition to Saakashvili is primarily based on the fact that corporate-oriented and market fundamentalist policies including the sale of government assets to local elites and foreign corporations ("privatization"), deregulation of the economy, and promoting exports and trade at the expense of local needs, have been forced through in an arrogant and heavy-handed manner.

His aggressive language (as when he advised a former Justice Minister "to use force when dealing with any attempt to stage prison riots, and to open fire, shoot to kill and destroy any criminal who attempts to cause turmoil; we will not spare bullets against these people") is often backed up by action. In fact, protests in November 2007 were exacerbated by the government's decision to use police force against protesters which subsequently evolved into clashes on the streets of Tbilisi. This led to a state of emergency and ultimately the snap elections which were held in the beginning of January of this year. Subsequently, these elections were marred by state intimidation of opposition parties, this according to an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) report.

Despite such opposition, Georgians have now put aside their differences and rallied behind their president. Although many still don't like Saakashvili or his policies, Georgians detest Russians even more. While a few voices have called for him to be held to account for the present hostilities, they nevertheless feel that they will deal with Saakashvili in their own way and don't want anyone else - especially Russia - to tell them what they should do or who their president should be.

For now, Saakashvili is able to enjoy some public support as a result of the present conflict with Russia. However, if this conflict was merely designed as a means by which he could reassert his hold on power, then he may have made a serious blunder. Saakashvili came to power on the crest of a wave demanding change; this same wave can just as well sweep him from power.

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