'We Are All Georgians'? Not So Fast.
It didn't take long for the "Putin is Hitler" analogies to start following the eruption of the ugly little war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia. Neoconservative commentator Robert Kagan compared the Russian attack on Georgia with the Nazi grab of the Sudetenland in 1938. President Jimmy Carter's former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said that the Russian leader was following a course "horrifyingly similar to that taken by Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s."
Others invoked the infamous Brezhnev doctrine, under which Soviet leaders claimed the right to intervene militarily in Eastern Europe in order to prop up their crumbling imperium. "We've seen this movie before, in Prague and Budapest," said John McCain, referring to the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956. According to the Republican presidential candidate,"today we are all Georgians."
Actually, the events of the past week in Georgia have little in common with either Hitler's dismemberment of Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II or Soviet policies in Eastern Europe. They are better understood against the backdrop of the complica ted ethnic politics of the Caucasus, a part of the world where historical grudges run deep and oppressed can become oppressors in the bat of an eye.
Unlike most of the armchair generals now posing as experts on the Caucasus, I have actually visited Tskhinvali, a sleepy provincial town in the shadow of the mountains that rise along Russia's southern border. I was there in March 1991, shortly after the city was occupied by Georgian militia units loyal to Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first freely elected leader of Georgia in seven decades. One of Gamsakhurdia's first acts as Georgian president was to cancel the political autonomy that the Stalinist constitution had granted the republic's 90,000-strong Ossetian minority.
After negotiating safe passage with Soviet interior ministry troops who had stationed themselves between the Georgians and the Ossetians, I discovered that the town had been ransacked by Gamsakhurdia's militia. The Georgians had trashed the Ossetian national theater, decapitated the statue of an Ossetian poet and pulled down monuments to Ossetians who had fought with Soviet troops in World War II. The Ossetians were responding in kind, firing on Georgian villages and forcing Georgian residents of Tskhinvali to flee their homes.
It soon became clear to me that the Ossetians viewed Georgians in much the same way that Georgians view Russians: as aggressive bullies bent on taking away their independence. "We are much more worried by Georgian imperialism than Russian imperialism," an Ossetian leader, Gerasim Khugaev, told me then. "It is closer to us, and we feel its pressure all the time."
When it comes to apportioning blame for the latest flare-up in the Caucasus, there's plenty to go around. The Russians were clearly itching for a fight, but the behavior of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has been erratic and provocative. The United States may have stoked the conflict by encouraging Saakashvili to believe that he enjoyed American protection, when the West's ability to impose its will in this part of the world is actually quite limited.
Let us examine the role played by the three main parties.
Georgia. Saakashvili's image in the West, and particularly in the United States, is that of the great "democrat," the leader of the "Rose Revolution" who spearheaded a popular uprising against former American favorite Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003. It is true that he has won two reasonably free elections, but he has also displayed some autocratic tendencies: He sent riot police to crush an opposition protest in Tbilisi last November and shuttered an opposition television station.
While the United States views Saakashvili as a pro-Western modernizer, a large part of his political appeal in Georgia has stemmed from his promise to reunify Georgia by bringing the secessionist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia under central control. He has presented himself as the successor to the medieval Georgian king David the Builder and promised that the country will regain its lost territories by the time he leaves office, by one means or another. American commentators tend to overlook the fact that Georgian democracy is inextricably intertwined with Georgian nationalism.
The restoration of Georgia's traditional borders is an understandable goal for a Georgian leader, but it is a much lower priority for the West, particularly if it involves armed conflict with Russia. Based on their previous experience with Georgian rule, Ossetians and Abkhazians have perfectly valid reasons to oppose reunification with Georgia, even if it means throwing in their lot with the Russians.
It is unclear how the simmering tensions between Georgia and South Ossetia came to the boil this month. The Georgians say that they were provoked by the shelling of Georgian villages from Ossetian-controlled territory. While this may well be the case, the Georgian response was disproportionate. On the night of Aug. 7 and into Aug. 8, Saakashvili ordered an artillery barrage against Tskhinvali and sent an armored column to occupy the town. He apparently hoped that Western support would protect Georgia from major Russian retaliation, even though Russian "peacekeepers" were almost certainly killed or wounded in the Georgian assault.