THE WAR. A few hours after President Saakashvili went on TV and promised autonomy to South Ossetia and that Russia could be its guarantor, Georgian MLRSs opened fire in Tskhinvali. Hundreds if not thousands of Ossetians were killed and wounded. Moscow came to their rescue. French President Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Kouchner (who actually went to talk to the refugees who had escaped into North Ossetia) swiftly negotiated a settlement with Medvedev and then induced (what is the mot just?) Saakashvili to sign it. The leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have just signed as well. The settlement exactly corresponds to what Moscow has said was its intention from the beginning: cessation of fire; withdrawal of Georgian forces from South Ossetia (and Russian from South Ossetia); a declaration by Tbilisi that it will not use force in the future; opening access for aid and the beginning of a serious international discussion of Georgia’s secessionist problems. The Medvedev-Sarkozy settlement has two important points in it that Moscow has been calling for for years: Tbilisi is to make a formal promise not to use force (now perhaps one can understand why Moscow was always calling for such a promise) and the world should start taking a closer and more balanced look at Georgia’s secessionist problems. The EU is taking the lead: Sarkozy’s fast initiative has got us to where we are today. Besides, Washington is seen by Moscow (and the Ossetians) as too complicit.
SAAKASHVILI. Long time readers will know that I have been warning about Saakashvili and his bellicose desires for years. An attack on South Ossetia in 2006 failed in defeat and so, as I have long predicted, did this one. Complete defeat: thousands of refugees in Georgia, the apparent collapse and precipitate withdrawal of the Georgian army and the local administration from Gori, the abandonment of weapons and ammunition in Gori and Senaki (which, in the power vacuum, the Russians are securing), Georgia’s credit rating is dropping. And a legacy of destruction in Tskhinvali which the Western press is just now starting to discover. In November thousands of people on the streets of Tbilisi demanded his ouster – I would not be the least surprised to see bigger crowds in a few days when the extent of this folly becomes apparent. If I may give some advice to my readers regarding Georgian politicians: take the effort to find out what they say when they think you’re not listening: it’s often very different. See this, by a Georgian as it happens, summarising his recent statements. Will he be President of Georgia in a week? From his first domestic-audience statements, I expected Gamsakhurdia redivivus – someone else hailed as a “democrat” by naïve Westerners – and so he has proved to be.
MEDIA COVERAGE. The Western news media covered itself with shame, relaying every report from Tbilisi without hesitation. Some balance has been restored – the BBC in particular is starting to report what its people actually see in Tskhinvali and Gori rather than passing on Tbilisi’s press releases. But the degree of inaccuracy and bias have been made plain to any objective viewer.
LARGER ISSUES. It is too early to speculate on NATO-Russia, Moscow-Washington or anything like that. The West – especially Washington, whose reaction has been especially ill-informed – has a severe learning curve in front of it and Sarkozy (and Kouchner) have begun the process. For 15 years the West has believed the secessionists in Georgia were something created out of whole cloth by Russia; since the “Rose Revolution” Saakashvili has been a darling in the West; for years Moscow’s warnings have been contemptuously dismissed.
SOUTH OSSETIA FUTURE STATUS. No one in South Ossetia will ever believe a Georgian politician again unless there is a complete change and admission of what they have done since 1991. This is the third time since 1991 Tbilisi has attacked and they still speak of the “genocide” of 1920. Too much history, too much blood. This is simple reality. Stalin made these maps: they are not fixed by God.
ABKHAZIA. Expecting to be next on the list, the Abkhazians have driven Georgian forces out of Kodori.
OTHER POSSIBLE SECESSIONS. Tbilisi has not been able to locate Emzar Kvitsiani in Svanetia; the people in Javakhetia are potentially restive; Ajaria may take advantage.
FURTHER READING. By me on the sequence of events, “Now comes the hangover” and this on the terrible situation in Gori yesterday (the Georgian police have apparently come back). This essay on the cost of the West’s ignorance is very informed or this which is more breathless and not entirely to my taste but has lots of links. Russia Today has, until very recently, given the only coverage of Tskhinvali and the refugees in North Ossetia.
© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada