Memes function as an epistemological filter determining what the facts and motives are and where to look to find them. The memes told their believers what Moscow’s motives were in the case of Georgia – Moscow’s motive and principle of its actions was an attempt to reverse the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The 2008 war was commonly fitted into the pre-existing story that Moscow was seizing its chance to defeat and humiliate Georgia and regain control over its behavior. But the adherence to the memes, together with the general ignorance of the context and Tbilisi’s ambitions, blinded their adherents to Moscow’s real concern. And that was that Moscow feared that a fire set in Georgia would spread across the mountains into the Russian Caucasus. Moscow feared this in 2008 because it had seen it happen in the 1990s. Moscow feared a repeat of what had already happened once before.
I wrote Chapter Two: “Enter the Memes”
Note February 2016: the formatting of this is likely going to be rather strange.
The Georgian tragedy is a story of a dominant nationality that made war on its minorities, only to have that war metastasize into a civil war of Georgians against Georgians.i
For twenty years many reporters and commentators have interpreted Russia through a series of preconceptions or “memes”. These memes are considered to be so true as to need no evidence, and Georgia has figured among them. For example, one meme is that Russia “wants its empire back”: Georgia was part of that empire. Another is that Russia wants to control energy routes: one passes through Georgia. Another is that Moscow “hates democracies,” and that Georgia is one. The characteristics of memes are that they determine what the “facts” are and that they are very resistant to mere reality. Despite the reality that in August 2008 Moscow did not conquer Georgia, seize the pipeline route, or overthrow the Georgian government, the memes remain strong in many minds. This chapter attempts to illustrate this effect. In direct contradiction to the causal explanations created by these memes, it attempts to show how Russia has in fact been significantly and adversely affected by events that were fundamentally of Georgian origin. In short, Russia was not the actor, as the memes imply, it was the reactor.
Russians often complain that an “information war” is being waged against themii. Whether or not, as the term implies, there is some centrally-directed policy in the service of some grand geo-political game of controlling and directing Western media outlets so as to blacken Russia’s name for their consumers, it is undeniable that the Western media is ever-ready to assume the worst, taking for granted assumptions about the malevolence of Russia’s intentions. These I call “memesiii” and this chapter will discuss several that adhere to common Western discussions and reporting of Russia-Georgia relations. But there are other memes as well: one is that Putin kills reporters and other opponents. A small but revealing case of this assumption at work – in the complete absence of any evidence – involved the Russo-French Lawyer Karinna Moskalenko who found mercury in her car in October 2008. Several media outletsiv immediately jumped to the conclusion that this was another dastardly deed against one of Putin’s enemies. But a few days later French police identified the cause: the car had been previously owned by an antiques dealer who had broken a mercury barometer inside it.
This rush to judgment, assuming the worst, is very common. One of the most demonstrable examples of this is found in the case of Georgia’s accusations against Russia: they are almost always taken for granted, despite the number of times that Moscow’s assertions have been proven true. Russians can be forgiven for believing that there is an “information war” against themv.
Inevitably Moscow’s attitude to the outside world is affected. When every approach is rejected, every action condemned, every motive suspected, every utterance misquoted, it would be surprising indeed if Moscow were not more suspicious and hostile. Putin’s famous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 was branded as “inflammatory”vi, “attacking the Western world” and so on. According to the BBC it was regarded either as threatening a new Cold War or just letting off steamvii. Few made any attempt to try to understand what he was saying. In essence what he was saying was quite simple: Russia is not happy in a world in which its point of view is ignored; and it is not helpless. The second message was that a unipolar world is not a secure world; he even quoted Franklin Roosevelt: “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.”viii These are messages that he and other Russian spokesmen have endlessly and reasonably reiterated. Putin, back as President of Russia – a Russia that is on the way back up after the collapse of the 1990s – is visibly less patient than he was in 2000. The habit of so much reporting of Russia as if one were preparing a charge sheet for some indictment has contributed to this.
Georgia has been a prominent part of the charge sheet of Russia’s crimes. This statement from the influential Economist in 1993 can stand as the prototype:
An independent state of Georgia existed for 2 ½ years, until Trotsky’s Red Army snuffed it out in 1921. Mr Yeltsin has given its successor exactly the same amount of time. More or less secretly, Russian forces have backed rebellions by Muslims in the Abkhaz region and by Georgian followers of the former president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In this squeeze the current president, Eduard Shevardnadze… despairingly appealed to Moscow for help, and got it on terms that in effect mortgage his country’s independenceix.
This is a fine example of the “charge sheet” against Russia not just because it was one of the first to look at Georgia and see Russia: it has two characteristics that we will see again and again. There is the easy assumption of Russia’s malevolence as the real explanation for Georgia’s misery. And, almost every sentence in it is untrue; it is erected on an almost complete ignorance of reality. First, to call Abkhazia “Muslim” is incorrect – in fact a bishop from Pitsunda attended the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. It is true that with Ottoman influence many Abkhazians became Muslims but, after the Russian conquest in the late Nineteenth Century, many of the Muslim Abkhazians left and moved to the Ottoman Empire. Today’s Abkhazia is majority Christian. Second, the likelihood of Moscow supporting Gamsakhurdia, its implacable enemy and ally of another enemy, Jokhar Dudaev of Chechnya, is quite absurd. Third, the troubles between Sukhumx and Tbilisi began long before 1993 – they were rooted in Stalin-Jughashvili’s decision to subordinate Abkhazia to Tbilisi and subsequent events. The “rebellion” The Economist is talking about is not the first Abkhaz “rebellion” of the twentieth century against Tbilisi’s dominance. Fourth, it was not “Trotsky’s Red Army” that “snuffed out” the Georgian Democratic Republic in 1921; the invasion was engineered by the two most prominent Georgians on the Bolshevik high command – Stalin-Jughashvili and Orjonikidzexi; but to say that – assuming the authors even knew it – would be to complicate the simple picture of Russian hostility that they want to sell. And finally, note the assumption that the Abkhaz viewpoint is irrelevant. In this construction, Georgia is a sort of canary in the coal mine of Russian imperialism. The assumption that Russia has imperialistic designs requires no proof beyond mere assertion:
The Russian ruling elite has not reconciled itself to the separation of the fifteen dependent republics…xii
So, in the earliest post-Soviet period, we find the memes that troubles in the former USSR are to be laid at Moscow’s door and that Georgia, in particular, illustrates this pattern of Russian trouble-making.
The next development affecting Georgia’s position in the “charge sheet” came with the discovery of large deposits of petrocarbons in the Caspian Sea. Georgia now became one of the fields of struggle in what was quickly called “the new Great Game”, an imagined struggle between Russia and the West to control the deposits and their transportation routes. To many it was a zero-sum game: either Russia benefitted or “we” did. Ariel Cohen laid down the markers in 1996:
Will a neo imperialist Russia (aided and abetted by Iran) dominate the development of Eurasian oil and its exports, or will Russia be an equal and fair player in the region… the West has a paramount interest in assuring that the Caucasian and Central Asian states maintain their independence and remain open to the West. Otherwise, Moscow will capture almost monopolistic control over this vital energy resource, thus increasing Western dependence upon Russian dominated oil reserves and export routes…. The wars in Chechnya, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in Georgia were started or exacerbated by the Russian military, and the outcome of these wars may determine who controls future pipeline routes…xiii
Others joined in the chorus
Moscow’s strategy of reasserting its economic and military political influence in the region includes the goal of dominating the production and transportation of Caspian oil to world markets… Russia is suspected of being behind efforts to destabilize Azerbaijan and Georgia as part of its long term strategy to control the Caucasus and its oil wealth.xiv
Russia has also intervened decisively in the wars in Georgia, forcing Eduard Shevardnadze to take his country into the Commonwealth of Independent States…xv
Geography made Georgia part of this “new Great Game” because any route that avoided Russia (Iran was not regarded as an option) must necessarily pass through it in order to get to the sea, and so Georgia became a key part of the strategy of denying Russia “almost monopolistic control”. Evidence of Russia’s enmity was simply asserted: “As is generally known, Russia has had great difficulty adjusting to the fact that its empire, built by conquest over centuries, disappeared in 1991, depriving it of rich borderlands and nearly half its population.”xvi Caspar Weinberger warned “Russia has a truly ominous enlargement initiative of its own – ‘dominance of the energy resources in the Caspian Sea region.’”xvii A popular theory, often uttered in the same breath, was the assertion that Russia was busy de-stabilizing the countries of the Caucasus so as to gain monopoly over the routes:
Georgia for a while resisted Russian demands for closer cooperation. To subdue it, Moscow initiated a ‘national liberation’ movement among the 100,000 Abkhazians, a Muslim people occupying the western regions of Georgia. In the course of the rebellion, a quarter of a million Georgians residing in Abkhazia were expelled. The rebellion stopped only after Georgia agreed to let in a force of some 8,000 Russian soldiers, forces they have been trying to get rid of ever since.xviii
At the moment, Russian armies are in Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan and participate in some of the local civil wars with a strategy that seems designed to make the new republics all of them members of the United Nations rue their independence and return to the womb of imperial Russia…xix
“[Russia] maintains bases on the territory of Georgia after fomenting a civil war there… ”xx.
Therefore, from early times, the assumption was that Russia wanted its empire back partly because that’s just what Russians were like and partly in order to gain a monopoly of the routes out of the Caspian to the West. In the pursuit of both aims it was fomenting wars in its southern neighbors. Georgia’s independence had to be protected against Russia’s “neo-imperialism”. What never occurred to the zero-summers was that Moscow needs the money just as much as the customers need the oil and gas. Also absent from their consideration is that Moscow might want as much stability as possible in the turbulent Caucasus. But for them the assumption was that Russia was nothing but expansionist; no further thought was required.
The third element in the Georgian portion of the “charge sheet” against Russia, while never completely absentxxi, intensified with the arrival of Mikheil Saakashvili after the so-called Rose Revolution. To the “canary” and “new Great Game” memes was added Moscow’s assumed hostility to a “democracy” on its borders. Until his mendacity in the 2008 war, most Western pundits believed everything Saakashvili said.
The Georgian Catastrophe
The post-USSR history of Georgia has been a succession of disasters. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, elected President in May 1991, was overthrown in January 1992. South Ossetia and Abkhazia sought to preserve the rights they had had under the Soviet system against Tbilisi’s refusals to countenance any such thing. The coup makers imported Eduard Shevardnadze in March 1992 and his position was regularized by election in 1995. Gamsakhurdia fled to his native Mingrelia to raise forces in the west; central Georgian forces invaded Abkhazia in August 1992 and a real war started there. North Caucasian volunteers, hoping to re-create the short-lived Mountaineer Republic of 1918, went to Abkhazia to fight.xxii Gradually fighting expanded in South Ossetia. Tbilisi’s forces were driven out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In the years that followed, Zviadistsxxiii, sometimes allied with Chechens, attempted coups or assassination attempts against Shevardnadze. Chechen fighters and Arab mujahaddin took advantage of the vacuum and moved into the Pankisi Valley. It is hardly surprising that Georgia did not flourish. Shevardnadze was pushed out in 2003 and Mikhail Saakashvili took power. At first the darling of the West, Georgia’s experience under him has been a disastrous war, large protests, the defection of many of his associates to the opposition, little genuine economic improvement and very high unemployment. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are lost to Tbilisi for the foreseeable future, Saakashvili’s dream of NATO membership is gone and the recent overcoming of Tbilisi’s “veto” on Russia’s membership on the WTO shows that the bloom is indeed off the rose.
For the most part, Western commentators naively repeated Tbilisi’s side of the story, ignored the desires of the Abkhaz or Ossetians, and fitted events – when they noticed them at all – into the well-worn trope of Russian neo-imperialism and the “new Great Game”. The 2008 war, however, may have forced some revision of these assumptions.
One of the most momentous errors of the standard Western coverage of events in Georgia is the lack of interest in Ossetians and Abkhaziansxxiv. This is implicit in the quotations above: there is no curiosity about how Moscow was supposedly able to foment trouble. Mingrelia, Svanetia and Javakhetia have not historically been very happy with domination from Tbilisi and yet Moscow was unable to “initiate” troubles there. This blindness persisted in the EU report on the 2008 war: there was no curiosity about why Ossetians would fight Georgians. There was no curiosity about why Abkhazia seized the opportunity to drive the last parts of Tbilisi’s forces out of Kodori. Throughout the issue has been conventionally treated as if the only actors were Russia, Georgia (and the West). But Georgia’s modern troubles began with Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s attempts to hold what they had and Tbilisi’s refusal to accommodate them.
Other successor states of the USSR had similar secessionist problems. Russians and Ukrainians living in Transdnestr did not want to suddenly find themselves in Romania which, at the time, was the aspiration of many in Moldova. Armenians living in Karabakh were not happy under Baku’s rule. Chechens wanted out of Russia. These disputes led to fighting. But fighting was not the only option. Crimea, absorbed into the Russian Empire in 1783 and whimsically transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Khrushchev in 1954, was an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic with certain privileges under the Soviet system and the inhabitants wished to retain them. This could have led to trouble, but in 1992, Kiev was wise enough to listen and begin negotiations and Crimea is today an autonomous republic within Ukraine.xxv A similar wise arrangement was made in Moldova to accommodate the language and cultural rights of the Gagauz, a Turkic people washed up by the tides of history in Central Europe. Reasonable compromise damped down the passions that elsewhere erupted into fighting.
The USSR, following Stalin’s famous apothegm “nationalist in form, socialist in content”, had dealt with the multi-ethnic reality of the Russian Empire by the construction of carefully graded national entities. Highest were the fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs), in them were Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs), Autonomous Oblasts (AOs) and Autonomous Okrugsxxvi (AOs). There was a strong element of fakery in these constructions because real power flowed through the Party structure but there was also a not meaningless degree of local language and cultural rights for the titular nationalities. The Center continually meddled with the concept, changing borders and abolishing entities and changing the very number of accepted ethonyms over time and ideological requirements.xxvii One change is very important in the Georgian context: Abkhazia’s status was changed from co-equal with Georgia to subordinate to it (i.e. from an SSR to an ASSR). But then Stalin, who ordered it – born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili in Gori in 1878 – was a Georgian as was his then South Caucasus lieutenant and later political police chief, Lavrenti Pavles dze Beria. Perhaps there was an element of Georgian chauvinism in the decision.
The Georgian SSR had within it three autonomous regions: the Abkhazian ASSR, the Ajarian ASSR and the South Ossetian AO. Neither Abkhazians nor Ossetians are Kartevelianxxviii peoples. As Georgians agitated for independence from the USSR, non-Kartevelians became nervous about their futures. And not surprisingly given that they were hearing things like this:
Georgia stands on the brink of a real catastrophe – of extirpation. What devil ruled our minds, when we yielded up our land, gained inch by inch over the centuries, defended and soaked with our blood, to every homeless beggar that has come down from the fringes of the Caucasus, to tribes that have neither history nor culture? We must make every effort to raise the percentage of Georgians in the population of Georgia (currently 61%) to 95%. The remaining 5% must consist of only those who know Georgian, who have a proper respect for Georgia, who have been brought up under the influence of the Georgian national phenomenon. We must persuade other nationalities, which are multiplying suspiciously in the land of David the Builder, that ideal conditions for the development of their personalities are to be found only in their homelands.xxix
And this from a 1992 pamphlet devoted to countering claims that Ossetians and Abkhazians might have for independence or any retention of their Soviet-era privileges:
The most important fact to be pointed out is that when Georgia was declared an independent state on the 26th of May 1918, its frontiers contained only a part of those territories which used to belong to it since the time of formation of the Georgian ethnos and statehood, i.e. for some millennia. Not an inch of this land which is now the country of Georgia, has ever been conquered by it, and the national minorities inhabiting its territory, except the Abkhaz, have lived together with the Georgians from time immemorial when they had come to Georgia in search of better life and shelter and safety, leaving their homelands.xxx
“Homeless beggars” who would be better off somewhere else were quite capable of taking the hint. An intimation of the future appeared in the Soviet referendum of 17 March 1991 on the question of support for the proposed new confederation. A number of jurisdictions – Georgia included – refused to hold the referendum at all on the grounds that they legally had never been part of the USSR.xxxi However, the Abkhaz SSR voted anyway and a little over half opted to stay in the proposed new post-USSR union evidently believing that the future looked better under Moscow than under Tbilisi.xxxii
The collapse of the USSR unleashed many national dreams and the dream of Georgian chauvinists was the Greater Georgia that existed about eight centuries ago reaching its apotheosis under the granddaughter of King David the Builder,xxxiii Queen Tamar (reg 1184-1213). During that time, one Georgian state ruled most of the South Caucasus. The eastern part of this Greater Georgian state was destroyed by the Mongol invasions. A remnant of a united Georgia survived in western Georgia until Alexander I (reg 1412-43). After his death, the kingdom was divided among his sons and, from then until the twentieth century, the territory of today’s Georgia was divided into numerous kingdoms and principalities ever fearful of destructive invasions from the south. A terrible sack of Tbilisi in 1795 by Persians ended independence; Russian protection was sought and Georgian territories were absorbed into the Russian Empire.
The root of the chauvinist Georgian position today is the notion that this Greater Georgia of eight hundred years ago is the “true Georgia.” It was precisely this sort of talk, very common in the Gamsakhurdia period – indeed the official version – that sparked off wars of independence by the Ossetians and the Abkhaz. “Georgia for Georgians” and “Nature has outlined the borders of Georgia and history has confirmed them”xxxiv are not calculated to make non-Kartevelians comfortable. The same thing had happened in the first independent Georgia of the Twentieth Century and, in its short existence, it had wars with the Ossetians and the Abkhaz as well as border scuffles with Armenia.xxxv It was this chauvinism, not Russian interference, which sparked the wars. Shevardnadze, who has said different things at different times to different audiences, after defeat in Abkhazia, had this to say:
did we not create a terrible phenomenon of modern times, which is provincial fascism?.. we were punished, we should have been punished and we were punished…we were robbing them [the Abkhazians]… let us also remember how we drove the Ossetians out of Tbilisi [and] how we tortured Ossetians.
As far as the so-called Russian responsibility, he said this:
of course there was a betrayal from Russia’s reactionary forces but, despite all this, Sukhumi would not have fallen under any circumstances, had it not been for the betrayal [of the Georgian forces at the last moment by the Zviadists].xxxvi
Thus Georgian chauvinist behaviorxxxvii, informed and fed by the dream of a Greater Georgia into which all non-Georgians had come, by invitation – a conditional invitation – was the impetus for the Ossetians and Abkhazians to get out of a state which seemed to have no place for themxxxviii. This feeling was redoubled in Abkhazia because of attempts, probably engendered by Beria, to suppress Abkhazian culture in the 1940sxxxix.
The election of Zviad Gamsakhurdia – who embodied this chauvinism – began a terrible period for the inhabitants of the former Georgian SSR. His overthrow led to a civil war between his supporters and the coup makers. This war merged into the struggles of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to preserve their Soviet-era status. As usual, atrocity bred atrocity and the demands ramped up to full independence. The following armed groups – each with its own lines of command and interests – struggled: Tengiz Kitovani and Tbilisi’s official forces; Jaba Ioseliani’sxl paramilitary Mkhedrioni; Gamsakhurdia’s forces; Abkhazian and South Ossetia militias; North Caucasians fighting on the side of the Abkhazians. “Russian”xli troops were involved in this because they were stationed here and there in bases or at certain installations of importance to the Soviet defense systemxlii. By the end of 1993, Abkhazia and South Ossetia had driven Tbilisi’s forces out of their territories, the North Caucasians had gone back to Russia to start wars there and Gamsakhurdia was dead. An uncertain standoff was preserved by peacekeeping forces, dominated by Russians but with participation from the other two combatants, along the South Ossetia and Abkhazia borders. Under Shevardnadze things were comparatively quiet – even stagnant. There were assassination attemptsxliii on him, continual skirmishing along the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and periodic bomb explosions and political murders but at least nothing got dramatically worse.
The prevalent meme requires that Georgia’s troubles be fitted into a story of “neoimperialistic” Russia versus Georgia. Very few Western commentators who subscribe to the Georgia as “mine canary” or field of the “new Great Game” ever mention Abkhazians or Ossetians and when they do the assumption seems to be that they are simply tools of Moscow’s trouble making. But they are not: they are crucial actors too.
The casus belli in Abkhazia, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, has historical roots. The Abkhaz are autochthonous: in Classical days Abkhazia was known as Colchis. A thousand years ago, their leading family was united in marriage with King David’s dynasty, but this association was broken by the Mongol destruction of Greater Georgia in the Thirteenth Century. Russia annexed Abkhazia in 1864 and a large part of the Muslim population emigrated, or was forced out, to the Ottoman Empire, leaving the Abkhaz a minority in their land.xliv After 1917, Abkhazia was part of the short-lived Mountain Republic but was invaded by independent Georgia, which claimed it. The issue had not yet been resolved when the Red Army extinguished Georgian independence. The Bolsheviks solved the problem of Abkhazia’s status by proclaiming it a Soviet Socialist Republic in March 1921; in December, with a union treaty, it became associated with the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. But in 1931, it was taken into the Georgian SSR as an ASSR losing the co-equal nature of the relationship.xlv When the musical chairs that the communists had been playing with the internal borders of the USSR stopped in 1991, the West and the United Nations recognized Stalin-Jughashvili’s border.
The Gorbachev period awoke ambitions clamped shut in former years and the present troubles began in March 1989, when a gathering resolved that Abkhazia should regain the status of an SSR. Many of the Kartevelian residents opposed this and trouble began. Union MVD troops gradually restored order. Then ensued a period of conflicting declarations: the Abkhaz parliament declaring “state sovereignty” and the Georgian parliament overruling it. But the real trouble began after Gamsakhurdia’s overthrow. As a Mingrelian, his strength was in the west of Georgia and he fled there to set up his resistance to the coup makers. In March his supporters seized some towns in western Georgia and central troops and members of the Mkhedrionixlvi assembled to move there. In July, Abkhazia abolished the 1978 constitution and reverted to that of 1925 in direct response to Tbilisi’s abolishing all Soviet legislation and declaring that the 1921 pre-Soviet constitution was re-established, a constitutional arrangement in which Abkhazia had no special status. Up to that point, the Abkhazian-Georgia disagreement had been legalistic (apart from the violence of 1989) but fighting started in August after Gamsakhurdia’s forces took the Georgian Interior Minister and other officials hostage in Zugdidi (the central city of Mingrelia). Shevardnadze authorized a military/police action and, on 14 August 1992, Georgian forces entered Abkhazia and ran riot on Sukhumxlvii despite the fact that Gamsakhurdia had nothing to do with Abkhazia. Now serious blood had been shedxlviii.
Four days later, the Parliament of the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, meeting in Groznyy, demanded Georgian withdrawal from Abkhazia and, a few days later, called for volunteers to fight in Abkhazia. In the end, several hundred volunteers from Circassia and Chechnya went to fight. Fighting, accompanied by much destruction, massacres and atrocities, continued until the spring of 1993 when the Georgian forces, divided among themselves and harassed by the Zviadists, suffered serious reverses. A Russian-mediated ceasefire was achieved on 22 July 1993. Then the Zviadists struck – on 7 September they took the town of Gali (just inside Abkhazia), and gradually over the next few days extended their control through Mingrelia. The Abkhazians and their supporters grasped the opportunity and attacked the Georgian forces still in Sukhum. They pushed the Georgians out on 27 September and moved down the coast forcing the Georgians out of most of Abkhazia. The Zviadists then struck at the disorganized and retreating Georgian forces and took town after town in Western Georgia. Eventually a Russian-provided peacekeeping force together with UN monitors was established in the summer of 1994.
As now customary, Western commentators unaware of the background fitted these wars into the “new Great Game” and Russian imperialist templates. We have already seen The Economist’s take. Henry Kissinger opined in March 1997:
Even post Communist Russia is conducting some policies redolent of traditional Russian imperialism…it maintains bases on the territory of Georgia after fomenting a civil war there… xlix
Deep water harbors were what Moscow was after we were told:
The breakup of the Soviet Union deprived Russia of deep water harbors on the Black Sea coast. Such ports, however, existed in Georgia. In the summer of 1992, Abkhazia, the northwest corner of Georgia, was visited by Russian defense and intelligence officials. A short time later, the Abkhazians declared their independence. When Georgian troops tried to crush the revolt, they were defeated by an ‘Abkhazian’ army which appeared out of nowhere and whose ranks were filled with mercenaries recruited by Russian intelligence.l
Georgian spokesmen were happy to avoid their own responsibility for this disaster and blame Moscow:
The civil war in Georgia was inspired, plotted, and provoked by forces from outside Georgia, particularly in Russia. Russian civilian and military intelligence organizations perpetuated the civil war.li
But the question of Russian involvement was not as straightforward as here claimed. Abkhazian sources claimed that Moscow supported Tbilisi:
‘Experts’ constantly disparage Abkhazian prowess by asserting it was Russians who inflicted the defeat on ‘hated Georgia’, but such ‘experts’ forget that Russia was supplying weapons to Georgia gratis, whereas Abkhazians had to pay dearly for everything not gained as booty, and that Russian planes actually bombed Abkhazian lines in the final push, as an outright Abkhazian victory in no way suited the Kremlin’s purpose.lii
Zviadists in their turn saw a plot by Shevardnadze, supported by Russia, to set Mingrelians against Abkhazians:
It must be known that Abkhazian war was necessary for Shevardnadze for following reasons. He aimed first of all on creating ethnical conflict between Abkhazians and Megrelians [Mingrelians] and involving population of Megrelia into this war, thus two most fierce enemies of Shevardnadze: Megrelians and Abkhazians would be in permanent war and kill each other, what would give him better chances for establishing his dictatorship in Megrelia and Abkhazia, politically defeating President’s [i.e. Gamsakhurdia – who was, after all, the lawfully elected President of Georgialiii] supporters in both regions, turning great part of population to refugees and creating good situation for his marauding bands in that parts of Western Georgia. Reactionary forces of Russia also had interest in this, for strengthening their control over Abkhazia and Black Sea shore, which is very important from strategic point of view and as best resort zone and gave Russia good perspective in joining Abkhazia to Russia. By that reason units of Russian army, Cossacks and North Caucasians are involved in conflict, thus turning Caucasus into another Yugoslavia. [sic]liv
So the interesting thing is that all three sides agree on Russian involvement but always on the other side. For what it is worth – and to a devotee of Russian conspiracy theories, it is worth precisely nothing – official Russia many times called for a ceasefire and a restoration of the status quo ante bellum. The charge that Russia fomented the Abkhaz wars in presumably otherwise peaceful Georgia is important – David Satter, for example, uses it as one of the main buttresses to his argument that NATO expansion is necessary for protection against Russia.lv No great Russian interference is necessary to explain the Georgian defeat in a war which it provoked by its policy of “Georgia for the Georgians,” Kitovani’s attack on Sukhum and was then carried out by three different and opposed groups: the National Guard, the Mkhedrioni and the Zviadist forces; led – and incompetently led – by men who were later to fall out with each other and with Shevardnadze. Little surprise that a small force of Abkhazians and determined and ruthless North Caucasians defeated them.
The Ossetians were also made nervous by the outburst of chauvinism in Georgia in the late Gorbachev period. Their lands are split between Russia and Georgia with about two-thirds living in North Ossetia-Alania in Russia. They also had reason to fear an independent Georgia – they remember what they call the “first genocide” in the time of the Georgian Democratic Republic when they say thousands of Ossetians were killed. As soon as Georgia started its moves towards independence from the USSR, the Ossetians moved too. On 20 September 1990, the parliament proclaimed itself as the South Ossetia Soviet Democratic Republic and part of the USSR. The Georgian Supreme Soviet promptly overruled this and, a couple of months later, abolished the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast altogether and ruled that the elections there had been illegal. Violence was already general and was gradually brought under control by central forces. Gamsakhurdia’s election, with the concomitant increase in chauvinism, exacerbated the situation and South Ossetia called for union with North Ossetia. After the collapse of the USSR in December 1991 fighting intensified around Tskhinval. On 19 January 1992, a referendum was held and the voters overwhelmingly demanded to be incorporated into the Russian Federation. Ceasefires were announced and broken and the fighting did not stop until a Russian-Georgian-Ossetian peacekeeping force was established in the summer of 1992. Skirmishing was intermittent until the Georgian attack of August 2008 resulted in another Georgian defeat and the proclamation of full independence.
Had Tbilisi reacted to the first stirrings from Abkhazia and South Ossetia for retention of their autonomous status with the wisdom that Kiev showed in Crimea, perhaps none of this would have happened. As had happened in 1918, it was the behavior by actors in independent Georgia that provoked the wars of 1991. No Russian interference was needed to ignite the fire. The evidence for Russian interference is mostly assertion and a product of the two already established theories that Georgia was a “mine canary” for supposed Russian imperialism and the “new Great Game”. No actual knowledge of the background – “hosts and guests”, “homeless beggars”, Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s memories of the previous period of an independent Georgia – was thought worth gathering.lvi The truth is that these wars were caused as much by Stalin as by anyone (although Zviad Gamsakhurdia deserves special responsibility).
The Fire Spreads to Russia
Memes function as epistemological filters that determine what are seen to be facts and motives and where to look to find them. The memes made their believers think that they understood what was really happening – the principle of all Moscow’s actions with respect to Georgia was an attempt to reverse the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The 2008 war was fitted into this theory: Moscow was seizing its chance to defeat and humiliate Georgia and secure a measure of control over its behaviorlvii. But the adherence to the memes, together with the general ignorance of the context, Tbilisi’s ambitions, the views of Ossetians and Abkhazians, blinded their adherents to Moscow’s pre-eminent concern. And that was that Moscow feared that a fire set in Georgia would spread across the mountains into the Russian Caucasus. Moscow feared this in 2008 because it had seen it happen before. Tbilisi’s wars against the Ossetians and Abkhazians in the early 1990s had been a direct cause of the first Chechen wars when the victorious North Caucasian fighters returned home to complete the job; that war in turn attracted fighters from the international jihad who started the second war and the subsequent jihadist activities in the North Caucasus that continue today. Moscow’s principal motive in 2008 was to stop this from happening again.
The inhabitants of the North Caucasus – or “Mountaineers” as they are often called – were conquered by Russia after long and brutal wars. Thousands died and thousands more left their homelands for the Ottoman Empire. When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917 the Mountaineers resumed their struggle for freedom. An assembly of North Caucasus peoples proclaimed the Republic of the North Caucasus in May 1918. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey recognized this new state but it was evanescent, falling to General Denikin’s White army. In 1919 Sheikh Uzun Haji declared the “Emirate of the North Caucasus” in southern Chechnya and the Bolsheviks recognized and supported his Emirate against Denikin. When Denikin was defeated in February 1920, the Bolsheviks entered the North Caucasus, dissolved the Emirate and appointed Sheikh Uzun Haji as Mufti.lviii The Bolsheviks, with their slogans of independence from the “prison of nationalities” were at first welcomed by the Mountaineers but, as they revealed their “war communism,” the Mountaineers rose against them and in August 1920 a new war began in Dagestan and Chechnya. The Reds threw enormous forces into the efforts and by mid-1921 (assisted by forces attacking from the newly-absorbed Georgia) had crushed the Mountaineers.
Meanwhile in January the Bolsheviks convened a congress of the Mountaineers in Vladikavkaz which Stalin, then Commissar for Nationalities, attended. He promised amnesty for all who gave in (although the Red offensive in Dagestan was in full swing) and declared that the Bolsheviks supported sovereignty and independence for the Mountaineers. He proposed the creation of a Mountain Peoples’ Autonomous Republic – comprising the territories of the Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians, Kabardins, Balkars and Karachays together with Dagestan – to be an autonomous Soviet Republic. The assembly accepted this proposal, which accorded well enough with their aspirations, along with the additional provision that their traditional law (adat) be continued. These promises were of course only temporary and wore away as the Bolsheviks consolidated their rule. There was another outbreak of fighting against Bolshevik power upon the introduction of forced collectivization but that was also crushed. Resistance never ended: the Chechens boast that the last abreklix, Khazaki Magomedov, died in combat against the communists in 1979.
The collapse of the USSR re-ignited the dream of a North Caucasian Federation and an organization of that name was founded in Groznyy the day after Dudaev was sworn in as President of Chechnya. In April 1991 a founding meeting of the Assembly of the Mountain People of the Caucasus had already been held in Sukhum, Abkhazia. That November, delegates from the North Caucasus and Abkhazia formed the Confederation of Caucasian Mountain Peoples. And next year, in October, the Congress of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus met in Groznyy with delegates from Chechnya, Adygeya, Abkhazia, Ingushetia, Ossetia, Dagestan, Kabarda and Circassia and delegations from the Karachay, Akin Chechenslx and Tatars. Dudaev was happy to host the meeting and believed that Chechens were the natural leaders:
The union of all Caucasian nations on an equal basis is the only possible way for the future. As we hold a central geographic, strategic and economic position in the Caucasus and have the necessary human potential, we must be the initiators of this future union.lxi
At this point Chechnya was a powerful little entity in its local context. It had acquired quite a few weapons after the departure of Soviet forceslxii, had seen off Yeltsin’s attempt to cow Dudaev in 1991 and had money to spend from oil sales. The military wing of these efforts was led by the Chechen Shamil Basaev who took fighters from the North Caucasus into Abkhazia to fight the Georgians. Western reporters, knowing little of this and wedded to the notion that Moscow was stage-managing the efforts, heard the Chechens and Circassians in Abkhazia speaking Russian and using Soviet weapons and assumed they were Russians sent from Moscow. But Russian was the only common language and every weapon was ex-Sovietlxiii.
In the summer of 1993 Dudaev announced that Chechen armed formations had left Abkhazia. And they had been victorious: they had secured the western end of the putative Mountaineer Republic and they returned to Chechnya to complete the task there. Chechnya had in the meantime declared independence. Finally Moscow had had enough and instituted a disastrously ill-prepared and ludicrously over-optimistic “police action” to secure Groznyy and force Dudaev out. This first Russian-Chechen war of recent times ended in September 1996 with Russian defeat. The fighters had secured their second victory at other end of the putative Mountaineer Republic.
Perhaps the Chechens would, once again, have fought Russia to secure the independence they had lost with the Imam Shamyl’s surrender in 1859 but the war that actually happened was a follow-on from the successful war in Abkhazia which in turn was in no small part a consequence of the chauvinism and brutality of Tbilisi against its minorities. Basaev’s fighters, triumphant, blooded, returned to Chechnya to create the Eastern half of their Mountaineer Republic. After a terribly brutal war, they won de facto independence in 1996.
But there was more to come. The first war in Chechnya attracted foreign jihadists, in particular a carefully picked team led by the Arab Khattab,lxiv to use Chechnya as the basis for an Islamic Emirate in the North Caucasus. Some time after 1996lxv Shamyl Basev’s objectives shifted from the reestablishment of the Mountaineer Republic to the creation of a jihadist emirate. Together Khattab and Basaev invaded Dagestan in August 1999, igniting the second Chechen War.
This war, however, was to have a significant difference: this time, many Chechens who had fought Moscow the first time around, most notably the Mufti (and his son after he was murdered), fought against the foreign jihadists. Chechnya is much quieter and ostensibly back in the Russian Federation, but a low-level jihadist insurgency has spread across the North Caucasus.
A spreading fire indeed. While it would be otiose to blame Gamsakhurdia in particular and Georgia in general solely for the Chechen horrors, the direct connection is plain to see – Kartevelian chauvinism about Abkhazia, the resistance of Abkhazians, the dream of a new independent “Mountaineer Republic”, Basaev’s and other North Caucasian militia activities and the defeat of Georgian power in Abkhazia fed ambitions that encouraged Dudaev. The last thing Moscow needs is more Georgian adventures in Abkhazia. That is probably Moscow’s main interest in Georgia being as quiet as possible.
The Pankisi Gorge controversy
The memes, now well imbedded, caused most Western commentators reflexively to take Georgia’s side in any controversy with Russia. A small but revealing case was the issue over Georgia wine exports. When Russia stopped the import of Georgian wines in 2006, many news outlets treated this as another example of Russian pressure on Georgia.lxvi Many fewer reported the admission that the Georgian wine industry was rife with forgery and adulterationlxvii. But more important was the earlier Pankisi Gorge issue in which, as events were to prove, what Moscow said was mostly true and what Tbilisi said was mostly false. This revelation was not, however, taken to heart.
The Pankisi Gorge lies in the north-eastern part of Georgia close to Chechnya on the Russian side of the border and it is difficult of access from either the south or the north. For many years Chechens have lived there (locally they are known as Kists) and, fleeing the wars on the other side, many Chechens crossed the mountains as refugees. But with them came fighters – especially Ruslan Gelayev’s force which appears to have moved there after the fall of Groznyy in 2000. Arab jihadists also set up operations there centering themselves on the villages of Tsinubani and Khalatsani. Moscow started complaining about this almost immediately and Tbilisi responded with continual deniallxviii. The Wall Street Journal took up Tbilisi’s line:
Having faced exaggerated claims for years now that it is harboring terrorists (a Russian euphemism for any Chechen)…it seems clear that this latest crisis isn’t about combating terrorism at all. Rather, as Vladimir Socor explains on the page opposite, it’s part of Russia’s longstanding desire to reassert control over its Westward-looking former satellite… It still dreams of former SSRs, such as Georgia and Moldova (another unwilling host to Russian military bases), as subordinates…lxix.
In 2002 Russia complained to the UNSC and the OSCE:
The successful progress of the counter-terror operation has forced the remaining bandits to flee to Georgia, where the Georgian authorities turn a blind eye to the fact that they are living a free and comfortable life there, and continue to receive military, financial and other assistance from abroadlxx.
But in 2002 Washington was listening to different things than it had before. Soon Tbilisi gave up the pretence that nothing was happening in the Pankisi Gorge. Paata Batiashvili, the head of the Kakhetia district division of Georgia’s Ministry of State Security admitted in November 2002.
If you look at the village of Tsinubani, three to four months ago it was mainly occupied by Chechen fighters and Arab terrorists.lxxi
And next year a Georgian official finally admitted that everything Moscow had been saying was correct:
The [film] footage publicized by the Security Ministry depicts movements of very well-equipped fighters in the gorge. According to the Ministry’s information, there were around 700 Chechen and 100 Arab fighters in the gorge, which is only 30 kilometers in length. The Ministry named all the field commanders that have ever found shelter in Pankisi. These are: Ruslan (Hamzat) Gelaev, who had 200-250 fighters in his group and who’s arrest and extradition was repeatedly requested by Russia; someone called Batia (“Short”) with 100-120 fighters, Doka Omarov (Hasanov) with 130-150 fighters, Husein Esebaev (Isibaev) with 130-140 fighters and Amjet (Abu Hapsi) – commander of 80 mojaheddins. Most of these commanders were more or less known to the public, however information about Amjet has been released for the first time. As the security official says, this person was very close to Osama Bin-Laden and is wanted by Interpol… Laliashvili stated that the Arab emissaries were very well organized. Along with the fighters, there also were Arab religious emissaries (“Spiritual Fathers of Wahabism”) in the Pankisi gorge, who were responsible for functioning of the wahabist schools in Pankisi. There were several such schools in the gorge, where children were taught wahhabi ideology. “There are children in Pankisi, who speak Arab better than Georgian,” Laliashvili told Civil Georgia. There also was an Internet center in Pankisi, with several notebook computers and a satellite communication system, used for propaganda and volunteer recruitment activities… Along with wahabist schools and the Internet center, the gorge also had several fighters’ training centers as well. “We have recovered textbooks from these centers, which gives the detail explanation how to explode residential buildings, make explosive devices and so on,” Laliashvili said. The Georgian State Security Ministry does not rule out the possible link between the London poison case and Pankisi. Laliashvili says the deadly poison ricin, which emerged most dramatically when traces of the poison and facilities for its production were discovered in north London on January 5, could be produced in Pankisi gorge. State Security Ministry reports that the militants in Pankisi had excellent financial support. They were receiving money directly from Al-Qaeda… lxxii
What forced Tbilisi to confront reality was, of course, post-911 realities in Washington. 911 (temporarily as it happened) awoke it to what Putin had been trying to tell it for some time: namely that there really was a “terrorist international” and it was present in Chechnya and Georgia too. As Washington learned more, Pankisi began to appear in its viewfinder. On 11 February 2002 the American chargé d’affaires in Tbilisi said that some terrorists from Afghanistan were in the Pankisi Valley.lxxiii
The United States began an operation to “train and equip” Georgian security forces. Finally the Georgian authorities began an operation. There is quite a lot of evidence that it was a joint Georgian, Russian and American operation. The Civil Georgia website admits this: “The Ministry’s Spokesman told Civil Georgia that collection of this information and restoration of order in Pankisi was made possible with tight cooperation with the US and Russian special services”.lxxiv Shevardnadze also alluded to Russian cooperation and his newly appointed National Security Council Secretary flat out said that Russians had been in the area for a long time.lxxv Eventually, after several false starts, by the end of 2002 their efforts had had sufficient effect to push the Chechens and Arabs out. Gelaev’s men entered Ingushetia and the Arabs dispersed out of Pankisilxxvi.
Everything Moscow had charged was correct and everything Tbilisi had said up to the final admission was false and Tbilisi’s friends were quite wrong to have uncritically added Moscow’s allegations into the “charge sheet”. The OSCE’s failure during Gelaev’s invasion of Abkhazialxxvii – still an extremely murky event – did not contribute to Moscow’s trust of that organization’s impartiality and Moscow’s support for it has visibly declined since.
The Pankisi Gorge episode ought to have taught some lessons: Russia is an ally in the war against jihadism; the power vacuum in Georgia can have longer and larger consequences than merely local ones but, most important, that Moscow can be telling the truth about Georgia. But, gradually, these lessons were forgotten and the long-familiar memes of Georgia came back to dominate the discourse.
Post-911 Opportunities Missed
When the United States was attacked by al-Qaeda, President Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to telephone President Bush and offer condolences and assistance. Condoleezza Rice tells us that on the morning of 11 September she phoned Putin to tell him that the heightening of the US security posture had nothing to do with Russia; Putin answered that he had already stood the Russian military down and offered his helplxxviii. Given that Russia itself had been under attack for years by international jihadism in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, it was perhaps Putin’s hope that this first step would lead to some recognition of a common interest between Washington and Moscow. Moscow had earlier tried to tell the West about this threat – most notably at the Munich Security Conference in Spring 2001 when Sergey Ivanov had spoken of how Russia was in the front line defending against a common threatlxxix. We have just learned from a BBC documentary that the Taliban approached the Russians and suggested an anti-American alliance. Moscow’s answer was a rude “no!”. We also learn that, at their first meeting, Putin had warned Bush that the US would be targetedlxxx.
At first there was meaningful cooperation – the Pankisi problem was tackled and Russia provided weapons to support the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. But the cooperation faded away over time and, once again, Georgia had a role in the change. Despite the confirmation that what Moscow had been saying about the Pankisi Gorge was true, President Bush appears to have been completely taken in by Saakashvili’s version of reality. Medvedev relates that when he was Head of the Presidential Administration and visiting Condoleezza Rice, Bush walked into the room and the very first thing he said was: “You know, Misha Saakashvili is a great guy.”lxxxi This admiration for Saakashvili was reiterated in Bush’s memoirs where he described him as a “charismatic young democrat” and, during the South Ossetia war said “It was clear the Russians couldn’t stand a democratic Georgia with a pro-Western president”lxxxii. This was his response to Medvedev’s trying to tell him that Saakashvili had actually fired first. Rice in the interview above, protested that cooperation with Russia had been good on several issues but the two problems were always democratization in Russia and its relations with its immediate neighbors, mentioning Georgia and Ukraine specifically.
Thus, what might have been, and what Moscow was certainly interested in: an alliance against a common enemy, was wrecked partly by Washington’s perceptions about Tbilisi.
And many people suspect something even worse. There is nothing to suggest that Tbilisi encouraged the jihadist and Chechen fighter nest in the Pankisi Gorge before 2001: the most likely truth was that there was nothing that it could do about it. However, today there are those who suspect that Saakashvili’s relationship with the jihadists is close. Julia Goren, for example, asserts that Tbilisi hosted a conference of Jamaats in 2009lxxxiii and the assertion is repeated by a Georgian parliamentarianlxxxiv and an American observer.lxxxv Nino Burjanadze (Saakashvili’s partner in the “Rose Revolution” trio, now in opposition) has said Georgia is training Ingush fighters.lxxxvi Whether this is true is not clear but it is not unbelievable.lxxxvii If Saakashvili is indeed supporting jihadists today, this is more than merely a “lost opportunity”.
Saakashvili and the 2008 War
The immediate cause of the overthrow of Shevardnadze was the parliamentary election of 2 November 2003. Bolstered by all the usual appurtenances of “colored revolutions”, large-scale cheating was alleged; perhaps the precipitating event was the statement by a US foreign policy spokesman that Washington did not accept the results. Whether or not Shevardnadze intended to make a fight of it, it was evident that the security forces would not. Eventually the troika of Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze took power. It is perhaps worth observing that today in 2012, Zvania is long-dead (murdered in Shevardnadze’s opinionlxxxviii) and Burjanadze is one of the leaders of Saakashvili’s oppositionlxxxix. The unity did not last long.
From the beginning, Saakashvili was determined to regain Abkhazia and South Ossetia and one of his first actions was to make a pilgrimage to the grave of King David and swear to do soxc. He was also strongly opposed to Russia, which he believed to be the source of their defiance. And he was determined to get as close to Washington as possible and get Georgia into NATO.
The dangerous power vacuum in the Pankisi Gorge encouraged the USA to begin a training program for the Georgian security forces so that they would not again be unable to control their territory. But the training program had different effects from those originally planned. Saakashvili began to believe that the Georgian armed forces were the best in the area. Ludicrous propaganda films appearedxci and he felt encouraged to dream of a military conquest of Abkhazia and South Ossetiaxcii. His then Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili (now in the oppositionxciii) dreamed along with him, famously boasting “new year in Tskhinvalixciv” in 2006.
Georgia then engaged in an arms buying spree acquiring large numbers of tanks and self-propelled guns from Ukraine and the Czech Republic in particularxcv. Weapons that had nothing to do with the peacekeeping and internal security purposes for which the Americans were allegedly training them. The Georgian army was, as events were to prove, poorly disciplined, with poor-quality officers and no ability to hold in adversity. At its test in August 2008, it failed, broke and ran in panic.
By the summer of 2008 the memes about Georgia were well-practiced reflexes: it was the very gauge of Russia’s “neo-imperialism”; it was an essential energy route that Moscow “coveted” (the Baku-Çeyhan pipeline through Georgia was now operating); Saakashvili was acclaimed as a “democratic ruler” and Moscow could not abide a “democracy” on its border. Perhaps the only country which did not whole-heartedly subscribe was France where Salome Zurabishvili (Saakashvili’s former Foreign Minister, now in opposition) had been a member of its Foreign Ministry and still maintained contacts there.xcvi
Saakashvili had always intended re-conquest of South Ossetia and Abkhazia if he could not get them otherwise we are told by Irakli Okruashvili.xcvii When Saakashvili’s Ambassador to Russia (now in opposition), Erosi Kitsmarishvili, returned home in the summer of 2008, he heard that there was a plan to attack Abkhazia. For some reason that he did not know, that had been put off and he was told that Tbilisi had Washington’s backing to attack. Kitsmarishvili was so concerned that he actually met with the US Ambassador to Georgia to ask if that was true.xcviii He was assured that it was not and returned to his post in Moscow.
A review of events will show that on 7 August 2008, after Saakashvili announced a ceasefire and called on Moscow to broker a peace, Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia, in the process killing some of the Russian peacekeeping force that had been there since the 1990s. The Georgians were soon stopped in the center of Tskhinval by the Ossetian militia. Russian forces entered from the north, moving down the single road as refugees moved north, crossed the chokepoint at Didi Guptaxcix and engaged the Georgian forces bogged down in the center of Tskhinval. Soon the Georgians broke and fled back to Tbilisi, abandoning Gori and a battle group’s worth of armored vehicles and other weapons in one of the brand-new bases there. Georgian gunboats attacked a Russian ship, the Russians landed forces in the west and advanced in pursuit of the fleeing Georgians discovering another heap of abandoned weapons at another new military base in Senaki. Abkhaz forces, probably with some Russian assistance, re-occupied Kodori, the only part of the former Abkhazian ASSR under Tbilisi’s control.
When the war finally ended, Georgian forces had been routed. Russian forces pulled back to Abkhazia and North Ossetia (taking the captured weapons – including some US vehicles) with them. Moscow then recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. One reason being, Medvedev said, to prevent this from happening again.c
The Western media – Der Spiegel being the sole honorable exceptionci – fortified by two decades of the memes, passively re-typed Tbilisi’s story.cii More to the point (and surprisingly given Kitsmarishvili’s strong hint that Saakashvili was planning to attack) so did the US Embassy; passing on what it was told.ciii
Moscow’s version of events never varied. It said that Georgia attacked on the night of August 7 and that Russian troops did not arrive in Tskhinval until the next day. Saakashvili’s story, on the other hand, changed several times. On the 7th, a few hours before his forces opened fire, he made a speech, in which he said he had ordered a ceasefire adding “And I am offering the Russian Federation to be a guarantor of the South Ossetian autonomy within Georgia… I offer a very important role to Russia in resolving this conflict… Georgia is a natural ally for Russia… We need a real mediator.civ” The next day, when he believed victory was at hand: he claimed that Georgian forces now controlled “most of South Ossetia” and “A large part of Tskhinvali is now liberated and fighting is ongoing in the centre of Tskhinvali”. In this speech he made two assertions to justify the attack: first that “South Ossetian militias responded to his peace initiative on August 7 by shelling Georgian villages” and second that “Georgia had come under aerial attack from Russian warplanes”. There was no mention of Russian troops entering South Ossetia then.cv Of course, his victory announcement was premature and a few days later, he needed a bigger justification for the advancing catastrophe. It was then that he started claiming that the Russians moved first.
I am sickened by the speculation that Georgia started anything,’ Mr Saakashvili told reporters on 13 August. ‘We clearly responded to the Russians… The point here is that around eleven o’clock, Russian tanks started to move into Georgian territory, 150 at first. And that was a clear-cut invasion. That was the moment when we started to open fire with artillery, because otherwise they would have crossed the bridge and moved into Tskhinvali.
Saakashvili brought out all the memes: “I think they’re not just trying to kill a country, but the ideal of free democracy and successful prosperity. They want to show the west who is boss. They’ve tried to cut off energy lines”. “What we’re seeing now on the ground is the long-standing effort to purify this area. No population, no problem – Stalin’s slogan. No Georgia, no problem!” And even this: “They leveled Tskhinval, and they said the Georgians did it.cvi” Then the story changed again: on September 23 in a piece he wrote in the Washington Post, Saakashvili claimed that “Russia then started its land invasion in the early hours of August 7, after days of heavy shelling that killed civilians and Georgian peacekeepers.cvii” He expected his readership to believe that the Russians had had an 18-hour head start on a 60-kilometer race and that Georgia had invaded anyway.
Saakashvili’s stories collapsed one after the other: the first story about a response to heavy Ossetian shelling was directly contradicted by two former British officers who were part of the OSCE team in the area: they reported “Georgian rockets and artillery were hitting civilian areas in the breakaway region of South Ossetia every 15 or 20 seconds” and denied that there was the shelling of Georgian villages that Saakashvili claimed on the 8th.cviii The second story of the Russians entering South Ossetia just before – “supported” with the laughable claim of an intercepted telephone call mysteriously “lost” for several weeks – collapsed in a BBC program in October.cix Americans were finally introduced to the accurate version in the New York Times nearly three months after the war begancx. As Saakashvili’s stories crumbled, his supporters in the US State Department tried to change the subject: “I think we need to get away from looking at, you know, who did what first, because as I said, I don’t think we’ll ever really get to the bottom of that.cxi”
Der Spiegel had been correct: lies. Finally, the long–overdue and exquisitely feeble EU report appeared over a year after the war had started. Yes, the Georgians had fired the first shot and the Ossetians and Russians had responded.cxii
The aftermath of the August 2008 war ought to have put to rest the Georgian memes. If they had been true; if Moscow had always wanted Georgia back in its empire; if Moscow wanted to get control of the “new Great Game” oil routes; if Moscow wanted to eliminate a hated democracy next door; the August war was its opportunity to do them all. There certainly wasn’t much stopping the victorious Russian forces from moving south.
The (slow) revelation of Saakashvili’s false claims has destroyed his credibility. Perhaps the final blow was the preposterous “War of the Worlds” broadcast of spring 2010.cxiii More damage to his reputation will be done if he becomes Prime Minister in 2013 when his term ends: his compliant majority has changed Georgia’s Constitution so that the “President will no longer direct and exercise domestic and foreign policy of the state – as the current constitution says. This authority will be delegated to PM and the government”.cxiv NATO membership is highly unlikely and the foreign aid that propped up Georgia’s economy has fallen off. Saakashvili’s attempt to capture South Ossetia by a coup de main relying on support from the West backfired. The war began eroding Saakashvili’s reputation as reliable, truthful and democratic. Suddenly we are hearing that Georgia’s mass media is under “strict censorship,cxv” that Georgia is fourth in the world in jailed citizens,cxvi that Saakashvili’s economic reforms were more appearance than reality,cxvii the opposition – most of them former allies who know the man well – are finally finding an audience in Western media.
But Saakashvili still has his friends in the United States. Hillary Clinton has more than once demanded that Moscow end its “occupation of Georgian territory”.cxviii And the memes endure there, seemingly oblivious to reality: Mitt Romney, likely the Republican candidate for President, managed to utter most of them at once.
He is convinced that Putin dreams of “rebuilding the Russian empire”. He says, ‘That includes annexing populations as they did in Georgia and using gas and oil resources’ to throw their weight around in Europe.”cxix
“Vladimir Putin has called the breakup of the Soviet empire the great tragedy of the 20th Centurycxx. Will he try to reverse that tragedy and bludgeon the countries of the former Soviet Union into submission, and intimidate Europe with the levers of its energy resources?”cxxi
Late in 2010 Senator Marco Rubio, perhaps a Vice Presidential candidate, attempted to push through an amendment calling on Washington to fast track Georgia’s membership in NATO. It was blocked by another Republican Senator, Rand Paul.cxxii However faded they may be in Europe, the memes will not soon die in the United States, bolstered by innumerable slanted news reports and lobbyists.
Cause and effect in a nation’s behavior is never easy to determine and as Lord Palmerston observed, nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Russia’s interests, in the larger and more general sense have not changed much since the 1990s: Russia wants a quiet life in order to repair its internal deficiencies. As Stephen Cohen has arguedcxxiii Washington has missed three important opportunities for a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia. The first when possibilities opened by the end of the USSR were met with NATO expansion; the second when Putin’s overtures after 911 were ignored or forgotten; the third today. Three US Administrations: three spoiled chances. In each of these missed opportunities, the effect of the Georgia memes can be seen. Russia’s alleged hostility towards Georgia and other former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states was an argument for expanding NATO; Russia’s alleged hostility towards Georgia (despite the validation of all that Moscow had said about Pankisi) and Saakashvili’s image were significant contributors to the failure of the second chance; today we have the stubborn insistence that there is no validity to the point of view of Abkhazians or Ossetians; they are seen as modern-day serfs – when the territory changes ownership, so do they.
We have seen three principal memes assumed in most discussion of Russia-Georgia disputes: Russia wants to swallow Georgia, Russia wants the pipelines and Russia hate democracies. And always, Russia is lying. If Moscow is less amenable in the future, the Georgia memes are part of the reason.
Author’s Note: The principal characteristic of memes is that they exist prior to the event; the event is then interpreted through these memes and facts become “facts” only when they fit the memes. Therefore the useful sources in discussing memes are the immediate ones. Books written years later will have only slight effect on the now deeply-embedded memes. What follows, therefore, is less of a bibliography than suggestions for further reading.
Leslie Blanch, The Sabres of Paradise, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 1960. (About the Imam Shamyl and the Great Caucasus War; useful to give some background on the latent passions).
Marie Bennigsen Broxup (Ed), The North Caucasus Barrier, London, Hurst & Co, 1992.
Nicholas Griffin, Caucasus, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.
Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus, Oxford University Press, 2008
Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010
i Ronald Grigor Suny, “Political Conflicts in the Caucasus; Russian, Ukraine The Caucasus and the US Response”, Aspen Institute, Queenstown, Maryland, 1994.
ii A quick search on Google turns up many cases; see for example: “Global Media and Russia: Bias or The Information War?” (http://old.win.ru/en/win/7928.phtml), “Georgia wages information war against Russia” (http://www.moscowtopnews.com/?area=postView&id=1344), “Georgian TV fake invasion report “part of information war against Russia” (http://publicintelligence.net/georgian-tv-fake-invasion-report-part-of-information-war-against-russia/), “The Heritage Foundation’s Information War Against Russia” (http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2008/09/the-heritage-fo.html), “December 2011: Information War against Russia” (http://rt.com/politics/information-war-russia-panarin-009/). “Information war” is a long-held Soviet and Russian concept; see Timothy L. Thomas, “The Russian View Of Information War, February 2000 (http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Russianvuiw.htm).
iii “Meme” is a word coined by Richard Dawkins and defined as “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. It was taken from the Greek word for imitation and was intended to suggest “gene”. I use it here in the sense of an idea that quickly spreads and is assumed to be so true that it requires no further argument. Some memes in this context would be the assumptions that Moscow wants “its empire back”; that much of the trouble in the former USSR is instigated by Moscow in pursuit of this aim; that Saakashvili (and his predecessors in Georgia) is a truthteller and democrat (somewhat weakened since 2008). I contend that a great deal of comment on Russia in general, and Russian-Georgian relations in particular are based on these memes. The essence of memes is that they appear very early in the story, usually from early reporting or comment. The appearance, years later, of more considered academic works, have little effect.
iv For example from the Washington Post: “Perhaps this was an unfortunate accident; the police in Strasbourg say they are still investigating. But history suggests otherwise. Numerous opponents of Mr. Putin have been killed or gravely sickened by poisoning.” Note that this is almost a perfect illustration of a meme at work, particularly the sly implication: “Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, / And without sneering teach the rest to sneer”. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/21/AR2008102102342.html). But other outlets covered the story along those lines. The Washington Post’s jumping to conclusions was savaged by Mark Ames at http://exiledonline.com/freddy-gets-fingered-how-i-busted-the-washington-posts-op-ed-page-editor/.
v Perhaps an even more egregious example of reflexively blaming Russia was the Daily Telegraph’s reaction to the sudden death at his English home of Badri Patarkatsishvili in 2008. In the now-inevitable style (note the sly implication again) it speculated “While the investigation into the death of Mr Patarkatsishvili – a sworn enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin – remains at an early stage, even speculation that the Russia state could be involved will fan diplomatic flames.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1578568/Patarkatsishvili-death-threatens-UK-Russia-ties.html). The Evening Standard went even further in suggestion Putin did it. (Keith Dovkants, “The dead billionaire and the ‘KGB poison killer’”, 14 February 2008, http://www.standard.co.uk/news/the-dead-billionaire-and-the-kgb-poison-killer-6623008.html). When the writers learned what they should already have known, namely that Patarkatsishvili was “a sworn enemy” of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the story stopped suddenly and the official verdict of natural death was accepted with no speculation about “a number of compounds known to be used by the former KGB can induce heart failure, but leave virtually no trace.”. See Endnote Error: Reference source not found for Okruashvili’s (not necessarily reliable) accusation that Saakashvili had him killed.
vi Oliver Rolofs, “A Breeze of Cold War”, http://www.securityconference.de/Putin-s-speech.381+M52087573ab0.0.html.
vii Rob Watson, “Putin’s speech: Back to cold war?”, BBC 10 February 2007.
viii Some of Putin’s remarks that sparked off this reaction: “This universal, indivisible character of security is expressed as the basic principle that ‘security for one is security for all’…These words remain topical today. Incidentally, the theme of our conference – global crises, global responsibility – exemplifies this… However, what is a unipolar world? However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making… It is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.” Full text may be found on the Kremlin website archive at http://archive.kremlin.ru/eng/speeches/2007/02/10/0138_type82912type82914type82917type84779_118123.shtml. I wonder whether people would consider this so “inflammatory” today?
x Spelling is always a difficulty in disputed territories because choices have political impact. In this I will use the local spellings of “Sukhum” and “Tskhinval” rather than the Georgian variations of “Sukhumi” and “Tskhinvali”.
xi Indeed it was this action that induced Lenin to start questioning Stalin’s power in his famous “testament”. Not that he made Stalin and Orjonikidze give it back.
xiii Ariel Cohen, Senior Policy Analyst, The Heritage Foundation “The New ‘Great Game’: Oil Politics in the Caucasus and Central Asia”, 25 January 1996.
xiv Rossen Vassilev, “The Politics of Caspian Oil”, Prism, The Jamestown Foundation, 12 January 1996.
xv Tony Barber, “Back to the USSR”, The Independent on Sunday, 23 January 1994.
xvi Richard Pipes: “Russia’s Designs on Georgia”, http:/www.intellectualcapital.com May 14, 1998. An ironic echo of the Soviet как известно… (As is well known… ) which always prefaced some wild assertion.
xvii Center for Security Policy, Washington, 12 May 1997.
xviii Richard Pipes April 10, 1997, “The Caucasus: A New Middle Eastern Tinderbox?”
(Johnson Russia List, 10 April 1997).
xix Henry Kissinger, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, July 13, 1995.
xx Henry Kissinger “Helsinki Fiasco”, The Washington Post, 30 March 1997.
xxi The National Democratic Institute gave Shevardnadze its annual award for merits in democratic state-building in 1999. (http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=12107&tx_ttnews[backPid]=213). Suddenly this was forgotten and Vice President Cheney actually said to Saakashvili “After your nation won its freedom in the Rose Revolution”. (“Cheney affirms ties with Georgia, assails Russia” Los Angeles Times, 5 September 2008, http://articles.latimes.com/2008/sep/05/world/fg-georgia5). Freedom from whom one may wonder.
xxii Some individuals and Russian news media outlets claim that Shamil Basaev, the leader of the Chechen forces who fought in Abkhazia, was recruited by the GRU (Soviet then Russian military intelligence) in order to make trouble for independent Georgia. (See his Wikipedia entry for some references). This charge, of course, supports the meme that Georgia would have been acceptably stable had Moscow not stirred up trouble. Several things need to be considered before this may be believed. First the Russian media in the 1990s was little more than the house organs of the oligarchs in their wars with each other: much content was subordinated to this purpose. Second, the period after the breakup of the USSR was one of extreme confusion: in particular the former “organs of state security” and the Armed Forces had little confidence in their future. As to Basaev the story is that he was noticed by the GRU at the White House siege in August 1991, trained and inserted into Abkhazia. (See Col. Stanislav Lunev: “Chechen Terrorists in Dagestan – Made in Russia”; Newsmax.com; 26 August 1999 (http://archive.newsmax.com/articles/?a=1999/8/25/210119). The author claims to be a former GRU officer and was a source for, among other things, the “suitcase nuke” excitements of the 1990s. He defected to the USA in 1992: in short, about the time of the events he describes). Finally, there is a chronological problem. A month after the White House events, troubles began in Chechnya resulting in Jokhar Dudaev’s presidency and his successful defiance of Moscow. Chechnya declared independence in March 1992 and resistance to Dudayev began to gather that summer. Surely Basaev was there: he is said to have been one of the hijackers of an Aeroflot aircraft to Turkey in November 1991. Some say that he fought in Karabakh in 1992. He seems to have appeared in Abkhazia around August 1992 and remained there until the end of the fighting. When the First Chechen War began in December 1994, he became one of the leading rebel commanders. Khattab arrived in Chechnya about summer 1995 and at some time Basaev joined forces with him. It is said that he received training in Afghanistan at one of Bin Laden’s structures as he completed his transformation from fighter for an independent Chechnya to warrior in the international jihad. This schedule would not appear to leave much time for training from the GRU. I have never seen any real evidence to support the assertion that Basaev was trained by or was any sort of asset of the GRU and I do not take the assertion seriously: assertions are plentiful but evidence is not.
xxiii Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s supporters; many of them Mingrelian.
xxiv In this respect Ronald Asmus: A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 is interesting because there is no chapter on the Ossetian viewpoint. Which leads us to what might be called the grund meme. Which is that Moscow is the only actor: Moscow wants its empire; Moscow wants the pipelines; Moscow hates democracies. And so, Moscow initiates actions and others react. Under this assumption, the Ossetians, their history, their desires disappear: they are only puppets of Moscow and there is no need to include their point of view.
xxv The process took some time and wasn’t finally settled until 1995. The point is that Kiev and Sevastopol negotiated an acceptable settlement without fighting.
xxvi Formerly called National Okrugs but confusingly renamed Autonomous Okrugs in the 1977 USSR Constitution.
xxvii For example, in 1926 there were said to be 194 ethonyms, 99 in 1939, 109 in 1959, 104 in 1970 and 1979 and 128 in 1989 and 172 in the 1994 mini-census. The pattern is clear: the system began in the 1926 census, Stalin was successfully creating Homo Sovieticus in 1939 which implied the disappearance of groups as class consciousness displaced national consciousness. Khrushchev was freer, Brezhnev returned to building Soviet Man and the pressures were reducing in 1989 and had vanished by 1994. (Emil Pain and Andrey Susarov quoted in Rossiysikiye Vesti, 30 November 1997).
xxviii The language group to which Georgians (as well as Mingrelians, Ajarians, Svans and Laz) belong. Taken now to mean Georgians as in the Georgian name for the country Sakartvelo. Abkhazians are from the Adygey-Abkhazian Language Group and Ossetians from the Iranian Language Group.
xxixProf. Revaz Mishveladze, Georgian newspaper Young Communist , 29 July 1989.
xxx Introduction, by Prof Levan Alexidze to Avtandil Menteshashvili, Some National and Ethnic Problems in Georgia, Samshoblo Publishing House, Tbilisi 1992.
xxxi The Georgian argument was that the overthrow of the Georgian Democratic Republic by Soviet forces in 1921 had been neither legal nor ratified by the population.
xxxii Partial results at http://www.vremyababurin.narod.ru/Num5_2001/N5_2001.html.
xxxiii It is said that Saakashvili believes himself to be a second David. See “David the Builder or Mikhail the Destroyer?” (http://www.georgiatimes.info/en/articles/60614.html). Most recently in January 2012, Civil Georgia, “Saakashvili: ‘We Live in the Epoch of Revival’”. “It took him 34 years to regain Tbilisi. Occupied territories are now the same as Tbilisi was at that time.” (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24345)
xxxiv Menteshashvili, Op Cit, p 33.
xxxv “The free and independent Social-Democratic government of Georgia will ever remain in my memory as a classical example of an imperialistic minor nationality both in relation to its seizure of territory within its own borders and in relation to the bureaucratic tyranny inside the state. Its chauvinism exceeds the highest limits.” (Carl Eric Bechhofer quoted in Denikin’s Russia and the Caucasus, 1919-1920, London 1921). Menteshashvili gives several reports of conversations in which British officers go to Georgian officials to complain about the way Abkhazians or Ossetians are being treated and are given a history lecture by the rather patronizing Georgian interlocutor.
xxxviGeorgian TV, Tbilisi, in Georgian, 1731 GMT 5 January 94 (BBC Monitoring Service SWB SU/1980 F/1).
xxxvii My first acquaintance of this point of view came at a conference at the University of New Brunswick in October 1990. A Georgian politician (intermittently active in the opposition to Saakashvili who, according to him, is a Russian stooge) described Ossetians as being as foreign in Georgia as Cameroonians would be in England; Abkhazians as occupiers of Georgian land and Ajars as Georgians (temporarily) converted to Islam. The coming storm in Georgia was visible in his words.
xxxviii And stranger things too. A Georgian friend showed me a book written in the Gamsakhurdia period that claimed 1) that Noah’s Ark had been Georgian and was still there and 2) that Georgia was the mystical center of the universe (the omphalos) 3) that Georgian literature went back thousands of years. The Georgians are a very ancient people, but not that ancient.
xxxix In the 1940s Abkhaz schools were closed and their literature banned. Later that decade a self-taught Georgian, Pavle Ingorokva, claimed that Abkhazians only arrived in Georgia in the Seventeeth Century. But Lavrenti Beria (a Mingrelian) apparently decided against wholesale deportation of Abkhazians in favour of swamping them with Mingrelian immigrants. Ingorokva’s theory made a comeback under Gamsakhurdia.
xl See their Wikipedia entries for more information.
xli The confusion and uncertainty of the period should be recalled. As of 1 December 1991, soldiers in Georgia were USSR troops legally stationed in a part of the USSR. At the end of that month, they became CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) troops legally stationed in the CIS. This somewhat fictional arrangement dissipated over the next year. Some of the former Soviet republics “nationalized” the soldiers, and so, for example, former USSR/CIS troops in Ukraine became the Ukrainian Armed Forces legally stationed in Ukraine. But several of the new states, like the Baltics and Georgia, did not want to do this, regarding the troops as occupiers. At the same time former USSR forces were based in Eastern Europe. Moscow eventually took responsibility for all of these “orphan units”. (The reader is invited to imagine what would have happened if Moscow had said that it would only take responsibility for Russian nationals and leave Lithuania and the others to look after their nationals in the multi-ethnic Soviet Armed Forces in Eastern Europe and the former USSR). Understandably the pressure from the West was to move the former USSR garrisons out of Eastern Europe and that is what was done first. As the former Soviet economy collapsed, conditions became harsh especially for the now-Russian Armed Forces garrisons in places that did not want them. It would not be surprising if these forces, mostly unpaid, did what they had to do to survive by selling off what they had to the warring sides or kept themselves alive by crime and racketeering. But, some weapons were obtained by fighters by threatening the soldiers’ families. At the same time some of these weapons were handed over to the new governments. It took years to sort all this out and, in the meantime, the dwindling garrisons remained there. And, when they were attacked by someone, as they occasionally were, they defended themselves. There is no reason to assume that official Moscow – which had innumerable problems of its own – had anything to do with this. On a personal note, I at the time was afraid that some unit in one of these places, with weapons and a degree of command and control, would go rogue and demand food and money from the locals along the lines of the marauding “White Companies” of the Hundred Years’ War. It could have been much worse than it was.
xliii An attempt in August 1995 wounded Shevardnadze. The former chief of the Georgian National Security Service and Ioseliani were arrested. The next attempt was made in February 1998; the culprits this time were Mingrelian Zviadists and Chechens many of whom had been trained in Chechnya. In March 1999, Georgian security officials arrested eight Mingrelians on suspicion of preparing an assassination attempt. It was of course, reflexive to blame Russia: “But when Georgian president Shevardnadze backed the Turkish proposal [the Çeyhan pipeline route], he was nearly killed in a bombing, in which Russian involvement was suspected.” Rossen Vassilev, “The Politics of Caspian Oil”, Prism, 12 January 1996.
xliv A conscious effort was made to populate the now-empty (and very desirable) territory with Mingrelians. The Kartevelian/Mingrelian population climbed from about six percent in 1886 to 24 percent in ten years. (Liana Kvarchelia: “Vision from Abkhazia”, 7 November 1996, (www.abkhazia. org/vision2.html)).
xlv A mysterious event which I have never understood. The truth lies in the relationship between Stalin. Nestor Lakoba and Beria. The reader is invited to view the movie Baltazar’s Feast (http://www.amazon.com/Baltazars-Feasts-Stalin-Valtasara-Stalinym/dp/B000774E6M) and speculate.
xlvi A para-military organization of uncertain origins led by Jaba Ioseliani.
xlvii “The campaign of looting, rape, torture and murder mounted by the Mkhedrioni in the region did much to poison relations between Mingrelia and the rest of Georgia… Georgian forces behaved similarly upon their entry into Abkhazia in the summer of 1992.” George Khutsishvili and Neil MacFarlane, “Ethnic Conflict in Georgia”, paper presented at conference on Ethnic Conflict and European Security, Centre for International Relations, Queen’s University, Kingston, 23-24 September 1994.
xlviii A report on the war from Human Rights Watch in March 1995 suffers from the weaknesses of the breed by attempting to accuse both sides evenly, smoothing over the issue of which was responsible for turning a legalistic dispute into a bitter war of atrocities. But even so, it is clear who started it: “Georgian combatants, loosely knit groups of soldiers and marauders, murdered and intimidated the local residents, who were taken by surprise and were almost entirely unarmed, and looted and pillaged homes extensively, targeting ethnic Abkhaz.” (http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,HRW,COUNTRYREP,GEO,,3ae6a8274,0.html).
xlix “Helsinki Fiasco”, The Washington Post, 30 March 1997.
l David Satter “The Danger of Russia’s Great Power Illusions”, Prism, 6 March 98, The Jamestown Foundation.
li Professor Zaza Gachechiladze, paper prepared with the assistance of Mr. James Morrison, Visiting Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, USA, March 1995 http://www.ndu. edu/ndu/inss/strforum/forum21.html.
lii “The Caucasus: An Overview” by George Hewitt (Commissioned but never published by The New Statesman, date not given – http://www.channel1.com/users/apsny/overview.htm#invasion). The post-USSR reality meant that some former USSR weaponry was passed to independent Georgia. But there is little information available about the details.
liii My insertion.
liv Information for the Secretary General of the UN, Mr. Butros Butros Gali “International Alert” About Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict, Besarion Gugushvili – Prime Minister of Georgia in exile, Merab Kiknadze – Temporary speaker of the Parliament of Georgia in exile May 15, 1993. (http://www.clinet.fi /~bpg/abkhaz_1.html). Gugushvili was also the representative in Finland of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev when he was Acting President of Chechnya after Dudaev’s death (see http://www.clinet.fi/~bpg/ichkeri1.html) – the Gamsakhurdia-Dudaev connection is one of the curious phenomena of the time.
lv “The record of Russia’s actions in the former Soviet Union, however, strongly suggests that a threat to Eastern European stability does exist which could become a great deal more serious if Russia gains strength.” Prism, Op Cit.
lvi Admittedly, there were voices trying to say that it was more complicated than a story of “imperialist Russia versus innocent Georgia”. And there have been reconsiderations since. But the whole point of a “meme” is that it is quickly and widely spread and, once it is, it takes an enormous effort to counter it. See Patrick Armstrong, “More Questions Than Can be Answered”, Russia Blog, 13 April 2008 (http://www.russiablog.org/2008/04/more_questions_than_can_be_ans.php) as a small example of how much effort it takes to counter a quickly-written op-ed that simply strings the memes of the moment together.
lvii “The main question today is whether Russia’s leaders think they finished the job during the 2008 amputation, or whether they still hope to force out Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s democratically elected government.” Svante Cornell, “Finishing the Job”, Foreign Policy, 2 July 2009.
lviii A Mufti is a judge of Muslim law. He is supposed to be a man of probity with sufficient knowledge to gain respect and have authority in his judgements.
lix “Bandit of honor”.
lx Ethnic Chechens living in Dagestan.
lxi Marie Bennigsen Broxup, “After the Putsch, 1991” in Marie Bennigsen Broxup (Ed), The North Caucasus Barrier, London, Hurst & Co, 1992, p 233.
lxii According to a tendentious Russian source, Dudaev’s forces had 42 tanks, 34 BMP armored infantry vehicles, 139 artillery systems, 101 major anti-armor systems, 270 fixed wing aircraft, (5 of them serious fighter planes and the rest jet trainers converted for military use), two helicopters and 50,000 units of small arms. (Чеченская Трагедия: КтоВиноват, (The Chechen Tragedy: Who is to blame), Moscow 1995). As usual in Russia there are two stories and no accepted facts. The first story is that the Russian Ministry of Defense sold the weapons to Dudaev or allowed him to have them. Proponents of this theory tie it into the supposed destabilization campaign Moscow ran against Georgia. Other stories (and those more common at the time) are that Dudaev obtained these weapons by a mixture of bribes and threats.
lxiii See Endnote Error: Reference source not found for discussion about Basaev’s connections with Moscow.
lxiv Khattab’s own account is that, when he returned to Afghanistan after the failed jihadist war in Tajikistan, he saw Chechen fighters on TV with the Shahada on their headscarves and decided that Chechnya was “a land of the jihad” that he should go to.
lxv The precise dates are not clear. What we can say is that at the beginning Basaev’s rhetoric was that of national liberation and by the time of his death it was that of the international jihad. The change was probably gradual.
lxvi C.J. Chivers, “A Russian ‘Wine Blockade’ Against Georgia and Moldova”, New York Times, 6 April 2006. “It has also raised fresh questions about the degree to which Russia is committed to free trade and willing to live within a market-based system, rather than using trade as a lever to reward or punish other countries for political reasons.” Tom Parfitt, “Russian ‘sour grapes’ embargo leaves Georgian wine makers counting the cost”, The Guardian, 30 May 2006. “The pro-western president, Mikhail Saakashvili, rubbished the Russian claims, saying: ‘Georgian wine is being punished because of our freedom and democratic aspirations’.”
lxvii William M Dowd, “Conclusion is in: Too many Georgian wines are fakes”, 22 July 2006,(http://winenotebook.blogspot.com/2006/07/decision-is-in-too-many-georgian-wines.html).
lxviii On 15 September 1999 the Georgian Foreign Ministry denied Russian allegations that arms, ammunition and fighters transited Georgia to Chechnya and Dagestan; on 29 December 1999 the Deputy Security Minister denied Chechen fighters were using Pankisi as a base; on 25 April 2000 a State Security Ministry official denied it; on 4 November 2000 the Interior Ministry denied Gelaev was in Georgia; likewise on 11 January 2001.
lxix “The Bush administration should use its friendlier lines of communication with the Kremlin to make it clear that the new Russia cannot simply paw and claw back an independent country”. Editorial “Georgia on His Mind”, Wall Street Journal, 9 August 2002.
lxx Putin’s letter to UNSC and OSCE, September 2002). 12 September 2002 (RIA Novosti)
lxxi Robyn Dixon, “In the Caucasus, a Foreign Element Threatens”, Los Angeles Times 29 November 2002.
lxxii Nika Laliashvili, Spokesman for the Georgian State Security Ministry quoted in Giorgi Sepashvili “Security Ministry Unveils Classified Details on Pankisi”, Civil Georgia, http://www.civil.ge/cgi-bin/newspro/fullpnews.cgi?newsid1043058090,69020). All spelling, and punctuation conform with the original.
lxxiii “Islamic Radicals From Afghanistan Active in Georgia – US Diplomat”, Eurasianet.com, 14 February 2002.
lxxiv Civil Georgia, Op Cit.
lxxv On 16 September 2002 he said Russian special forces were “working” in Pankisi and that “US representatives are also present”. Caucasus Press quoted National Security Council Secretary Tedo Japaridze as saying that the Russians had been in the district “for a long time” and were being regularly briefed on developments.
lxxvi See Jaba Devdariani, “Georgia’s Pankisi Dilemma”, 21 February 2005, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, (http://iwpr.net/report-news/georgias-pankisi-dilemma).
lxxvii See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001_Kodori_crisis. Or Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction, 2010, the chapter on Georgia. After Shevardnadze’s protests the OSCE stationed an observer force in northern Georgia. It did not seem to notice this event.
lxxviii Interview, February 2012 Uncommon Knowledge (http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2012/02/uncommon-knowledge-with-condoleezza-rice.php).
lxxix “Russia, a front-line warrior fighting international terrorism in Chechnya and Central Asia is saving the civilized world of the terrorist plague in the same way as it used to save Europe of Tatar-Mongol invasion in 13th century, paying with sufferings and privation.” Ivanov, Speech at Munich Conference on Security Policy, 4 February 2001 (http://www.worldsecuritynetwork.com/printArticle3.cfm?article_id=9103).
lxxx “The Taliban contacted our frontier guards on the Tajik-Afghan border,” Ivanov said. “They said they had been sent by Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar to propose that the Taliban and Russia unite against the United States. It was a proposal that we rejected with a well-known American hand signal: ‘F… off’”. RIA NOVOSTI, 20 January 2012 (http://en.rian.ru/russia/20120120/170859831.html).
lxxxii George Bush, Decision Points.
lxxxv. James Jatras, “The Georgian Imbroglio – And a Choice for the United States”, America-Russia Net, 14 February 2010, (http://www.america-russia.net/eng/face/236661338?user_session=4827e878c0267ddbdd6ee738f8212f1d). “But there is worse: Americans must be made aware of Saakashvili’s extending refuge to jihadists responsible for countless acts of terror in southern Russia and his regime’s extraordinary coordination efforts to permit them to step up attacks in the Caucasus region.”
lxxxvi Weekly Georgian Journal, 21 October 2010, http://www.georgianjournal.ge/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=664:burjanadze-talks-about-danger-of-one-more-war-from-russia-&catid=9:news&Itemid=8.
lxxxvii See Gordon Hahn, “Irrationality and Rationality in the Caucasus: Connecting All the Dots”, 27 November 2010, (http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2010/11/irrationality-and-rationality-in-the-caucasus-connecting-all-the-dots.html) for more discussion of Tbilisi’s possible connections with the jihadists in the North Caucasus.
lxxxviii “He dismissed the official government account that Zhvania was accidentally poisoned by a faulty gas heater. ‘He was murdered,’ he said, adding that he does not know by whom.” (Shevardnadze the Survivor, By Paul Quinn-Judge, Washington Post, 19 March 19, 2006). The rumor that Saakashvili had him killed persists (See http://www.georgiatimes.info/en/news/33463.html) and was given some impetus by Saakashvili’s former Defense Minister Okruashvili in 2007 (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=15869). Honi soit qui mal y pense.
lxxxix She called Saakashvili “Europe’s new dictator” in July 2011 (“‘Stop the Dictatorship’ — An Interview with Georgian Opposition Figure Nino Burjanadze”, RFE/RL, 7 July 2011, http://www.rferl.org/content/georgia_nino_burjanadze_/24258110.html).
xc “Saakashvili’s Vows Improvements with Drastic Measures”, Civil Georgia 25 January 2004 (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=6090). “Georgia’s territorial integrity is the goal of my life” and “I do not want to use troops in Abkhazia, but we should have strong economy and army to restore territorial integrity”.
xci For example see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPWlcTZm9tw. What is especially preposterous about this are the medieval scenes: in those days the Georgians would have welcomed Christian Russia’s help against their Muslim Persian enemies.
xcii For example “In his televised address to the nation on May 25, President Saakashvili said that the event would aim to ‘demonstrate Georgia’s forces.’ However, he also stated that Georgia would apply to only peaceful means to reunite Georgia. ‘If you asked any Georgian soldier why he is serving in the armed forces, each of them would reply – “to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity”,’ Saakashvili said adding that a peaceful resolution of the Abkhazia conflict is a primary goal of his government. He said Tbilisi was ready to grant the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia the largest possible autonomy within the Georgian state and vowed that Georgia would have the best army in the region in a couple of years. Maia Edilashvili, “Saakashvili Sends “Love” Messages, Showcases 15,000 Soldiers at Independence Day Parade”, The Georgian Times, 28 May 2007 (http://www.geotimes.ge/index.php?m=home&newsid=4705). Note the ambiguity “only peaceful means” but also the threat of force. Saakashvili’s defenders quote the first and ignore the second; those likely to be on the receiving end notice the latter. His real meaning is “one way or the other”.
xciii And making all sorts of accusations about Saakashvili too, including the charge that Saakashvili intended to kill Badri Patarkatsishivili (who was actually found dead in the UK about five months after this interview. See Footnote Error: Reference source not found). RFE/RL, “Former Georgian Minister Talks To RFE/RL Prior To Arrest”, 28 September 2007.
xciv “’My major goal, my purpose of being the Defense Minister, is restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. I have no other goal more valuable than this and as soon as these two problems [the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts] are solved, I will no longer stay in politics,’ Okruashvili said while speaking on the political talk show ‘Pirvelebi’ (Leaders). Okruashvili reiterated his late December statement and said that Georgia will gain control over breakaway South Ossetia by January 1, 2007. ‘If we fail to celebrate New Year in Tskhinvali on January, 2007 I will no longer be the Defense Minister of Georgia,’ Okruashvili said.” And, in connection with the issue of Georgian wine mentioned at the beginning of this chapter this: “Following Okruashvili’s highly-controversial and harsh statements towards Russia – including the statement that ‘even feces can be sold on the Russian market’ – opponents have dubbed the Defense Minister a ‘provoker.’ This statement has also triggered discontent among some Georgian wine-producers, who are desperately trying to re-enter the Russian market, which was closed on March 27 after the Russian chief sanitary inspector said Georgian wines contained pesticides.” “Okruashvili Speaks of Russia, Wine, Conflicts”, Civil Georgia, 2 May 2006.
xcv SIPRI Arms Transfers Database. Search on countries and dates for the details.
xcvi It is instructive that the war settlement was negotiated largely by France and that Foreign Minister Kouchner actually did what almost no one in the Western media or leadership ever thought to do: visit the Ossetian refugees in Vladikavkaz and listen to their side of the story. (On his way from Tbilisi to Moscow at the start of the negotiations: see http://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/2008/08/11/01011-20080811FILWWW00496-kouchner-rencontre-des-refugies.php).
xcvii “But Okruashvili, a close Saakashvili ally who served as defense minister from 2004 to 2006, said he and the president worked together on military plans to invade South Ossetia and a second breakaway region on the Black Sea coast, Abkhazia.” “Saakashvili ‘planned S. Ossetia invasion’: ex-minister” Reuters, 14 September 2008. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/09/14/us-georgia-russia-opposition-idUSLD12378020080914?sp=true).
xcviii “In the second half of April, 2008, I have learnt from the President’s inner circle that they have received a green light from the western partner to carry out a military operation. When asked to specify “the western partner” Kitsmarishvili said: after a meeting with the U.S. President George W. Bush [the meeting between Bush and Saakashvili took place in Washington on March 19], our leadership was saying that they had the U.S. support to carry out the military operation. In order to double-check this information, I have met with John Tefft, the U.S. ambassador in Tbilisi and asked him whether it was true or not; he categorically denied that”. Kitsmarishvili also refers to an earlier planned attack on South Ossetia after a failed “special operation” in 2004. Testimony before Georgian parliamentary commission studying the August war, 25 November 2008, Civil Georgia, (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=20026).
xcix A long bridge over a valley. A perfect chokepoint for the Georgians to have held up the Russian column. But they never managed, despite their head start, to get the 20-odd kilometers to it. See Patrick Armstrong, “Could the Georgians have Done Better?”, Russia Blog, 14 August 2008 (http://www.russiablog.org/2008/08/could_the_georgians_have_done.php).
c “We restored peace, but we could not extinguish fears and hopes of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in a situation when Saakashvili continued (with participation of and encouraged by the US and a number of other NATO members) to speak of re-arming his military and re-establishing control over ‘the Georgian territory’…Russia was left no choice”. Medvedev on recognition of independence of Sukhum and Tskhinval”, Regnum News, 28 August 2008, (http://www.regnum.ru/english/1047550.html).
ci “One source who is personally familiar with the reports summarized the findings as follows: ‘Saakashvili lied 100 percent to all of us, the Europeans and the Americans.’” Der Spiegel: “The Cold Peace”, 1 September 2008 (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,575581,00.html).
cii Perhaps the stand-out in this lamentable performance was CNN’s showing footage of Tskhinval and passing it off as Gori. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVNblG9PJMk). I have heard reports, however, that it was not alone in doing so and indeed the reports alleging great destruction in Gori turned out to be untrue. Then there was the US TV interviewer who had a refugee on his program and was visibly surprised to hear her thank Russia for saving the Ossetians from the Georgian attackers. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWLu04m2d1E).
ciii Patrick Armstrong, “Wiki Leaks and the South Ossetia War”, 30 November 2010, (http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2010/11/wiki-leaks-and-the-south-ossetia-war.html).
civ “Saakashvili Appeals for Peace in Televised Address”, Civil Georgia, 7 August 2008 (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=18931). The timing makes it obvious that the order to attack had already been given when he made this speech.
cv ‘Most of S.Ossetia Under Tbilisi’s Control’ – Saakashvili”, Civil Georgia, 8 August 2008. (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=18955&search=control%20ossetia).
cvi Press conference with Western reporters, 13 August 2008 (http://noconsensus.wordpress.com/2008/08/16/georgia-president-discussing-russian-motives-worth-reading/).
cviiMikheil Saakashvili, “Answering Russian Aggression”, Washington Post, 23 September 2008 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/22/AR2008092202581.html).
cviii Reported in The Times 9 November 2008 but direct reference no longer available on the Internet. (See http://newsuc.com/newsfun/index.php/funny-not-funny-news/2008/11/10/georgia_fired_first_shot_say_uk_monitors).
cix Part 1 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QfotxKFdtQ), go to 7:20. For once the BBC interviewer, rather than passively swallowing the meme, cross-examines on how something this important could have been “lost”.
cx “Georgia Claims on Russia War Called Into Question”, New York Times, 6 November 2008. (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/07/world/europe/07georgia.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&ref=europe&oref=slogin).
cxii A poor report, saying nothing that had not been known at the time by observers not wedded to the memes about Georgia and Russia. See Patrick Armstrong, “The EU Report: Little and Late”, 8 October 2009, (http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2009/10/the-eu-report-little-and-late.html). See also “EU Investigators Debunk Saakashvili’s Lies”, Der Spiegel, 1 October 2009, (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,652512,00.html).
cxiii “Russian invasion scare sweeps Georgia after TV hoax” The Guardian, 14 March 2010, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/14/russia-georgia-fake-invasion-report).
cxiv “Key Points of Newly Adopted Constitution”, Civil Georgia, 15 October 2010. Nino Burjanadze, “Unparliamentary Language in Tbilisi”, The National Interest, 11 November 2010. (http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/unparliamentary-language-tbilisi-4399). “Such ‘details’ show that the new constitution is simply a façade behind which Saakashvili and his team are planning to remain in power.”
cxv The Assembly of Delegates of International PEN, meeting at its 75th Congress in Linz, Austria, 19-25 October 2009
cxvi International Centre for Prison Studies, (http://www.prisonstudies.org/info/worldbrief/wpb_stats.php?area=all&category=wb_poprate).
cxvii Irakli Rukhadze and Mark Hauf, “The Georgian Economy under Saakashvili”, finchannel.com, 21 April 2009. “Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has presented the Georgian people and his world audience with a view that his presidency brought democracy and economic rehabilitation to the country. Unfortunately for Georgia,
this has been more a well-crafted PR myth that an actual reality.”
cxviii “We continue to call on Russia to end its occupation of Georgian territory, withdraw its forces and abide by its other commitments under the 2008 cease-fire agreements” VOA, 6 October 2010, (http://www.voanews.com/english/news/usa/Clinton-Renews-Call-for-Russian-Withdrawal-From-Georgia-104427328.html).
cxix Mitt Romney interview, Washington Post, 7 October 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/post/exclusive-mitt-romney-interview/2011/03/29/gIQADp6OTL_blog.html
cxx He did not say “the greatest”: the Russian is very clear. (http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2010/11/the-third-turn.html) but this has now become a firm prop of the meme that Moscow wants its empire back.
cxxi Mitt Romney, Speech at the Citadel, 7 October 2011, (http://www.mittromney.com/blogs/mitts-view/2011/10/mitt-romney-delivers-remarks-us-foreign-policy).
cxxii Patrick Buchanan, “Marco Rubio vs Rand Paul” The American Conservative, 8 December 2011 (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/blog/2011/12/08/marco-rubio-vs-rand-paul/). Buchanan points out the effects of Georgia’s lobby in the US: especially Randy Scheunemann’s influence on John McCain (“We are all Georgians now”). As he concludes: “The resolution was pulled. But these people will be back.”
cxxiii Stephen F. Cohen, “America’s Failed (Bi-Partisan) Russia Policy”. Huffington Post, 28 February 2012 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-f-cohen/us-russia-policy_b_1307727.html). “In short, every opportunity for a U.S.-Russian partnership during the past twenty years was lost, or is being lost, in Washington, not in Moscow.”
Note January 2016: I would no longer say that the war in Syria was sui generis. I think it’s clear that, whatever combustible material may have been lying around, Washington had a lot of involvement in starting the fire.
The revolt in Syria, now in its eighteenth month, was not caused by Washington or by Moscow. It is sui generis: specifically it is the consequence of circumstances peculiar to Syria; in general, it is another of the several revolts in the “Arab World”.
But some of the commentary in Western circles – especially, but not exclusively, in the USA – is making it sound like a Manichean battlefield of a new Cold War. Perhaps the epitome of this view is John Bolton’s assertion that “Assad remains in power because of Russia and Iran, with China supporting him in the background.” This is nonsense: Assad remains in power because people in Syria are prepared to fight for him. Naturally, the longer the fight goes on, the more outsiders are attracted: recently the government of Iraq claimed that jihadist fighters were leaving there for Syria and it is quite believable that Teheran is involved as well. But this has nothing to do with Moscow or Beijing. Bolton, perhaps to be given an important position should Romney be elected, goes on to advise what should be done; true to his assumption that Moscow is Assad’s prop, he calls for missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, withdrawal from START etc etc (No suggestions of how to pressure China. Interestingly.) As to Syria itself, he suggests Washington should “find Syrian rebel leaders who are truly secular and who oppose radical Islam”. Given that “war is deceit”, he may be disappointed in his search. But in truth, Bolton’s piece, like many others from the US right, is not really about Syria or Russia, it is an attack on President Obama: “Obama is not up to the job in Syria.” Indeed, many of the pieces that argue that Moscow is to blame are actually attacks on Obama’s alleged weakness or incapacity. “The Security Council’s moral authority is nil with Russia and China in permanent seats” is followed by “shame on Obama”. This throwaway line “Russia’s belligerent support of a murderous Syrian dictator” is from a excoriation of Obama’s activities, root and branch. Russia is just another boot to throw at him. Not everyone in the US conservative camp is so enthusiastic: this speaks of “strategy creep”, this of the unintended consequences of the Libya intervention, this of past failures and confusions. But many of the strongest calls for intervention, and the strongest kicks at Moscow, come from this side of the argument.
But others, more in the “humanitarian intervention” camp, also see the route to Damascus as running through Moscow: “Many major players in the Syrian crisis consider the peace plan that reached its deadline Thursday as the final speed bump in figuring out how to get Russia to accept enough pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to stop the violence”. The Canadian Foreign Minister believes “Russia is enabling this regime to soldier on”. French President Hollande implies Russia is “protecting” Assad. US Secretary of State Clinton says Russia’s “policy is going to help contribute to a civil war”. We are solemnly informed that “Russia has put itself on the wrong side of the argument.” Accusations come and go: Russia is supplying Syria with attack helicopters one moment; the next they are already in Syrian stocks. Russian warships sail for Syria, but arrive somewhere else. Massacres change their stories. All this assumes, against any reasonable or factual probability, that Moscow controls or has a decisive influence on Assad’s actions. But Assad is fighting for his very existence. He already has all the weapons he needs. And many Syrians, who fear a jihadist-dominated result (something the Boltons and “humanitarians” seem quite unconcerned about) support him too.
Moscow’s alleged support of Assad’s regime is said to hinge on two vital interests: its “naval base” at Tartus and its desire to preserve arms sales to Syria. But, generally, these motives are asserted without much effort spent looking at either one.
Let us consider the first. While Tartus (or Tartous) is Syria’s largest commercial port, by world standards it is rather small. According to the World Port Source, in 2008 it handled 12.9 million tons of cargo, mostly imports, and occupies a mere 300 hectares. By contrast, Rotterdam, Europe’s largest, and number 4 in the world, handled more than 400 million tons in 2008 and is over 10,000 hectares in area. The Russians have a lease on a corner of this small port and examination on Google Earth does not show anything very military. According to a Russian military thinktank, its normal staff is a few dozen and it is little more than a place where Russian warships, after their long trip from the Baltic or Barents Seas, can obtain fresh food, water and fuel. Moscow has invested little in improving it. While there is no doubt some symbolic value to it, as a “naval base” it is rather insignificant. Paul Saunders has an informed discussion of it here.
As to weapons, we hear much, but few commentators attempt the few moments’ research to find out what. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and its Arms Transfers Database tracks arms transfers and is regarded to be as accurate as open sources get. If we go to its Trade Register page, we can find its record of transfers from Russia to Syria 1990-2011. In these two decades, Russia has supplied Syria with anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles; engines for tanks provided by Czechoslovakia and the USSR; 24 MiG 29 air superiority fighters and 2 MiG 31 interceptors were sold – some sources suggest that they were taken out of Russian Air Force stocks so how operable they are is a moot point. More recently 36 Yak 130 trainer/light ground attack aircraft were ordered but have not been delivered. The large majority of weapons in the Syrian arsenal are Soviet-supplied and therefore upwards of three decades old. Given the reports of army units changing sides, many of these weapons will be in rebels’ hands by now. In any case these weapons are not very useful in the kind of war going on in Syria. The missiles are best used against their appropriate targets, the twenty-year-old tank engines power thirty-year-old tanks. The aircraft – if they can still fly – could conceivably be converted to ground-attack roles. But, given that by all accounts the fighting is mostly individuals and small arms, these weapons are hardly key for Assad’s survival. The most useful would have been the Yak 130s but they have not been delivered and apparently won’t be. So the arms market motive is rather overblown – it’s not a very large contributor to Russia’s arms sales and the weapons themselves are hardly the essential thing that is keeping Assad in power (the reader is invited to compare sales with India to see what a truly significant Russian market looks like). I reiterate, pace Bolton and the rest of them, Assad is kept in power – so far – by the fact that people are ready to fight on his behalf. Russia’s so-called support (and China’s) have little influence on this reality. A UN resolution (unless it licences NATO intervention; or, vide Libya, is interpreted as doing so) will not change anything. Assad and his opponents are playing for greater stakes than “world opinion”; they know what happened to Saddam Hussein and to Kaddafi.
Russia’s official position, courtesy of Foreign Minister Lavrov, is here. It is much based on principle. All governments like to claim that their actions are firmly based on principle. But these principles are friable: Washington, for example, was very firm on the principle of inviolability of borders in the Georgian case in 2008 but not so much in Yugoslavia in 1999; Moscow firmly held the opposite position each time. Moscow was very supportive of the human rights of Ossetians but not so much about those of Kosovars; Washington, again, the opposite. Each was adept at manufacturing reasons why inviolable principles in the one case did not apply in the other. Interest trumps principle.
But Lavrov’s piece above has much on caution. And that is very much a Russian interest. Caution is often missing from the “humanitarian interventionists”. The blunt question that must be asked of those who cheered on, and participated in, NATO’s Libyan intervention is this: are the Libyans, and their neighbours, better off today? And, are they likely to be? Western media had nonstop coverage of Kaddafi’s overthrow but there has been rather less reporting on the consequences: gunmen, chaos, jihadists, spillover into Chad and Mali (not that the author of the last can resist a little Putin-bashing when it comes to Syria). But “we came, we saw, he died” and we move on to the next “success”. Moscow is fundamentally a cautious power today, committed to the status quo. If the UN can be by-passed, Russia as a P5 member loses status and influence. If a government in Country A can be overthrown, could Russia’s government be next? And what happens after the government is overthrown: who has to deal with the consequences? A rational discussion of Moscow’s motives may be found here. Some principle but mostly self-interest and a strong mistrust of the West’s motives predominate.
As to “humanitarian interventions”, Moscow is sceptical. They have seen the breathless coverage in Western circles of atrocities fade away afterwards: where are the mass graves and rape camps we heard so much of in Kosovo? Was Kaddafi really “bombing his own people”? (A note on sources, Dear Reader. Because Western media outlets move ever forward, ever forgetting, these uncomfortable reconsiderations only appear in fringe sources or – like this, or this – in the deep back pages; the front page is always reserved for the latest excitement). And, given that so many “humanitarian interventions” are lightly entered into and the downstream effects ignored, what is the result for stability – something Moscow prizes? Syria’s borders are rather artificial (another map drawn on the floor of Wilson’s study at Versailles), the Assads have kept order (brutally): who will replace them? The Boltons (“Syrian rebel leaders who are truly secular”) and the “humanitarians” (“Stop the killing”) either think they know or don’t care. But consequences happen and Malians suffer the results. And (frightening thought!) each “humanitarian intervention” obligates another. After their terrible history, one can understand that Russians would value stability and the status quo. What the Russians see, covered by the shabby mantle of “humanitarianism”, are overthrows of previously recognised governments justified by propaganda campaigns lightly based on reality with a flippant disregard of the consequences. At the end, no one is much better off and unpleasant realities are ignored. And then another campaign starts.
But I may be taking this all too seriously. Maybe something else is going on. Apart from the opportunity to bash Obama, there may be another motive for painting Russia as the obstacle. Previous “humanitarian interventions” proved to be rather more difficult than expected. The Somalia intervention convinced Osama bin Laden that “You have been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear”. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo lasted for nearly eighty days and at the end ground intervention was being contemplated. NATO’s actions in Libya lasted for even longer – over 200 days – and at the end involved much more effort than merely a “no-fly zone”. Syria would clearly be a tougher nut to crack. Perhaps Washington and NATO have no stomach for another “humanitarian intervention” and find it convenient to blame inaction on Russia. It’s an excuse.
NGOs. The new law was overwhelmingly passed by the Duma and the Federation Council. (a real all-party effort – it’s a popular provision: 60% plus). In essence, NGOs that are foreign-funded and operate in the political sphere must report on the extent of foreign funding and label themselves as foreign agents. Here is what has changed. The law is somewhat modelled on the US FARA law of 1938 that “requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal” (something seldom mentioned in much of the commentary on the Russian law). Much flapdoodle from those whose oxen will be gored and livelihoods will be affected. Application is, of course the key, but I have no problem with the law: I think Canada, which has a similar problem, should have a similar law. People should be able to know what interests are trying to influence them.
STATE COUNCIL. Leaders of the parliamentary opposition have been added to this advisory group which held its first meeting in this new format on Tuesday. Usual response: either an opening to or cooption of.
POLITKOVSKAYA MURDER. Back at the beginning of the investigation, a senior policeman, Dmitriy Pavlyuchenkov, was suspected of having set up the killing. Then something happened and this line was not pursued. But he was re-arrested and has apparently pleaded guilty to tracking her whereabouts and giving weapons to the actual killers. In what may be a plea-bargain, the Investigative Committee has formally charged him with involvement, but not doing the actual killing. From the beginning the official theory has been the man who ordered the killing (suspicions but no names – thought to be in the West somewhere), the sub-contractor (a Chechen “biznesman”), the spotter (Pavlyuchenkov) and the actual killers (people were tried but found not guilty). (The Wikipedia article isn’t much use, being mostly a collection of rumours.) I have always believed that she found out something (perhaps without knowing that she had) that some player in Chechnya didn’t want known and she was killed. (By the way if, as many still believe, Putin had her killed, we would not be hearing about a senior policeman’s involvement.)
ECONOMY. Putin is smart enough to know that Russia Inc is too dependent on energy sales and that the coming North American domination of production will seriously change the oil and gas business. He has spoken of the first many times, as did Medvedev in his time. His latest move in what I think will be the predominant issue of his current term, is the creation of a President’s Economic Council to guide diversification of the economy. Easier to say than to do of course.
FLOODS. There are serious floods in Krasnodar Region, and many have died. Udaltsov says the problems are a direct result of corruption. No doubt corruption has played a part, but, typically, he gets all absolutist: “Nothing is invested in infrastructure, everything is being stolen”. No it’s not all stolen and there is much investment. Of more interest, there has been, as with the forest fires a couple of years ago, much civil society involvement.
SYRIA. The deputy head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, is quoted as saying Russia will not deliver any new types of weapons or sign military contracts with Syria until the situation stabilises. This especially affects the 36 Yak 130 trainer/light ground attack aircraft.
BORDERS. Putin and Yanukovych at their meeting last week signed a preliminary agreement on the delimitation of the border in the Kerch Strait. This agreement (which one assumes will stand) two decades after the breakup of the USSR is an example of how difficult these issues are. In the Soviet days it didn’t matter where the line was because it was all in the same country and was a federal responsibility anyway. But navigation and access matter between independent countries. And that took a lot of back and forth to get to. The details aren’t out but it appears that Russian ships can freely pass through to the Sea of Azov and Tuzla Island is part of Ukraine. There was also some agreement about Russian Black Sea Fleet basing in Ukraine. Novorossiysk is supposedly being built up to be a major – maybe the major – base for the Fleet, but it’s not clear what has actually been done and Google Earth doesn’t suggest that much has.
© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)
PUTIN SPEECH. At the St Petersburg Forum. On a recurrent theme, he said that the economy must reduce its dependence on hydrocarbons and that foreign investment was necessary: “This is why we feel that creating an investment climate that is not just favourable, but truly better and more competitive, is a key issue in state policy.” A commissioner for entrepreneurs’ rights, Boris Titov, has been named (he immediately said he would press for pardons for the many in jail for economic crimes – including Khodorkovskiy. I wonder how that will play out). The government will reduce its holdings in state-owned companies. Medvedev received much attention at the start of his presidency for talking about Russia’s “legal nihilism”; well, here’s Putin: “Unfortunately corruption is without exaggeration the biggest threat to our development”. Same team, same program. In fact there are those who think Putin came back as President because only he has the muscle to take on corruption. There is a hint in the speech that he takes the G20 more seriously than the G8. An important speech to read and not read about: making Russia a more attractive place for foreign investment will be a high priority. He’s not naïve: “a fairly difficult and ambitious goal, given our position today”.
TODAY’S VIDEO. Putin is a believing Christian. I heard that a long time ago and here’s a video collection.
PARTIES. The 1995 Duma election had 43 parties contending and 4 crossed the 5% threshold (I was an official observer and well remember the gigantic ballots – size of a newspaper sheet). In 1999 there were “only” 30 and five made it over the barrier (two merged into today’s United Russia pedestal party). Putin’s new rules made it harder to register and raised the barrier, Medvedev’s rules made it easier and lowered the barrier. So we’re back to the 1990s. 23 new parties have been registered and there are more on the waiting list. But, over these elections and different rules, one thing stands out: only four tendencies get into the Duma, whatever number of parties there may be. The Communists and Zhirinovskiy (who have some overlap of appeal) make it and so does the pedestal party (gone through several iterations but the same in essence). Then there is a “liberalish” party (used to be Yabloko – and probably could be today if Russian liberals had cooperated with each other) but today the United Russia-lite Just Russia fills the position (will it carve a place for itself? Seems to be doing so). I would be surprised if the addition of other 20 – or 200 – parties will make much difference to this breakdown which well reflects political opinion in the country. One of the great defects of Russian politics to my mind is the refusal of the “liberal” tendency (which probably has 10-15% of the electorate) to unite. Good piece on their failures here. As an observer of the 20 years, I find it interesting just how long it takes a real party system to evolve. We’re not there yet and I have no idea when we will be.
FEDERATION COUNCIL. Yet another re-arrangement. Now gubernatorial candidates (again to be directly elected) must nominate their representative on the Federation Council (and 2 spares) as part of their campaign. Russia’s upper house therefore resembles the US Senate before 1913 – direct representatives sent by the regions.
POLL. For those who think Russian polls that show Putin is popular are fixed and that they can therefore make up their own numbers, here’s a German/US one that shows the same thing (graphic). By the way Navalniy, the West’s current darling, is not especially popular. I also notice that 43% say they have 2 or more children.
NATO. Moscow has given approval for NATO to use a base in Ulyanovsk as a transit hub to Afghanistan. This is not going to be a popular decision.
THE EMPTINESS OF FORMER FLAPS. A DND study says that Russia’s activities in the Arctic pose no threat to Canada: “Russia is following the same process prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to define its outer jurisdictional limits as other coastal states”. (See this) That’s not what we heard at the time: Russia claims North Pole. But the damage was done and it was affixed to the “charge sheet”. And another: one of the Russian amphibious ships supposedly enroute to Syria never went anywhere near it.
ISRAEL. Putin’s trip to Israel is a reminder that Russian-Israeli relations are actually pretty good. Gas too maybe.
GEORGIA. Shevardnadze is reported to have said his “biggest sin to the people and the country was the fact that he had transmitted power to Saakashvili” whom he calls a dictator, Apparently Ivanishvili has hired his own PR firm in Washington. I foresee the amusing scene of Lobbyist A entering a US Congressman’s office and saying “Saakashvili is a great democrat and should be supported” to be immediately followed by Lobbyist B saying “Saakashvili is a great dictator and should be opposed”. Cognitive dissonance indeed.
© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/)