Monday, August 11, 2008

The Trouble with Georgia

Ryan suggested that I weigh in on the current conflict in South Ossetia and in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which I mention in passing in my book as one of the bigger post-Soviet political fiascos.

It turns out that I am somewhat qualified to write on the subject: when I was in grad school (linguistics) I studied Abkhaz, the curious language spoken by the indigenous population of the separatist republic of Abkhazia. (Abkhazia is involved in the current conflict, working to flush Georgian forces out of the Kodor gorge, which is the one piece of their territory that remains under nominal Georgian control, as well as providing volunteers to help the South Ossetian side.) Later, finding that the Abkhaz side was woefully underrepresented, I started a web site, ("Apsny" being the Abkhaz word for Abkhazia), where, with help from Prof. Hewitt of the School of Oriental and African Languages in London, Prof. Chirikba, an Abkhaz linguist, and many others, I tried to present facts uncurried by extreme nationalist sentiments. At that time, the internet was dominated by the Georgian side, which was eager to accuse the Abkhaz of atrocities while discounting their own role in the bloody and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to regain control of the breakaway republic, in which some ten thousand people had died and many more had been displaced. For my diligent service, which spanned more than a decade, I received voluminous hate mail and many death threats from the Georgian side, as well as official expressions of gratitude from the Abkhaz side. Be that as it may, I find both the Georgians and the Abkhaz quite amazing, I am sure that the world would be much poorer without them, and I wish they would leave each other in peace, so that I can go and visit either place as I wish.

For obvious reasons, my view of the Caucasus region has always been colored by my interest in linguistics. While the Caucasus mountains are certainly some of the highest and most impressive in the world, it is also a mountain of exotic and often unrelated languages. While Abkhaz, Chechen, and some others form a single North Caucasian family of languages, Georgian (Kartvelian) is only vaguely related to Basque, spoken in France and in Spain, while Ossetian is distantly related to Persian. For thousands of years, the region has been a mosaic made up of fiercely independent tribes, of which Georgians (Kartvelians) were only one of the largest. This made them more capable of forming a viable political entity (a kingdom, initially), but never could they aspire to dominating their neighbors, to whom they were not even vaguely related, either ethnically or linguistically. And language did play a big role: although bilingualism and even multilingualism were by no means rare, none of the tribes were too eager to learn the language of any other tribe en masse. For instance, prior to their being conquered and absorbed into the Russian Empire, the Chechens were a trilingual society, using Arabic in the mosque, Turkish in the market, and one of the "home languages" in the home village. After the Russian conquest, which was very bloody and resulted in the annihilation of several smaller tribes, among them the Ubykh, who simply would not surrender, the Russian language became the lingua franca of the entire region.

To the conquering Russians, Georgia represented the rich, creamy heart of the incredibly tough nut of the Caucasus region. In contrast to the many small and taciturn mountain tribes, many of them either Moslem or animist, here was an Orthodox Christian nation with great traditions of art, music, architecture, poetry, an unparalleled joie de vivre, and a delicious national cuisine. Georgians easily secured for themselves a pleasant role within the empire. Leaving administrative chores to the Russians and commerce and the trades to the Armenians, they were free to indulge in more pleasant pursuits, such as feasting, falconry, and entertaining foreign visitors. This trend had carried over into Soviet times, making Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic a favored tourist destination, a prosperous place complete with amusing wines, delicious food, an exuberantly friendly population that spoke your language, and majestic mountains for a backdrop. In the interest of maintaining public order, the Russians tried to be even-handed in their treatment of the non-Georgian tribes. Knowing full well just how much trouble they can be, they administered their territories as autonomous units within Georgia. One of the more glaring exceptions to this was the arbitrary administrative inclusion of Abkhazia within Georgia, which was done by Joseph Stalin (Dzhugashvili), who was a Georgian, and which in many ways laid the ground for the current conflict.

Their being so well coddled within the fold of the great empire cultivated in the Georgians a sense of exceptionalism and entitlement vis à vis their smaller and poorer neighbors, which, once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russians departed, gave rise to a particularly rabid, venomous, and ultimately self-destructive brand of nationalism. The first post-independence Georgian leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was killed rather quickly. Part of his nationalist rhetoric involved labeling other tribes, such as the Abkhaz and the Ossetians, as newcomers and gypsies, who are only welcome as "guests" on Georgian soil. Next up was Eduard Shevardnadze, who was Foreign Minister of the USSR under Gorbachev, and who was more or less handed Georgia as his personal fiefdom by the West, as his reward for idly standing by and smiling pleasantly while the Berlin wall was being torn down. He was given UN recognition and foreign aid, and told to go ahead and try to preserve "Georgia's territorial integrity." At this he failed miserably, causing a senseless bloodbath and a flood of refugees. Shevardnadze slowly sank into a morass of corruption and national decay, until finally even the West decided that he smelled bad and unceremoniously replaced him with a shiny new face: the American-educated Mikhail Saakashvili. And this brings us to the current conflict, which he started. It is unclear why he decided to start it, but then his American education might offer a clue: the US doesn't seem to need good reasons to start wars either.

It may be difficult for some people to grasp why it is that the Abkhaz or the Ossetians do not much fancy suddenly becoming Georgian, so let me offer you a precise analogy. Suppose Los Angeles, California, were to collapse as the USSR once did, and East L.A. quickly moved to declare its independence. Suppose, further, that the 88% of its population that is Hispanic/Latino voted that the other 12% were free to stay on as "guests," provided they only spoke Spanish. The teaching of English were to be forbidden. After some bloody skirmishes, East L.A. split up into ethnic enclaves. Then some foreign government (say, Russian, or Chinese) stepped in and started shipping in weapons and providing training to the Latino faction, in support of their efforts to restore East L.A.'s "territorial integrity." As a non-Hispanic resident of East L.A., would you then (1) run and hide, (2) stay and fight, or (3) pick up a copy of "Spanish for Dummies" and start cramming?

The Abkhaz and the South Ossetians have made their preference very clear by applying for and being issued with a Russian passport. That's right, the majority of the present native population of these two "separatist enclaves" are bona fide citizens of the Russian Federation with all the privileges appertaining thereto. Lacking any other options, they are happy to accept protection from Russia, use Russian as their lingua franca, and fight for their right to be rid of Georgians once and for all. One of the privileges of being a Russian citizen at this stage, when Russia has recovered from its political and economic woes following the Soviet collapse, is that if some foreign entity comes and shells a settlement full of Russian citizens, you can be sure that Russia will open one amazingly huge can of whoop-ass on whoever it feels is responsible. Add to that the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the Georgian forces, such as finishing off wounded Russian peacekeepers, and you can see why the normally shy and reticent Russian army might get behind the idea of making sure Georgia no longer poses a military threat to anyone. The Georgians have really done it to themselves this time, and we should all feel very sorry for them. They are not evil people, just incredibly misguided by their horrible national politicians. The West, and the US in particular, bear responsibility for enabling this bloodbath by providing them with arms, training, and encouraging them to fight for their "territorial integrity."

This, it will no doubt turn out, was the wrong thing to do. The term "Georgia's territorial integrity" has been bantered about and proffered lamely as an excuse for an untenable status quo for almost two decades now, with poor results. In the meantime, the territorial integrity of another semi-defunct state, Serbia has been sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics. Kosovo, which is Serbia's historical homeland, has been cleansed of Serbians, and alienated from Serbia proper. For those who are vague on the details of that conflict, here is a summary. Kosovo became majority-Albanian due to Albanians' higher birth rate. The Albanians then formed Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought Serbians for independence and lost. Albanians then fled en masse to Albania. The US and NATO then intervened, bombed Kosovo and Serbia, repatriated the refugees, and turned Kosovo into a UN protectorate. The next step from the West's point of view is to recognize Kosovo's independence, taking it away from Serbia forever.

If Kosovo is to Serbia as Abkhazia and South Ossetia are to Georgia, what, you might ask, is the key difference that mandates a different outcome for the latter? Well, there are quite a few (neither is Georgia's historical homeland, both fought for independence and won, both are populated by indigenous tribes rather than newcomers from across the border), but the most salient seems to be this one: Serbia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are all BAD (aligned with Moscow) while Georgia is GOOD (aligned with the West and US, and wants to join NATO). Morality, which, I am sure, underpins Western and US foreign policy, dictates that the bad be punished, and the good rewarded. I submit to you that such self-serving logic is a political dead end, and that if senseless bloodshed is to be stopped and peace is to be restored to the Caucasus, Western and US leaders will have to activate several additional brain cells, and stop mindlessly repeating the meaningless phrase "Georgia's territorial integrity."


MarcusB said...

Outstanding analysis: far and away the best that I have read on this sorry tragedy.

Watching from England I have been appalled by the blatantly biased coverage from all the mainstream media outlets, including Channel 4, the Guardian and the BBC, which while not perfect are normally a shade better than the rest. The whole thing is being portrayed as an act of Russian aggression when it was that idiot Saakashvili who started it. The Russophobia on display in some quarters has been embarrassing.

I read your book and enjoyed it very much, by the way. Although it's written for the US, many of the lessons post-Soviet lessons equally applicable over here (although the differences between the UK and the US are also interesting).

Almost pissed myself laughing when I read the line "Blimey, I fink I got a bomb up me bum!"

bryant said...

What an excellent summation of the situation! Yours is the first explanation I have read which explains the history of the different ethic participants.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for clarifying the situation. I was getting tired of the standard line being endlessly touted on the media of the "free world" and am only disappointed that my suspicions about the reality of the situation turned out to be well-founded.

Keep up the good work (and, please, if you can manage it, post on your blog a little more frequently!)


Anonymous said...

bryant: I also recommend Gary Breecher's (from the oft scatological eXile) take on this, he tends to analyze the ethnic/tribal angle to various conflicts.

Anonymous said...

Great review of the current situation.

Just though i'd let you know that I came here after this link was posted on the MPACUK forum.

Anonymous said...

"self-serving logic"

Good descriptive, terminology. Having grown up during the age of the Cold War, I am cognisant of the irony of finding myself cheering for Russia here. But ever since Putin kicked the Oligarchs out, I've found myself doing just that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your in-depth analysis of the fuse that was lit in this week.At least I have a pretty good idea what started it.
It appears as if once again a leader trusted Bush to cover him when the chips were down.Now many innocents will suffer.Giving oneself up as a target for the
I have had the pleasure of reading your material for awhile now..It always educates and enlightens.Thank you.


Anonymous said...

By the way Orlov, I read your book, and found your insights into America from a Soviet perspective quite compelling.

Spoiled brats are now running what was once an exceptional country, regrettably those days are gone....America is in for a rude awakening......

Bruno de Landevoisin

jewishfarmer said...

This was terrific - I've been looking for a clear, balanced analysis to offer my readers, and not finding one. Thank you for this.


Anonymous said...

Good analysis, thanks! One thing I have not seen mentioned in the US mass media is that Russia had both the right and the obligation to kick Georgian troops out of South Ossetia after the attack of August 7-8 under the terms of the Dagomys agreement signed by Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and North Ossetia in the summer of 1992.

Why Saakashvili thought that Russia would not follow through on that agreement, despite Russia's repeated warnings that it will, is beyond me. I have a hard time believing that he decided to attack South Ossetia without approval of his US puppeteers, but stranger things happened.

Anonymous said...

A fine analysis.

Listening to the heckling voices in the media, primarily in the English speaking, is truly stomach churning.

Anonymous said...

I cannot help but think of the Germans, who let rampant nationalism, distorted ego, a rotten economy, and demagoguery encourage them into a campaign to restore Germany's "territorial integrity" (i.e. pre-WW1 borders).
The Sudetenland or the Danzig corridor comes immediately to mind.

No doubt the Russians, who generally have a longer memory than the easily distracted West, remember only to well what the end result of that turned out to be, and were not interesting in letting another Munich agreement come to pass.

Paul Steckler said...

I have retained the phrase "amusing wines" for future reference.

-- Paul

Vladimer Shioshvili said...

your analysis is thorough and a lot of it is true, no objections there. you do leave out some details that show what prompted georgia to be so nationalistic. you must remember April 1989, when Moscow's order to butcher students paved the way to the rise of chauvinist Gamsakhurdia. Get me right, I don't blame Abkhazians and Ossetians to want to depart, they were probably right. Also, I would not say that Shevardnadze was a "gift" form the West. It seems to me that he was sent here from the North. People who made sure he came (Jaba Ioseliani and Tengiz Kitovani) had very good relations with Moscow, and Kitovani is still here. But Shevardnadze turned out to be a person who can plan well demise of a large country, but not about making a small country a good place. Yes, Saakashvili was brought in by the US, but he for couple years was the best Georgia has had in last 17 years. There is no corruption, things just work. But it's changing, he stated turning authoritarian and this last act proved that he is losing it.

Nevertheless, I thank you for putting out something that is way more "unbiased" than a person can find. No, you are not completely unbiased, but you seem much more levelheaded than anyone else I've seen writing about the topic in last 6 days. Somehow anyone who can write became a "Caucasus expert" overnight...

Vladimer Shioshvili said...

i don't know if you don't want to approve my previous comment, or just haven't had a chance to let it go through the moderation queue, but I have a question. I just want to hear what your opinion is. I did not put much about the current crisis in my last comment. I personally blame all parties involved: Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia. They all did a very big disservice to Caucasus. On August 5th, Lavrov made a statement that things were going to blow up. Yet, envoy Russia sent to convince Kokoity to "converse" was a deputy of a deputy of a deputy. If Russia government was so sure that Georgians were planning an attack would it not be better to apply some pressure on South Ossetian leadership to sit and talk. That might have averted what happened. What Georgia's president did is despicable and could and should have been avoided. At the same time, Ossetian leadership did a tremendous disservice to its people. Talks would not result in all of a sudden Ossetia returning to Georgia, but it would probably avert the bloodshed.

So, was anyone actually interested in averting the tragedy?

Dmitry Orlov said...

Vladimir Shioshvili wrote:

"On August 5th, Lavrov made a statement that things were going to blow up. Yet, envoy Russia sent to convince Kokoity to "converse" was a deputy of a deputy of a deputy. If Russia government was so sure that Georgians were planning an attack would it not be better to apply some pressure on South Ossetian leadership to sit and talk."

Well, I can understand Lavrov only too well. He concluded a deal with Saakashvili for the early withdrawal of Russians from military bases in Georgia prior to the Georgian elections - something Saakashvili wanted - and then the Georgian side saw it fit to ignore their end of the deal. Lavrov is therefore somewhat justified in thinking that talking to the Georgian leadership is a waste of time, and his lack of enthusiasm in pursuing further negotiations is easy to understand.

Tom Harper said...

Fascinating analysis. Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

You write so well. Since I discovered your essays a few months ago, I've emailed links to many people. Keep writing, Dmitry; you are needed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the historical insights into conflict players.

Funny thing though how what was posted Monday as a cool-headed and impartial (?!) analysis of historical struggles among tribes, turned out by Thursday to be heavily biased through the omission of Russia's motives and subsequent military maneuvers which have showed less and lesser signs of dealing specifically with either Ossetians or Abhkazians. Furthermore, while I agree that Russia does nothing more in Georgia than what NATO did in Serbia, their extensive military campaign is hardly justifiable (as Medvedev stated, this expedition was to "punish" Georgia). For either Georgians or Ossetians, it would be far better if they split, and have Russia and US stay out.

Dmitry Orlov said...

I suppose that for once my sense of humor fails me, but I don't see it as funny. I always suspected that the Russians would pursue the military campaign until they feel that Georgia no longer has the capacity to wage war. Also, I think that they would now use military means to enforce Georgian-Russian agreements that Georgia has declined to abide by in peacetime. Also, Saakashvili's goose may be cooked, and the Russians may want to stand by and keep a lid on the ensuing chaos.

A general note: if you wish to engage in politics (international or domestic) please find some other blog to which to submit comments.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Here's a link sent in by a reader:

Please judge for yourself, I am just being a conduit for things one doesn't hear or read in "Amerikanski" mass media.

Easter egg hunt: look for a photo collage comparing Saakashvili to Hitler. It's a hoot!

Anonymous said...

I saw the Russian ambassador to the U.N on Charlie Rose, and despite Rose's attempt to maipulate the interview with incredibly biased framing, the ambassador managed to clearly present the Russian pov.
The rest of the MSM have been just about totally propagandistic against Russia.

It always surprises me how Americans react with shock to the fact that other countries have national and strategic interests that they will defend just like the U.S. does.
But the difference, the perpetual biased frame, is that when we do this we are acting altruistically, we are the perpetual good-guys, and when any other country does this they are evil bad-guys.
I am very surprised that, after all the revelations that have come out concerning the U.S. governments less than honest SOP in a wide range of instances, that Americans still buy the party line hook, line and sinker.

Oh well, just another example of the kind of business as usual that is going to be our undoing on may fronts.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog by following a link from The Guardian and sincerely appreciate your concise analysis. Thank you.

Sena said...

I think this is another wonderful illustration of how the US needs to stop intervening in the affairs of other countries and start worrying about its own 'territorial integrity' as the potential perfect storm of energy-crisis, debt-crisis, and environmental crisis looms. It's not a far stretch that if the crash is bad enough, the US would end up breaking up into regional factions along racial or cultural lines.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for such clear description of the conflict. I stopped believing so called "Media" here long ago. Notice how all the administration stooges are out on full force today on TV news networks.
Looking at the financial condition of the US, it is amusing to see how these dirt poor beggars are telling all others in the world how to behave. I seriously hope that one of these days somone will tell these hubris filled pompous morons to go f*** themselves.
Coming to this conflict, It is clear that Georgian president is mainly responsible for starting this conflict. I just hope Russia manages to hang that criminal from the nearest lamp post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the delightful history lesson of the region. Your explanation is a hundred times as insightful as anything vomited up by the mainstream media.


Anonymous said...

Do you have any opinion on the "it's all about the oil, stupid" point of view? I mean, there is a major pipeline (Baku-Ceyhan, I think it's called?) running through Georgia, and Russia is learning how to use its energy monopoly to its advantage in Europe...

Dmitry Orlov said...

It's all about oil for the US, to be sure. If Georgia were not the home to the BTC (earning it the nickname of "Pipelineistan") then the US and the rest of NATO would have absolutely no interest in it or its territorial disputes with its neighbors. Look at Moldova for an example, if you've even heard of it. It's not all about oil for Russia, and Georgia is not some abstract strategic interest halfway across the world.

Anonymous said...

A brilliant piece of writing, although I must confess that a good deal of it was obscure to me. (I am an American, a retired hospital CEO, and a lay student of history.) What I missed seeing was a discussion of the incredibly stupid intervention of Senator "McPain", as he seeks to thunder-out his credentials as a war-mongering Presidential candidate. And the role that his primary advisor on Georgia played..after receiving $800,000 from Georgia's President.

Nicholas said...

Well, speaking as someone of the 'west' (that to say, an Australian). When Americans say "territorial integrity" take this as code to really mean "do not allow Russia to assert control over Ex-soviet states incase Russia wishes to restore their pre-90's "territorial integrity". This is the game the US is playing, and the oil pipeline makes the stakes higher in this place.
Hence, regardless of which side is in the right, it is a vital interest of the west that Georgia is able to stand up to Russia. The west is not anti-Russia, but just does not want to let Russia get think they can control and dominate ex-soviet states.

Anonymous said...

Listening to the Financial Sense podcast (which I've heard Jim Kunstler refer to on several occasions) last week, there was a comment to the effect that Putin is a former KGB analyst, and a brilliant one at that, and that the timing of these events (coinciding with the Olympics, hence no one was paying attention) was not a coincidence at all.

They didn't really explain how Russia could have manipulated a Georgian-initiated conflict, but they implied this was all about gaining control of oil and gas supplies to the west.

However, this is an American podcast, so you may well be right about the oil-bias in US reporting.

Thanks for your analysis!

Pintradex said...

A sincere thanks for distilling a complex history into an enjoyable and readable length. Far less biased than anything else I've seen thus far. Good job. I will visit your blog more often.

"If Georgia were not the home to the BTC then the US and the rest of NATO would have absolutely no interest" I believe this is true.

gihli said...

Just a latecomer, but nothing in these remarks is very surprising, even if one is mostly watching the official US news outlets. Russia could have air-brushed its public pronouncements more deftly, but its basic case seems pretty sound. Anybody like Saakashvili who feels entitled to strike matches around the powder magazine deserves swift discipline.

As for America, land that I love, we are the most isolated space, culturally, linguistically, politically, imaginable. Perhaps our naivete is understandable (ya gotta live here), but our actions are not forgiveable: we're raising red-tinged waves everywhere.

And the sooner the notion of territorial integrity sinks beneath the murky waters, the better. The UN doctrines, however well meant, are not so helpful in a era when the democratic spirit is unraveling so many centuries of imperialism. (And neither is the self-righteousness of the archangels of democracy.) This all sounds too much like 1914, with morally impotent "powers" hissing and spitting and unleashing the arms merchants.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Thank you, gihli, for a beautiful bit of prose.

Anonymous said...

Attention Mr. Vladimer Shiosvili
Could anything be done to prevent the bloodshed?
I’m afraid – nothing could be done.

This is a part of the game, and the prize is OIL.

The conflict, in my opinion, was directly instigated by USA.
When US invaded Iraq the whole world was against the invasion.
Neither of the sides involved in conflict won, but Russia (thanks to the western “free” media) looks now as an aggressor. So when we decide to invade, we will not be a lone worrier any more, the majority in the entire western world is pro-American.

That is why Saakashvili was “a gift from America”, that is why he was still a “beacon of democracy” -even after November 7, 2007, and after he lost ¾ of his supporters in the second election.
Today I read that USA will “help” Georgia with 1 billion dollars.
Do you think it would go to the infrastructure improvement?
Everything points to it: pooling ex-soviet republics to NATO, Kosovo’s independence, surrounding Russia with weapons, militarizing Georgia – all was done to provoke Russia.

Russia has oil, America wants it. And no one cares about S. Ossetians or Georgians or Russian, or even American people for that matter

I see a bigger and messier bloodshed in the future.
So everybody say good bye to the world before it falls apart!

Anonymous said...

of course its great to have a break from any single news source, be it, bcc/cnn/etc. or itar-tass/russia today.

and sure, its a delightful history lesson. but considering ethnicity is rarely more than a conduit for power politics, would like to point out one notable and very dangerous miss.

bona fide Russian citizens in S. Ossetia / Abkhazia? - no way. issuance of passports to citizens in a breakaway region by a foreign government occupying with a 'peace keeping force' (of one nation?) is in no way bona fide. it is a checkist tactic very clearly used to create the grounds for war, whether through agression or 'defense'. and it is a now standard russian tactic, under way in transdneister/ crimea as potential flashpoint zones. and in moscow - to ukrainian/ kazakh/ georgian/ uzbek nationals under investigation for various crimes in their home countries.

saakashvili wrong to send in troops - clearly, on multiple levels.

western media biased, porrly informed - well, duh.

but let's not paint putin as anything other than he is. a power-drunk checkist who specializes in the creation of complex traps in order to create useful disorder. very similar to any spy organization.

when's the last time you were brought in to lyubyanka, kollapsnik?

Dmitry Orlov said...

If you are Abkhaz or S. Ossetian, having a Russian passport is a blessing. Same goes for other misallocated bits of turf, like Transdnestr and Crimea.

As far as characterizing Putin, that's just envy. He managed to pull the country together and inspired confidence, loyalty and obedience. In comparison, Western and US leaders are not fit to lead much of anything. Along these lines, practice saying "President Palin" -- see how much you like that!

The dig about Liublianka - Russia has a smaller percentage of the population held in jails than the US, so Americans are in no position to criticize Russia on this score. And, no, I am yet to see the inside of any jail, anywhere in the world, and will probably die this way. A bit of a stickler for doing things legally, I am afraid.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I did not beleive that US has higher rate of population in jail, so I checked a few sites.
Yes, America is a champion, slitly different numbers fron different sites, but still well above others!
Long live our freedom!

Anonymous said...

"The Russia-Georgia conflict of August 200: A Chronicle of Western Propaganda"

Thanks for another great piece, Dmitri!