Five questions about the conflict in South Ossetia 16

The conflict in Georgia inflamed public opinions all over the globe and, once more, demonstrated deep divisions between the East and West. Also in Latvia, most ethnic Latvians seem to be supporting Georgia, whereas Russian-speakers are on Russia's side. I think such divisions are not a good thing, and that they should be sorted out. The alternative are deepening divisions which, in time, may result in a bitter conflicts. Given that most readers of this blog, most likely, are on Georgia's side, I'd like to pose a few critical questions about Georgia's role in this conflict.

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To begin, I'd like you to consider a few counterfactuals, i.e. alternative 'what if' scenarios.

Counterfactual #1: Same events, but Russia does not "invade Georgia"

Let me remind you what the facts of the case are. On the eve of Olympic Games, Georgian army shelled Tsikhinvali using artillery such as "Grad". This shelling of a civilian city was indiscriminate, since, to the best of my knowledge, "Grad" is not a high-precision weapon. Next morning they followed up with a full scale onslaught on the city, using tanks etc. Based on what the South Ossetian authorities say, the result is about 2,000 dead civilians. That probably includes women and children. You may or may not believe their estimate, but I think there is little doubt that lots of civilians died. If this is not aggression, what is? And here comes question #1. Is this something that you whole-heartedly support? Is this a demonstration of the "European values"? Is this part of "freedom, democracy, and the rule of law"? Unfortunately, this is what our political leadership implicitly supported by going to Tbilisi. Note that Mr Sarkozi, the French president, chose not to "stay for the dinner" with Mr Saakashvili and his fans from Poland and the Baltic States. I think that's because he knew better.

Counterfactual #2: Same events, but Georgia is a member of NATO

Here is another fact of the case. In the process of onslaught on Tsikhinvali, Georgian troops quite clearly attacked and killed a number of Russian soldiers ('peacekeepers', or whatever you want to call them) that were stationed in the city. We know what happened next. Guess what happens if Georgia was a member of NATO? We would all be at war. World War III. A war with lots of nuclear weapons. Those who now say that Georgia should have been admitted to NATO, this question #2 is for you: Is this what you really want?!

Let me remind you how the First World War started. First, there was a conflict between Serbia and Austria. Russia supported Serbia, its ally. France supported Russia, its ally. Germany supported Austria, which was its ally. And Britain supported Russia and France because Germany invaded Belgium, an ally of Britain. The bottom line is that alliances should not be entered into carelessly. So here comes the question #3, for those who say that Georgia should definitely be admitted to NATO now. Is reckless Mr. Saakashvili a good ally?

Counterfactual #3: Lets look at another 'what if' conflict.

Take Taiwan - a country, which, if I am not mistaken, de jure part of China, but de facto independent for quite some time. Suppose tomorrow China invades Taiwan to re-affirm its "territorial integrity". I could imagine that U.S. interferes and, in doing so, most likely "invades" Taiwan, i.e. China. I am sure there are civilian casualties on both sides. I think the parallel is quite obvious, isn't it? So here comes the question #4: Whose side will you support in this situation? Why?

Something that really happened: air bombardment of Serbia and separation of Kosovo

You know the story. As a result of a long ethnic conflict, Serbians launched a military operation against its own province of Kosovo. Lots of bloodshed. Civilian casualties. NATO interferes, forces Serbians out of Kosovo and establish an international peace-keeping force. Some time later, Serbia is partitioned and Kosovo declared an independent state. This was something that Latvia wholeheartedly supported. Incidentally, I think that separating Kosovo from Serbia was not such a bad idea: my own conversations with Kosovars and Serbs suggests that these guys really can't live together, not in the near future. Once again, I think parallel with Georgia is obvious. The conflict has an ethnic dimension. There was substantial bloodshed in the early 1990s, when Georgia tried to re-assert its control. There was bloodshed when Georgia tried to do it again a few days ago. All sides accuse each other of ethnic cleansing. From what I see, these guys can't peacefully live with each other. So here comes my last question #5: If it was ok to partition Serbia because of this terrible ethnic conflict, what's so sacred about Georgia's "territorial integrity"?
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In Latvian here

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J M 25.10.2008 02:58
Do you care to revisit your (and Russia's) assertions of 2000 killed by Georgia and so on. As the smoke clears, it seem objective research blames the Russians and irregular South Ossetians (along with any Russia drunk looking for an adventure)for doing the biggest job on Ethnic.

Have you considered that you may be espousing support for Russia not based on any facts, but instead insecurity with your nations identity.

This is also probably the reason Putin plays to this Nationalism, as an easy way to get support. You should review historic land grabs such as the Falklands, Milosovic, Hitler, and so on.

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Passerby 21.08.2008 15:58
On the first point, I think two caveats are necessary. First of all, it would appear that the SO side was bombing the Georgian villages and forces on a small but consistent scale throughout August. This appears to bear some similarity to the classic dilemma of Israel: a rocket falls every few days, and even if it does not on its own justify severe armed response, all the rockets put together do. Reasonable people may disagree whether the right legal position is to count all small scale attacks together, but at least it is not an inherently implausible argument to make. The second caveat is about the number of victims. You accept at face value the number of 2000 stated by SO and Russian authorities. The date of Human Rights Watch suggest that these data are wrong by 98 %, the probable number of victims (both civilians AND combatants that are legitimate targets) being in 50s . If put in this context, there are two equally unpleasant ways of looking at the situation: (a) Russia is run by stupid people who don't have any intelligence services that could independently verify the situation, and invade other countries on information that is wildly off the mark; (b) Russia is run by smart people who know that they are 40 X wrong, but are happy to use it as an excuse to invade other countries. I don't think that Georgia did anything unreasonable: just as Russia v Chechnya, Georgia is perfectly entitled to use force within its legal territory, barring the Soci agreement that appeared to have been already breached by everybody.

On the last point, deep down the parallel is not at all obvious, even though on the surface it seems to be such. In Kosovo, the humanitarian catastrophe had been recognised by SC. In SO, it has not been. In Kosovo, the individual responsibility for crimes has been recognised by independent international courts. In SO, it has not been. In Kosovo, the province has been run for the last years by an international organisation. In SO, the province has been run by former / incumbent Russian special forces figures. In Kosovo, compliance with human rights was the ultimate requirement and the second document adopted. In SO, their chief guy preached the effectiveness of ethnic cleansing of Georgians. In Kosovo, an absolute requirement was independence without joining Albania. In SO, the likeliest result will be joining Russia. The point about Kosovo is not that it is the right way to do things but that it was probably wrong by law, even though it was nurtured by intl community, intl organisations, States sharing neither the border, religion, common history or anything else with Kosovo. Kosovo is as close to being right as it is possible while still being wrong; SO is by every possible criterion at the other end of the spectrum, the paradigmatic case of why creeping annexation of States is not a great idea.


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Krista 21.08.2008 14:22
Bless EU and NATO for we live in a country now where, amongst other things, there is no limits to information sources available to the public in addition to the often lame and limited local channels, and the highly censored and biased Russian media. Crazy neo-con Pat Buchanan is not on my blog-watch list but David Remnick of The New Yorker is and I like very much his perspective on the conflict. Amongst other things he warns against useless comparing of one situation/person to another:

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mikelis 21.08.2008 11:32
here is an example of what independent organzations can turn up when given a chance in Georgia:

``In the Georgian village of Shindisi on Wednesday, three journalists from The New York Times were present when a researcher from Human Rights Watch found two unexploded cluster munitions on the ground. The question of whether in the conflict Russia used cluster munitions, which are weapons that release hundreds of bomblets when they explode, has been a source of intense dispute. Russia has vehemently denied using them and called allegations that it used those munitions “lies” that were prepared before the war. But there have been many indications that cluster munitions were in fact used.''

i'd say this is a bit more balanced accessment of the U.S.'s relationship with russia than what buchanan has to say.

Buchanan has had many roles in the republican party, one of which was designing a campaign that played to fears of blacks in the South and helped bring Nixon to power.

``Finally, the memo recommended exploiting racial tensions among Democrats. “Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.''

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mikelis 21.08.2008 10:33

i'll disagree on the evidence for partition, as there is pretty much no evidence since the Russians military has allowed little access to either international organizations or journalists, and i dont think even hundreds dead would justify it, but in reality it doesnt matter. the facts on the ground have changed and its unlikely that those territories will be reunited with georgia possibly in my lifetime.

you surprise me with pat buchanan, since he's way out on the isolationist right and you dismissed fox news earlier, where buchanan is a frequent guest. personally i think buchanan's ideas on american isolation would be pretty tragic if ever implemented.

Some of his points are pretty weak, particularly this pipeline in georgia, which carries 1% of world crude, hardly poses a threat to russian dominance as a provider of energy to europe.

the bombing of serbia took place after all diplomatic efforts broke down and fierce debate in the public, at the UN, and between governments. This was a long conflict, not a 2-day attack on south ossetia followed by an occupying russian force. What he's leaving out of course is that there was ample evidence of genocide and ethnic cleansing at that point. The differences between the two conflicts are huge.


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V Dombrovskis 21.08.2008 10:17

Incidentally, here is what Pat Buchanan has to say on this matter. A rather sober assessment, I would say.

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V Dombrovskis 21.08.2008 10:14

On Kosovo vs South Ossetia: I agree that we are yet to see evidence of "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" from either side, if such ever took place. However, I think there is no doubt that it's a serious ethnic conglict that has lasted for years and resultes in substantial bloodshet and dislocation of civilians.

A quick look at Wikipedia:

"Violent conflict broke out towards the end of 1991 during which many South Ossetian villages were attacked and burned down as were Georgian houses and schools in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. As a result, approximately 1,000 died and about 100,000 ethnic Ossetians fled the territory and Georgia proper, most across the border into North Ossetia. A further 23,000 ethnic Georgians fled South Ossetia and settled in other parts of Georgia"

Then the 2008 conflict:

2,000 dead might be an exaggeration. But I think the dead are definitely measured in hundreds. Tens of thousands dislocated.

In my opinion, this qualifies for partitioning.

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mikelis 20.08.2008 12:29
interesting Time magazine story that adresses many of the issues we've discussed:

among other things the statments made by south ossetian officials, and charges of looting carried out by roving armed men that the Kremlin has allowed into the country.,8599,1833920,00.htm...

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mikelis 20.08.2008 10:34

i dont understand your first point, i'm making no defense of russian government control of tv.

I dont see how pointing out that in Latvia many latvians dont bother to buy Chas or watch tv news beamed over from Russia and vice versa for locals that use Russian primarily, is connected in anyway to your conclusion.

My statment doesnt seem to have anything to do with your first point. What would maybe make a difference is alternatives in Russian language media, a subject often discussed here as you know, from the hope of a Russian language Diena to web sites like The Russian government has taken control of television and its their message that is being broadcast, i dont have time or the desire to peruse the various state-controlled media.

On Kosovo, the comparison falls apart when russia tries to make the genocide charge in this latest conflict, a charge that independent organizations cant verify. Why has Russia blocked the Red Cross from entering south ossetia, is it to wait until the georgian population has been effectivly removed, and as Kokoity said wont be allowed to return? that sounds like ethnic cleansing to me.

whatever the case, it looks doubtful that anytime in the near future that Georgia will regain control of those areas.

good piece from Yulia Latynina of Eko Moskvy, one of the few independent voices left in Russian media.

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V Dombrovskis 20.08.2008 10:01

When you say that alternatives don't matter: "few latvians read or watch russian media, and vice versa", I find it hard to agree. A conclusion would be that, for instance, there would be no point for Russia to have eg 'independent TV' because Russians like what they watch. This clever paper, for instance, suggests the contrary:

As to Yugoslavia, I can buy the argument that partitioning requires some pretty bad ethnic conflict, e.g. "ethnic cleansing". Then the real question is what has happened in Georgia in the early 1990s. Apart from this argument, I think the fact whether a region had de facto independence for a long period of time should count


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mikelis 19.08.2008 13:26
i'm not a fan of fox news and i dont watch it, and i think its affected CNN quite a bit since it surged ahead of it in popularity for in the U.S.

The research i've seen here suggests that even though alternatives are availble few latvians read or watch russian media, and vice versa.

one of the main differences between the conflict in the former yugoslavia was that acts of genocide were committed and ethnic cleansing, which is why it appears that medvedev was so keen to press the genocide charge, even if scant evidence is there to back it up. Kokoity seems to admit that his militias are ethnically cleansing the area of georgian villages and burning their homes, something the kremlin has distanced themselves from.

i'll stick with independent media reports and organizations like human rights watch, and skip the various allegations of genocide, mass murder ect. ect. coming from the russian government side.


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V Dombrovskis 19.08.2008 13:09

I certainly agree that the media (or whoever controls them, to be more exact) have an important part to play here. I am more concerned about a country like Latvia, where Russian-speakers also have access to alternative view-points. Speaking of media, it is quite sad to see that some of the Western media are moving pretty close towards the style of the Russian TV. For instance, I no longer trust the CNN and prefer a more balanced BBC. I am not even speaking about the likes of FOX NEWS. See that incident with a South Ossetian girl:

Thanks for the pointer to that article in Slate. I remain largely unconvinced by these arguments, however. There certainly are many differences between South Ossetia and Kosovo, but also many similarities. A discussion here will take us quite far. My main point is one needs clear rules. I haven't seen them in this article. Otherwise all you have are arbitrary exceptions. U.S. says Kosovo was an exception, Russia says Georgia is an exception. And where does this leave us?

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V Dombrovskis 19.08.2008 12:58
Although, you didn't answer my questions, I'll answer yours.
I am quite confident about who started it. Most Western media admit it, including The Economist, who is consistently critical of Russia. For example, see:
"That same night, Georgia started to shell and invade Tskhinvali. Then the Russian army moved in...".
Your second questions is quite besides the point. This is not about a beauty contest between different countries, but about trying to understand how to assign responsibilities for the conflict. And I think both sides (Georgia, too) are to blame. Your reasoning can take you to ugly places. Should someone (who?) start replacing the governments of the countries that are not economically successful? Why not also the Baltic States, then?

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mikelis 19.08.2008 12:21
i'd attribute the different views of the conflict to different media access, which the economist rendered as:

``In blue jeans and a sports jacket, Mr Putin, cast as the hero of the war, flew to the Russian side of the Caucasus mountain range to hear, first-hand, hair-raising stories from refugees that ranged from burning young girls alive to stabbing babies and running tanks over old women and children. These stories were whipped up into anti-Georgian and anti-Western hysteria. Russian politicians compared Mr Saakashvili to Saddam Hussein and Hitler and demanded that he face an international tribunal. What Russia was doing, it seemed, was no different from what the West had done in its “humanitarian” interventions. ''

or it could be that somethings are reported in the western media that are not shown at all in the russian media.
Like Russia not abiding by the cease-fire and promises to withdrawl have not been implemented, BBC showing footage of russian tanks advancing yesterday, the nyt describing tanks moving closer to Tblisi on the day when they are supposed to withdrawl. Or as human rights watch said they could only verify deaths in south ossetia of around 40, when their figure was 2,000. HRW also says Russia used cluster bombs, which Russia denies, and also reports the burning of georgian villages, which Kokoity said that those georgians would not be allowed to return. kokoity also claimed according to interfax that mercenaries from the baltic countries, ukraine and afro-americans were among gerogian troops in the attack on south ossetia. Now why would he say that? is it possible that there is a running thread through this conflict of disinformation on one side, namely the russian information space, that probably explains why there are such different opinions now?

one of the strangest aspects of this conflict is that russia has allowed for `volunteers' from the caucases to pour into the country and roam the country armed. this is just asking for crime to be committed, men responsible to no one, who are armed and could commit crimes and then disappear somewhere else.

christopher hitchens answers your comparison with kosovo quite well here:


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rb 18.08.2008 19:31
Two additional questions: (i) Are you sure Georgian side started the latest conflict? (ii) Do you think Putin and the rest of the Russia state gang really cares about the well being of South Ossetians (or Russians in Latvia for that matter)?

I don't know the answer to the first question and probably you don't know it either.

As to the second, I think, if Putin&co will have it their way South Ossetia will 'choose' to join Russia rather than be independent. And South Ossetians will live in miserable poverty for many years to come. Kosovo and Serbia, on the other hand, will do much better. And nothing cures bitter war memories better than economic prosperity.

Another question: When was the last time Russia delivered prosperity to the average citizen of a country, including its own?

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