Five questions about the conflict in South Ossetia

18. August, 2008

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.

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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