Thursday, August 14, 2008

Understanding the South Ossetia Crisis

The basis of the crisis of the 2008 South Ossetia War is one of irridentism: the desire of a state to expand geographically to encompass territory occupied by those of a reference ethnic group. The people of South Ossetia are ethnically Russian, as opposed to majority Georgian ethnicity in Georgia.

The majority ethnic Russians in South Ossetia desire to achieve independence from Georgia, with an overarching interest to be brought back into the fold of a “greater Russia.” This may be achieved either by being made an independent yet dependent satellite state of Russia, or it may be annexed and incorporated into Russia directly. In any regard, it would result in South Ossetia being territorially alienated from Georgia unless some conciliatory peaceful resolution to the conflict is achieved.

There are 3.9 million ethnic Georgians living in Georgia, roughly 84% of the total estimated national population of 4.6 million.

In South Ossetia, with an estimated total population of 70,000, only 14,000 are ethnic Georgians; the vast majority of the rest are ethnic Russians.

This Georgian-Ossetian conflict, which seems to be quite surprising news to most Americans in 2008, has been going on for nearly two decades, since a referendum held in South Ossetia in November 1989 sought to rejoin South Ossetia (in Georgia) with North Ossetia (in Russia). This escalated into a crisis after independence was achieved by Georgia in 1991.

The first violent flare-up occurred in 1992, while most western eyes (and television cameras) were focused on the crisis of Somalia (q.v. UNISOM I, UNITAF, The United States Army in Somalia, 1992-1994), the wars of the West Balkans (q.v. Croatia and Bosnia), or the U.S. Presidential Elections. This breakaway movement was conducted simultaneous to the War in Abkhazia (1992-1993).

The second phase of the conflict came in 2004-2006. While a referendum of the local populace supported independence, there was also a local minority asking to remain within the Georgian state. An uneasy peace settled over the unsettled political issues.

The third phase of the conflict began in August 2008 with the resumption of hostilities by Georgia to retake the area, which was the causus belli for Russian military intervention (q.v. Russia, Georgia Fight Over Breakaway Region, NPR, 13 Aug 2008).

Observers, such as Volodymyr Kulyk of the Institute of the Political and Ethnic Studies at the National Academy of Science of Ukraine, are postulating that this conflict is part of a bigger military and social picture, where an increasing nationalistic Russia is seeking to establish dominance over the former Soviet republics. If anything, it may achieve the short-term effect of shoaling Georgia’s hope of joining NATO in the near future. (q.v. NPR interview, 13 Aug 2008).

These Caucasus wars, like those waged in the West Balkans, are marked by brutal ethnic cleansing and nationalist designs closely related to the politics of intolerance and zealotry: racism and xenophobia. Furthermore, economics and the obsessive drive to control economic and natural resources of these regions add a layer of politics focused on achieving supremacy and power, and smack of crass greed and opportunism.

The concerned citizen of the world may indeed wonder what may happen if this crisis is not managed effectively. There are many possible outcomes:

Breakaway from the Breakaway

Greg Moses postulates if South Ossetia wishes to rejoin Russia, then the ethnic Georgian enclaves within South Ossetia should be given the option to remain aligned with the Georgian state. This issue then becomes an exercise of fractal math and recursion cum reductio ad absurdum, as then the ethnic Russians in the Georgian enclaves may then push for union with the rest of South Ossetia.

Non-Intervention and Appeasement (The "Neville Chamberlain" Strategy)

In this postulated scenario, Russia and South Ossetia achieve their desired irredentist outcome. The international community may indeed write off Georgia as “not worth fighting for,” in a manner similar to way the League of Nations wrote off the annexation of the Czech Sudetenland in October 1938.

The question is whether this would then lead a bolder Russian foreign military strategy, similar to the League of Nation’s passivity emboldening Hitler's Nazi Germany, and lead to similar movements and armed interventions elsewhere, such as a Russian move to annex Abkhazia. The Herald-Sun ran an article warning that the west should “wake up.”

Greg Sheridan of The Australian portrays a grim escalationist picture, as published in Sydney's Sunday Telegraph: “The more Moscow can successfully engage in military adventures like this -- intimidating its neighbours and seizing parts of their territory -- the more it will feel that a military-nationalist approach to government will lead Russia back to its former glory. Along that path lie infinite dangers for everyone, and perhaps ultimate tragedy not only for the Russian people, but for many others as well.”

World War III Already in Full Swing

Others, such as Larry Chin, propose a global war has already been underway for years, and is only now being made more readily apparent as violence escalates. World War III denotes, generally, the anticipated war between the Soviet Union (or Russia, its successor state) and its allies, and the United States and its NATO allies. World War IV has generally been used to denote a similar war between the US and its NATO allies against the “rogue nations” as well as against the threat of Islamic fundamentalist states and non-state actors. However, as reported in the AFP in 2007, the term World War III can also sometimes be applied the war against [Islamic] fundamentalist terrorism.

One can postulate that present circumstances may indeed shift Russia and the Islamic opponents of the US and its NATO allies into an alliance of convenience. There have already been Christian sites postulating this as a Biblical prophecy. Yet serious consideration needs to be given to the topic, such as the March 2006 thoughts recorded on the Indonesia Matters blog.

There is actually some circumstantial evidence in support of this theory. In March 2007, Georgia doubled its commitment of troops to Iraq to 2,000. These troops were deployed in October 2007 and stationed near the Iranian border. While there were already plans to scale back the force to 300, with the outbreak of hostilities, on August 8th, 2008, the entire contingent was ordered to be withdrawn to help defend their home nation. Even by happenstance, it seems to be that the Russian pressure on Georgia has benefited their tacit ally, Iran.

The critical urgency and severity of the issue cannot be misconstrued. For the sake of roughly 50,000 people wanting to rejoin Russia, the United States and the Soviet Union have seemingly been pushed near to the tooth-and-jowl brink of direct military conflict. The crisis is more severe than any other time since the end of the Cold War.

It is the rough demographic equivalent of saying if Wrigley Field were filled with irate Cubs fans, they could lobby for cessation from Chicago, and threaten global conventional or nuclear war if they did not get their way. And then, the rest of the United States invades the city of Chicago to enforce control and to permit the team to relocate to Gary, Indiana.

France seems to be taking a reconciliatory lead in negotiations between Georgia and Russia. The key question is how much Russia cares to negotiate settlements or pay heed to external influence and sanctions.

While all of this is an “interesting” academic postulation, we must commit, day-by-day, to brokering peace between all the factions. This does not mean capitulation of principles or an undermining of our ideals. It shall simply command and require the peacemakers to exhibit strength and patience.

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