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Russia says it has started pulling back from Georgian soil, but there are few if any signs that it means business. Therefore, the war is not over yet. Despite this, Neal Ascherson and Ivan Krastev have on openDemocracy already started taking stock of the possible results of the war. I will join them in these attempts - though all of us should understand that while Russia continues trying to change the situation on the ground through military means, any such assessments can only be rather tentative.
Ghia Nodia is minister of education and science of the Republic of Georgia. He was appointed to this post on 31 January 2008. He is also a scholar and adviser of the Caucasus Institute of Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD) in Tbilisi. His books include (with Álvaro Pinto Scholtbach) The Political Landscape of Georgia: Political Parties: Achievements, Challenges, and Prospects (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Also by Ghia Nodia in openDemocracy:
"The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)
A humanitarian disaster
The loss of life - in Georgia proper and in South Ossetia - and the humanitarian catastrophe that ensued from the war are obviously the most disturbing results. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has calculated the figure of the displaced people on the Georgian side at approximately 128,000. If the Russians do pull back, the figure will be considerably reduced as most people will return to their homes even if they are looted and damaged. However, at least 20,000 of these Georgians come from Abkhazia and South Ossetia: their return is unthinkable unless a new security regime maintained by the international community is instituted in these breakaway territories.
Even if Russia shows the goodwill to accept such a change (and it would take enormous international pressure to achieve this), this will take time. In addition, there are Georgian villages adjacent to South Ossetia fully or partially destroyed under the Russian occupation, with people there having gone through hell. Under the circumstances, they will be scared to return until very firm international-security guarantees are established: again, a very big if.
This means that, for the time being, Georgia will have to deal with tens of thousands of recently displaced people. This is in addition to the huge numbers of internally-displaced people (IDPs) left after the conflicts in the same territories in the early 1990s. This will be a heavy economic and political strain. Currently, almost all Tbilisi's school-buildings are occupied by the IDPs, and nobody can tell when we will be able to start classes there. As of 21 August 2008, about 42,000 were registered as occupying Georgian educational institutions (mainly schools). Naturally, this is a major concern for this author, who is the minister of education in this country.
Quite a few of the recent IDPs are mad at this government - whom they blame (alongside Russia, of course) for their human tragedy. These people are likely to be used as combustible material by some opposition groups in the future, and Russia - which is unlikely to give up on her ambition to destabilise Georgia internally - will try to encourage that through her proxies in Georgia proper.
For separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the war was a major victory. While Ossetians mourn their dead and start rebuilding with Russian help, they - as well as the Abkhaz - rejoice at their new sense of security. This is because Russians completed for them the task of ethnic cleansing of their territories. The IDPs say that the Georgian villages within South Ossetia are almost erased; Eduard Kokoity, the Ossetian separatist leader, asked rhetorically on 15 August 2008 why the return of the Georgians should be allowed
"so that they can shoot (us) in the back again"; a week later he told the Russian online
news agency that two Georgian enclaves in South Ossetia had been "liquidated". Unless the security regime in these territories changes dramatically, this will be irreversible.OpenDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war. Its coverage includes:
Evgeny Morozov, "Russia/Georgia: war of the web" (13 August 2008)
Peter Nasmyth, "From South Ossetia's children, Georgian and Ossetian" (18 August 2008)
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Abkhazia: wedded to independence" (21 August 2008)
Boris Dolgin, "Russia: what peace looks like" (22 August 2008)
The spirit of the nation
As I argued in my previous article written for openDemocracy ("The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future", 12 August 2008) - and almost all non-Russian analysts agree - this war was for the whole of Georgia, not for South Ossetia. Georgia's general direction, its project of becoming a European nation rather than Russia's satellite, was at stake. This made the moral and psychological aspect of the war no less important than the territorial one.
President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia said that his country came out of this war as a moral victor. This is not the mere posturing of a politician whom even some observers generally sympathetic to Georgia called "hot-headed" and "irresponsible" for his conduct during the August 2008 war. The genuine theatre of war was the spirit of the Georgian nation and the validity of Georgian political and economic institutions. It should not be forgotten that just a few years ago Georgia was commonly called a "failing state".
While the vast majority of the Georgian people emphatically assert their commitment to western institutions and values, we also understand that these values have not sufficiently taken root in Georgia, as old customs and attitudes based in the Russian and Soviet past die hard. Georgia is an aspiring democracy, but not a consolidated one. This gave Russia hope that Georgia's ambition to become a western democracy could yet be reversed; some Georgians were not sure whether the nation would be firm enough under the Russian pressure, while still others were actually looking forward to returning to the old ways under a new Russian-installed government.
If there is a rational explanation at all for the procrastination of the Russian troops - who continue widening the geographical scope of their destructive actions while their president sets and breaks new timetables for the withdrawal - it is that continuing the state of uncertainty, destruction and humiliation could still allow for the objective of regime change in Georgia. If Russia fails to achieve this objective, than it is justified to speak of Georgia's political as well as moral victory.
The main indicators of such a victory are the sustainability of Georgian institutions and the strength of the spirit of the nation. On both these counts, and despite considerable strain, so far Georgia has stood the test. There were brief moments of panic (such as late on the
night of 11 August, when a rumour spread that Russian tanks were advancing to Tbilisi); but overall, in places which were not directly occupied, life continued as usual. The banking system took only one day off, and there was no mass cash withdrawal. The Georgian currency, the lari, remained stable. Energy supplies were normal in all but the occupied areas, and there were no food shortages. There were no public disturbances. A group of felons escaped from one of the prisons in western Georgia, but most of them are recaptured already. Trains arrived on time - until Russia blew up the main railway-bridge. A flood of new IDPs constituted the major challenge, but all of them now have a roof over their heads and relief efforts have been organised. Even under occupation, the Georgian state did not fail in its main routine functions.Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region,
including the war with Russia in August 2008:
Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)
Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)
Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)
Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)
Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007)
Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)
Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008)
Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)
Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)
Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)
Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)
Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)
Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)
Evgeny Morozov, "Citizen war-reporter? The Caucasus test" (18 August 2008)
George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)
Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)
Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)
A few people in Georgia would probably welcome a Russian-installed government. However, the fact is that no political group publicly voiced support for the Russian position - and most meaningful opposition groups announced that they were suspending political infighting with the government. In the Georgian media, numerous people criticised the government's actions before and during the war, but not from the pro-Russian position. As is normal for any nation, it rallied around its leadership in the face of foreign aggression, while at the same time people voiced criticism of specific government actions.
Everybody understands this moral victory is yet to be consolidated and there lie serious internal challenges ahead. Many people hold the government responsible for the humanitarian disaster and territorial looses caused by the war, and as the situation calms down, the opposition may take advantage of this sentiment to attack the government. If
this stays within acceptable democratic procedures, this will only be normal; but - given the Georgian record of successful or attempted unconstitutional changes of power -
there are always fears that things can get out of hand, and Russia will try to help destabilise the situation through its Georgian proxies. But the resilience that Georgian institutions have shown so far gives solid ground to
believe that this scenario can be avoided
The biggest unknown: Russia
The trajectory of Georgia's development after the war with Russia is not fully clear; but the future of Russian-western relations - a factor which of course has direct implications for the future of Georgia - is the biggest unknown.
The results of the Nato ministerial meeting on 19 August gave some sense of direction: the conflict brought Georgia one step closer to Nato (through establishing a permanent Nato-Georgian commission) and further estranged Russia from the alliance (through suspending the activities of the Nato-Russian council). But these steps are rather miniscule in themselves and nobody can tell how far the process will go.
The main problem is that the west appears to be confused and divided on the Russia issue. In the context of war with Georgia, Russia could only procure the support of countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Syria. It is logical to deduce from this, that it is close to joining the club of nations commonly called "rogue states" - those who openly defy the international consensus and create conspicuous dangers for international peace. However, western powers will find it difficult to act on this logic: the world cannot afford having a rogue state of such size and significance, so it seems better to deny the reality of the danger. The Russian government knows that and tries to take advantage of the situation. It is true that Russia - as Ivan Krastev has written on openDemocracy - does not have a clear strategy either: it acts on the feeling of resentment rather than rational calculation of its interest. But this does not help.
Energetic and effective western support is vital for the very existence of Georgia at the moment. However, we also understand the strategic complexity of the situation and do not want to be seen to be trying to provoke a new global conflict. Therefore, in conclusion, I want to focus on the moral side of the issue.
Europe has expressed especial moral strictness when it came to dealing with anything smacking of the Nazi legacy. The European Union imposed sanctions on Austria over the inclusion in government of the far-right politician Jörg Haider, who never clearly stated that Hitler's policies were correct or the that the German Reich should be restored, but was nonetheless believed to be a secret Nazi sympathiser. In January 2005, Prince Harry of Great Britain wore Nazi costume to a private fancy-dress party. The news leaked to the media and caused a public outrage; Prince Harry had to apologise. Such rigour stands in stark contrast to attitudes towards the communist legacy. For years, Russia has been is ruled by a group of unrepentant KGB officers - which would be the moral equivalent of a country governed by SS veterans proud of their record. This was considered OK - after all, so many former communists came to power in central European countries and honoured democratic rules and procedures.
But Vladimir Putin and his team are different. As any former Soviet citizen would say: there is no such thing as a former KGB officer. When current Russian action is repeatedly compared to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, this is not just a historical parallel: there is a direct link. Putin was too young to take part in the invasion, but there is no evidence to suggest that even now he sees anything wrong in it (even though, in answering a question on a visit to Prague in 2006, he referred to it as a "tragic event"). He may have understood the inefficiency of the communist economic policy, but his system of values is hardly different from those of his role model, Yuri Andropov. He has openly lamented the break-up of the Soviet Union as the greatest political tragedy of the 20th century. What would happen had some German-speaking politician suggested that it's a pity Germany is now smaller than it was in 1939?
Putin is not a new Hitler nor even a new Stalin. It is unlikely that the world is on the brink of a new cold war: Russia has oil and gas but no ideological energy needed for that. But just because it is difficult to find a remedy for the Russian problem, it is not right to deceive oneself about the nature of Russian regime and the vitality of the Russian threat. Each nation (including Georgia, naturally) should act on an adequate understanding of it.
In that sense, open confrontation with Russia, however disastrous the human and economic costs, may also have some positive implications for the prospects of stable democracy in Georgia. For this country, Russia has not only been a security threat. It has also been the source from which the infection of illiberal political culture was spreading. Here, cultural closeness to a fellow-Orthodox country was a negative factor. As I said, democratic institutions are yet to fully consolidate in Georgia and the society is still not fully immune to the habits of the Soviet past: cultural and social closeness to Russia was an element reinforcing the power of these habits.
Being in open conflict with a huge and powerful neighbour has its challenges for democracy too - the obligation to consolidate around government does not necessarily encourage openness to political pluralism. However, after this war - whenever it can be said truly to have ended - Russia will have even less leverage for influencing Georgian society than it had before, and Georgia will have even stronger incentives to embrace the values and institutions of the democratic west.
On the second full day of the Georgia-Russia war of 8-12 August 2008, Russian patrol-boats operating off the Black Sea shore of Abkhazia sank four Georgian vessels apparently intent on landing in the territory. The identity of these vessels is not yet clear, but it is interesting to note that a published list of military equipment in the possession of the Georgian government - equipment largely supplied over many years by Tbilisi's western friends - includes a ship called the General Mazniashvili.
Why interesting? Because General Mazniashvili (aka Mazniev) is best known for his role in spreading "fire and sword" through Abkhazia and South Ossetia on behalf of Georgia's Menshevik government of 1918-21. The naming of the ship is a revealing indicator of current official Georgian sentiment about a figure central to the pitiless effort ninety years ago to establish control over these two areas. It is also a reminder to Abkhazians and South Ossetians that their hard-won freedom from Georgian rule in the brutal wars of the early 1990s is part of a longer history of defence of their integrity that deserves the world's attention, understanding and respect.
These peoples, and not just the Georgians - or Russians, or Americans, or anyone else involved in the latest war in the region - have their own history, many of whose artefacts have been deliberately pulverised in this generation (see Thomas de Waal, "Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history" [20 October 2006]). The lesson of the short war of August 2008 is that their Abkhazian and South Ossetian voices must be heard and their own choices must be included in any decisions about their future if the cycle of conflict - of which 1918-21 and 1991-93 are but two episodes - is going to be broken rather than repeated.
George Hewitt is professor of Caucasian languages at London's School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS). Among his many works are "Peoples of the Caucasus" (in F. Fernández-Armesto, ed.), Guide to the Peoples of Europe (Times Books, 1994) and (as editor) The Abkhazians, a handbook (Curzon Press, 1999)
Also by George Hewitt in openDemocracy:
"Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil" (27 November 2003),
"Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006).
A political boomerang
The torrent of media commentary on the Georgia-Russia war has been characterised by near-obsessive geopolitical calculation, which - as so often where Georgia and the region is concerned - tends by default to view Georgia's "lost" territories (if they are viewed at all) as nothing more than inconsiderate and irritating pawns on a global chessboard. For this reason - but mainly because Abkhazia and South Ossetia matter in themselves and are central to any resolution of the issues underlying the August 2008 war - it is useful to consider the arguments for taking them and their claims seriously.
A striking feature of the Georgian political landscape even in these desperate days of Mikheil Saakashvili's humiliation is that there is very little recognition in the country of how deep are the scars inflicted by Georgia's invasions of South Ossetia (1990-92) and Abkhazia (1992-93). It is only when Georgia can at an official level come to take responsibility for its own role in this period that progress in resolving these now so-called "frozen conflicts" can be made.
One vital ingredient of this rethinking is to recognise the longstanding residency-claims of South Ossetians and Abkhazians to their respective territories. During the heady days of nationalism that exploded in Tbilisi in 1989, the man who was to become the first post-Soviet president of Georgia - Zviad Gamsakhurdia - even charged that the Ossetians only appeared in Georgia on the coat-tails of the Red Army's invasion in 1921.
It was and is a myth" (see "The North-west Caucasus and Great Britain", Autumn 1992). The late specialist on Iranian languages, Ilya Gershevitch, once told me that in his view the language of the South Ossetians differs so radically from that spoken in North Ossetia that the split must have occurred in pre-Christian times. Moreover, Queen Tamar (ruled 1184-1213), the sovereign under whom Georgia attained its "golden age", was at least half-Ossetian and also took one husband who was Ossetian. But such myths - which are also circulated to deny that the Abkhazians are the indigenous population of Abkhazia - can become truly dangerous in times of tension.
Amid Georgia's late-Soviet disintegration, intellectuals and nascent civil society in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia realised the perils that the chauvinistic rhetoric aimed against them from Tbilisi posed. They formed national forums (Adamon Nykhas in South Ossetia, Aydgylara in Abkhazia) to defend their respective collective and political interests, and created links between the regions that continue to this day.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia - believing his own myths, a self-harming flaw shared by his successor-but-one Mikheil Saakashvili - thought it would be an easy matter to dislodge the South Ossetians from the territory (which Georgians decided to rename Samachablo). The result was war that started in 1990, escalated in 1991, and expired in spring 1992. By this latter date Gamsakhurdia had been overthrown, and a military junta had assumed control in Tbilisi; in March 1992 this junta invited Eduard Shevardnadze - the former boss of Georgia's Soviet-era Communist Party, and later Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev - to lead it.
Gamsakhurdia and his armed supporters resisted the new authorities from his base in the west Georgian province of Mingrelia. Shevardnadze chose to compromise with the South Ossetians, and the two sides (with the involvement of the then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin) signed the Dagomys accords. The provisions of the agreement included a tripartite (Georgian, Ossetian, Russian) peacekeeping force to monitor the ceasefire.
As a result, South Ossetia after 1992 - typified by its quiet capital Tskhinval (Tskhinvali) - became a neglected backwater with little to offer its citizens other than to travel by the Roki tunnel into the Russia Federation's republic of North Ossetia in search of work. This situation continued through the decade of Eduard Shevardnadze's rule in Georgia; it began to change after Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in 2004, with a pledge to restore South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgian control (and within two years) high on his nationalistic agenda.
Also on Abkhazia in openDemocracy:
Thomas de Waal & Zeyno Baran, "Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?" (2 August 2006),
Thomas de Waal, "Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history" (20 October 2006),
Nikolaj Nielsen, "A small bomb in Gali" (8 July 2008)
The effects of his active - or meddlesome - stance were soon felt. A local market on the border with the disputed territory, where the two sides had no problems cooperating for purposes of trade, was closed down on the grounds that it was part of the "black economy". Then a pliable Ossetian was found to head a pro-Georgian "government" for South Ossetia, based in villages on the Georgian side of the border.
None of this "worked" even in its own terms. A singular aspect of the August 2008 war is that it confounds the long-held expectation the South Ossetian "problem" would prove easier for Tbilisi to manage and solve than that of Abkhazia - the larger, more prosperous and better defended of the two disputed regions. Instead, Saakashvili's reclamation project has come to grief in South Ossetia, which is now more distant from Tbilisi's rule than ever (see Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation", 13 August 2008).
The folly of war
It all looked different to Georgia's latest myth-maker as recently as January 2008, when Mikheil Saakashvili was was re-elected president. He promised again the two territories would be recovered, during his second term. The months of tension that followed climaxed in the ferocious assault led by Grad-missiles that was launched on an unsuspecting Tskhinval on the night of 7-8 August 2008.
Saakashvili continues to claim that Georgian actions were a response to the introduction of Russian tanks, though he makes no mention of the fifteen Russian peacekeepers killed before heavy weaponry arrived. At least part of Russia's calculation in the febrile months of 2008 has been a desire to hold back in order to let the world see the true nature of the Saakashvili regime. In the event, that stance did nothing to save Russia's peacekeepers, nor did it have any notable effect on western leaders who ignored the fact of the opening attack on Tskhinval in their rush to condemn Russia's response.
But the folly of the decision to attack South Ossetia's capital - whatever its immediate origins - is not Saakashvili's alone. It must be related to the wider pattern of western policy and support for Georgia that has intensified in the Saakashvili era but which was already established in the crucial period of the early 1990s.
The key decision in this respect took place when Zviad Gamsakhurdia's war in South Ossetia was still in progress; when the Zviadist were battling the Shevardnistas in Mingrelia; when threats continued against Abkhazia; when there was no legitimate government in power in Tbilisi; and when chaos reigned across Georgia. At that very moment, the west decided that this was the appropriate time to recognise the country within its Soviet borders.
Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region:
Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005),
Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006),
Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006),
Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007),
Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007),
Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007),
Robert Parsons, "Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008),
Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008),
Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008),
Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008),
Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008),
Robert Parsons, "Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008),
Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008),
Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008),
Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008),
Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008).
This decision was in line with the international community's arbitrary approach of recognising only the Soviet Union's union-republics (as well as the constituent-republics of Yugoslavia) as separate states. In the case of Georgia, the west had refrained from applying this policy when Georgia was misruled by Zviad Gamsakhurdia; but almost as soon as Shevardnadze returned to Georgia, attitudes changed. A "friend of the west" was in power, and - although no elections were planned until October 1992, and thus even rudimentary democratic legitimacy could not yet be be claimed - western states (led by John Major's government in Britain - an appropriate echo of its equally disastrous policy in former-Yugoslavia) - rushed to recognise Shevardnadze's government and establish diplomatic relations.
Georgia also gained in this period unconditional membership of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations. The result was, for Abkhazia - whose people were then pressing a claim of right to independence - disaster. For Eduard Shevardnadze celebrated his country's joining of the UN by launching his own war on Abkhazia, in an attempt to rally dissenters (including armed Zviadists) to this zealous Georgian nationalist cause. The gamble brought untold destruction; its many victims included the thousands of Mingrelians and Georgians living in Abkhazia. For - although it took thirteen months, and the result was long in the balance - the gamble failed, and the humiliating defeat inflicted on Shevardnadze's troops by the Abkhazians and their Caucasian allies on 30 September 1993 meant the effective loss to Tbilisi of the lush and potentially rich republic.
In spring 1994, ceasefire accords - the equivalent of the Dagomys accords over South Ossetia - were agreed in Moscow. By then, the west's attentions were focused on the Balkan mess it had done so much to create, and it was - how times change - only too happy to leave peacekeeping responsibilities to Russia. As a result, Russian forces constituted almost all of the 3,000-strong peacekeeping contingent along the demilitarised zone adjacent to the Ingur river, Abkhazia's traditional frontier with Mingrelia in Georgia.
Thus, a further link between Abkhazia and South Ossetia was made, as Abkhazia too - typified by its quiet capital Sukhum (Sukhumi) - became a neglected backwater with little to offer its citizens except to seek work elsewhere or (for those who stayed) to use whatever Russian help was on offer to restore their destroyed infrastructure and economy as best they could (see "Postwar Developments in the Georgian-Abkhazian dispute", Parliamentary Human Rights Group, June 1996).
The Caucasian satrap
The recognition of Georgia's Soviet borders - echoed again (among other western leaders) by the quite ridiculous statements of Nato's secretary-general and Britain's foreign secretary even as the full effects of Mikheil Saakashvili's misadventure were still emerging - is the source of much of Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's agony; and indeed of Georgia's agony too. For since the early 1990s, and notwithstanding its clear culpability in the wars on the two territories, Georgia has - at any point of crisis or argument around either of these "frozen" conflicts - been able to call upon its fellow United Nations members to insist on the observation of the principle of territorial integrity; in effect, saying that Georgia can do as it pleases with regard to its "internal" problems and nuisance-peoples.
There is more. Georgia in the 1990s looked likely at times to become a "failed state", and a country ruled by Eduard Shevardnadze could call on all sorts of assistance - not just quite understandable and welcome economic investment, but more worryingly an enormous amount of military equipment and associated training programmes (which accelerated in the period after 9/11 and as Vladimir Putin began to establish a coherent government and a firm foreign policy in Russia after the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years).
Why did Georgia need such a prodigious amount of armaments, and military equipment of this type? Not even the most deranged Georgian leader would consider starting a war with Russia (a judgment that, admittedly, may have to be revised). Azerbaijan shares with Georgia the interest in peaceful oversight of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which brings both countries considerable wealth. Georgia and Armenia have been rivals for centuries, but there is no hint of any potential military conflict (notwithstanding the disaffection and poverty of the Armenian minority in Georgia's Javakheti region). Georgia and its other neighbour, Turkey, have no grounds for hostility.
The conclusion is clear: the targets of Georgia's military bonanza were South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The outcome was to fuel not just Georgia's military machine but the self-aggrandisement and hubris of those of its leaders who concluded that the west - especially the United States, its chief supplier - would support an armed effort by Tbilisi to restore control over South Ossetia and/or Abkhazia.
This must have been one factor behind Mikheil Saakashvili's monstrous blunder on the eve of the opening of the Olympic games in China's capital city.
The bonds between Abkhazia and South Ossetia forged in the pivotal early 1990s included a mutual defence arrangement. When Georgian forces attacked Tskhinval on 7-8 August 2008, the Abkhazians had to decide how to put this into effect. The decision was made to try to dislodge the Georgian troops who had - in violation of the ceasefire accords - deployed into the upper Kodor (Kodori) valley (part of Abkhazia) in July 2006, an act followed by the transference there of Tbilisi's already-established (on the South Ossetia model) "Abkhazian government-in-exile".
The move towards the upper Kodor valley was both an attempt to present Georgia with a second front, and to pre-empt any repetition of the new South Ossetian tragedy in Abkhazia itself. Abkhazian ground-troops entered the gorge at daybreak on 12 August to find that most of the Georgian soldiers had fled; by midnight, the whole area was secure.
The aftermath is revealing. The Russians are reported to have discovered in the materials captured from Georgian military personnel in South Ossetia a series of maps depicting Georgia's plans for a step-by-step capture of Abkhazian territory. On their own account, the Abkhazians found in the centre of the Kodor gorge a plaque (in both Georgian and English) stating: sainpormatsio tsent'ri NAT'O-s shesaxeb ("Information Centre about NATO").
Mikheil Saakashvili's televised speeches - including his effective declaration of war against South Ossetia - are accompanied by the parading of a European Union flag in his office. Georgia is a member neither of Nato nor the European Union, and its symbolic actions in relation to both are evidence of an unresolved political dysfunction.
A path in the rubble
The military and political residue of the war of August 2008 is still far from settled. The diplomatic one awaits. When the ceasefire agreement negotiated by Nicolas Sarkozy and accepted by Mikheil Saakashvili and Dmitry Medvedev begins to be fully implemented, the west needs seriously to reconsider its unwise recognition of the country within its Joseph Stalin-set borders. The ground of international law has shifted over Kosovo; it can be moved again to recognise Georgia in its de facto borders and to recognise the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as two new states (see Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and the Caucasus", 15 August 2008).
An understanding of the history outlined in this article - including, once more, the key events of the early 1990s and all that has happened since - is the only way to lay the foundation for peaceful relations between the various peoples living in this part of Transcaucasia.
The negotiations to come must address the difficult issues that have lain dormant since the post-Soviet wars, such as the resettling of the Kartvelian (Mingrelian and Georgian) refugees who fled or were expelled as the Abkhazian war ended. Many have endured wretched conditions in various places in Georgia since 1993: those housed for years in a dilapidated city-centre hotel in Tbilisi were cleared to allow real-estate development, and those living in a part of Tsqneti (lying above Tbilisi) were reportedly displaced again when the land was given by Saakashvili to his ally-rival and former speaker of the Georgian parliament, Nino Burdzhanadze (also touted in the west as a possible replacement for Saakashvili if and when his western backers tire of him).
One reason for the neglect and/or maltreatment the refugees have suffered under the regimes of Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili is a further insight into Georgia's testing politics: most of them are Mingrelians, which makes them fellow members of the Kartvelian language-family but also kept at a distance by many Georgians (even though many, such as Zviad Gamsakhurdia, have been or become Georgian super-patriots). But this is also a possible key to diplomatic, political - and economic - progress: for if a viable peace can be established in an independent Abkhazia, there will be a greater likelihood that at last many of these hard-working people will be able to restart their lives in Abkhazia.
The days after the short, bitter war have been fraught; the period ahead will contain many dangers. A third flawed post-Soviet Georgian leader has brought disaster on his country. The west's foolhardy reinforcement of nationalist vainglory has helped lead Georgia into another crisis, one that only Georgians can resolve. Meanwhile, the South Ossetians and Abkhazians - whatever Mikheil Saakashvili, or indeed General Mazniashvili, might say - have other plans. The world should listen to them.
When Pervez Musharraf launched into a litany
of his achievements in his farewell speech to the nation as Pakistan's president on
18 August 2008, he was probably unaware that he was speaking almost exactly
twenty years after General Zia ul-Haq's plane fell mysteriously out of the sky
over southern Punjab. In his address, Musharraf remained defiant to the last:
lambasting the elected government for its mishandling of governance over the
last few months, while taking credit for the improvements he claimed had taken
place during his nine years in power.
Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:
Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)
Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)
Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)
Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's peril" (19 July 2007)
Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)
Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)
Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan: the power of the gun" (7 November 2007)
Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)
Kanishk Tharoor, "Benazir murdered: what next?" (27 December 2007)
Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)
Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)
Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)
Over the years, as Musharraf was deemed to be indispensable by the west, his self-confidence hardened into arrogance, and then into megalomania. This transformation burst forth into public view on 9 March 2007, when he suspended Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry from his post of chief justice of the country's supreme court. Pakistan's most senior judge had been annoying the general by issuing a series of independent judgments that had embarrassed the government. As Musharraf was about to seek re-election, he wanted to remove any legal and constitutional hurdles Iftikhar Chaudhry was likely to erect.
There was a problem. Musharraf had become accustomed to getting his way by virtue of the power he had accumulated since he ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999; so he was ill-prepared for the chief justice's refusal to resign. In a fit of rage, Musharraf suspended him, triggering a nationwide movement spearheaded by lawyers, and supported by a wide spectrum of civil society and political parties. Throughout summer 2007, the protests mounted, with demands for Iftikhar Chaudhry's reinstatement uniting and energising the opposition, while resonating deeply among ordinary Pakistanis.
Musharraf's popularity plunged, but he responded in
characteristic fashion: by embracing his power even more tightly. On 3
November, he declared a state of emergency, sacked nearly sixty judges from the
supreme court and the four provincial high courts, simultaneously promising to
step down as the army chief, thus clearing the decks for his re-election for
another five years.
By this time, he had become virtually isolated politically, standing alone except for his jerry-built coalition of a breakaway faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (known as the "Q" league or the "king's party"), and the ethnic Karachi-based MQM. Ever since he had seized power, he had gone out of his way to malign both the centrist Nawaz Sharif and his mainstream Muslim League, and the left-of-centre Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto.
Musharraf's army-staffed National Accountability Bureau pursued a
number of court cases against Ms Bhutto and her husband in Pakistan and abroad.
Nawaz Sharif was convicted of hijacking Musharraf's aircraft in 1999, a charge
that carried the death penalty, and exiled to Saudi Arabia. Benazir Bhutto went
into exile, while her husband Asif Ali Zardari, served eight years in jail,
although no case was ever proved against him; soon after her return to Pakistan, she was assassinated on 27 December 2007.
A lost leader
Musharraf's repression of the PPP and the PML in part ensured that the elections of 2002 saw the emergence of religious parties as a parliamentary force for the first time in Pakistan's patchy electoral history. Allegedly, the elections had been rigged by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to reduce the number of seats the opposition parties won. Although the PPP won the largest number of votes, Musharraf's allies were able to cobble together a majority in the national assembly, and in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab. In Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), both provinces bordering Afghanistan, the Islamic parties enjoyed their first taste of power.
Meanwhile, the events of 9/11 had produced a remarkable change of fortunes for Musharraf and for Pakistan. After testing its nuclear devices in 1998 following Indian tests, Pakistan was subjected to a crippling round of sanctions. The rupee plunged and the economy went into freefall. The situation was exacerbated when Musharraf launched his Kargil misadventure in spring 1999. When he launched his coup later that year, he and Pakistan were virtual pariahs on the international stage.
The situation was abruptly transformed when Musharraf made his famous post-9/11 u-turn. Publicly abandoning the Taliban, an ISI creation, he handed over a wide range of military facilities to the western allies that attacked Afghanistan for harbouring Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida. Suddenly, Musharraf became the darling of the west. Debts were written off; billions in military and economic aid were committed; and Pakistan became a frontline state in the "war against terror". Crucially, Musharraf pledged to reform the madrasas that had produced the leadership of the Taliban, and were churning out thousands of young Pakistanis capable only of reciting the Qur'an. Many of them became footsoldiers in the many militant groups that had sprung up during Zia's eleven years in power.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, Musharraf could talk the talk, but could never quite bring himself to walk the walk. Since his early days in power when he appeared in a famous photograph with a pet dog in his arms, together with his wife and sari-clad mother, Pakistan's secular liberals had hopes that he would arrest the country's slide into fundamentalism. Indeed, by removing Nawaz Sharif, he had ended the Punjabi prime minister's plan to enact the fifteenth amendment to the constitution that would have replaced the existing, British-era legal code with the sharia. In this proposed law, Nawaz Sharif would have been given the caliphate-era title of Amir-ul-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful).
Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan
Among Irfan Husain's articles in openDemocracy:
"Pervez Musharraf's desperate gamble" (5 November 2007)
"Pakistan's multi-faceted crisis" (12 November 2007)
"Pakistan: a question of legitimacy" (26 November 2007)
"Pakistan: the election and after" (10 December 2007)
"Benazir Bhutto: the politics of murder" (28 December 2007)
"Pakistan: a post-election scenario" (11 January 2008)
"Pakistan's critical moment" (11 February 2008)
"Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)
"Pakistan's tough inheritance" (18 March 2008)
"Pakistan's rivalrous coalition" (19 May 2008)
"China and the Olympics: a view from Pakistan" (8 August 2008)
Soon, as he became more and more dependent on the Islamic parties for political support, he distanced himself from his stated secular values; his dogs disappeared from public view; and when the mullahs announced that they would not accept state interference in their madrasas, Musharraf backed down. But as the Americans bombed Afghanistan and then invaded Iraq, Musharraf's support for their actions turned the Islamic parties and much of the rest of Pakistan against him.
A last look
Even as his security services scooped up al-Qaida operatives and handed them over to the Americans, they allowed the Taliban to use Pakistan's remote tribal areas as staging areas and training-camps. This dichotomy was rooted in the Pakistan military's conviction that a stable Afghanistan allied with India would be a strategic nightmare. Thus, although it moved around 80,000 troops to the Afghan border, the bulk of its resources continue to face eastwards. Musharraf and his colleagues continue to believe that given their political compulsions, western forces will withdraw sooner rather than later from Afghanistan. At that point, according to their calculations, they will have their Taliban proxies in place.
This blinkered strategic outlook has blinded them to the danger the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters pose to Pakistan. Over the last year, groups of tribal militants, now united under the banner of the Pakistani Taliban, have been encroaching steadily across the tribal areas as well as the settled areas of the NWFP. The real question is how a post-Musharraf army will cooperate with an elected government in tackling this growing menace. While Musharraf used the threat to squeeze more money out of the Americans, the coalition government sees the peril of Talibanisation very clearly for what it is: an existential threat to the country.
There are signs that the army has had enough. Not only has its new chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, refused to take sides politically, it is acting increasingly firmly against the tribal militias. The recent fighting in Swat to quell the Islamic rebellion there has caused a large number of militant casualties. The biggest task for the coalition government is to convince ordinary people that they are not fighting "America's war", but are struggling for their own country's survival. This is something Pervez Musharraf could never do as he was not convinced himself.
In his last speech, one of the claims Musharraf made was that he had improved the law-and-order situation. As Pakistan's security forces fight a civil war in the tribal areas, as well as an insurgency in Balochistan, I wonder if he reflected on the irony of his words. But a commando to the last, introspection and irony were never his strong suits.
The Russian soldiers are not the worst. They have won their victory, and now hang about Georgia mopping up. Much more terrible are the civilians and volunteers who come behind the soldiers, the big-bellied men with guns, knives and army jackets thrown over their T-shirts. They are doing the murdering, the looting and burning, the "cleansing" as they drive the last Georgians out of South Ossetia.
"Even God will not be able to save this
country!" fumed the supreme court of India days before the
nation turned sixty-one on 15 August 2008. A sentiment that millions of Indians would
spring to agree with. Like citizens of other healthy democracies, Indians have
been persistently critical of the establishment, the rebels and everything in
between. The rapid changes that the ancient culture has seen since the economic
liberalisation of the 1990s have also exacerbated this urge to lament, even among
the devoted who worship the new India, the emerging superpower.
Antara Dev Sen is founder editor of The Little Magazine, an independent publication on social concerns, cultural issues and South Asian literature published from Delhi. She is a columnist with The Week magazine, the newspapers Asian Age and DNA and the Bengali magazine Ek Din Live, among other publications. Sen has earlier worked as a senior editor with The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express. She lives in Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also by Antara Dev Sen in openDemocracy:
"India's benign earthquake" (20 May 2004)
"The wrong America" (13 August 2004)
"India's tsunami" (13 January 2005)
Because as we pursue beautiful new goals with the enthusiasm of new love, our unsolved problems lie untended, festering in the corners they have been swept into, spilling into our picture-postcard new India. We sweep them back hastily, violently, offended by the sullying of our prettified world. And return to our new passions, grooming ourselves for new conquests, much like a tomcat before the prowl.
This contented calm is shattered when the emerging superpower is rocked by a string of terrorist attacks, like the recent bomb blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad (on 25-26 July) and Jaipur (on 13 May). Or when corruption becomes painfully visible, as when vast amounts of cash, apparently used to bribe MPs, were brandished in parliament during the trust vote. We are horrified, of course. But not because it's unimaginable. It's not the content of either message that appals us, but the form.
Indians know terrorism. But we are still shocked by the cold-blooded efficiency of the multi-city serial blasts culminating in an attack on a hospital, killing the injured as well as those tending to them. Specifically targeting doctors and nurses and the wounded in serial blasts marks a new low in planned mass murders even for India, which has seen three decades of terrorism.
Similarly, Indians know corruption. We take it for granted in every sphere, especially in politics. To get things done, to get your file to move, to claim your constitutional right, you very often need to grease palms. The system delivers. So while you bow respectfully to the honest politician, to get your work done you may wish to go to the dishonest one. No, the accusation of corruption is not shocking in itself. Of course there may have been MPs on either side of the motion of trust who were persuaded to switch by less than noble means. Wouldn't be the first time. But the spectacular flourish of currency notes pouring out of a big fat bag and being waved at the speaker by agitated members of parliament was undoubtedly a first. The event was instantly broadcast live to millions by practically every national television channel.
A recent report of Transparency International India reveals that India's poorest, those living below the poverty line, paid almost $215,000,000 in bribes over just three months to access basic public services like the police, healthcare, electricity and public distribution of affordable food grains. The fleecing of the most vulnerable does not horrify us. Like terrorism, we have learnt to live with corruption.
So when respectable politicians and other Indians start pontificating gravely about shame and disgrace and brand the cash-for-votes spectacle as the darkest day for Indian democracy, I am rather embarrassed. Yes, we were all mortified by what happened in parliament on 22 July 2008. But it was only a preposterously crude performance to highlight something we have known for ages: that there is corruption in politics. Even if the accusation was true (and we have no proof to that effect yet, leading many to believe that it was staged) it would not shock the nation. We are used to far worse.
The fear that kills
Like the way we use the threat of terrorism to trample on human rights. How we slide into paranoia, stifling democratic freedoms and celebrating brutal laws. After every terrorist attack, like the recent blasts in Ahmedabad, there are demands for new, repressive anti-terrorism laws. But what would these new laws do that our present bunch of pitiless laws cannot? The UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) or the Special Security Acts in individual states give the police and the army enormous powers to torture, confine and control any citizen in the name of security.Among openDemocracy's articles on Indian politics and democracy:
Rajeev Bhargava, "Words save lives: India, the BJP and the constitution" (2 October 2002)
Rajeev Bhargava, "The political psychology of Hindu nationalism" (5 November 2003)
Rajeev Bhargava, "India's model: faith, secularism and democracy" (3 November 2004)
Meenakshi Ganguly, "India's Dalits: between atrocity and protest" (9 January 2007)
Ajai Sahni, "India and its Maoists: failure and success" (20 March 2007)
Sumantra Bose, "Uttar Pradesh: India's democratic landslip" (29 May 2007)
John Elkington, "India's third liberation" (21 August 2007)
Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure" (11 July 2008)
Ajai Sahni, "India after Ahmedabad's bombs" (29 July 2008)
These laws are used to smother dissent and critical dialogue, or to terrify groups and communities. Many human-rights defenders are being held under the fiercely repressive UAPA. Meanwhile, in the insurgency-affected northeast and Kashmir, the AFSPA allows the army to act with impunity. Atrocities and murders in this region have shocked the nation. And in the name of security from terrorism, the very police force that routinely fails to protect citizens and enthusiastically attacks human rights is given almost unlimited powers. Apart from being amazingly corrupt, the Indian police system is also past its use by date - it has not been upgraded for a democracy and still operates largely under archaic British rules, when the police were not really serving the Indian people but repressing unruly natives prone to rebellion against the Raj. To top it all, the Indian justice system takes forever to deliver.
Meanwhile, new repressive laws are being thought up. Such targeting of civilians, especially human-rights activists, only fuels extremism as saner voices are drowned out by desperate ones that skip dialogue and take to the gun to reclaim control over their lives and regain lost dignity. Anti-terrorism laws are notoriously counterproductive. They do not reduce insurgency but aggravate political alienation. We certainly don't need more disgraceful tools of state repression.
Especially because laws are slaves to our passions and biases. In times of terror, any form of "otherness" - whether community or intellectual differences - is seen as a threat. Fear kills our tolerance for diversity. When we believe we are under attack, we allow assaults on democratic principles that we would never tolerate in times of peace and reason. And fundamentalists play on that fear.
For example, the Jaipur bomb blasts saw a bloodthirsty attempt to punish Bengali Muslims - they were all Bangladeshi terrorists, screamed the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Earlier, after the horrific massacre of Muslims in the sectarian violence of Gujarat in 2002, BJP chief minister Narendra Modi used the Prevention Of Terrorism Act (POTA) to clap hundreds of Muslims in jail. This was indefinite captivity without bail or democratic rights. When the POTA was repealed by the Congress-led coalition government in 2004, several of its repressive clauses were incorporated in the UAPA. But for many, the brutal UAPA is still not enough, they want the truly dreadful POTA back.
These are ineffective, evasive and unjust reactions to a real problem. India has been, after Iraq, the country worst hit by terrorism, with the highest number of civilian deaths and terror attacks after Iraq. Already this year, terrorism has killed about 2,400 people in India. We have faced terrorist violence for almost thirty years. Yet we don't have a proper counter-terrorism agency or network. There is no sharing of information between states and the centre (law and order is a state subject). And we are still waiting for police reforms.
Instead, we have vicious counter-terrorism laws which do not address the socio-political roots of terrorism but merely disallow dissent, cast aside civil rights and make us a ruthless, repressive nation. More than a coarse dramatic gesture about corruption in parliament, it is the persistence of these dehumanising laws that have plunged us into the darkest days of Indian democracy.
Because democracy is not just about votes, it is about one's ability to be heard and recognised as a part of the process that determines one's future. It is about dialogue, dissent, public reasoning, tolerance and the acceptance of differences - physical, communal or intellectual. And it is about social opportunity, justice and access to public services.
Darker than dramatics
While we focus squarely on the sparkling economic giant, the cultural superstar and regional superpower, in the dark margins of our spectacular new India, our problems continue to fester and spill over. We ignore the millions of fellow citizens who cannot access basic healthcare as we fawn over international health tourists. We overlook the hundreds of thousands of farmers trapped in debt and poverty who kill themselves, and brag that India has the world's fourth largest and Asia's top billionaire population. (India has 53 billionaires - four of them among the world's top ten - with $335 billion between them.) As we celebrated India's emergence as an economic superpower last year, hunger and economic desperation forced 25,000 farmers to kill themselves.
And we celebrate woman power by touting a woman president while we do nothing about the enormous socially sanctioned violence against women. Every day, some woman is killed for marrying someone she loves, for being low caste, for being poor, or merely as currency of power in family feuds. And 500,000 Indian girls are killed in the mother's womb each year. This is a country where even sixty years after independence, ruled for years by a woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, women continue to get less food, less healthcare, less education, less opportunity and less of a life.
These are dark moments in our democracy, darker moments than the crude dramatics in parliament.
There are many reasons to be proud of India, both new and old. But unless we look beyond the spotlight and clean up the mess on the unlit margins, we can't really be as proud of India, the world's largest democracy, as we should be.
In the space of a few days, a conflict over a tiny piece of land has sparked an unfolding catastrophe in the Caucasus. At its heart of this catastrophe is great human suffering - a dimension which is not being given its proper weight as too many commentators muse on the geopolitical significance of the conflict.
The exponential growth of the economies of China and India has won for these Asian giants a position of global economic and political prominence. But this process has been accompanied by profound internal discontent, some of which takes violent forms. The respective domestic experiences may be very different, but there are enough commonalities to suggest a lesson for the dominant economic model to which both states now adhere.
The east's far west
Pakistan's prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has entered his fifth month in office since being confirmed by a unanimous vote of confidence in the national assembly on 29 March 2008, four days after taking the oath of office. It has been a short honeymoon: for the euphoria which followed Pakistan's return to democracy, symbolised by the elections of 18 February 2008, has already been ended by mounting economic, political and security crises. The hopes that the electoral defeat of the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) - the party which supported and lent legitimacy to Pervez Musharraf during his near-decade of authoritarian rule as Pakistan's president - would usher in a new era is giving way to a growing sense of foreboding.
Indeed, the change in the political atmosphere since Gilani's appointment was already apparent when he passed the landmark of 100 days in office on 5 July; on that occasion, the PML-Q issued a "white paper" boldly characterising Gilani's performance as "100 days of betrayal". It seemed that one of the few achievements of Pakistan's new democracy was to allow the previously discredited PML-Q and the formerly beleaguered - though still unpopular - President Musharraf to acquired a renewed self-confidence.
To understand these varying political and psychological currents, it is helpful to step back a little and reflect on the historical parallels and problems which contextualise the contemporary scene.
The price of democracy
Pakistan's history has been littered with failed transitions from the rule of (or backed by) the military to rule by politicians. Indeed, analysts and commentators have tended to overestimate the ability of a single election to alter the entrenched power of the military and a political culture which is marked by infighting and opportunism, rather than accommodation and statesmanship.
Among openDemocracy's many articles on
Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)
Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)
Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)
Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's peril" (19 July 2007)
Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)
Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)
Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan: the power of the gun" (7 November 2007)
Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's multi-faceted crisis" (12 November 2007)
Iftikhar H Malik, "Pakistan: misgovernance to meltdown" (19 November 2007)
Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)
Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)
Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)
Irfan Husain, "Benazir Bhutto: the politics of murder" (28 December 2007)
Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)
Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's critical moment" (11 February 2008)
Furhan Iqbal, "Pakistan and violence: memory, shame, and repression" (18 February 2008)
Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008) The pattern of euphoria followed by disillusion which surrounded Benazir Bhutto's first election victory in 1988 has some echoes in Pakistan's situation in 2008. The original joint government leaders - Asif Ali Zardari (Benazir's widower, and leader of her Pakistan's People's Party [PPP]) and Nawaz Sharif (of the PML-N, and like Benazir twice prime minister in the era between the military rule of Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf) - began by showing some effort to learn lessons from the past. But they have not been able to escape disturbing parallels between the 1990s and today: in the collapse of their coalition cabinet on 13 May after just six weeks in office, in the existence of multiple centres of power that work against coherent leadership, and in the way that day-to-day political pressures overwhelm the space for strategic thinking.
There is no easy way to address these problems. But it does seem clear already that in the absence of a concerted effort to strengthen Pakistan's political institutions and restructure civil-military relations, the possibility of future military intervention cannot be ruled out.
The question of political legitimacy and the consolidation of democracy is closely tied to Pakistan's economic predicament. For it is equally clear that Pakistan can only strengthen its economy in the face of external economic storms if it addresses the need to diversify its exports, increase its tax base and reduce its expenditure imbalances. The Gilani government has already been buffeted to the extent that mounting inflation - now running at an annual rate of 13%, far above projections for 2008 - is eclipsing its early achievements (for example, on income support for the poor, higher minimum wages and increased salaries for government officials).
Thus poor Pakistanis are today bearing the brunt of rising food, petroleum and gas prices much as the impact of "structural-adjustment policies" recommended by Pakistan's creditors in the 1990s fell on their shoulders. Then, growing poverty and economic dislocation helped to undermine democracy, and the signs are that even in a very different macroeconomic environment the effects now could be similar.
Pakistan's economy was boosted by a post-9/11 boom, which was always built on less than solid foundations and in any case now seems to have faded. The country faces slowing rates of growth (from 7.2% to 5.5% on current calculations), a rising fiscal deficit and a widening trade gap as it continues to live beyond its means. Moreover, behind these indices are deeper structural problems which must be addressed if democracy in Pakistan is to be strengthened. over the long term. A strategy to this effect would require concerted action to reduce Pakistan's glaring inequalities of income, power and access to public services. Where 10% of the population possess 26.3% of the national income, and the poorest are excluded from any meaningful share, social progress cannot be guaranteed merely by relying on the trickle-down effects from a declining rate of economic growth.
The Islamabad tussle
The government formed after the 18 February election was always going to face difficult problems of political and economic management, given its inheritance and mixed composition. These were not long in coming to a head, as the PML-N decision to quit the cabinet on 13 May included the departure of the experienced finance minister Ishaq Dar. But it is the controversy over the judiciary which marked the last months of Pervez Musharraf's rule - and in particular, the failure of the new government to reach agreement on when and how to restore to office the judges who refused to take the oath demanded of them when Musharraf imposed emergency rule on 3 November 2007 - which has dominated the political scene.
The different approaches to this issue on the part of the PML-N and PPP were visible during the election campaign, though they seemed to have been resolved when the coalition was sealed in the Murree declaration on 9 March. But the timetable to re-instal the judges was not met, and the historic alliance between the two parties was further strained by the PPP's insistence on seeking to resolve the issue as part of a constitutional package rather than by means of a straightforward resolution in the national assembly. The withdrawal of the PML-N from the cabinet that followed has been presented as a mistake by Asif Ali Zardari and some of his close aides; viewed in a longer perspective, it is hardly surprising that these two parties - whose rivalry has lasted for a generation - found it hard to work together.
The rivalry is likely to persist, for many issues large or small are subject to instant partisan interpretation. The rift between the PPP and PML-N has, for example, been further exposed by the security campaign launched on 30 June in the Khyber Agency (about which the PML-N complained that it had not been consulted). The beginnings of a future tussle for influence can also be seen in the key state of Punjab, where Mian Shahbaz Sharif's return to the post of chief minister on 21 June (following a by-election success, though pending confirmation after legal challenges) contrasts with the appointment (with effect from 17 May) of a PPP-leaning governor in the person of Salman Taseer.
Such internecine political disputes both distract attention from more pressing economic and security issues, and prevent the introduction of progressive reforms (such as a new freedom-of-information law, the establishment of promised literacy and health corporations, and the formation of an employment commission). The Yousuf Raza Gilani government also failed to deliver on its promise to have set up a truth-and-reconciliation commission in troubled Balochistan within its first three months in office.
Pervez the ghost
All this is bad news for Pakistan's tussling political parties and for Pakistani democracy - but it, and especially the dispute over the judges, has brought breathing-space for a President Musharraf whose career and reputation looked over at the time of the election in February 2008.
As Pakistan's political and legal crises multiplied in 2007, it seemed that Musharraf's fall would be followed by his impeachment. If that now looks unlikely, so does the prospect of there being sufficient parliamentary support for a constitutional package designed to remove the president's power to dissolve the assembly and remove the prime minister.
Musharraf's continued presence may overshadow the political parties he long repressed, but it is reassuring for western powers - principally Pakistan's chief ally the United States - which have become increasingly alarmed by the impact of cross-border infiltration from Pakistan into southern Afghanistan. Washington delivered a number of messages in July 2008 that it was prepared to deploy its forces in "hot-pursuit" operations across the border into Pakistan and to undertake unilateral action against militant strongholds in the tribal areas.
Such a step would be vigorously opposed within Pakistan, where the casualties inflicted on civilians and Pakistan's security personnel by wayward US targeting is already a source of anger. It would also squeeze the new government even further. Gilani's cabinet has extended the policy of seeking peace deals with militant groups - introduced when Shaukat Aziz was prime minister, with the Miramshah agreement in Waziristan in September 2006. It remains highly unpopular among Pakistan's western allies, as well as beset by problems of implementation.
The growing concerns within Pakistan of a creeping "Talibanisation" - from the tribal agencies to the settled areas - have led to military action in Swat and the Khyber Agency. The persistent fighting between the Pakistani army and Taliban militants in Swat has claimed the lives of dozens on both sides, as well as civilians). Against this, the situation in Malakand improved after the banned Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) renounced militancy, following the release of its leader Maulana Sufi Mohammed on 21 April 2008 after six years in detention. Though even here, Sufi Mohammed's son-in-law Fazlullah - who led the TNSM leadership in the older man's absence - has promised to continue the struggle.
A neighbourly fallout
The sense of an ominous opening to the new democratic era is compounded by the way that the tensions between India and Pakistan have actually seemed to worsen, in a number of ways:
* the already stalled "composite dialogue" between the two states have not progressed in the wake of Pakistan's elections as had been hoped
* a number of internal developments within Indian-administered Kashmir culminated in the introduction of direct rule and the resumption of firing along the "line of control" (LoC), breaking a 2003 ceasefire; there were four exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistani troops in July 2008, and India alleged that Pakistani forces had actually twice breached the line
* New Delhi more or less openly accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of responsibility for the bombing of its embassy in Kabul on 7 July 2008 - a charge reinforced by United States intelligence agencies on the basis of electronic interception (see "Pakistan Aided Attack in Kabul, U.S. Officials Say", New York Times, 1 August 2008)
* the political controversy inside India over its nuclear agreement with the United States, whose chances of ratification were improved by the Indian parliamentary vote on 22 July, has highlighted the unresolved nuclear rivalry between the two states.
All this has had the effect of signalling that the improved relations of the 2002-07 period are not irreversible. The successive bilateral meetings of the foreign ministers and prime ministers of India and Pakistan on 31 July and 2 August 2008 on the margins of a south Asian regional summit in Sri Lanka - the most senior encounter between the sides since April 2007 - is notable in this context, though the results of Gilani's promise to investigate concerns over the Kabul bombing remain to be seen.
At a time of mounting domestic crisis, Pakistan thus faces the uneasy prospect of deteriorating relations both with its main ally and with its inescapable neighbour. It is hardly surprising that Yousuf Raza Gilani's first four months in office are an occasion for accumulating worries and stern criticism. After the short honeymoon, Pakistani democracy is again in trouble.
The restoration of a semblance of normalcy in
key parts of Iraq, the Nouri al-Maliki government's new assertiveness and a
growing clamour for a timetable for the withdrawal of United States troops all
demand a reassessment of the US's military "surge" policy and a fresh look at
Iraq's future. The questions are interlinked and pressing:
* did the surge succeed?
* has the al-Maliki government really been successful in restoring law and order?
* are political conflicts on the way to resolution, via legislation and provincial elections?
* what would happen if US forces began to withdraw after January 2009?
R Hiltermann is deputy programme
director in the middle east and north Africa division
of the International Crisis Group. He is the author of A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the
Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge University
Also by Joost R Hiltermann in openDemocracy:
"Halabja: the politics of memory" (14 March 2008)The cautious conclusion must be that while significant progress has been made on the security front, it has not been matched by progress on the political front. Without political accommodation at the top, the gains wrought by the surge are likely to prove unsustainable. To understand this requires in turn a closer and more nuanced look at Iraq's current security situation and political dynamics.
The Iraqi inheritance
The basic challenge Iraq faced after April 2003 was how to fill the political, security and managerial vacuums which the US's had created when it removed the regime, disbanded the army and other security forces, and decapitated the bureaucracy through blanket de-Ba'athification. The seed and fruit of these policies - reality-blinding triumphalism, misdirected policies, endemic administrative dysfunction and crippling corruption - conspired to thwart the aim of the US and the successive Iraqi governments it helped instal in the effort to stabilise the country. Iraq spun out of control. Deep-seated ethnic and sectarian differences were allowed to come to the fore and set the tone of the political debate, prompting a descent into violence and chaos.
The military surge begun in early 2007 was designed to fight the symptoms (that is, to dampen the sectarian war) and, if
successful on the military front, generate a new opportunity to tackle the
original challenge of recreating the Iraqi state. Thanks in large part to
unanticipated salutary developments triggered by the US's re-commitment to Iraq
- evident from the insertion of extra troops at a time when the US public was
calling for withdrawal - the surge made a significant difference.
The most violent actors, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi army (MA), were either pushed back or forced to change their posture. Sunni Arab "awakening" councils - which had cautiously emerged a few months before the surge but found critical protection only once it got underway - succeeded in driving AQI out of Anbar and Baghdad. AQI remains active in Diyala but is on the defensive; and, having learned its lesson, it melted away in Ninewa ahead of a combined US-Iraqi government assault earlier in 2008. Its fighters are biding their time; they may join legitimate structures if these open up to them or rejoin the insurgency if and when Arab leaders determine they have failed in their bid to reinvest in state structures.Among the many articles on the politics of Iraq in openDemocracy:
Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)
Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)
Fred Halliday, "Looking back on Saddam Hussein" (7 January 2004)
Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (8 May 2007)
Tareq Y Ismael, "The ghost of Saddam Hussein" (30 January 2007)
Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)
Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)
Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (19 March 2008)
Reidar Visser, "Basra's second battle decoded" (31 March 2008
The Mahdi army has gone to ground as well. The al-Sadr movement, unlike AQI, has popular support (among Shi'a); its main rival is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The MA has no interest in a military confrontation with combined US/Iraqi forces that would decimate its ranks and thus could only serve ISCI's interests. It knows the Americans will leave eventually, and al-Sadr expects at that point to have the strongest force: capable of prevailing over ISCI, practiced in guerrilla tactics, experienced in popular action, and ensconced in the security apparatus. Muqtada al-Sadr's political cleverness can be seen in the way he kept in place a unilateral ceasefire in the face of ISCI-inspired provocations, and facilitated government forces' entry into neighbourhoods the MA controlled by allowing them to take over his movement's offices in Basra, Baghdad and Amara.
The Nouri al-Maliki government has been the
main short-term beneficiary of al-Sadr's clear-eyed strategy not to elicit violent
confrontation but wait out the storm. The citizenry of once-turbulent districts
could breathe a sigh of relief; al-Maliki was able to project himself as a
non-sectarian leader (even though his Dawa party is intrinsically sectarian);
and he convinced the US that at present there is no viable alternative to his
The three-way options
The drop in violence is significant; but the current relative security is both fragile and (even more important) not sustainable unless it is buttressed by a set of basic accords that cut across the ethnic, sectarian and political divide. In approaching such a project, however, fundamental questions remain unresolved:
* how much power should regions have vis-à-vis the federal government?
* should new regions be allowed; if so, how and how many?
* who has the right to manage the country's oilfields? How will revenues be shared?
If agreement is found on these issues, it would lay the basis for rebuilding a non-sectarian state apparatus and its security forces.
The current immobility derives from a number of factors:
* the conflict over Kirkuk, which has contaminated other main issues (such as the debate over the oil law and the constitutional review)
* a lack of trust between the principal stakeholders, who could only find accommodation if pushed to do so by outside actors
* the weakness of the George W Bush administration, which cannot muster any bold initiatives at this late stage
* the spoiler role Iran plays as long as it feels under military threat from Israel and the US over its nuclear activities. Iran has serious strategic interests in Iraq - that it be friendly but weak, without weapons of mass destruction, and relatively coherent. The bottom line is that there will not be substantive progress in Iraq without Iran's green light and active participation.
In this uncertainty, politics is deadlocked while the actors themselves are in flux. Between now and the end of 2009, elections in the United States, Iran and Iraq promise to bring changes, possibly with dramatic impact:
* a new US president might reach out to Iran and offer to engage in meaningful negotiations on a range of concerns
* a new Iranian president might reciprocate, and this alone could lead to a lessening of tensions throughout the middle east
* the provincial elections in Iraq could spawn a new generation of local leaders less beholden to the unpopular former exiles who have ruled Baghdad since 2003, untarnished by the record of corruption and overall poor governance of the Nouri al-Maliki government and its provincial representatives, more in touch with the needs of their constituents, more nationalist and thus protective of the country's unity, and potentially therefore enjoying a great deal more legitimacy than the current local leadership. There could be further effects: some local leaders could start graduating to national office via parliamentary elections that should take place before the end of 2009.
Such developments would lead to further progress inside Iraq, and in the region.
True, the reverse of these three developments could happen instead:
* a new US president could continue the George W Bush administration's hawkish approach toward Iran
* the Iranian leadership would respond in kind, or serious negotiations between the two sides could falter over unbridgeable differences
* Iraq's ruling parties could perpetuate their power at the local level by rigging elections or pushing out their competitors.
Such developments would be fatal for stability, in both Iraq and the region.
An American choice
Amid these imponderables, the fundamental questions in 2009 will be:
* whether and how fast a new US president will withdraw American forces from Iraq
* whether this will occur in the context of a new US-Iran understanding or unremitting rivalry
* what the impact of this change will be on Iraq and the region.
The first possible option, an indefinite deployment of US troops in Iraq, would be opposed by Iraqi nationalism, a potent force that has been underestimated repeatedly (and at great cost to the liberators/occupiers). While the ruling parties need US troops for protection and training, a majority of the Iraqi people would rather see them go. This popular feeling means that Iraqi government leaders cannot afford not to sound nationalistic; hence al-Maliki's call for a timetable as part of a status-of-forces agreement with the US.
The second possible option is a major drawdown of US troops, occurring in the absence of key political deals and without viable Iraqi security forces supported by a unified state structure ready to replace them. This could trigger a return to violent conflict between a number of actors; encourage centrifugal forces; and, in the worst-case scenario, drive the country to chaos and break-up. Large swathes of Iraq would fall under foreign influence: in Baghdad and the south (Iran), in the Kurdistan region (Turkey), in the Sunni Arab areas on Iraq's various borders (Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria).
There is unlikely to be a neat division between these spheres, however, nor settled boundaries; instead the prospect will be one of endemic conflict that could suck in local actors' external sponsors and bring them into direct confrontation. In such a scenario, the US would keep sufficient forces on hand (special forces and air support) to intervene in conflicts when needed and protect its strategic interests through a divide-and-rule approach. The situation would be highly unstable, with the potential for regional war.
The third possible option is a gradual drawdown of US forces, with clear benchmarks and some kind of defined time-horizon. This outcome would far the most preferable. It would require above all a new US initiative to bring rival groups together and, with an appropriate package of incentives and sanctions, induce them to make compromises on power, resources and territory in order to forge a new national compact.
In its reporting, the International Crisis Group has suggested what an overall compromise might look like. It would have to involve some concessions by the Kurds on territory they claim, especially Kirkuk, in exchange for the right to manage oil resources in the Kurdish region; there would have to be agreement also on an asymmetric federal structure that recognises the Kurdistan region but decentralises power in the rest of Iraq along governorate boundaries. These deals would need to be reflected in the constitution, currently under review.
It is highly unlikely, however, that Iraqi groups would agree to such compromises, or even negotiate them in an official forum; it is significant here that current discussions have excluded some key stakeholders, such as leaders of the "awakening" councils and the so-called Sons of Iraq amalgam of groups, who are predominantly Sunni Arabs. This heightened approach would require a increased role for such recognised multilateral actors as the United Nations; and equally important, some basic consensus of, coordination with, and active input from all of Iraq's neighbours. This latter requirement cannot be fulfilled as long as US-Iranian hostility endures.
The conclusion is also a dilemma. If accommodation between Iran and the United States that is sufficient to reach an understanding of shared interests in Iraq proves impossible, should the US nonetheless withdraw its forces from Iraq - knowing that in doing so it will bequeath to Iraq and the region a legacy of chaos? In turn, this will force the question whether for the US the harm from having an over-stressed and over-extended military and a reputation at an all-time low internationally exceeds any damage to its strategic interests in the Persian Gulf.
The arrest in Belgrade of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader in the war of 1992-95, is both welcome and surprising news. The circumstances and timing also provide some hopeful indications that it - and the trial that will follow - will become an important moment over the longer term, in helping to lift the burden of the past that still weighs so heavily on the peoples of the region.
Dejan Djokic is lecturer in history at Goldsmiths College,
London. He was
formerly lecturer in Serbian and Croatian studies at the University of Nottingham.
He is the editor of Yugoslavism:
Histories of a Failed Idea (C Hurst, 2003 and University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and author of Elusive
Compromise: A History of Interwar
(C Hurst, 2007)
Also by Dejan Djokic on openDemocracy:
"Serbia: one year after the October revolution" (17 October 2001)
"A farewell to Yugoslavia" (10 April 2002)
"Serbia: monarchy and national identity" (30 May 2002)
"Ex-Yu rock" (6 August 2002)
"Serbian presidential elections" (17 September 2002)
"A conflict of loyalties: 1999 and 2003" (6 March 2003)
"The assassination of Zoran Djindjic" (13 March 2003)
"A democracy of suspicion" (27 May 2008)
That the news which arrived on the evening of 21 July 2008 should be welcomed needs little further elaboration. Karadzic was the figurehead of a Bosnian Serb breakaway statelet (the Republika Srpska) within Bosnia-Herzegovina, which itself broke away from Yugoslavia in 1992 - contrary to the wishes of most of its Serbs, who formed around one-third of the republic's population. The "wars of Yugoslav succession" were bloody, but nowhere more so than in Bosnia and nowhere in Bosnia more than in areas controlled by Bosnian Serbs. The ethnic cleansing and massacres of eastern Bosnian Muslims and the shelling of Sarajevo in the first half of the 1990s were among the final dark chapters of Europe's violent century.
Together with general Ratko Mladic - the Bosnian Serb military commander still at large - Karadzic is alleged to have been responsible for some of the worst crimes committed in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. His likely trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague will in principle mean both that justice will be served, and that further light will be shed on the regional and international dimensions of the Bosnian war. It may even lead to Mladic, if he is not arrested before the start of the trial, himself being captured.
Karadzic's arrest, after he had spent nearly thirteen years in hiding, comes as a surprise for at least two reasons. First, of the three remaining war-crimes suspects (the other is the Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic, who is generally considered a minor player), Mladic seemed the most likely to be arrested first, certainly before Karadzic. While Karadzic was believed to be concealed somewhere in the mountains of eastern Herzegovina and Montenegro, possibly in a remote Serbian monastery, it was widely assumed that Mladic was in Serbia, shielded by renegade elements of the Serbian security and military forces.
Second, it was Mladic's arrest that was demanded of Belgrade if Serbia was to move closer to European Union membership. The arrest on 11 June 2008 of the former Bosnian Serb police commander Stojan Zupljanin, and his extradition to The Hague, was seen as a sign that the circle around Mladic was closing. So, the news that Karadzic was arrested - allegedly in or near Belgrade itself, where he had apparently been working in disguise as a practitioner of alternative medicine - comes as a surprise even to those who follow Serbian politics closely.
Those who believed that Karadzic would never be caught might have been less confident had they known how close the fugitive was to those charged with finding him. The news of his location and new "occupation" in Belgrade was revealed at a press conference on 22 July hosted by Rasim Ljajic, president of the national council for cooperation with The Hague tribunal, and Vladimir Vukcevic, the chief war-crimes prosecutor. They reported that he used the pseudonym "Dragan Dabic", while the photo presented by Ljajic underlined the change in appearance: Karadzic looked notably thinner, was bespectacled, and wore long white hair and a long beard. His real identity was apparently not recognised even by his colleagues and patients, and allegedly "Dragan Dabic" even published articles and gave several public lectures on healthy living and alternative medicine.
A fresh politics
What most initial reactions to the arrest have failed to acknowledge is the context in which the arrest took place and the likely implications for Serbia and the region. Karadzic was comprehended only three weeks after the formation of a new Serbian government led by Mirko Cvetkovic - a coalition between president Boris Tadic's Democratic Party, several smaller democratic and ethnic-minority parties and the Socialists (the party founded by the late president Slobodan Milosevic). The interior ministry went to Ivica Dacic, Milosevic's successor as party leader, who also became the deputy premier.
Tadic was scorned for this alliance - more in Serbia and the region than in the west, where there was a sense of relief that the Socialists (rather than the Serbian Radical Party [SRS] and the Democratic Party of Serbia [DSS] of former prime minister Vojislav Kostunica) tipped the balance in favour of the Democrats. Tadic's critics feared in particular that Dacic's appointment as interior minister would mean that the Socialists would take control of the intelligence services, rehabilitate Milosevic and essentially return the country to the dark days of the last decade. Yet, Karadzic's arrest and its timing confirm that Serbia's president is far shrewder a politician than he is often given credit for. This fact should already have been more widely acknowledged, given that Tadic has defeated the Radicals at several "historic" elections since 2004.
Also in openDemocracy
on transnational justice after the wars of ex-Yugoslavia:
William Schabas, "The enigma of the International Criminal Court's success" (17 February 2006)
Anthony Dworkin, "The Hague tribunal after Milosevic" (14 March 2006)
Martin Shaw, "The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)
Nick Grono, "The International Criminal Court: success or failure?" (9 June 2008)
Alex de Waal, "Sudan and the International Criminal Court: a guide to the controversy" (14 July 2008)
Victor Peskin, "The Omar al-Bashir indictment: the ICC and the Darfur crisis" (15 July 2008)
Marlies Glasius, "What is global justice and who is it for? The ICC's first five years" (21 July 2008)
Eric Gordy, "Radovan Karadzic: the politics of an arrest" (22 July 2008) Moreover, Tadic appears to have eliminated the nationalist, conservative democrat Vojislav Kostunica as a serious political rival - thus trumping the many past accusations that he gave in too easily to Kostunica's demands. Kostunica had for years refused to apprehend either Karadzic or Mladic, claiming that they were not in Serbia; Tadic, who no doubt played a central part in Karadzic's arrest, has now shown the former prime minister how it could have been done. For his part, Kostunica will be now at pains to explain how was it possible for the new government to arrest Karadzic only weeks after its inauguration.
In addition, Tadic has deftly gained advantage over Ivica Dacic, and placed him in a delicate position: by staying inside the government the Socialist leader and deputy prime minister would thus accept the new course, by resigning he would lose the position of power that only a few weeks ago appeared permanently beyond his party's reach. Either response carries the risk that Dacic will lose credibility among his constituency. It is significant here that Karadzic was arrested not by the police - nominally under the control of Dacic - but by the secret services.
The arrest took place only days after Sasa Vukadinovic was appointed the new head of Serbian intelligence services. Vukadinovic is an uncompromising young police inspector from southern Serbia, believed to be close to president Tadic. He came to prominence after the assassination in 2003 of Zoran Djindjic, Tadic's predecessor as the Democrats' leader, masterminding arrests of members of one of the major mafia clans in the country. Significantly, Vukadinovic had never worked for the secret services before and is thus not associated with the organisation which has seemingly remained immune to political changes in the country.
The dramatic event of 21 July therefore is likely to have wide implications. The arrest of Karadzic and the reform of the intelligence services it reflects are both long overdue, and could be followed by the arrest of Ratko Mladic in the near future. In all this, Boris Tadic may finally succeed where Djindjic failed - or was prevented from succeeding by his assassination. This would be good news for the Serbian president, but even more for Serbia and for the region, which should now move closer to the European Union and become more attractive to foreign investment. The main remaining obstacle for Serbia gaining a candidate-country status is its inability or refusal so far fully to cooperate with The Hague. The tribunal's new chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, is due to visit Belgrade on 23 July and his report will undoubtedly be positive.
A turned page
It must not be forgotten that Karadzic's arrest will be welcomed first and foremost by the families of victims of his policies. If - or probably when - his guilt is proven, they would feel that justice was served, even though their loss will never be compensated.
In any event, the whole region is now a significant step closer to getting rid of some of the past's burden. The news of Karadzic's arrest has overshadowed the death on the same day of two figures from Yugoslavia's turbulent history, who embodied radically different ideologies: Adil Zulfikarpasic, a Bosniak businessman and politician, and once a member of the pro-Yugoslav "Democratic Alternative" émigré group; and Dinko Sakic, commander of the notorious Croatian concentration-camp at Jasenovac, where during the second world war tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-Ustasha Croats were murdered.
The lives of these personalities were also entwined, in that Zulfikarpasic was nearly killed by the Ustashas in the early 1940s. Half a century later he tried in vain to strike a deal with Karadzic and Milosevic in order to avoid war in Bosnia, and in the process fell out with Alija Izetbegovic, the first president of Bosnia. Yet in a larger frame Zulfikarpasic's most significant contribution and legacy may well lie elsewhere, in the founding of a large library in Sarajevo that would serve as a research institute devoted to the study of Bosnia's culture and history. History that both Dinko Sakic and Radovan Karadzic, in their own ways and in different historical contexts, once tried to erase.
The news that Radovan Karadzic had been arrested came suddenly late in the evening of 21 July 2008. The known facts surrounding the detention remain meagre, even after the Serbian government press conference in Belgrade the following morning. It appears that he was arrested in the early evening; that the arrest took place in Belgrade itself, where Karadzic had been working in disguise as a practitioner of alternative medicine; and that the operation was conducted (as a statement by Serbia's national-security council was quick to attest) by "Serbian security forces". There also appears to have been some conflict over how the arrest was carried out and over who should be accorded (and be able to disown) responsibility: Serbia's interior ministry, now under the control of the party that sponsored and financed Karadzic during his rise to power and throughout the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1992-95, rushed to issue a statement declaring that its forces were not involved.
Is it already too late for the "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a "one-state solution" the realistic as well as alluring alternative, where the energies of those committed to a peaceful outcome should be invested?
Tony Klug is a special advisor on the
middle east to the Oxford
Research Group. He is the author of How peace broke out in the Middle East: a short history
of the future (Fabian Society,
Also by Tony Klug in openDemocracy:
"The West Bank and Gaza Strip: an international protectorate?" (7 May 2003)
"Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out" (5 June 2007)
This article will also be published in the forthcoming edition of the Palestine-Israel Journal
It may be apocryphal but it still says a lot. An inner-cabinet group of Clement Attlee's post-1945 Labour government was discussing whether, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Britain should develop its own nuclear weapons. Why not instead rely merely on close cooperation with the United States? The ebullient foreign secretary and former trade unionist, Ernest Bevin, was emphatic: "I don't care what sort of bomb it is, as long as it has a bloody Union Jack on top of it" (see Brian Cathcart, "Britain and the atomic bomb", 5 August 2005).
A suicide car-bombing in front of the Indian embassy in Kabul on the morning of 7 July 2008 killed at least fifty-four persons and wounded more than 140. The blast also destroyed cars and shops outside the building. It seems that the suicide-bomber launched the attack after trailing two embassy vehicles as they were entering the premises. The highly guarded embassy is located on a busy street in central Kabul near Afghanistan's interior ministry.
The dead included four Indian nationals: the military attaché Brigadier R Mehta, press counselor V Venkat Rao, and two Indian paramilitary troopers (Ajai Pathania and Roop Singh) guarding the embassy.
A statement from Afghanistan's interior ministry said that the suicide-attack was carried out in coordination with "a regional intelligence service" - clearly hinting at the involvement of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The establishment in Pakistan, and the Taliban / al- Qaida "combine" in that country, have always opposed India's role in the reconstruction of a war-ravaged Afghanistan; as a result, the awareness of threat at the Kabul embassy, and in relation to India's many Indian developmental projects in Afghanistan, has always been high.
Since 2002, the Taliban has demanded the departure of all Indian personnel working on various projects with the Afghan people and government for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country. There are approximately 3,000-4,000 Indian nationals working on several such projects across Afghanistan. India has committed aid to Afghanistan in the 2002-09 period amounting to $750 million, making it the fifth largest bilateral donor after the United States, Britain, Japan and Germany.
Kanchan Lakshman is a research fellow in the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. He is also assistant editor of the journal Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution
A longer version of this article appears in the South Asia Intelligence Review
These projects and personnel have offered the Taliban a rich array of choices in attempting to prosecute its demand for Indian withdrawal. It has conducted multiple attacks against Indian targets. Many of these have been concentrated in the southwest province of Nimroz (which is at the heart of the strategic Zarang-Delaram highway project being built under the auspices of the the Indian army's Border Roads Organisation (BRO). They include the abduction and murder of Ramankutty Maniyappan, an employee of BRO in November 2005; the killing of two soldiers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) on 3 January 2008 in the first-ever suicide-attack on Indians in Afghanistan; and the killing of another ITBP trooper on 5 June 2008.
The vulnerability of India's initiaitves and presence in Afghanistan - and now, evidently, Kabul itself - is part of the increasing susceptibility of the Afghan capital to terrorist operations. The embassy attack is part of a pattern here that includes (on 27 April 2008) an assault on an annual military parade about to be addressed by President Hamid Karzai, which killed a legislator and two other Afghans.
This in turn reflects the augmenting violence in Afghanistan as a whole (see Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: state of siege", 10 July 2008). More United States and Nato troops were killed in June 2008 than in any other month since military operations began in the aftermath of 9/11. The monthly total, forty-five, for the first time exceeded coalition fatalities in Iraq. This distressing trend includes a rise in civilian deaths too; a report by John Holmes, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, states that the number of documented civilian deaths in the first six months of 2008 (698 in all) represents an increase of 62% compared with the same period in 2007. The UN "blamed the actions of US, NATO and Afghan Government forces for 255 deaths and anti-occupation insurgents for 422."
The jihadi prospect
Afghanistan's struggle to overcome those seeking a restoration of Taliban rule is expected to be a long haul, much more than what was imagined even in 2007. Major-General David Rodriguez, head of the US-led coalition force, suggested in February 2008 that it will take "a few years" to defeat the Taliban-led insurgency. But the idea that the forty-nation International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and parallel US military deployments can ultimately be successful is being increasingly questioned - and Pakistan is at the heart of the doubts.
Also on India's security issues in openDemocracy: Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, "Delhi's bombs: landscape of jihad in south Asia" (2 November 2005)
Ajai Sahni, "India and its Maoists: failure and success" (20 March 2007)
Suhas Chakma, "India's war with itself" (2 April 2007)
Animesh Roul, "Al-Qaida in India" (15 August 2007)
Ajay Sahni, "India: states of insecurity" (28 November 2007)
Meenakshi Ganguly, "India and Burma: time to choose" (14 January 2008)
Manjushree Thapa, "India in its Nepali backyard" (2 May 2008)
The dangers of anarchy within Afghanistan and across areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are predominantly sourced in Pakistan, to a far greater extent than in the debilitated state of Afghanistan itself. Nato has said that successive peace deals between the Pakistan government and the Taliban have - as a result of "decreased activity by the Pakistani army on the Pakistan side of the border" - led to increased violence within Afghanistan.
The Taliban / al-Qaida combine has evidently regrouped rather well, particularly in the rural Afghan provinces dominated by the Pashtuns along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Islamabad has evidently allowed militant elements to regroup on Pakistani territory and to launch attacks across the border. Despite selective military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), there is no indication that Pakistan intends to cut the Taliban's lifeline on its soil.
Indeed, two groups of local Taliban - the Mullah Nazir group of South Waziristan and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group of North Waziristan - reportedly reached agreement on 30 June 2008 to join forces and fight against the Nato troops in Afghanistan. Their spokesman, Mufti Abu Haroon, disclosed that the Taliban militants would go to Afghanistan to fight Nato troops under the command of Hafiz Gul Bahadur.
Pakistan's deals with the militants and other strategic inconsistencies have amplified the already extensive insecurity in Afghanistan. Pakistan's own multiple internal convulsions notwithstanding, its capacities for power-projection into Afghanistan have not been significantly undermined, and it remains the case that it shares strategic goals with the Taliban in this theatre.
For his part, Hamid Karzai in some desperation has threatened to send Afghan troops across the border to fight Taliban militants within Pakistan. In accusing Pakistan of sheltering most of the militants involved in recent incidents in the Garmser district of Helmand province, he told a press conference on 15 June 2008, that Afghanistan had the right to self-defence; since militants cross over from Pakistan "to come and kill Afghans and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to do the same."
Meanwhile, after the Kabul embassy bomb India's ministry of external affairs reiterated New Delhi's determination to continue to support Afghanistan's development, and stated that "(such) acts of terror will not deter us from fulfilling our commitments to the government and people of Afghanistan." Afghan foreign minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, declared further: "India and Afghanistan have a deep relationship between each other. Such attacks of the enemy will not harm our relations."
It is evident that the Taliban / al-Qaida combine and the transnational jihadi groups based within Pakistan remain the principal instruments of Islamabad's response to India's deepening cooperation with Afghanistan; at the same time, ISI-supported terrorist groups remain Pakistan's principal tool of policy-projection in the Indian province of Jammu & Kashmir. Despite the country's rising internal difficulties and contradictions, the Pakistani inner establishment's deep engagement with Islamist extremism and terrorism is far from over.
On 7 July 2008 a suicide-bomber detonated a large car-bomb at the gates of the Indian embassy in Kabul, killing fifty-four people and injuring more than 140. The embassy stands in one of the most secure parts of Afghanistan's capital, yet this did not protect it from what security forces described as the worst bombing in the city since the termination of the Taliban regime in November 2001. Taliban sources denied that the movement was responsible, while Afghan sources implied (albeit without supporting evidence) a Pakistani intelligence connection. The high death-toll is in part attributable to the fact that many people were queuing at the embassy at the time; this may be a factor too in the Taliban reaction, for it has been a regular practice of the group to deny responsibility for attacks where large numbers of civilians are killed.
The architects of the "war on terror" in the George W Bush administration will soon be leaving office. But the four months until the United States presidential election on 4 November 2008 could be momentous. In Iraq and Iran, what happens in the next four months - or does not happen - will shape events in the next four years and even beyond (see "Washington's choice: subdue Iran, secure Iraq", 12 June 2008).
The Svetliachok cafe has seen better times.
The blue-and-red canvas cover has been torn from its awning, scattering in its
wake sweet-wrappers and napkins. They lie in puddles around the cafe entrance
amid the continuing drizzle. It is a miserable scene. But people in the town of
Gali, near the Georgian border in eastern Abkhazia, have more than rain and
repair to worry about. For the debris represents the work not of the weather
but of a bomb.
Nikolaj Nielsen has just completed a masters
degree in journalism and media. He is a former editorial intern at terrorism.
openDemocracy. His work has been published in New Internationalist and Pambazuka News.
The journey south here from Abkhazia's capital Sukhum (Sukhumi), an hour by pot-holed road, is a minor lesson in the intractability of the conflict that has kept Abkhazia in limbo since the small Black Sea region wrested itself from Georgia's control in the war of 1992-93. The traffic we passed en route to the Georgian border was sparse: the occasional United Nations vehicle, a dilapidated red bus, three Russian MC trucks, and several dozen cows - all heading the other way towards. Everywhere, shelled-out homes from the war were a constant reminder that - the faded evidence of Sukhum's former resort status (and even a few Russian tourists) notwithstanding - Abkhazia is a conflict-zone.
For the fifteen years since they established a fragile autonomy after decades as part of Georgia and the Soviet Union, the Abkhazians have been struggling for recognition as an independent state. "It's about our identity, security, dignity, healing wounds, and being able to interact on a equal basis", says Liana Kvarchelia, deputy director for the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes in Sukhum says. Abkhazians' deep desire to be seen as a distinct people with the right to determine their own future is, however, viewed with outright opposition by Georgia, suspicion by the international community, and scepticism even by Abkhazia's main protector and ally, Russia. Also on openDemocracy:
Andrew Mueller, "Abkhazian futures" (23 August 2005),
Thomas de Waal, "Abkhazia's dream of freedom" (10 May 2006),
George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006),
Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007),
Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007),
Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008),
Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008),
Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008).
Amid political isolation and constant insecurity, the Abkhazians have managed to establish an elected government and a nascent civil society. But they have been forced increasingly to rely on Russia, in a relationship they concede is often ambivalent. Their primary concern, as long as a return to war with Georgia remains the main threat, is security. When that is guaranteed, the rest will follow, or so they hope.
Before leaving Sukhum, I call Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister to get an assessment of the situation in Gali to find that the area has been declared an emergency-zone after the bomb explosion late on the previous evening killed four people and injured six. Natella Akaba, chair of the Association of Women of Abkhazia, advises me not to travel. But no one it seems has told the guards at a succession of Russian military checkpoints, and we arrive in the centre of Gali where - against the background of a Soviet-era mural depicting white doves and a cosmonaut - two investigators are picking through debris in the blast-site.
A single checkered white-and-red ribbon, tied to the pine trees that surround the tiny Svetliachok cafe, cordons off the area where on 6 July 2008 four people died: Jansukh Muratia, the acting head of Abkhaz security in the Gali district; Sukhran Gumba, an Abkhaz border officer; Anzor Lagvilala, a United Nations translator; and Iveta Toria, a local resident. It was another episode in a deteriorating situation that had already seen four bombs explode in Gagra and Sukhum on 29-30 June, injuring twelve people. For the Abkhazians, the situation is clear. "This is a specific action made by Georgian special agents. Their goal is to show that Abkhazian and Russian peacekeepers cannot control the situation", said Rusland Kishmaria, special representative of the Abkhaz president in Gali region.
Most local residents refuse to talk to a curious stranger. But further away from the scene, one - a Georgian who fled Gali in the war, only to return in 1997 - tells me: "You can see what life is like here. So long as the Russians are here, our lives will not change. The Russians are satisfied with an unstable situation. There is a lot of tension. If something happens we can't rely on either the Russians or the Abkhazians. We can only rely on ourselves."
A few hours later, back in Sukhum, Abkhazia's defence minister Mirab Kishmaira looks nervous as he refuses point-blank to comment on the bombings. The words are defiant: "We are prepared to face the Georgian soldiers anywhere, anytime. As soon as we get the word, we'll start military operations." Kishmaira has seen war in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as his own country, and has no desire to see blood. But when asked if military operations could ever resolve the current conflict, he says: "I wish that Abkhazia will be recognised in a beautiful way and that we can become a model for other countries."
For the Abkhazians, it was and remains a zero-sum conflict: independence or nothing. Whoever planted the bombs in Gali is accentuating the choice.
As the Muslim Council of Britain marks its first decade, it seems an appropriate moment for reflection. As the country's largest Muslim umbrella body, it still remains the "first among equals" in relation to an increasingly large alphabet-soup of representative institutions. The British Muslim Forum, the Sufi Council of Britain and British Muslims for Secular Democracy have all emerged in the three years since 7/7, alongside a profusion of Muslim commentators and other bodies that seek to reflect the government's "rebalancing" in 2006 of its relationship with Muslim communities to emphasise counter-terrorist imperatives.
It was a cruel contrast. On Wednesday, Londoners rejoiced at the news that the city had won its bid to host the Olympic games in 2012. Thursday’s front pages were given over to scenes of jubilation. But as those editions reached the newsstands, London was already a darker, grimmer place, as a series of coordinated explosions ripped through its transport network.
It used to be peaceful here. The border of Chechnya and Ingushetia marked the line between war and peace. Crossing this line, returning from war to peace, you sighed every time: "Now everything will be fine. It's safe here..." Of course, there's poverty, dirt, corruption, but people don't get killed, shot or kidnapped here. There it's part of everyday life
The possibility of a war involving Iran has been raised on several occasions since 2004. The likely trigger has moved between Iran's nuclear ambitions and claims of its interference in Iraq; the likely instigator has been variously seen as the United States and Israel - though it has been argued too that radical elements within Iran's Revolutionary Guards might provoke a confrontation with the American "great satan" to rebuild their own status within Iran's power-structure.
The image of Syria and Israel as inveterate enemies made the revelation on 21 May 2008 that the two states had been conducting negotiations for the past year - with Turkey acting as intermediary - all the more surprising. The news serves to refocus attention too on Syria itself, more often subject by foreign observers to broad-brush characterisation than close observation that attends to the country's internal complexities. Whether or not the talks with Israel develop into something substantial, the world needs to know more about Syria. This article is a modest contribution to that end.
The flow of rumour, speculation and argument about negotiations between Syria and Israel has oscillated over many years and around many occasions. Even at times of the highest tensions, close observers of the region would be able to make a sure bet that some kind of channel (as informal or as indirect as it may be) between these adversaries remained open. This makes the most recent revelation of intermediated peace talks between Syria and Israel, on 21 May 2008, less surprising than the often breathless reportage and commentary that accompanies the news suggests. The question, now that an expectant world has had time to digest the story, is whether this phase represents a new beginning or merely a rehashing of old constellations and positions.
Carsten Wieland is the author of the book Syria - Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant (Seattle, Cune Press, 2006), published in Europe as Syria at Bay: Secularism, Islamism, and "Pax Americana" (C Hurst, 2006)
Also by Carsten Wieland in openDemocracy:
"Syria's quagmire, al-Assad's tunnel" (9 November 2006)
"The Syrian conundrum" (16 April 2007)
A first inspection might favour scepticism. It is difficult to imagine a new take on such issues as the Golan heights, security guarantees, or demanding that Syria renounce terrorism. After all, previous negotiations have addressed these issues in the form of a demilitarised zone in the Golan and the creation of a natural park, and even clear borders between the two states.
Moreover, a deal between Syria and Israel was within close reach in the January 2000 negotiations in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. United States participants testified that Syria's then president, Hafez al-Assad, had made exceptionally far-reaching concessions in security issues and in matters of normalising relations (involving, for example, diplomatic exchange and trading across open borders). But his counterpart, prime minister Ehud Barak sensed growing opposition among the Israeli population to the return of the Golan heights to Syria. Barak retreated from compromise on this crucial issue and on a commitment to a complete withdrawal to the borders of 4 June 1967. Syria saw this as a betrayal. These negotiations were a missed opportunity.
In Geneva in March 2000, the then US president Bill Clinton made an attempt on Barak's behalf to persuade the terminally ill Hafez al-Assad to surrender land east of Lake Galilee that had - according to the international borders of 1923 - belonged to Syria before 1967 (and in which the Syrian leader had reputedly splashed around as a child. Al-Assad remained unbending in what proved to be the last big decision of his life. He refused to take part in any further discussions and in a rage flew back to Damascus where he died on 10 June 2000.
The difficulties then notwithstanding, peace talks and possible compromises looked more plausible in 2000 than they do today, when the circumstances of any negotiations are far more difficult. Even a few years ago - say, before the 2003 war in Iraq (after which Syria drifted further away from the orbit of western politics) or as recently as before the Hizbollah-Israel war in Lebanon in summer 2006, the respective states' positions did not seem as entrenched as in 2008.
Also on Syria and the region in openDemocracy:
Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005)
Hazem Saghieh, "Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)
Anoushka Marashlian, "Syria cracks down on dissent" (19 June 2006)
Abigail Fielding-Smith, "Out of cold peace" (13 September 2006)
Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)
Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008)
Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)
A change in the weather
In the intervening period, seven developments have occurred which make a rapprochement look more remote than before:
* Any Israeli government will have a harder time now selling to its voters the idea of giving up another stretch of occupied land, after parts of the country have experienced relentless shelling from the Gaza strip after Israel's withdrawal in August 2005. The strength of Hizbollah on the northern border after the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000 - exemplified in the 2006 war - further contributes to induce a sense of insecurity in the Israeli public
* Israel's negotiations with authorities in the Palestinian territories as a whole are much more difficult after the intra-Palestinian split between Fatah and Hamas. Indeed, on both sides, insecurity and unpredictability rule the agenda
* Both the Israeli and the Syrian governments are, for different reasons, at present relatively weak and threatened by domestic adversaries. But peace talks need strong governments that can fulfil their promises and persuade their people to accept tough decisions
* After the war in Iraq, Syria has increasingly drifted towards making alliances with anti-western actors such as Iran, and even Venezuela and North Korea. This is mainly due to a lack of foreign-policy alternatives after isolationist measures from the United States and its allies - fuelled by Washington's manichean "war on terror" and by the European Union's disillusionment with Syrian politics
* To ask Syria to cut its links with Iran and Hizbollah is an even harder demand after Hizbollah's demonstration of force against its domestic adversaries in May 2008, which enabled it to acquire an increased veto-capacity within Lebanon's delicate political fabric (see Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state", 21 May 2008). In addition, Syria's oil reserves are fading, while Iraq, Iran and Venezuela's strong resources have increased their own strategic importance
* The post-2006 political developments in Lebanon have encouraged Syria partially to regain its lost grip on its close neighbour, with the help of Hizbollah. However, whereas Syria was the main actor in this relationship during the Hafez al-Assad era, the roles now have changed: Syria seems to need Hizbollah more than Hizbollah needs Syria
* In contrast to 2000, the Israel-Syria talks are not sponsored by the United States. Moreover, they are taking place in counterposition to the foreign-policy concept of George W Bush, who insists on ignoring and isolating "rogue states" on the extended "axis of evil" instead of engaging them. Indeed, Israel has turned more pragmatic than its most important ally.
An unsettled climate
These seven developments offer solid reasons for pessimism. Yet the present situation is less wholly bleak than dialectical - requiring careful inspection to locate the kinds of initiative that could genuinely shift matters forward. Two points in particular (at first sight contradictory) can be made here: peace efforts in the region can only become stable and sustainable if an overall solution is found that includes all actors in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon, since they are so interrelated; yet it is an advantage that the Syrian and the Palestinian portfolios have been separated.
In May 2003, Hazez al-Assad's son and successor Bashar al-Assad promised to accept any decision by the Palestinian leadership in peace negotiations with Israel. Until then, Syria had always officially insisted on co-representing the Palestinians, though in the January 2000 peace negotiations with Israel in West Virginia, Hafez al-Assad had already secretly signalled that he would accept a peace settlement even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had not been satisfactorily resolved.
This strategy of pragmatism concerning the Palestinian issue could help to break the vicious circle. However, the Syrian political analyst Samir Altaqi said in an interview in November 2003: "Syria is not able to make any further concessions (in the Palestinian issue) ... This would harm the regime's identity." Altaqi himself is now said to be part of the negotiation team with Israel.
Bashar al-Assad signalled his readiness to hold talks with Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war; he has repeated his offer several times since (most prominently at the end of 2003, and despite the continuation of the second Palestinian intifada). He is said to have sent his younger brother Maher al-Assad to Amman for secret negotiations with Israeli representatives.
As tensions and hopes run high, every incident, no matter how minute, is subject to worldwide public scrutiny. This was certainly true of the first handshake between a Syrian and an Israeli president, which took place at the funeral of Pope John Paul II on 9 April 2005, in Rome. When speculation arose, the Syrians hastened to clarify that this gesture between Bashar al-Assad and Iranian-born Moshe Katzav was nothing but "a formality".
In Israel, especially within the intelligence community and within moderate political camps, there have been more voices calling for serious negotiations with Syria, though with no preconditions. Syria had always insisted on resuming negotiations at the point where the two sides had broken off in March 2000. Under these conditions, Syria would regain the entire Golan heights in line with the borders of 1967.
At the end of 2003, Bashar al-Assad surprisingly dropped this condition - which was based on a promise from the assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin - thus placing Israel in a temporary predicament. Bashar directed his strategy toward Washington in order to demonstrate his goodwill and avert pressure on Syria. He has reaffirmed his readiness to negotiate without preconditions several times, as in the speech to parliament in Damascus on 5 March 2005, when he announced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
The Syrian minister of expatriates, Buthaina Shaaban, insisted in an interview in 2004 that "Syria would be prepared to resume peace negotiations today if only the United States would induce Israel to negotiate." But Washington has not been interested, she continued, because it wants to hold on to arguments for putting pressure on Syria in the "war on terrorism." Until now, Israel has had no major interest in peace negotiations because it would rather wait and see how much US pressure is softening up Syria, which would strengthen the Israeli position in negotiations over the Golan heights.
However, after the overt failure of the Bush administration's policy in the middle east (and beyond), Israel has wisely decided to go its own way. Above all, it is both in Israel's and even in the US's interest not to undermine a stable regime in the neighbourhood (which is a reversal of the widespread regime-change rhetoric after the invasion into Iraq). A toppling of Bashar al-Assad and his clique in Damascus could result in an outcome that is even worse from the perspective of Israel's national interest. Despite all, the Ba'ath regime is still a secular player with a strong record of pragmatism in crucial issues, as well as a history of stern opposition to Islamist militants.
A crescent in the sky
It will not be easy to follow up the failed negotiations of 2000 when a "normalisation" of relations was part of the package. A step-by-step approach focusing on security guarantees and terrorism issues first seems more likely, if at all. Maybe it is not even so bad that the United States does not play an active role in the rapprochement this time, but has acceded its place to a regional actor: Turkey. Washington and Europe's efforts have failed in the past; now there is a first opportunity for a purely regional constellation to be given a chance.
Turkey is respected by Israel because of its long-term membership of Nato, and as a traditional US ally. More recently, Turkey has gained respect among Arabs and Muslims in the region because it is the only country in which democracy and Islam have combined in a fruitful relationship. The ruling AKP's foreign policy has focused on rekindling Turkey's relationships with neighbouring states, above all Syria. Turkey serves as a model for moderate and for even more conservative Islamic opposition movements in the region's (mostly secular) dictatorships.
This political and strategic constellation is a novelty. It may also become the foundation of an integral approach in this battered region - and at least be given a chance to do so. By the time the United States has its new president in January 2009, a new momentum and new confidence-building ideas may just come from this direction also. If the constellation survives intact over the next critical period, the Syria-Israel talks may become more than a footnote to history. But it is a big "if".