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South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy

About the author
Thomas de Waal is a senior associate for the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington. He is the author of The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010). His earlier books include Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (NYU Press, 1999) - with Carlotta Gall; and Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War (NYU Press, 2003)

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.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in London. He is co-author of Chechnya: calamity in the Caucasus (New York, 1998) and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war (New York, 2003).

An earlier version of this article was published in the Observer (10 August 2008); this later version is also published on the IWPR's website (11 August 2008) - as number 452 of its Caucasus Reporting Service articles

Also by Thomas de Waal in openDemocracy:

"The north Caucasus: politics or war?" (7 September 2004)

"Musa Shanib in the Caucasus: a political odyssey" (12 October 2005)

"Abkhazia's dream of freedom" (10 May 2006)

"Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds? " - a debate with Zeyno Baran (2 August 2006)

"Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history" (20 October 2006)

"The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

The epicentre is South Ossetia, which is home to both ethnic Ossetians and Georgians (the latter accounting for about a third of the 70,000 population). The destruction there has been appalling, and it looks as though many hundreds of civilians have died, in the first place as a result of the initial Georgian assault of 7-8 August 2008. Gosha Tselekhayev, an Ossetian interpreter in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali with whom I spoke by telephone on 10 August said: "I am standing in the city centre, but there's no city left."

Ossetians fleeing the conflict-zone talk of Georgian atrocities, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Ethnic Georgian villages inside South Ossetia have also come under fire, and could now face expulsion as Russian forces push south. Their future must be in grave doubt.

Now, in a second wave of violence, Georgians - from Gali in Abkhazia to Gori in the north of the country - are fleeing and dying. Moreover, it was reported on 11 August that Russian troops had entered the town of Senaki in western Georgia from across the border with Abkhazia (after South Ossetia, Georgie's other breakaway territory). The Russians said later that they had left Senaki, but the threat of a widening of the conflict remains.

Behind the explosion

South Ossetia is a tiny and vulnerable place, which before the current outbreak of violence had no more than 75,000 inhabitants in a patchwork of villages and one sleepy provincial town in the foothills of the Caucasus.

The immediate trigger of this conflict both Moscow's and Tbilisi's cynical disregard for the well-being of these people. On 7 August, after days of shooting incidents in the South Ossetian conflict-zone, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia made a speech in which he said that he had given the Georgian villagers orders not to fire, that he wanted to offer South Ossetia "unlimited autonomy" within the Georgian state, with Russia to be a guarantor of the arrangement.

Both sides said they were discussing a meeting the next day to discuss how to defuse the clashes. That evening, however, Saakashvili went for the military option. The Georgian military launched a massive artillery attack on Tskhinvali, followed the next day by a ground assault involving tanks. This against a city with no pure military targets, full of civilians who had been given no warning and were expecting peace talks at any moment.

The attack looked designed to take everybody by surprise - perhaps because much of the Russian leadership was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic games. It also unilaterally destroyed the negotiating and peacekeeping arrangements, under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), that have been in place since December 1992. Russian peacekeeping troops based in South Ossetia were among those killed in the Georgian assault.

The inevitable response was swift. Moscow cares as little about the South Ossetians as it does the Georgians it is bombing, regarding the territory as a pawn in its bid to bring Georgia and its neighbours back into its sphere of influence. It was as recently as 4 August that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov - a relative moderate within the Moscow leadership - had said: "We will do everything possible to prevent the accession of Ukraine and Georgia to Nato."

The ordinary citizens of South Ossetia could feel little confidence either in the government of Eduard Kokoity, which has a reputation for allowing criminality and has engaged in provocative statements and actions towards Tbilisi over much of this summer. It is likely that the de facto authorities in Tskhinvali would long ago have lost power had they not been the rallying-point against Georgia.

Indeed, if politicians on all sides had shown more restraint and wisdom, this conflict could have been avoided.

Over the brink

The conflict's longer-term origin lies in one of the many majority-minority disputes that accompanied the break-up of the Soviet Union. The Ossetians, a divided people with one section living within Russia on the north side of the Caucasus mountains, and the other in Georgia, generally felt more comfortable with Russian rule than as part of the new, post-Soviet Georgian state. A small and nasty war with Tbilisi in 1990-92 led to a declaration of independence, at the cost of 1,000 lives and a huge legacy of bitterness., our collaborative project with, publishes frequent reports on and analyses of the Caucasus. Among them:

Maria Pakhmutova, "Election in Georgia: a view from Russia" (30 May 2008)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Georgia's President Saakashvili, on the eve of war" (11 August 2008)

"pepsikolka", "Georgia: Poti under bombardment" (11 August 2008)
In fact, away from high politics, ethnic relations were never bad. For a decade after South Ossetia's de facto secession from Georgia in 1991, it was a shady backwater and a smugglers' haven. The region was outside Tbilisi's control, but Ossetians and Georgians went back and forth and traded vigorously with one another at an untaxed market in the village of Ergneti.

Then Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in the "rose revolution" of 2003-04, with heady promises to restore his country's lost territories. He closed the Ergneti market in June 2004 and tried to cut South Ossetia off, triggering a summer of violence. In modelling himself on the medieval Georgian king David the Builder, Saakashvili pledged that the country's territorial integrity would be re-established by the end of his presidency.

He sought to tear up the far-from-perfect Russian-framed negotiating framework for South Ossetia, but failed to come up with a viable alternative.

For their part, the Russians raised the stakes and baited Saakashvili - who had quickly become their bête noire - by effecting a "soft annexation" of South Ossetia. Moscow handed out Russian passports to the South Ossetians and installed its officials in government posts there. Russian soldiers, although notionally peacekeepers, have acted as an informal occupying army.

Saakashvili is notoriously volatile, a risk-taker who veers between warmonger and peacemaker, democrat and autocrat. On several occasions international officials have pulled him back from the brink.

During a visit to Washington in 2004, he received a tongue-lashing from then secretary of state Colin Powell, who told him to act with restraint. In May-June 2008, he could have triggered a war with his other breakaway province of Abkhazia by calling for the expulsion of Russian peacekeepers from there, but European diplomats persuaded him to step back. This time, he has stepped over the precipice.

The provocation is real, but the Georgian president is rash to believe that this is a war he can win, or that the west is happy to see it happen.

Both President George W Bush and Senator John McCain - now Republican presidential hopeful - have visited Georgia and made glowing speeches in praise of Saakashvili. But Washington is now caught in a bind: it is supportive of Tbilisi, looking for ways to stop the war, but also keen not to get involved in a conflict with Moscow.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and conflicts:

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 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)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

The reaction across much of Europe - not all - will be much more one of exasperation. Even before this crisis, a number of governments, notably France and Germany, were talking of "Georgia fatigue". Though they broadly wished the Saakashvili government well, they have never bought the line that he was a model democrat. The sight of his riot police tear-gassing protesters in Tbilisi and smashing up an opposition television station in November 2007 dispelled any remaining illusions, even if his subsequent re-election in the presidential vote in January 2008 was recognised.

Moreover, the Europeans have a long agenda of issues to discuss with Russia which they regard as more important than its post-Soviet quarrel with Tbilisi. Paris and Berlin will now say they were right to urge caution on Georgia's Nato ambitions at the April 2008 summit in Bucharest. When the dust settles, there will be angry words with Tbilisi as well as with Moscow. Both Georgia and Russia deserve to be condemned.

In the middle

The main focus of humanitarian concern has now shifted to the territory of Georgia proper, with reports of dozens of civilian casualties from Russian air-raids and a mass flight from the town of Gori, which lies to the south of South Ossetia.

The worry now is that Moscow is using the plight of the Ossetians as cover for its ambitions to overthrow the government of Mikheil Saakashvili. There is almost certainly a debate going on within the Russian leadership about how far to go in Georgia - whether to stop now and claim the moral high ground in South Ossetia, or carry forward its military campaign and effect "regime change" in Tbilisi, ignoring western outrage.

The signs are that the hawks, in the shape of former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin - who has what amounts to a personal feud with Saakashvili - are in charge. Putin reacted angrily to events from Beijing many hours before President Dmitry Medvedev made a public statement. And it was Putin who flew down to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, to coordinate the Russian handling of the crisis and made the ominous comment that the Georgian people would "pass objective judgement on their own leadership".

Abkhazia too is an area of great concern. There are reports that Russia has sent in thousands more troops to the territory, much exceeding the 3,000 peacekeepers it is allowed to keep there under the terms of the 1993 ceasefire agreement.

There are suggestions that Abkhaz and Russian troops are pushing into the upper Kodori gorge, the only area of Abkhazia under Georgian control. There will also be fears for the more than 20,000 ethnic Georgians living in the southern Abkhaz region of Gali who live in a precarious position, caught between Tbilisi and the de facto authorities in Sukhumi.

In diplomatic terms, the real problem in this crisis is that there is no obvious mediator who would be perceived as impartial.

The Russians, who hold a formal mediating role in South Ossetia, are now a party to the conflict. Nato countries on the western flank, and particularly the Americans, are seen as friends of Georgia.

For the conflict to begin to end, all parties must state clearly that this is in the first place a humanitarian tragedy for civilians - both Georgian and Ossetian - and promise impartial help and support for all those who are suffering.

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