After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action

Martin Shaw
Martin Shaw
22 September 2008

The war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia on 8-12 August 2008 underlines the fundamental deterioration in the global political situation in the 2000s and the increasingly sharp choices it creates. The argument of this article is that these choices concern citizens as well as political leaders. For if there is one overriding lesson of the war and the ongoing crisis it has provoked, it is the deep flaws - indeed, even more, the recklessness - of political leadership in virtually all the states involved.
Martin Shaw is professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. A historical sociologist of war and global politics, his books include War and Genocide (Polity, 2003), The New Western Way of War (Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). He is editor of the global site

Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy:

"The myth of progressive war" (11 October 2006)

"Genocide: rethinking the concept" (1 February 2007)

"The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

"The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin" (6 March 2007)

"My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (16 March 2008)
Moreover, Georgia is not an isolated collapse - it is a a glaring signal of the general irresponsibility of governments in this era. This in turn highlights the urgent need for a new, broad-based citizens' movement that insists on the peaceful, equitable and democratic solutions which today's rulers are all too ready to cast aside.

The roll-call of recklessness

There is widespread agreement among independent commentators that whatever provocations Georgia experienced from the Russian Federation, Mikheil Saakashvili made a monumental error in attacking South Ossetia. The Georgian president's folly has cost Georgia any chance of recovering the country's two " lost territories" - South Ossetia (the ostensible aim of his attack on that region) and Abkhazia; unleashed the destruction of much Georgian military and economic infrastructure; and, most seriously, led to the annihilation of many Georgian lives, homes and villages in the Russian-occupied zones.

Any reasonable political assessment would regard the name of Mikheil Saakashvili as a by-word for recklessness. Yet for many western (especially US and British) political leaders he remains a hero, a democrat and a desirable ally, the consequences of whose actions - while not to be reversed by military means - should be compensated with reconstruction aid and renewed support for Nato membership.

It is important to recall that Saakashvili's record has proved him to be profoundly undemocratic as well as reckless. The inheritor and beneficiary of the "rose revolution" of 2003-04 had, long before the events of August 2008, become notorious for his burgeoning authoritarian tendencies towards his domestic political opponents.

In this context, the bombardment of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on the night of 7-8 August was fundamentally anti-democratic as well as grossly ill-considered. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with their histories of genocidal violence against Georgians in the wars of the early 1990s, may bear more resemblance to Bosnia's Republika Srpska than to Kosovo (though in the end such Balkan analogies are limited in scope); but this hardly justifies the Georgian government in attempting to resolve the secessions by invasion and bombardment. The status of the regions remains a political question, with deep implications for the security of all ethnic groups; the only democratic ways to resolve them were, and are, through politics, negotiation and law.

Why, in their pilgrimages to Tbilisi, have western politicians been universally silent on these issues? One reason, of course, is the role of the United States in Georgia's opening of this war. Mikheil Saakashvili is a heavily dependent client of Washington; it seems certain that if the US administration had known of his plans and wanted to stop him, it could have. So did it not know (a very surprising failure of intelligence), or did it not want to (a shockingly irresponsible and reckless position)? Or was there a moment equivalent to the mixed message given to Saddam Hussein by April Glaspie, Washington's ambassador to Iraq in 1990, that allowed the Iraqi leader to think he had a green light from the US to invade Kuwait?

Whatever the answer to these questions, the record of the US administration in this crisis is at best grossly incompetent and at worst as irresponsible as that of the Georgian government itself. The subsequent bluster of George W Bush and Dick Cheney can be seen at one level as nothing more than an attempt to cover up this record; at another, however, it is designed to compensate for the disastrous outcome of the crisis. In both stages, they are oblivious of the lesson that Saakashvili's wilfulness demands restraint and caution in their commitment to Georgia rather than showering renewed praise and promises on this unreliable leader.

So the roll-call of recklessness grows. The British political class has made its own contribution in the efforts of Conservative opposition leader David Cameron, so quick to fly to Tbilisi to be pictured shoulder-to-shoulder with the Georgian president; foreign secretary David Miliband, full of pro-Saakashvili and anti-Russian rhetoric; and prime minister Gordon Brown himself, also singing the American tune without a moment of reflection on the failures of Georgian and US policy that opened the way to Russia's aggression.

The wider European record is only a little better. France and Germany were, at the Nato summit in Bucharest in April 2008, instrumental in blocking early Georgian membership of the alliance (which some in Washington, in an attempt to deflect blame, argue gave the green light for the Russian counter-invasion); and they were initially cautious in their response to the crisis.

Nicholas Sarkozy was right to attempt to mediate and secure a ceasefire - although in the context of an urgent situation where Russia had gained an overwhelming advantage, his concession of "additional security measures" provided Moscow with a pretext to justify an extended presence inside Georgia, which it has required a second visit to rectify. But as the full scope of Russian ambitions became apparent, most European leaders - including the French president and Germany's Angela Merkel - fell in with the American line. Something similar happened with Barack Obama, who after a measured early response adapted to what quickly became the general western consensus on Russia's crimes.

Also in openDemocracy on the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 and its implications:

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)

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)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Russia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Mary Kaldor, "Sovereignty, status and the humanitarian perspective" (26 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Paul Gillespie, ""The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war.Russia's crimes

What, then, is the core of the international violations of which Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev stand accused? Western leaders parrot the line that Russia has violated, and is violating, Georgian sovereignty. But to rely on this assertion of sovereignty simply ignores the causes of the present crisis. During its existence as an independent state since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia has never actually possessed sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the military efforts of earlier Georgian leaders to assert sovereignty only resulted in murderous civil wars and genocidal expulsions, especially of Georgians from Abkhazia.

The autonomy of the two regions since 1992-93, and their slow-motion de facto incorporation into the Russian Federation, has hardly been satisfactory, especially for the many refugees who remain in dismal circumstances, unable to return to their original homes. Yet Georgian villagers did manage to live more or less peacefully in South Ossetia before the Georgian army assault on Tskhinvali of 7-8 August. It may be easier for western politicians to think of Russia and Georgia as two sealed sovereign territories but this has never been the situation on the ground. Once Georgia attacked South Ossetia, it would have been very surprising if Russia had not responded militarily to reassert its control and support the Ossetians. This initial aim of the Russian operation was not itself a violation of Georgian sovereignty in any meaningful sense.

Where the question of sovereignty became more serious was in the Russian thrust into Georgia beyond South Ossetia. Here the Russian army occupied (and proceeded to loot and damage) areas that it had always accepted - and continues, according to the ceasefire agreement, to accept - as Georgian sovereign territory.

Yet here the issue is not only (nor, I would argue, primarily) one of sovereignty. The overriding issue is the violence which Russian and South Ossetian forces have committed against Georgian civilians - both inside Ossetia and in Georgia proper. The Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali terrorised civilians, but its aim seems to have been to achieve control over the city rather than to drive out South Ossetians. Thus the Russian propaganda claims of "genocide" involving as many as 2,000 civilian victims, seem to have been disingenuous (and by most accounts grossly exaggerated) attempts to pre-empt criticisms of their own policies; for reporters and human-rights organisations have found evidence of scores rather than hundreds of Ossetian casualties from Georgian bombing.

In the aftermath of Russia's victory, by contrast, militia from South Ossetia and perhaps beyond appear to have been given free rein by Russian commanders (both inside South Ossetia and in the neighbouring, newly Russian-occupied areas of Georgia) to destroy Georgian villages and expel ("ethnically cleanse") their populations. The evidence of these atrocities is continuing to emerge. This genocidal violence against Georgian civilians is the strongest charge against Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

The regional and global context

The crisis draws attention to the increasingly dangerous wider conflict over the future of the post-Soviet region. Moscow has shown it is prepared to launch invasions and licence genocidal violence in order to keep its backyard under control, and the west has failed to condemn its ally who provoked this violence with his own ill-conceived military adventure. The pressures that the crisis has provoked in Ukraine, a bigger country with a much larger political fracture between pro-western and pro-Russian populations, underline still further the irresponsibility of both sides. The danger is not a new cold war of the earlier type, but renewed local conflicts in the post-Soviet states, bringing even wider armed violence against civilians.

This dire new situation highlights the underlying incoherence of western policy towards Russia and the post-Soviet region since the end of the cold war. The United States policy of drawing the newly independent post-Soviet states into its own and Nato's embrace, while containing - and in order to contain - Russia, has blown up in its face. The earlier failure to pursue a more ambitious and consistent post-cold-war policy - providing aid to the impoverished Russian people, supporting Russian democrats and integrating Russia with western-led international institutions - has helped push Russia down the road of national and regional reassertion. The results can be seen in the wrecked towns and villages of Georgia.

Yet the responsibility of US and western leaders is also wider. In the 1990s, western leaders squandered the opportunities genuinely to move towards a "new world order". In the 2000s, George W Bush has led the world backwards towards an era of unabashed great-power politics: not surprisingly, a resurgent Russia and the emergent Chinese superpower are ready to follow his lead. The ready resort to war after 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, showed a disregard for international law and world opinion, and a reckless attitude towards the lives of many innocent civilians - both of which Vladimir Putin and Dmirty Medvedev are now replicating in Georgia.

Moreover, the lassitude allowed to Israel, especially in its bombardment of Lebanon in July-August 2006, has hardly sent a message of moderation to other states. If the west wanted to create a climate in which Russia, China and other regional and local powers would feel restrained from using armed force, they could hardly have set about it in a worse way than the policies pursued in the Bush era.

The consequences of this situation are felt far beyond zones of armed conflict. Wars and threats of war, whether in the Caucasus or the middle east, have a direct impact on global economic instability - not least, by feeding the upward tendency in oil prices. The ensuing atmosphere of international suspicion and conflict inhibits global cooperation to counter the climatic and economic crises, and domestically favours nationalist over socially reformist politics. A world in which the leaders of major states pursue war, or condone the wars of their local clients, is a world in which all the democratic and social achievements of the last half century are at risk.

A new citizens' movement?

What then must be done? Even if this is not a new cold war, some lessons from the old one seem to demand renewed attention. The 1980s began with a peace movement on the streets of western European cities and ended with "velvet revolutions" in the capitals of east-western Europe. These citizens' movements brought together the goals of peace and democracy and helped the leaders of the superpowers to end the cold war. Today there is a need for a new movement that opposes the leaders of the United States, Russia and any other states inclined towards militarist solutions; a movement that will make connections between violations by small powers and by big ones, whether in eastern Europe or in the middle east.

How this should happen is not the subject of this article; but four key principles can be clearly stated.

First, the new citizens' movement needs to demand that political disputes, within or between states, should be solved by political rather than military means.

Second, political disputes concerning territory should recognise the rights of all population groups to remain in areas where they have traditionally lived, and of expelled groups to return.

Third, the people of Europe should speak out for international peace and democratic change against both Moscow and Washington, as they did in the 1980s

Fourth, in the United States, where the end of the Bush-Cheney presidency should have been a moment of hope, opinion needs to be mobilised to ensure that internationally a new administration does not and cannot simply take up where they leave off.

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