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September 10, 2008
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This week I take a look at the conflict in the Caucuses which has been one of the lead news stories over the summer._
Events in the Caucuses went further towards straining relations between the West and Russia this summer. The potential for conflict in the region has been brewing over the past year, with personal relations between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Mickael Saakishvilli being widely reported as particularly acrimonious.
Two versions of the conflict have been presented in the media, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev giving interviews to Western journalists urging the public to ‘remember who started this war’. From the Russian point of view Saakishvilli is a dangerous Georgian nationalist, who’s rhetoric and subsequent attacks on villages in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were a clear example of attempted ethnic cleansing in the region, which necessitated a movement of Russian ‘peace enforcement’ troops into the region to protect Russian citizens in the regions.
The first point to raise with this version of events is that the one reason for the large presence of Russian citizens in the two regions was that Russia had been in the regions over the past year handing out Russian passports to villagers. This along with Russia’s threat to recognise the regions in response to the recognition by many Western countries of Kosovan independence earlier in the year indicates that the Kremlin may have been preparing for potential conflict, rather than merely responding to events as they arose.
However, even if the Russian response was premeditated, can a military response be justified on the grounds of protecting South Ossetians, or on the grounds of ‘liberating’ them and allowing them independence and self-determination?
There is no doubt that the response of President Saakishvilli in attacking South Ossetia is open to criticism in that there was certainly harm caused to ordinary people in the area. However the Russian military presence clearly went much further in its aims than purely protecting citizens. The Russian military advanced into Georgia ‘proper’, taking the town of Grozny, torching crops and causing widespread damage to housing and civil buildings in a manner inconsistent with fighting purely against Georgian military forces. Also post-conflict the Russian military have begun construction of a number of bases well on the Georgian side of the ‘buffer zone’ set up under the treaty negotiated by President Sarkozy of France.
Again post-conflict Russia recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, a move which was rejected by Western powers as compromising Georgian ‘territorial integrity’. Here the Western view of the argument seems to hit problems in that governments were at pains to explain that the case of Kosovo, which was recognised by the major EU states and the US, was not a parallel to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But on what basis can we decide which separatist causes have or do not have ‘merit’ to their cause?
The standard definition of a state is as agreed under the 1933 Montevideo Convention, which defines a state as an entity with defined borders and a functioning government with ‘effective control’ over a permanent population. My personal definition of a ‘justified’ state would be one that as closely as possible meets the preferences of the population under its control, in terms of institutions and by not violating any of the natural rights of its citizens. In that sense, given that the citizens of the South Ossetian and Abkhazian regions appear to want independence and even in some cases to have openly hostile views towards the Georgian central government, an independent state or significant regional autonomy may well be justified.
However in the set of circumstances under consideration military intervention is surely not justified, the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had suggested talks on the future of the two regions, which the Russians had rejected. Therefore the only conclusion we can draw is that Russia is not as it has stated seeking to act in the best interests of the South Ossetians, but purely seeking to expand their sphere of political influence among the new nations of its former Empire.