Georgia, Russia, NATO, Serbia, Kosovo - Cycles of Violence
I missed out on some otherwise excellent conversation about the Georgia-Russia conflict because I was in the middle of settling down in my new home, but I wanted to take a few minutes to weigh in on some issues related to American foreign policy, perceptions of Russia and perceived Russian imperialism, and the impact on the current presidential race. I couldn't agree more with John's diary on the matter, but I wanted to flesh out some of the political issues that are currently important to the region, as well as discuss some historical parallels that may be uncomfortable to revisit, but are nonetheless instructive.
Part of this is motivated by a roundtable discussion I attended this week on this very issue: the panel included historians, political scientists, and former NATO advisers. The most controversial statement was made by a political scientist who has lived and worked in Georgia, and who has no hesitation in comparing the current situation in Georgia to the Serbian conflict - although I disagree on some of the specifics and implications, which I'll note below.
Georgia and Serbia - some background:
The parallel is easy enough to make, especially since both movements (Serbian and Georgian nationalism) began taking their current shape around the same time, in the 1980s. Faced with a clearly weakening empire in the perestroika years, ethnic groups formerly yoked by Soviet (read: Russian) imperial government began asserting themselves and testing their relative strength within the shifting power structures. In the former Yugoslavia the ethnic majority Serbs resurrected a radical nationalism, with a hotheaded politician by the name of Milošević leading the way. Likewise a parallel movement in Georgia under anti-communist crusader Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was later elected Georgia's first president.
The problem in both cases was that opposition to Russian imperialism and a vision of (finally!) national self-determination came coupled with a view of ethnic homogeneity that bordered on radical cleansing. Though much has been made of the Russian "citizens" living within the current borders of Georgia, the real problem was with centuries-old ethnic enclaves that have always held tenuous relationships with each other, including north and south Abkhazia and Ossetia. As in Serbia, the battle between ethnic groups that have held land claims stretching over a century makes the notion of arbitration seem, well, arbitrary. But whatever the case, both Georgia and Serbia began instituting policies to assert specifically Georgian and Serbian dominance within regions that were hardly homogeneous. In Serbia, for example, the government not only eliminated Kosovo's political autonomy, but fired university professors and took control of local cultural institutions in an area that was undoubtedly majority Kosovar.
Here's where the chicken-egg part of the conflict in Georgia begins: this dynamic of an assertive majority ethnic group living in an area with distinct minority ethnic enclaves meant that it was only a matter of time before tensions boiled over into violence. But it's hard (and a little futile) to wonder which happened first: did the minority groups, fearing retaliation by their majority Georgian neighbors, seek protection from the not-yet-dissolved Soviet Union as their only hope for fair treatment? or the did the majority group, attempting to create a new and independent nation, find their strategy hampered by minority groups openly supporting the former Soviet power?
Either way, violence broke out long before 2008. It's estimated that the Georgian military killed some thousands of Ossetians (hardly a large enclave to being with), while areas like Abkhazia violently expelled ethnic Georgians living within its borders, etc., etc. To prevent further losses of life, Russian peacekeeping troops were allowed in Georgia in 1994. Keep this in mind: the Russian military force was already in place as a buffer to ethnic conflict in the area over a decade before the current mess.
And now a he-said/she-said of international politics: were the Russians supporting open revolt against the national Georgian regime by encouraging self-determination by minority enclaves (as the Georgians assert), or were the Russian forces necessary for keeping ethnic tensions from turning into violent civil war, if not genocide (as the ethnic minorities assert)?
Here the Serbian parallel is both instructive and a little inexact: when Milošević began asserting ethnic dominance in the new state of Serbia (and specifically in Kosovo, an ethnic enclave of a million in the minority), the situation in the former Yugoslavia had already deteriorated far more than what was happening in the Caucuses. NATO's decision to intervene in Kosovo was spurred by one specific event, namely the genocide in Srebrenica. This genocide (committed by Serbs) had taken place in Bosnia while a hapless UN found itself unable to manage the conflict - the intimations toward similar violence in Serbia itself convinced NATO to intervene, regardless of admittedly violent retaliatory tactics by Kosovars against the Serbs.
So keep that in mind, too: when violence in Serbia bubbled over dangerously, the West allowed itself to intervene. Though no one likes to ascribe less-than-imperialistic motivations to the Russian government (and with good reason), the fact that this violence took place along their own borders, while their peacekeepers were already installed in the area, should somewhat mitigate the snap judgment of Russia's actions as inherently aggressive.
If nothing else, this history of the conflict should help debunk the claim, as the WSJ's Ronald Asmus ludicrously argued , that "this is a conflict Moscow planned, prepared for and provoked -- a trap Tbilisi unfortunately walked into." I'd find that editorial laughable, except that it's clearly an attempt to shape the debate rather than reflect on it. As such, it's a pretty dangerous piece of writing. Asmus is a NATO hawk, and we need to address the issue of NATO presence in the Caucuses:
Russia and NATO - a larger context
Russia has a long history in the Caucuses, and most of that history is about as sordid as you'd expect. A good parallel might be the attitude Americans have towards, say, New Mexico, and the expected reaction we'd have if New Mexico declared independence. In Russian culture, the Caucuses are the Wild West - a highly romanticized region of wild terrain and adventure - but also a place where the imperial claims have always been the weakest because of strong native ethnic presence. If the Navajo declared New Mexico their sovereign territory, we'd have a situation not unlike Russia's with Georgia. Certainly the Navajo have strong historical claims to the region (as well as legitimate fears re: American imperialism), but in the meantime we have to deal with white America's presence there, as well as the substantial Latin population, as well as very strong attitudes toward what "belongs" to the United States. In a word: a mess.
One key part of this puzzle, which is unsurprisingly not mentioned in our usual media discussions of events, is that in the mid-90s NATO worked in direct violation of informal promises made to the Russian government. Though one American statesman argues (note the careful wording) that no formal commitment was made, the perception that Russia had been given assurances that NATO would expand neither its membership nor its charter has been held not only by Russian politicians, but by Americans as well .
And it's no surprise that Russia considers NATO a threat, given that NATO's whole existence is predicated on military unity against Russia. Now consider a series of events in the last year: the agreement to install missile defense networks in the Czech Republic and Poland (which borders Russia), the invitations to Georgia and Ukraine (both on the Russian border) to begin talks with NATO; NATO military activities in Afghanistan, another sore area in Russian military history - not to mention a giant leap from their original charter - etc.
But there's another twist: oil pipelines that run through Georgia. One of the participants at the roundtable argues that the issue here isn't oil per se - much shorter and more efficient pipelines were possible through the south, and the actual amount of oil transmitted through the pipes has little or no effect on American energy needs - but the decision to run pipelines through Georgia was essentially political. As one scholar put it, the Clinton administration had adopted a strategy of "tightening a geopolitical belt around Russia."
None of this suggests that fears of Russian imperialistic goals are unfounded - but if anything's clear from the last 10 years of NATO and Eastern Europe, it's that the United States has pursued a strategy of what we might call "passive aggression": challenges to Russian influence and power that were indirect rather than blunt.
And regardless of who we elect president, that's unlikely to change.
Some takeaway points:
- The United States doesn't care about Georgia (McCain's stupid comments notwithstanding). At best we consider Georgia a good strategic outpost, but NATO will not intervene in any military form on Russia's doorstep. Both Obama and Palin are playing with voter expectations, not political realities.
- Russia does care about Georgia and certainly nurses an imperial itch, but the media suggestion that this represented an unprovoked invasion is not just oversimplified, but outright wrong.
- Though it's easy to lay a great deal of blame at Bush's bungled foreign policy - and that blame is much deserved - the worst impact on relations in the region were made during the Clinton administration: NATO expansion (geographical and functional) and pipelines in Georgia.
- Что делать? Heck if I know. If the Yugoslavian experience tells us anything, it's that the conflict may have to play itself out unless we want to have peacekeepers installed there for generations. And make no mistake: those peacekeepers will be Russian.
- None of these things make good soundbites for political debates, so expect to hear the same groan-inducing slogans about defending democracy. I have only slightly more faith in Obama here, if only for his insistence on diplomacy and discussion versus McCain's hilariously ignorant saber-rattling. ("We are all Georgians"? God, I hope not.)
- Between this and Afghanistan, we may be watching the slow disintegration of NATO as a functional institution. I'm totally fine with this. Its original charter is long since irrelevant, and its attempts to refashion itself according to new power arrangements have proven rocky at best. Since NATO is also the cornerstone of PNAC, I'm doubly happy to see it sink into irrelevance (and hopefully PNAC will sink with it!)