There aren't many issues on The Bug Pit's radar that have much political resonance in Washington (or elsewhere), but the Russia-Georgia war is by far the most significant. As someone who had already been following the region for a while before the 2008 war, it was dispiriting to see how, over the few days that that war lasted, how polarizing the issue became. Before the war, there wasn't a conservative or liberal way to see Georgia -- pretty much everyone in the small cohort of people who paid attention to the Caucasus, no matter what their political views, understood that Russia was aggressive, Georgia was reckless, and that could end badly there. But over the short duration of the war, people who had never previously paid attention to the region tried quickly to figure out what was going on, and the easiest way to do that is to make it a partisan issue. So conservatives said Russia started the war, liberals said Georgia started it, and then a couple of weeks after the shooting stopped, everyone more or less stopped thinking about it, and their opinions calcified at that. So when you write about the Georgia war, you expect a little more attention -- people in Washington's ears perk up, and they read to see whether you confirm their bias about what happened, or if you're a warmongering neocon/feckless stooge of the Kremlin.
Rice and Saakashvili at a July 2008 press conference in Tbilisi
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Georgian President Saakashvili alienated potential NATO allies by "letting the Russians provoke him" into starting a war over South Ossetia. That's in her new book where, as with the controversy over Uzbekistan, she portrays herself as the voice of reason, in this case trying to contain the impulsive Saakashvili while also restraining the more bellicose members of her own administration.
She describes a meeting in Tbilisi with Saakashvili before the war broke out:
He's proud and can be impulsive, and we all worried that he might allow Moscow to provoke him to use force. In fact, he himself successfully provoked conflict in another breakaway part of the country, Adjara, and benefited when it had been reintegrated into Georgia through domestic and international pressure. The precedent, we feared, might make him think he could get away with a repeat performance in the territories located closer to Putin's beloved Sochi.
She urged Saakashvili to sign a non-use-of-force agreement, and he refused.
"Mr. President, whatever you do, don't let the Russians provoke you. You remember when President Bush said that Moscow would try to get you to do something stupid. And don't engage Russian military forces. No one will come to your aid, and you will lose," I said sternly.
Here's how she describes the start of the war, the evening of August 7:
Despite Georgia's unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day, South Ossetian rebel forces continued shelling ethnic Georgian villages in and around the capital, Tskhinvali. In response, the Georgian military commenced a heavy military offensive against the rebels..."
Separatist South Ossetia, best known as Russia and Georgia's 2008 battlefield, is undecided about its future. Its November 13 de facto presidential election failed to produce a clear de facto winner, meaning that the territory is headed for a run-off on November 27.
The showdown will be between de-facto Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov, tagged as Moscow's man-for-the-job, and ex-de-facto Education Minister Alla Jioyeva, who lost her post in 2008 on what she argues were politically motivated corruption charges.
A de facto referendum led to Russian being named an official language of South Ossetia; outgoing strongman de facto leader Eduard Kokoity termed it a "thank you" to Moscow for its post-2008 support.
Predictably, Tbilisi and a number of Georgian non-governmental organizations dismissed the essentially Georgian-free election as farcical. To mark the occasion, Coalition for Justice, a group dedicated to bringing Georgian IDPs back to their homes in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia, presented a satellite map of destroyed houses in formerly ethnic Georgian settlements in South Ossetia.
But for the residents of South Ossetia, the election, as the end of Kokoity's decade-long rule could make a lot of difference in terms of shaping the reality on the ground -- to merge with cousin North Ossetia in the Russian Federation or not to merge; that may well be the question.
With a cheer from Moscow, Bibilov has promoted "giving a start" to the merger "project": Jioyeva, in an interview with Ekho Moskvy, called the topic "premature," and emphasized instead the need "to strengthen our position as a separate state."
Georgia's billionaire/politician Bidzina Ivanishvili has given his first press conference in which he expanded on his views on defense and foreign policy, which have been the matter of some speculation since he entered the political arena.
He reiterated, but in stronger terms, his previous assessment that it was Georgia, not Russia, who started the war over South Ossetia. From Civil.ge's report:
Citing Tagliavini report, Ivanishvili said that it was Georgia, which had triggered off the August war with Russia. He said that President Saakashvili responded to shelling of Georgian villages in the conflict zone in August, 2008 with “absolute recklessness by shelling Tskhinvali.”
He also cited a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) and said that both the resolution, supported by the Georgian delegation, and Tagliavini report were saying that Georgia started the war. He was apparently refereeing to the PACE’s October, 2008 resolution, which at the time was at the time became an issue for debates in the Georgian politics.
“Everyone in the world knows everything very well. [The Georgian authorities] are trying to mislead the Georgian population; Saakashvili’s [version] is: Russia’s started the war and we have won it… We should learn to face the truth,” he said.
I'll be very curious to see how that goes over in Georgia.
However, if Georgia's Western allies are wondering whether he would continue Tbilisi's strong partnership with them, Ivanishvili said he would maintain Georgia's troop presence in Afghanistan, but was evasive on the question of NATO membership:
Russia's Duma has passed, and President Dmitry Medvedev has ratified, an agreement allowing the Russian military to maintain bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for 49 years, with automatic 15-year extensions after that.
The agreements refer to the 7th Military Base in Abkhazia, and the 4th in South Ossetia, which have evolved from the peacekeeping bases that Russia maintained before the 2008 war with Georgia. (For a details about the bases, a thorough, if slightly old, accounting was published in Russia in Global Affairs.) The bases host a total of about 7,000 troops, split evenly between the two breakaway territories.
A Russian analyst says in Izvestia that the agreements are mainly necessary for legal purposes:
Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Russian Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, said the agreements’ ratification will make things a great deal easier for the Russian military.
“They are currently living in a legal grey zone, although they are not complaining because their bases are located in resort areas,” Karaganov said.
He said the agreements on these Russian bases will cement the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia and make peaceful reunification impossible.
“Russia should be consistent in its actions. It has recognized these republics’ independence, now Russia must safeguard it,” Karaganov said.
South Ossetia is largely known to the outside world as a wrestling mat for Georgia and Russia, but little attention is paid to the breakaway region’s internal politics, which increasingly appear to be a mare’s nest of intrigue.
With the race heating up for the region's de facto presidential election on November 13, South Ossetia's miniature, 34-seat legislature on October 5 got busy and got rid of its speaker, Stanislav Kochiyev, who earlier had blocked attempts to extend the presidential term of de facto leader Eduard Kokoity.
Kochiyev, who ran against Kokoity in South Ossetia's 2006 presidential election, has described himself as one of the few guardians of constitutional discipline in a bare-knuckle race for power. "This was done to deny me the possibility of not permitting falsifications in the elections," Kochiyev, a Communist Party member, claimed in reference to his removal as parliamentary speaker.
Kokoity insists he will not run for a third term, but that insistence has done little to make for a snoozy election campaign. His supporters have gone out of their way to push for a constitutional change that would keep him in office for another five years. A group of thuggish Kokoity admirers even invaded the parliamentary building in June after the region’s de facto supreme court struck down the proposed amendments.
Just days after reportedly recognizing the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- news that still awaits official confirmation -- the South Pacific island of Tuvalu has struck up diplomatic relations with Russia. Given that Moscow has made it its job to chaperone the two runaway regions on their quest for international recognition, it is all too tempting to connect the dots.
On September 25, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sat down with Tuvalu's prime minister, Willy Telavi, to bond over their shared interests in fishing and trade, and talk diplomatic ties. The meeting took place on the sidelines of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, traditionally a venue for the consummation of new alliances.
Russian officials did not say much about the Tuvalu tête-à-tête, but Georgian wonks have already started surmising how much the new friendship will cost Moscow.
Tuvalu could definitely use some help in one realm -- rising sea levels in the Pacific, which threaten to wash the 26-square-kilometer island clean away, Prime Minister Telavi told the UN.
The island probably wouldn’t be missed much in Tbilisi, which earlier had made a gift of medicine to tiny Tuvalu in a bid to discourage it from following the wayward behavior of nearby Nauru, which recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence in 2009.
Size clearly does not matter for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in their quest for international acceptance of their de-facto independence from Georgia. Tuvalu, the world’s second-smallest island nation, reportedly has become the latest convert to join the Abkhazia and South Ossetia fan club by recognizing the two disputed territories as separate states, the de facto Abkhaz and South Ossetian governments announced today.
Tuvalu government officials could not be reached for confirmation of the reports, which have been disseminated primarily by Russian media.
In case you forgot, the world’s smallest island country, Nauru, which shares an ocean and (apparently) views on Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Tuvalu, recognized the two breakaway Caucasus regions back in 2009. Geographically speaking, the islands combined are many mega-times smaller than the controversial combo of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but as UN members, they bring votes into the equation.
Speaking of the UN, if the reports are confirmed, officials in Tbilisi may well feel like they were just slapped in the face. Last year, Georgia, not a regular international aid donor, gave Tuvalu $12,000-worth of medicine after Tuvalu backed a UN resolution that called for the return of displaced ethnic Georgians to Abkhazia.
Some observers within Georgia, though, were quick to ascribe Tuvalu’s apparent change of mind to Russia, the main and deep-pocketed champion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s recognition as independent states.
With the holiday season over, the Tamada is back with news from exotic destinations. Nicaragua and South Ossetia are now busy trying to prove that a 12,000-kilometer distance and many other differences need not stand in the way of a perhaps random, but still beautiful friendship.
Separatist South Ossetia's de facto ambassador to Nicaragua and Venezuela, Narim Kozayev, dropped by to see Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on September 6, just over a month after the tiny Caucasus enclave established its embassy to Nicaragua "with a residence" in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. Yes, you read that right. Put it down to budget discipline or a desire by Tskhinvali to keep a close tab on things, but, apparently, Kozayev will not have far to travel to take up his mission to Nicaragua.
But if the address of the embassy's residence struck Ortega as odd, he didn't let on. Accepting the de facto ambassador’s credentials, Ortega said that Nicaragua and South Ossetia had clicked right off and found that rare political chemistry that may help two misfits gain acceptance in the international community.
“We are small peoples, but we have a deep sense of identity,” Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news service quoted Ortega as saying. “We are in a battle for self-determination, sovereignty and independence. This battle is our common denominator.”
But the bigger common denominator Ortega chose to omit is Russia, which is believed to have motivated longtime ally Nicaragua (plus Venezuela and Nauru) to recognize South Ossetia’s independence from Georgia.
So far, South Ossetia maintains de facto embassies in Moscow and the fellow post-Soviet breakaway regions of Abkhazia and Transnistria.
South Ossetia's president has invited the legendary warriors of the Russian steppe, the Cossacks, to settle in the breakaway Georgian republic. According to PIK TV, Eduard Kokoity told a youth forum last week that he wants to rent out land to the Cossacks for 99 years:
According to Kokoity, the project foresees renting out land plots to the Cossacks in order to have settlements in empty districts and develop agriculture and defense structures. Moreover, he hopes to attract “additional investment and begin to restore the republic’s economy,” Kokoity said.
And naturally, the Cossacks would be expected to help protect South Ossetia from Georgia, added Elbrus Sattsaev, political analyst at South Ossetia State University:
"The Cossacks can quickly adapt to the current South Ossetian conditions. They have extensive experience of managing. They can become an example for people who have put his arms, who are passive. And besides, the Cossacks could exercise protection: South Ossetia needs protection because Georgia does not sign an agreement on nonuse of force"
(Incidentally, Sattsaev adds that the issue shouldn't be discussed until after South Ossetia's presidential elections in November, implicitly criticizing Kokoity's statement, a fairly rare case of open political dissent there.)
In other Cossack news, Time reports on a youth camp for Cossacks in Crimea, which included participants from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I suspect, though, that Georgia won't be too concerned about the Cossacks' military power, if this priceless photo of their armored personnel carrier is anything to go by.