14 August 2008 Edition

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INTERNATIONAL : Conflict between Russia and Georgia

Let the War Games Begin

BY DARA Mac NEILL

Farce has an unwelcome but longstanding habit of intervening in human tragedy. Thus, as war raged between Russian and Georgian forces in the Caucasus, in not too distant Beijing representatives of both countries fought each other in that most timeless of the Olympian disciplines: beach volleyball.
For the record, Georgia triumphed by two sets to one and the post-match press conference descended into a verbal conflict, with the nationality of one of the Georgian team a major focus: hardly surprising, Christine Santanna was born in Brazil and lives there full-time. Somehow, she holds a Georgian passport and has been in the country twice.
She would be reasonably at home in the company of Georgian president, Mikhael Saakashvili, the New York trained and educated lawyer who upon returning home and acceding to high office has threatened to ignite a bloody region-wide conflagration following his decision to attack South Ossetia.
That, of course, is not a fact you’d easily uncover in media coverage of this issue, the vast bulk of which is predicated on the lie that Russian tanks rolled uninvited and unprovoked into Georgia on the morning of August 8, as the world’s attention was distracted by events in Beijing.
In fact, Georgian forces launched a surprise massive artillery assault on the town of Tskhinvali, the South Ossestian capital, on the night of August 7. At least 27 Russian troops were killed. They were part of a peacekeeping force that also included Georgian forces. Indeed, only hours before Saakashvili had unilaterally announced a ceasefire with South Ossetian separatist forces, who have been battling for to ‘leave’ Georgia since 1991.
During the Soviet era, South Ossetia enjoyed autonomy within the state of Georgia. In 1991, as the Soviet Union literally collapsed, South Ossetia attempted to secede from Georgia and a nasty, vicious war erupted, which has left a lasting residue of bitterness in the region.
Nonetheless, although Georgia claims control of the region, that is in name only and South Ossestia clings,, in reality, to Russia (North Ossetia sits just inside the Russian Federation). Since 1991, Russia has been its de facto patron and guarantor - issuing South Ossetians with passports and allowing them votes in Russian elections.
All of which makes Saakashvilis decision to attack all the more bizarre. What did he expect? Since coming to power in 2004 he has vowed to regain Georgia’s ‘lost territories’, despite what their inhabitants might think.
Perhaps he was emboldened by strong US support for immediate Georgian membership of NATO. France and Germany blocked the US bid, but the only disagreement is on timing, with the latter hoping to delay Georgian membership.
How could any NATO member not realise that this might be construed as a threat in Moscow, the free market achieving what the Cold War failed to do in 70 years - bringing forces from the world’s largest military alliance up to and literally onto the Russian border
Perhaps, he was emboldened by the intense training his armed forces have received from US Marines (1000 of whom are reputed to be based in Georgia). Or was it the experience of fight alongside the US in Iraq, where Georgia has the third largest contingent? Or perhaps President Saakashvili took false comfort from the presence of some 1000 Israeli military advisors and trainers.
Indeed, is interesting to hear the same president now bitterly lament the lack of intervention by either the West or NATO, now that his attack on South Ossetia has been repulsed, his forces are in retreat and those lost territories’ have been almost certainly lost forever.
Interesting, in so far as it seems to suggest that he had been led to believe, implicitly or otherwise, that such an intervention might well be forthcoming in the event of ‘hostilities’ erupting. Were others using the Georgian president as a proxy to test Russia’s response and reactions? That’s a dangerous, dangerous game.


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