Boris Kagarlitsky on the Russia-Georgia conflict

Bad habits are contagious

By Boris Kagarlitsky

August 14, 2008 -- Georgia has resolutely condemned Russia's actions in Chechnya. Russia has severely criticised NATO actions towards Serbia. Later on the Georgian authorities tried to do the same thing in South Ossetia as the Russian authorities had done in Chechnya. Moscow decided to treat Georgia in the same way as NATO had treated Serbia. Bad habits are contagious.

Saying that after Western leaders had recognised Kosovo’s independence the standards of international law ceased to exist, Russian diplomats must have second sight -– a year had not yet passed when the Russian government ignored those standards. The laws were replaced by precedents and customs. From this standpoint, there are good reasons for Moscow’s campaign in South Ossetia. South Ossetia is de facto a republic, even if no one (including Russia) has recognised it. However, it became Russia's protectorate. How can Russia allow somebody to attack it?

Moscow appeals to the commonsense and the will of the South Ossetian population. Those who did not share this collective will were driven out of the republic a long time ago (the same holds true for Chechnya). Like Serbia, Georgia makes reference to history. But neither of that is of importance, only force is all important.

It goes without saying that the Georgian authorities realised that when they decided to follow Moscow's example and hold an operation to restore constitutional order in the country. They hoped not only that the Georgian army was stronger than the Ossetian one, but also that the USA would support them. It could take two days to capture the capital of South Ossetia Tskhinvali while the Russian authorities consulted with each other and with Washington. This plan had almost been fulfilled, but, as so often is the case, the important decisions were made by the field commanders rather than by the Kremlin officials: while the Russian authorities were consulting with each other, the Russian peacemaking forces, which were deployed in South Ossetia, joined the battle, received the air support and actually turned the Georgian-Ossetian conflict into the Russian-Georgian war.

This time, the Georgian elite (and Georgian society) were greatly disappointed again. America was not going to protect Georgia. The USA was going to use Georgia to counterbalance Russia, as a supplier of soldiers for the war in Iraq and as a diplomatic ally in the UN. But that does not mean that Georgia could use America as anything.

The right of the strong implies that the strong have no commitments to the weak. To be more exact, those commitments are met when it is in the interest of the strong. For example, Russia has met its formal and informal commitments to South Ossetia. The reason for Russia's interference in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict is in line with US propaganda: protection of its citizens.

By the way, it is a mystery how the South Ossetians, who live in Tskhinvali, were given Russian citizenship at a time when many people who have lived and worked in Russia for several years cannot get it. The South Ossetians do not pay Russian taxes and do not serve in the Russian army. They have no duties, they have only rights. The Russian government is reluctant to take care of many of its citizens living in Russia and to protect their rights.

However, from the formal standpoint, everything is right. Governments must protect their citizens. If the Russian authorities took better care of their citizens in Russia, the words that there is a need to protect “our people” in Tskhinvali would ring more true.

The military do not think about the diplomatic and legal details very much. They simply know that they have the superior firepower that should be used. The Georgian army applied this power to the Ossetians and shelled Tskhinvali. A few days later, Georgia was attacked by the Russian army.

The Russian generals told the curious journalists that the army bombed and fired at only the military installations. They were likely to issue such orders. But they were not concerned about what actually the bombs hit. Surprisingly, even the XXI century “smart” bombs, which are much talked about, hit residential districts instead of enemy fortifications.

After the Russian generals made another statement that in Georgia only the military installations had been bombed, the destroyed houses of the civilian population in Gori were shown on the Western TV. They looked just like the destroyed houses in Tskhinvali, which were shown on the Russian TV.

[Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Moscow-based Institute of Globalization and Social Movements.]