By Tony Iltis
August 27, 2008 -- Since the European Union-brokered ceasefire brought the shooting war between Georgia and Russia to an end on August 12, there has been a war of words between Russia and the West. One point of contention is the withdrawal of Russian troops from
Georgia-proper (that is, Georgia excluding the de facto independent
territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), in particular the towns of
Gori, Zugdidi and Senaki and the port of Poti.
The war began with Georgia’s August 7 attack on the territory of
South Ossetia. Russia responded with a military assault that first
drove Georgian troops out of South Ossetia, then continued to advance
Russia agreed to withdraw when it signed the ceasefire and has
since indicated that it is doing so — but slowly, and not before
systematically destroying Georgia’s military capacity.
A bigger difference, based on competing interpretations of what is
and isn’t Georgian territory, is Russia’s stated intention to maintain
a beefed-up peacekeeping presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Western leaders have stressed recognition of Georgia’s official
borders, which includes the breakaway territories. US President George
Bush stated on August 16 that “Georgia’s borders should command the
same respect as every other nation’s. There’s no room for debate on
What this ignores is not only that most of South Ossetia and
Abkhazia have been outside Georgia’s control since the early 1990s, but
that the Abkhazians and Ossetians (who are both distinct non-Georgian
nationalities) have shown in repeated referendums, as well as in the
wars that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, that they
have no desire to be under Georgian rule.
While the Western media and politicians have portrayed the current
war as Russian “great power” aggression against its much smaller
neighbour, this ignores the fact that war was started by Georgia’s
August 7 blitzkrieg that levelled South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali.
Anywhere between “dozens” and 1500 civilians were killed, depending
on the source, and 30-40,000 refugees (half the population) fled across
the border to North Ossetia-Alania, a republic within the Russian
Since coming to power with Western support in 2003, Georgian
President Mikheil Saakashvilli has allied his country closely to the
However, since Georgia provoked the current war with Russia, it
became clear that the West was not keen to get involved in a war with
nuclear-armed Russia in support of its ally’s territorial ambitions.
Despite military assistance from the US and Israel, the Georgian
army collapsed in disarray before the Russian advance. Russian and
South Ossetian forces have been able to seize significant quantities of
abandoned US and Israeli military hardware.
On August 21, there were thousands-strong protests in Tskhinvali
and the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi demanding Russian recognition of
independence of the territories.
The recognition of Kosova’s independence from Serbia (under Western
supervision) has created a precedent in international law. Russia has
refused to recognise Kosovan independence but has indicated that it
could change this position in exchange for Western recognition of
independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia (under Russian
The conflicting nationalisms in the Caucasus is a result of the
colonisation of the highly diverse region by the Russian empire,
beginning in the 18th century.
This was followed by the promise of national liberation and
equality between peoples by the 1917 Russian Revolution. This promise
was betrayed when the revolution degenerated into bureaucratic
dictatorship under Joseph Stalin.
National movements subsequently played an important role in the
restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Full control by the Russian empire of the Caucasus by 1864 was
accompanied by ethnic cleansing of Muslims, which included about half
the Abkhaz population.
After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks recognised the rights of
all peoples to self-determination. While the various nationalities of
the North Caucasus (including Ossetians, Chechens, Ingushetians and the
myriad of Dagestani ethnicities) formed the pro-Bolshevik Mountain
Soviet Republic (MSR), Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan became
anti-Bolshevik independent states propped up by British troops.
Between 1918 and 1921, what started as tax revolts by South
Ossetians against the Georgian regime developed into full scale
warfare, with the South Ossetians seeking to be united with their North
Ossetian compatriots in the MSR, which from 1919 was an autonomous part
of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR).
Georgian reprisals against the revolt took 18,000 lives. Keen to
dislodge the British, the Red Army came to the aid of the Ossetians,
the Abkhaz and a revolt by Georgian Bolsheviks. A Georgian Soviet
Republic was established. Similar processes established Soviet rule in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Painfully aware of the resentment towards Russians in the nations
colonised by the Tsarist empire, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin
stressed equality between nations.
In 1922, he clashed with Stalin, then commissar of nationalities,
who despite being Georgian displayed, in Lenin’s words, “all the
characteristics of a Great Russian bully” in his attempts to pressure
the Georgian Bolsheviks into accepting absorption of their country into
Stalin lost that fight and in 1922 Georgia, Abkhazia, Armenia and
Azerbaijan became equal members of the Union of Soviet Socialist
North Ossetia became an autonomous republic within the RSFSR while South Ossetia became an autonomous district of Georgia.
However, following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin led a
counter-revolution whereby a bureaucratic caste took power and undid
many of the progressive gains of the revolution.
While national equality remained in form, its content was gutted.
In 1931, Abkhazia was made an autonomous republic within Georgia and
Georgian replaced Abkhaz as the official language.
The transmigration of Russians, Armenians and Georgians into Abkhazia was accelerated under Stalin.
In the 1940s, having officially revived Russian nationalism in
response to Nazi invasion, Stalin increased arbitrary acts of national
oppression. In the Caucasus this included deporting the entire Chechen
and Ingushetian population to Central Asia.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the extremes of Stalin’s
dictatorship were tempered, including the nationalities policy.
Deported nationalities were allowed to return to their homelands and
the suppression of Abkhaz culture ended.
However, while repression decreased, the main lines of bureaucratic dictatorship remained.
For Ossetians in the post-Stalin Soviet Union, the boundary between
North Ossetia (part of the RSFSR) and South Ossetia (part of Georgia)
became purely administrative, of no more significance than that between
two Australian states.
On the one hand, in both territories the Ossetian language was used
in government, education and the media. On the other hand, as with the
rest of the USSR, in neither territory did people actually have a say
in choosing their government, or the right to oppose it.
As the Soviet Union began to unravel in the 1980s, nationalism came
to the fore as local bureaucratic elites sought to ensure their power
in the post-Soviet order.
By 1988 war had broken out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, despite
both being constituent republics of the USSR. The restoration of
capitalism in the Soviet Union in 1991 was accompanied by its
dissolution into constituent republics.
In Georgia, following unsuccessful attempts by Moscow to repress
the nationalist tide, dissident and former political prisoner Zviad
Gamsakhurdia was elected president in 1990.
While to Georgians, Gamsakhurdia’s slogan of “Georgia for the
Georgians” and his appeals to historical mythology of ancient Georgian
kings, represented freedom from Russia, to the Abkhaz and Ossetians it
represented a threat to their national rights.
For the Ossetians, the dissolution of the USSR also meant the
border between North and South Ossetia became an international
War and ‘autonomy’
In November 1989, South Ossetia voted to be merged with North
Ossetia within the RSFSR, although this was vetoed by the Georgian
A march on Tskhinvali by Gamsakhurdia’s nationalists led to clashes
and the intervention of Soviet troops. In 1990, South Ossetia tried to
declare itself a constituent republic of the USSR.
Georgia, now under Gamsakhurdia’s presidency, responded by
abolishing South Ossetia’s autonomy. By January 1991, before the USSR
had dissolved, the dispute escalated into warfare between Georgian and
This war, which ended in 1992, cost hundreds of lives and created tens of thousands of refugees.
By this time Gamsakhurdia had been overthrown in a military coup
and newly independent Georgia was degenerating into civil war. The
peace agreement allowed for de facto independence and a peace keeping
force involving Georgian, North and South Ossetian and Russian troops.
Gamsakhurdia’s successor, Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been the
Stalinist head of Soviet Georgia in the 1970s, had reinvented himself
as a democratic reformer and then again as a moderate nationalist when
the military junta that overthrew Gamsakhurdia offered him the
While Shevardnadze ended the war in South Ossetia, he started
another by invading Abkhazia, which had declared its independence to
pre-empt abolition of its autonomous status.
This war ended in Georgian defeat, after the Abkhazians received
help from a multi-ethnic North Caucasian volunteer force, the
Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, who were accused of
Hundreds of thousands of Georgians fled Abkhazia, leaving the
Abkhaz as a demographic majority for the first time since the 19th
The 1993 peace agreement left it, like South Ossetia, legally part
of Georgia but with a de facto independence guaranteed by Russia.
The US helped bring the ultra-nationalist Saakashvilli to power in 2003 with the aim of using him to pressure Russia.
However, Saakashvilli’s nationalist adventurism, backed by US and
Israeli military aid, has resulted in handing Russia an opportunity to
militarily crush Georgia and humiliate its Western allies.
In the brutal history of colonialism, competing nationalism, war
and ethnic cleansing that has marked the Caucasus, the example of the
early stages of the Russian Revolution stands out as offering a way
The Bolshevik policy of granting national self-determination and
seeking to ensure equality between peoples’, in contrast to the
manipulation and violence used by various powerful interests that have
dominated the region, is the only way of ensuring lasting peace.