Europa & die Welt Debattenbeitrag

South Ossetia – What on earth were they thinking?




Most of the fighting in the short and turbulent war in Georgia has ceased, President Medvedev has announced that his troops are going to withdraw and the last Georgian soldiers have retreated from their positions in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While the smoke is settling on the level of “high politics”, Germany and Europe are left to ponder the war’s consequences: their relations with Russia and the Caucasus, their stance on separatist minorities and their energy supply.


Union of disunity

The poisoned terminology of “New Europe” and “Old Europe” may no longer apply to the War in Iraq – when it comes to evaluating the short war in the Caucasus, however, the split is very much alive. Countries that are skeptical of Russia due to their historical experiences like Poland, Bulgaria or the Czech Republic have openly supported a European perspective for Georgia – in particular since the coming to power of Mikhail Saakashvili. Germany and France, by contrast, have shown understanding for Russia’s self-declared role as regional guardian and do not intend to break with Moscow.

Yet, faced with Russian tanks patrolling the streets of Josef Stalin’s hometown of Gori, even the most ardent supporter of Putin’s Russia will have to consent that Moscow’s foreign policy decision-making is guided by considerations of classical realist power politics. Using Robert Kagan’s diction – the post-modern European Union of the 21st century finds itself dealing with a power that acts according to the geopolitics of the 19th century. The German government thought it had established a “special relationship” with Russia. But in these times of crisis, it has become all too apparent how little sway Berlin really holds. As a consequence, when dealing with Russia, Germany should return to the language and logic of interest politics – rather than putting too much trust in soft diplomacy.

Separatism and National Unity

Another political minefield that has been catapulted back into the public consciousness is the international approach towards partly, semi or fully autonomous entities. In its futile campaign against Kosovo’s independence, the Kremlin persistently argued that according to the same logic (i.e. the logic of granting independence to the Serbian province) other de-facto states like Transnistria or Abkhazia possessed the same right to international recognition. It is not too difficult to show how poorly construed this analogy actually is. After all, the ethnic Abkhazians – constituting less than one third of the total population of Abkhazia in 1990 –forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of Georgians during the civil war from 1990-92. Many of these refugees still dwell in bitter poverty in former Intourist-Hotels across Georgia, desperately waiting for a return home.

Nonetheless, the EU and NATO should reconsider how they intend to deal with separatist independence movements in the future. First of all, it seems highly advisable not to admit any new member states that are riddled with unsolved territorial issues – the case of Cyprus should function as a cautionary tale. Secondly, the decision to grant independence to the Kosovars – as justified as it was – presents external actors with a brilliant pretext to interfere in the affairs of sovereign states. On the flipside, it has the potential to constitute an existential threat to ethnically heterogeneous states. And what if the country in question is not called Georgia or Moldova but Spain or Great Britain?

Gas and Coal

One of the conflict’s less obvious consequences is the revitalization of the ongoing and sometimes emotional debate about our energy supplies. The principal source of worry is not, as one might think, the slight surge in oil prices following reports of an attack on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. In the German discussion about alternatives to nuclear energy (highly unpopular) and coal (opposed to the government’s climate goals) the favoured solution has been the construction of several new natural gas power plants; and most of the natural gas that reaches Germany hails from the steppes of Russia. But do we really want our energy security to depend on Gazprom and – by extension – the Kremlin? That is a question that – after its short heyday at the height of the Russia-Ukraine “gas war” – we will have to ponder anew in the light of last week’s events.

True Democrats?

In the course of all the Russia-bashing, we should not make the mistake of falling for the Georgian president’s self-portrayal as hero and victim. In a live interview with the BBC, the US-educated Saakashvili declared over and over again that the fighting in Ossetia was about “liberty and democracy”. Which is interesting when you consider that the “rose revolutionary” did not waste any time to adopt the same autocratic, illiberal and anti-democratic style of leadership that characterized his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze.

Ever since the highly contentious presidential elections in January and the rejection of Georgia’s bid to join NATO at the Bucharest summit in April, Saakashvili had to contend with a public increasingly critical of his rule. That is what may have inspired him to undertake this military adventure that was sure to boost nationalist sentiment – his greatest domestic success had, after all, been the reintegration of the breakaway province of Ajaria (and its considerable customs revenues) into the Georgian state. But it is hard to imagine that Saakashvili seriously believed Russia would stand by idle while its South-Ossetian protégé was invaded. Thus, you can rightly accuse the Georgian president of risking the loss of thousands of lives for the sole sake of improving his domestic approval ratings.

Who has won?

The first victim of war is always the truth. And the internet does not contribute to a more balanced picture – just the opposite. The Speaker of the Georgian parliament, for example, compared the Russian intervention in South Ossetia with Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Sudetenland. Russian, Abkhaz and Ossetian officials, on the other hand, accused the Georgians of attempted genocide – both allegations equally ludicrous.

Hence, it will be virtually impossible to determine which side fired the first bullet. It is beyond any doubt, however, that all parties – Georgians, Russians, Ossetians, the European Union and the U.S. – have lost out: an estimated 2,000 casualties and a military fiasco on the Georgian side, a dramatic loss of international esteem on the Russian side. Looking on this balance sheet, you are right to confront both sides with BBC journalist Stephen Sackur’s question: „What on earth were you thinking?“