The Georgian side of the Ossetian question is now coming out. Saakashvili is claiming that Georgia didn’t move against S. Ossetia until after Russian forces entered it. The cold war warrior element is making the point that S. Ossetia’s status for the last fifteen years has rested on Russian support.
I have no confidence in being able to get to the truth of the conflicting views. I dwell on the question because, as unclear as the facts of the matter are, the principles that should guide us are just as unclear too.
We can’t really talk about the reasons why South Ossetia might “deserve” to have independence from Georgia, without talking about why Georgia “deserved” to get its independence in 1991. I don’t recall any such principles being argued, but of course Croatia and Slovenia were getting all the attention at the time.
The argument for having clear and explicit rules is the formalist one that if you know in advance what position the most powerful actors are going to take, violent conflict is unlikely.
That is a weaker argument if the rules, clear-cut as they are, depend on facts which are unclear. But even so, I think it would help. One reason the facts are so unclear is that, at the end of the day, the outcome won’t depend on the facts. If it did there would be a more concerted attempt to determine what they actually are.
Retreating to what I can say in the absence of clear rules or reliable facts, I was interested that in his interview linked above, Saakashvili did not argue on the basis of Georgian claims to South Ossetia. Instead he emphasised the attacks by Russia on targets outside of Ossetia, and claimed that Ossetia was just a pretext for a Russian attack on the rest of Georgia.
Here, at last, we really do have the Kosovo precedents coming into relevance. If TV stations in Belgrade were legitimate targets in the protection of Kosovan rebels, then what gives the oil pipeline at Poti its immunity?
Another point is the effect of time. If outsiders now want to argue that Ossetia should rightly be controlled by Tbilisi, it’s too late. They’ve been successfully calling for ceasefires for over a decade, and the outcome of any genuine negotiation is never likely to be that one side totally gives in. A ceasfire is always tempting, but sometimes it can mean giving up without noticing. Sometimes the best route to peace is to fight it out. I’m not saying that was or is the case in Georgia – that depends on those pesky facts again.
Just in case you’re wondering, the sort of things I would be interested in, if there were any way of reliably establishing them, would be:
- Why are the South Ossetians more friendly to Russia than to Georgia?
- Would there be a reasonable way to establish borders for South Ossetia?
- Are there internal conflicts within Ossetia?
- What problems does independent South Ossetia cause for the Georgia? Smuggling, organised crime, control of resources?
- What is the economic situation in Ossetia?
- What provoked the recent Georgian offensive against S.O.?
- How does the situation affect other issues in the region?
- What are Russia’s other interests in the region? – I believe there were claims that Chechen terrorists were using parts of Georgia as refuges..
- All the same questions again with respect to Abkhazia.