Georgia: lives and homes destroyed, for economic power and political ambitions
SHEVARNADZE, former Georgian president, ducks camera when arriving at Chatham House for British Foreign Office-sponsored talks, February 10 1995.
WHATEVER historical and legal claim Georgia has to South Ossetia, the Georgian government destroyed its moral claim on the night of August 7, by launching a military offensive with little or no regard for the lives of civilians whom it claims as its own citizens.
The fighting began not long after it had concluded a truce with the South Ossetian separatist leadership to end local street fighting that had broken out earlier that week.
Multiple rocket-launchers, like those used in World War II to break up advancing tank formations, opened up from forest cover, firing rapid salvoes into built-up, populated areas. Evidently the Georgian government thought it could get away with this, letting them be shown on TV.
South Ossetians alleged that Georgian attack planes had bombed civilian targets. Then the tanks moved in.
Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili went on television to boast about what he was doing, declaring that Georgia was re-taking its rightful territory. “Most of South Ossetian territory has been liberated and is under Georgian control,” he said.
Note that he talks about "liberating" territory, not people. While South Ossetian militias fought on with grenade launchers against his tanks, the people were fleeing in thousands from their blitzed towns, heading north. This is what the US president and Western media keep telling us is an elected leader defending "democracy".
The stimulation of a refugee flight may have been deliberate, not just for long term aims of ethnic cleansing but the more immediate purpose of clogging roads and the border tunnel with people and cars that would be in the path of a Russian advance. Saakashvili - who incidentally, promised to "normalise relations with Russia" when he was elected - . must have known the Russians were bound to intervene on the side of the Ossetians, whose separatist movement they encouraged. (North Ossetia, across the mountains, is within the Russian Federation, so the border cuts the people in two). Indeed he may have counted on Russian involvement to bring the United States and its allies out on Georgia's side. Russia has alleged that Georgian forces launched a surprise attack on Russian 'peacekeepers' before the Russian army proper decided to move in.
Georgia was already in receipt of massive US military aid before. It is of strategic value as a NATO applicant on Russia's southern flank, and as the pipeline route for Caspian oil that bypasses both Russia and Iran. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, Western oil companies have not just moved back into Baku but invested heavily in developing offshore oilfields. Already when ex-Communist Party president Shevarnadze was running Georgia he was backed against the separatists, before America switched to the privatising Saakashvili as its man. With 70 per cent of Georgia's budget going on defence spending, and opportunities for arms suppliers and private military contractors, it is patriotism with a dividend, the kind of "democracy" in which they like to invest.
With the United States in economic crisis, and an election year, George W.Bush and his backers may not be averse to a war crisis to bolster their position, and Britain's Brown and Milliband as usual are behind the US.
As for Tory leader David Cameron, his rush to Tbilisi, and promise to be like Margaret Thatcher (remember the Falklands/Malvinas) show that our politicians see beating the war drums as a boost tom their careers.
NATO is in a quandary however. If it wants to sell protection it must show willingness to protect. But taking on Russia is not the same as bombing Serbia, or invading Iraq (which itself has proved a quagmire). Besides, Georgia was supposed to settle its disputes and ethnic conflict to qualify for membership, not to make them worse. France and Germany are questioning US wisdom, other states may wonder whether joining NATO brings more danger rather than less.
We have seen Georgians angry at what they see as adventurism and stupidity by their own government. We may yet see the British public showing unrest - and who knows, finding MPs willing to question what Brown and Cameron might be dragging us into.
Not that Russian behaviour, or that of the South Ossetian separatists, merits oir support. Russian planes and tanks also appear to have hit civilian targets, and taken the opportunity to do as much damage to Georgia as they could. Georgian refugees have fled the Russian offensive, and have been attacked by Ossetians pursuing their own ethnic terror or simply out for loot.
As always, it is the innocent, ordinary people on both sides who suffer, and have nothing to gain from this war. That is something people here can recognise, and it is important that we don't lose sight of human sympathies even as we apportion blame on governments and challenge our own rulers most of all. The other night there was a public meeting in London called by the Stop the War Coalition, with Kate Hudson from CND, John Rees of Stop the War and SWP, Oxford academic Mark Almond, and Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitzky. I didn't go, but I have been listening to the last two speakers recorded on video,. and they made some good points.
Yet somehow in the Oxford man's cynicism and the Russian's giggles I sensed a lack of seriousness, a lack of concern, beyond swapping figures, for those who have lost loved ones, and homes, and been turned into refugees. Was there some kind of insulation as defence-mechanism? The amount of background laughter and humour flowing between audience and speakers was greater than I've heard on Saturday nights at comedy clubs. It sounds like a good time was had by all, and maybe that was deliberate. But I found it shocking when I thought of those weeping people by the roadsides, who have lost everything, and didn't know where to go. If the anti-war movement wants to regain a hearing among the mass of people, beyond the 'usual suspects' (some highly suspect) it needs to clean up its act. And we do need an effective anti-war movement.