Monday, August 11, 2008

Lets look at Georgia, Russia and Ossetia Through History's Lens

The Caucasus region, where Asia and Europe meet, is a hodgepodge of ethnicities, languages and loyalties scattered throughout the mountainous terrain that straddles the area between the Black and Caspian Seas. The area is as diverse geographically as it is ethnically, with terrain that consists of both barren mountains and lush, fertile valleys. More important - and more recognized than todays national borders - are ancient trade routes that have existed for centuries crisscrossing the region.

So why are Russia and Georgia about to embark on a full-scale war over a sliver of land smaller than Prince Edward Island?

When all the extraneous factors have been dismissed it boils down to this: It's all about the hydrocarbons. Russia has them and Europe needs them, and the pipelines to deliver them cut through former Soviet satellite republics.

Even in this melange of cultures, languages and ethnicities, the Ossetians are a unique case.

In 1801, when the Russian Empire was expanding, the Ossetians welcomed the opportunity to throw their lot in with the powerful Russia, and their loyalties have never wavered. In fact, Ossetians fought alongside Russian forces as they expanded the Russian Empire in the early 1800's. This loyalty has been reciprocated by Russian leaders, who for more than two hundred years have looked upon the Ossetian people as a favored and loyal people.

Here it must be pointed out that the Ossetian people migrated into the region from Asia about seven hundred years ago, and do not ethnically identify as Russian nor Georgian, and they speak a language that is not Slavic in origin, but a dialect of Persian/Farsi, akin to the language spoken by Iranians today.

As the Soviet Union began to slowly implode in the late 1980s, the fiercely nationalistic Georgians attempted to enforce a cultural hegemony that emphasized the Georgian language and history, but these moves were rejected by the Ossetian people. When the collapse of the Soviet empire was a done deal and the maps were redrawn, Northern Ossetia was a part of Russia, but Southern Ossetia was consigned to Georgia. The South Ossetians rejected that arrangement out of hand, declared themselves an autonomous region, and fought a bloody ethnic conflict in 1991-92. Tens of thousands of Ossetians and Georgians fled their homes for ethnic enclaves. The turmoil there was a precursor to the bloody ethnic violence that would erupt in the Balkans a few years later. The elation of freedom from the yoke of Soviet rule was short lived as ethnic strife brought intractable quagmires when that external locus of control suddenly ceased to exist.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over enclaves in one anothers territory. Abkhazia and South Ossetia rejected Georgian rule. Chechnya erupted in bloody chaos twice.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation reached out to traditional allies, one of which was South Ossetia. The Ossetians had traditional ties to Russia, and reestablished them quickly. Georgia realized that with Ossetia a de facto Russian protectorate, they had no hope of repatriating the area in the face of superior Russian military power, even in 1992, so reluctantly the Georgians accepted a cease fire and the whole world resumed pretending that South Ossetia was still a part of Georgia, even though everyone with any chops at all knows it isn't, hasn't been and never will be.

Not only that, realists know that the Russian government is now the Russian mob. With Communism out of the way, they can really run things. They aren't just limited to the black market. Those trade routes I alluded to earlier? They are at least as favored by smugglers as the Khyber pass is for opium traffickers. Poised between two continents, the region is rife with illegal commerce, a very attractive feature for a kleptocratic oil-garchy like Russia.

So why did Georgia decide to make the stupid move they made and make the challenge now? When the eyes of the world are elsewhere? Did they really think that whacking the hornets nest like that was going to get them into NATO or cause an energy-dependent west to get uppity with Russia?

Georgia quite possibly signed their own death certificate when they threw down this gauntlet.

We are going to see a realignment of allegiances, and they are going to take place along an energy axis. Russia is sitting in what is known as "the catbirds seat" with vast reserves of both oil and natural gas - and a burr under their saddle about NATO expansion and a missile shield in their back yard. But Russia doesn't have to confine their irritation with the west these days. They have both the resources and the inclination to settle some scores and right some perceived wrongs.

Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, for whatever inexplicable reasons, selected last week to get chirpy and send his 18,000 man army to forcibly repatriate the 70,000 South Ossetians who have considered themselves independent for the last 16 years. Surely they knew that the Russians would come to the aid of their traditional allies? They had to. Didn't they?

You don't suppose he actually thought that the west was going to supply military aid as he and Sancho Panza took off to tilt at windmills...Did he?

What he got for his troubles was this: a weak country that is now further weakened by defeat and on the brink of collapse. What do you suppose that fact does to their bargaining position where those Russian pipelines are concerned?

If I were a betting woman, I would bet that within months, Russia annexes Georgia, and the former satellite republics start falling back into line with Moscow. And look for a hydrocarbon-addicted west to remain largely silent in the face of a reemerging Russia.