See Global Voices special coverage page on the South Ossetia crisis.
With the international media reporting that Georgian forces are now engaged in direct conflict with the Russian military on the outskirts of Tskhinvali, capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, the situation still remains tense and unpredictable. Yet, with ethnic separatists claiming 1,400 civilians have been killed, views on the conflict remain polarized and ultimately appear to reflect what some see as a conflict over Russian and Western interests in the region.
More alarmingly for some observers is concern that the defacto state of war between Georgia and Russia will destabilize an already volatile region. With Azerbaijan already alleging that the Russian jets which bombed the Vaziani military base on the outskirts of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, took off from Armenia, The Global Buzz believes the concerns are very real.
Clearly something big is happening right now in Georgia but it is not clear from the news reports exactly what is occurring. If this is a full-scale Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, the question is, do the Russians intervene to prop up the separatist regime? If they do, does Georgia – with implicit American backing – go to war with Russia? If they don't, do the Georgians brazenly take that as a signal that the Russians won't risk war in Georgia and then try to roll into Abkhazia?
Might a Georgian-Russian confrontation in South Ossetia inspire more unrest in Chechnya? And seeing Russia distracted in Georgia, will Azerbaijan use this opportunity to take back Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia?
Too many questions, not enough answers.
But while some see the conflict as Russia meddling in the internal affairs of a former Soviet republic, many such as Unzipped are starting to blame the clashes on brinkmanship from the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili.
It is impossible to sympathise with Georgia’s not infrequent discriminatory policies towards ethnic minorities […]. At the end of the day, some may say this is not really about Ossetia or Georgia, it’s about USA and Russia. While international politics play key roles in escalating the conflict, there are some essential local issues and responsibilities which Georgian authorities prefer us not to notice.
A Fistful of Euros agrees and also says the conflict has as much to do with Saakashvili and Georgian nationalism as Russian agression.
Who started it? — Looks like Georgia. The sniping earlier came from both sides, but the Georgians have clearly launched a major ground offensive, and that doesn’t just happen by accident. […]
So, is it working? — It’s too early to tell, but it’s not looking good. […]
Why did Saakashvili try this now? […]
Saakashvili is an ardent nationalist who doesn’t view the disputes with Russia rationally. To him, they’re painful and continuing insults to the national soul.
More importantly, Saakashvili is a gambler. That’s because he lacks patience. […]
So, Saakashvili was stupid? — That might be too strong. But it looks like he made a couple of bad assumptions.
Writing on the New York Times blog, Paul Goble agrees to some extent and says that the Georgian president probably thought he could rely on U.S. support. The regional analyst also warns that the situation could spiral out of control.
What does this mean for the region? Let me offer several observations that go beyond the comment I wrote up earlier – that the entire Northern Caucasus, which includes parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan as well, is rapidly descending into chaos.
[…] lots more is going to happen in the region than just in Ossetia. Look for moves first in Abkhazia — I am sure arms are being handed out and troops moved — and elsewhere as well. And look for Islamist groups to exploit any movement of pro-Russian forces.
Lawyers, Guns and Money says that both Georgia and Russia have just claims and grievances against each other, but also blames Saakashvili. The blog also believes that Georgia's aspirations towards NATO membership as well as U.S. interests in the region have now suffered a significant setback.
[…] I am less sympathetic to the Georgian case because I think that escalating the war (and providing an excuse for Russian counter-escalation) was a damn stupid thing for Saakashvili to do, and a remarkably damn stupid thing for him to do absent an extremely compelling cause. Small, weak states living next to abrasive, unpredictable great powers need to be extremely careful about what they do; in most cases, their foreign policy should, first and foremost, be about avoiding war with the great power. This is what Saakashvili failed to do. The war didn't need to escalate; it was a Georgian decision to move from the village skirmishes that were happening on Tuesday to the siege of Tsikhinvali on Thursday.
Saakashvili was having political trouble before the war began, and will enjoy a bump even if Georgia loses. That won't last long; if the Russians don't remove him themselves, the Georgians probably will at some point. The stakes for Saakashvili are, thus, quite high, which is possibly why he spent half the day begging for Western assistance on CNN.
If the war develops as expected, and Russia pounds Georgia until the latter cries uncle, the United States will have suffered a substantial political setback. Hegemony or no, the United States will have been unable to give significant military aid to an Iraq War ally facing the prospect of interstate war. This isn't the end of the world, but it's not great.
Others, such as Crooked Timber, believe blaming the Georgian president is missing the point.
[…] We can spend any amount of time on the rights and wrongs of it, and whether the Saakashvili has brought this on himself. But as the news is filtering in, I have a couple of very superficial observations to make.
The current level of hostility has been bubbling towards the boil all year, but I truly thought the Russians would wait for a more obvious excuse to send the tanks in. But why wait when you can slip quietly into an obscure part of the Caucasus on the monster news day that follows the Olympics opening ceremony?
[…] wanting to join NATO is not a provocation. As Russia’s actions have clearly shown, joining NATO was the only sensible thing to do.
Writing from Tbilisi, Wu Wei also sides with the Georgians.
The only ethnic bit is the Georgians going back into their own territory. And then they let the civilians out in the cease fire, into Georgian territory. What have the Russians been doing for their citizens? I haven't seen any coming out. The South Ossetian provisional government was sending people to Georgia during the moratorium, not to Russia. Hard to see that as ethnic cleansing. It seems that the S Ossetian fighters didn't use the cease fire to give up their arms and didn't observe the cease fire either.
Geographic Travels with Catholicgauze! also warns that unless the West supports Georgia, an unfortunate precedent will be set.
This is a nightmare. Besides the fact war is horrible, this will set all sorts of new boundaries in the Russia versus the West Geopolitical War. If Russia can save South Ossetia and take them away from Georgia then might makes right. It also serves as a warning to those who wish to join NATO. The message would be “Russia can take away pieces of your territory.” It could also justify a more Eurasian Serbian government's forceful attempt to take back ethnic Serbian parts of Kosovo.
Geogrian President Saakashvili is not perfect. However, he is very pro-West, anti-terrorism, and pushes democratic reforms so his country may one day join the Europen Union and NATO. If Georgia, a Eurasian country that turned into a European one, fails; then democrats the world over will begin to wonder if the West truely supports them when the going gets rough.
Meanwhile, despite the fighting, life continues in other parts of the country although Armenia and me says that friends in Georgia, especially with family members wanting to enlist. are concerned. Wu Wei also paints a picture of business as usual, or at least for foreign nationals in the capital.
Betsy's hotel is an institution in Tbilisi. It has been the home from home for expats at least from 1994, when I first stayed there. Betsy is a formidable American lady. The hotel has moved to a new location since I first stayed there. By then there was not much shooting and not much electricity either.
Was there panic tonight? Not really.
Did we sit glued to the TV wondering if we would ever get out? Not really. Some people were watching the Olympics as you might expect.
Betsy came and went. A normal Friday evening.