MOSCOW BLOG: The mess in Georgia

By bne IntelliNews August 19, 2008

bne -

The five-day war that broke out in the Caucasus in August has raised a number of extremely thorny problems, with the rights and wrongs of the conflict between Russia and Georgia far from clear. But for the majority of the western media there was no doubt as to whom was to blame - Russia.

The press has been filled with accusations of imperialism and heralding the start of a "new Cold War." The most telling bias of all came from the international TV crews sent to cover the conflict, who mostly went to Gori, the village about 50 kilometres south of the border with South Ossetia (incidentally also Stalin's birthplace). In other words, none of the international coverage attempted to cover the fight itself, which was largely concentrated on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, but went to Gori to await a Russian invasion. Only the Guardian, from the British press, had a correspondent in South Ossetia in the first few days. And the bulk of the western reporting centred on speculation that the Russian forces would cross over into Georgia proper and take Gori and then the capital Tbilisi, despite Moscow's continuous and strenuous claims it had no intention of doing so.

Most of the western media has shamelessly played up fears of a resurgent Russia re-taking control over the former vassal states of the Soviet Union - fears that the Georgian government have played on to great effect. Indeed, the Georgians won the media war hands down. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was almost constantly on air for the worst of the fighting. Unlike his Russian counterparts, he is a fluent English speaker (he was educated in the US) and had full command of the "freedom" and "democracy" buzzwords so beloved of the current US administration.

For its part, the Kremlin has never been good at defending itself in the international press, but remarkably it did manage to get the semblance of a coordinated PR campaign together, headed by the smooth and eloquent foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. This is new, but the Russians are still not very good at it. Lavrov himself admitted as much during an interview on Ekho Moskvy in the midst of the fighting: "We are children as regards methods of using mass media. We Russians are children. We are trying to take account of the experience of our senior colleagues, experience of using the 'fourth branch of government' that has been built up for decades."

Lessons learnt

When the Kremlin comes to assess its performance in this fight the main lesson it will take away is that it is not enough to think you are right, but you also must be seen to be right.

The irony of this conflict is that the Kremlin is likely to try to improve its non-existent PR, make itself more available to foreign correspondents and, as such, make itself more accountable for its actions - in other words to do the things that democratic governments are supposed to do.

But don't expect this to happen overnight, if it happens at all. Russia has indeed already gone a little way down this road. Former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin got roasted by the domestic media following the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000 (also in August - all the worst things that happen to Russia seem to happen in August) for not cutting short his holiday to deal with the crisis. Since then, Putin has become almost the only senior Kremlin official who has apologized on television for failing in his duty. Moreover, when a second submarine got into trouble later in his term, the Kremlin was extremely fast to call in outside help.

For its part, the Georgian side is guilty of hamming up the story. To be fair to the UK press, after two days they began to take the Georgian claims of civilian carpet bombing and the imminent fall of Tbilisi with a pinch of salt. Some went as far as branding Saakashvili "reckless." However, the Russians were also guilty of exaggeration, with their claims of "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" on the part of Georgian troops. As far as it is possible to tell, this was a straight fight between unevenly matched conventional forces.

What happens next isn't clear. At the time of writing, the US had come out strongly on Georgia's side, talking about "Russian aggression," and an "invasion" and "occupation" of Georgia. The European reaction has been mixed. All the reaction is tempered by political positions with limited recall to the events.

Sorting through the wrongs and rights of both sides' actions is very difficult, but it's worth making the following points.

From a moral standpoint, South Ossetia is part of Georgia's sovereign territory and so Saakashvili has every right to try to retake control of it by any means he deems necessary. From this perspective, the presence of Russian troops is an occupation.

From a pragmatic, political point of view, attacking South Ossetia with military force was almost certainly going to cause a Russian military riposte. South Ossetia broke away from the rest of Georgia in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, declaring an independence that was never recognized by the international community at large. In this sense, the region has never been part of independent post-Soviet Georgian territory. Moreover, Moscow recognized the region's autonomy and handed out Russian passports to 90% of its inhabitants. It was a poison-pill strategy as, according to the Russian constitution, the Kremlin is obliged to defend its citizens if attacked. The practical solution to this mess is a negotiated solution, clearly not a military one.

From a legal point of view, the situation is now hopelessly confused. Because of South Ossetia's claim of independence, the Russians can challenge Tbilisi's sovereignty claim. Moreover, the Russians can point to the precedent of Kosovo - technically part of Serbia's sovereign territory whose independence was recognised by the international community - and by extension once again assert their claim of Western double standards. Moreover, the Kremlin had an international mandate for peacekeepers in the region that could be argued supersedes the sovereignty issue. In this sense, the Russian peacekeepers were within their rights to fight back - ironically against the Georgian peacekeepers, with whom they were supposed to share the mandate. That's how messy this is.

As for the Russian claim that they have to protect their citizens, this is a mess too. The Russian constitution may oblige the Kremlin to send the tanks in if their citizens are attacked, but under international law this is not grounds for starting a war: you are only allowed to respond if your military or your own sovereign territory is attacked; not just passport holders. However, "protecting an ethnic people living in another country," has been used often in history (by Hitler to invade Czechoslovakia, for example, and the international community let him get away with it then).

The media coverage is also confused, as reports are mixing elements from all these standpoints together, but in general the US press have taken the moral standpoint whereas most of the British press is being more pragmatic. But none of the coverage is particularly objective and most of the legal issues have been ignored.

Bottom line is this is not the start of a new Cold War. What it is, is the legacy of the collapse of the Soviet Union; a border mess that has been ignored for 17 years until August 8. The Russians have clearly been very aggressive and taken advantage of Georgia's decade of leaderless chaos to stake a claim on the territory. But Saakashivili's decision to send in the army was reckless and relies on Russia's strained relations with the West for success. The result of this policy can only be to strain those relations further and force the Kremlin to take a harder line than it otherwise might have taken.

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