Saakashvilli’s War

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How did Han Solo put it to Chewbacca after he was freed from carbonite in Return of the Jedi?  Oh yeah, he said, “I–I’m out of it for a little while, everybody gets delusions of grandeur.” There I was in Israel with a self-imposed ban on blogging and war ignites between Russia and Georgia. In an instant, the information I was gathering on Russian immigrants and Israeli street kids suddenly appeared less relevant.

While Han Solo’s “delusions of grandeur” was meant to be ironic in Jedi, its current application to Georgia lacks ironic overtones. Just what was President Mikhail Saakashvili thinking when he sent Georgian troops into South Ossetia?  Did he really think that Russia was going to sit by and twiddle its thumbs?  Did he think that his paltry contribution of America’s War on Terror and its support for Georgia’s NATO membership was enough political capital for US save him?  Was the move simply a cynical effort to propel Georgia’s international victimhood in the face of big bad Russia?  Or was it a desperate attempt quell his own domestic travails by uniting the country against the external Other? Enquiring minds want to know.

Whatever the answers may be, one thing’s for sure: Saakashvilli fucked up. And fucked up bad.  Trying to reestablish Georgian hegemony in South Ossetia with military force has only place his country in mortal danger.  Now Georgia is at Russia’s mercy, and given how the Russians already think that Georgia is a child that needs a good spanking, the whipping might end up being worse than necessary just to prove a point. Kind of reminds me when my grandfather would get so infuriated, he would tell one of us, “Boy, go get me a switch from the tree.”  It’s almost in a weird Oedipal way, by attacking South Ossetia, Saakashvilli was volunteering to pick the perfect switch for Daddy Russia to beat him with.

This is not to say that Russia hasn’t played the abusive Father in all this. You can cite, as many have, all of the Russia attempts to inflame the situation: supporting South Ossetian and Abkhazian rebels, issuing passports, and declaring itself Ossetia’s protector. Russia is the real power here and its using it to constantly poke Georgia.

But ultimately the blame game is rather boring. There just isn’t much analytical power in repeatedly saying, “It’s Russia’s fault!” “No, its Georgia’s fault!” If one wants to attribute blame then it might better to capture the situation as a dialectical Mobius strip and move on.  This is what I think Charles King is trying to point to in his comment in the Christian Science Monitor.  He writes:

Russia illegally attacked Georgia and imperiled a small and feeble neighbor. But by dispatching his own ill-prepared military to resolve a secessionist dispute by force, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has managed to lead his country down the path of a disastrous and ultimately self-defeating war.

Unfortunately, language must be presented linear. The more pro-Russian/Georgian reader will find fault and satisfaction in this statement. When read simply, Russia, by virtue of it being mentioned first, comes out the bigger aggressor, tempered by Saakashvilli’s brash and ill advised solution. I would suggest that the reader freely exchange the order of the sentences to escape determinism.

However, the main thing one should notice is that this effort to equally blame Russia and Georgia is predicated on a kind of colonial erasure.  Namely, absent from this formulation are the South Ossetians themselves. Their agency is rendered invisible or worse reduced to the body upon which the larger powers dance.  Perhaps we should redo the narrative to include them?

The reality is that South Ossetia is not alone in its aspirations for ethnic self-determination.  The situation in South Ossetia, as with other places where political borders don’t align with ethnic ones, is kind of ethno-waste of modernity. When the Bolsheviks drew up its Republics, Autonomous Regions, and autonomous oblasts in 1936, the North Caucuses was an artificially crafted mosaic where political borders ran counter to (emergent) ethnic ones.  The Ossetians where split politically into North and South, while their ethnicity remained unified.  When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the South Ossetians became one of the many internal Others for the Georgians to proclaim their new found nationalism. That is, Great Georgian Nationalism was predicated on its vicious denial to the Other.  Brutality comenced.  As Human Rights Watch reported in 1996,

Between 1989 and 1992, fighting flared in the South Ossetian A.O. and in Georgia between ethnic Ossetian paramilitary troops and Georgian Interior Ministry (MVD) units and paramilitaries. South Ossetia had demanded to secede, and Georgia cracked down on the renegade area by sending in troops. Approximately 100,000 ethnic Ossetians fled Georgia and South Ossetia, and another 23,000 Georgians headed in the other direction. One hundred villages were reportedly destroyed in South Ossetia. Also the North Ossetia-Georgian border went largely uncontrolled, providing an almost unhindered access point for weapons, fighters, and ammunition in both directions.

Since then South Ossetia has overwhelming approved seceding from Gerogia in two referendums, yet their right to self-determination remains ignored.

Contrary to Cold War Triumphalists, neo-Hegelian End of Historyites, Kantian Perpetual Peaceniks, and the Death of Nation State globalists, walls continue to be erected to create or harden ethnic-religious identities. If the symbol of the 20th Century was the Berlin Wall, the 21st appears to be marked by its fragmentation and redepolyment across a variety of ethno-political spaces. The concrete walls at the US-Mexico border, Israel-Palestine, and the streets of Baghdad (For the conjunction between walls and Shia and Sunni ethnic cleansing see Derek Gregory’s excellent “Biopolitics of Baghdad“), have their biopolitical and virtual expression in the new states of Southeastern Europe and the aspiring ones in the Caucuses, South Asia, and China. The formerly bipolar world of the 20th century has begotten a shotgun splatter of ethno-nationalist states of the 21st.

This is why, however much people want to point to South Ossetia as a Russian proxy, they still have to somehow account for the fact that South Ossetians gleefully take those passports, use Russian currency, and are running not into Georgia but into Russia to escape the violence.  I think we have to remember that however one wants to attribute blame for the conflict, there are some real reasons why the South Ossetians want to ditch Georgia altogether. Yet in all the reporting that has come out in the last few days, the South Ossentian voice as an agent of his or her own present and future has been more or less muted.  In its place has stood a number of metonyms: Russia, Putin, Georgia, rebels, proxies, oil pipelines, NATO, the United States . . .

Human Rights Watch has shed some light on the situation.  According to documents provided by the Russian Operative Headquarters for Providing Humanitarian Assistance to the Residents of South Ossetia, from 8 August to the afternoon of 10 August, the Russian Federal Migration Service recorded 24,032 people crossing the border to Russia.  Given that the population of South Ossetia is a mere 70,000, that is quite a large percentage of the population.  Perhaps more telling is that 11,190 of them have gone back, many of which “to join to volunteer militias of South Ossetia.” Granted, as HRW admits these figures are hardly accurate given the fluidity of the situation.  They should merely be taken as a snapshot of what Ossentians are doing in all this.

As for the violence, here is what HRW has culled from refugee interviews:

Human Rights Watch visited a camp for the displaced in the village of Alagir and interviewed more than a dozen individuals, including those from Tskhinvali and neighboring villages. Those from the city reported spending more than three days in the basements of their houses, unable to come out because of the incessant shelling. Two individuals from Tskhinvali – a mother and her pregnant daughter – said their apartment building was severely damaged by shells and they only dared to come out of the basement on the fourth day, early in the morning of August 10, when Russian troops took full control of the city and started transporting local residents to a safe zone. They said the convoy consisted of six buses (about 27 people each), escorted by the military to the safety zone.

Residents of Satskhenet village told Human Rights Watch that after the village came under heavy artillery fire on the night of August 7, all women, children and elderly (more than 100 people) started fleeing their homes; most of them spent the next two days hiding in the woods and then trying to make their way toward the Russian border. They were assisted by the Russian military in the village of Ger and transported to North Ossetia.

Many families were separated while fleeing the fighting in South Ossetia, and to date they have not been able to obtain any information as to the fate and whereabouts of their relatives whom they left behind.

This seems to confirm RAI Novosti‘s telling of events a few days before the Russian military entered the conflict.

South Ossetia has evacuated more than 1,000 children across the border into Russia since violence broke out on Friday. The separatist authorities say six people were killed and 15 injured in mortar and sniper attacks from Georgian forces. Georgia had denied using snipers, and says it only retaliated against South Ossetian grenade attacks.

On Sunday, a total of 543 evacuees arrived in Russia’s North Ossetia, and over 500 are expected to arrive by Monday evening.

South Ossetia’s Interior Ministry said on Monday that Georgia had deployed a howitzer battalion and two mortar batteries along the border over the weekend, while police posts on the southern outskirts of the separatist republic’s capital, Tshinvali, had come under sniper fire.

South Ossentian rebel leader Eduard Kokoity told Interfax that up to 1,400 killed by Georgian troops. The Independent quoted Ludmila Ostayeva, 50, a resident of Tskinvali who fled to the Russian border, “I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.”

Given these images, it’s rather funny to read Saakashvilli’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal as he conjures the historical images of Russian aggression.   “This invasion, which echoes Afghanistan in 1979 and the Prague Spring of 1968, threatens to undermine the stability of the international security system,” he writes.  He goes on to explain to American audiences how “This war is not of Georgia’s making, nor is it Georgia’s choice.”  Nor is it simply about the South Ossetia or Abkhazia.  Indeed, he claims, this war was designed by the Kremlin to crush freedom.   The war is more about those lofty ideas about “the kind of Europe our children will live in” and “the future of freedom in Europe.” All of these can easily be turned against himself.

What is most wondrous however is Saakashvilli’s geographic wizardry. It’s also ironic since geography as an expression of knowledge and power is part of the problem. Georgia, he asserts, is part of Europe and part of “our common trans-Atlantic values of liberty and democracy.”  This war is about Georgia’s self-determination; a self-determination which apparently is rooted in denying the Ossetians theirs.