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Analysis & Opinion
08.08.08 The August Canons
By Dmitry Babich

The Georgian force attack against the country’s former autonomy of South Ossetia, which has been a de facto independent separatist state since 1991, obviously came as a surprise to Russia’s leaders. President Dmitry Medvedev convened the country’s Security Council on the morning of August 8, while intense military action began on the evening of August 7, following several days of periodic skirmishes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, on a trip to the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, called the Georgian attack an “aggressive action,” and said that it would provoke an “adequate response.”

It was not immediately clear what this “adequate response” would be, as Georgian forces are reportedly taking hold of the separatist capital Tskhinvali and blocking the tunnel connecting South Ossetia to the Russian autonomies in the Northern Caucuses, primarily North Ossetia, inhabited by the ethnic kin of South Ossetians.

“Georgian forces control all of the important towns and villages in South Ossetia, with the exception of Dzhava and partially Tskhinvali, where the fighting is going on,” said Temur Yakobashvili, the Georgian minister of reintegration, speaking at a televised press conference from Tbilisi. “We call on the separatists to lay down their arms and stop the useless bloodshed. We consider the people living in South Ossetia our citizens and don’t want them to die even if these people may consider us barbarians.”

In Russian experts’ opinion, South Ossetians have ample reason for this kind of attitude toward the Georgian leadership, since the hostilities against South Ossetia were launched on the day of the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, and under very strange circumstances. Hours before the start of Tskhinvali’s bombardment, the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili made a televised speech in which he claimed that he had ordered a ceasefire on the Georgian side. Now this looks more like a maneuver aimed at reducing the South Ossetians’ vigilance, since minutes after Saakashvili’s speech the Georgian military declared that they launched “an operation on the reestablishment of constitutional order” in South Ossetia. Georgia’s reintegration minister Temur Yakobashvili said that Georgian forces were attacked by Ossetians, who attacked Georgian villages inside the separatist region.

“This is not true. The Georgian APCs that entered our territory fired not only at Ossetian villages, but also at those villages on our territory that are populated by ethnic Georgians,” said the President of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity, speaking in an interview to the Russian television channel Rossiya on the evening of August 7.

Whatever the outcome of the fighting, the start of the hostilities in Georgia is seen by Russia’s foreign policy experts as a blow to Russia’s diplomatic prestige, since Russia has been maintaining its peacekeeping force in South Ossetia, and Russian officials have vowed not to allow a resumption of the conflict many times.

“What happened last night in South Ossetia was also an attack of Georgia against Russia, since Russian peacekeepers also came under attack,” said Alexander Pikayev, a senior research fellow at the Moscow-based Institute for World Economy and International Relations. “Besides, the crushing of South Ossetia will present Russia as a weak country. It may destabilize Russia’s North Ossetia and lead to a growth of separatist movements inside Russia. Moscow needs to take urgent measures to reestablish its prestige.”

But what measures can Russia take? Sending Russian troops to help the embattled South Ossetians, most of whom became citizens of Russia during the 1990s, will be interpreted as interference in Georgia’s internal affairs not only by Georgia itself, but also by the United States and other NATO countries that openly support Georgia.

“It makes me laugh when the Western press presents Georgia as a victim of Russia, as a small country being bullied by a powerful neighbor,” said Vyacheslav Igrunov, the director of the Moscow-based Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies. “If Georgia had been bullied and afraid, it would not have started a military operation now. On the contrary, Georgia seeks a conflict with Russia, knowing that it will have some powerful NATO countries behind its back.”

It should be noted that Tbilisi’s actions invalidate the peace plan of the German Foreign Minister Franz Walter Steinmaier, who recently visited the area suggesting a gradual de-escalation of the conflict by making Georgia and its separatist regions agree not to use violence and to later start negotiations on the return of refugees and on economic reintegration.

The start of the Georgian military action can be seen as a snub to Germany and some other EU countries that tried to broker peace in the region. “It is even more of a snub since Germany was clearly on the side of Georgia in its conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” noted Yevgeny Grigoryev, a veteran Russian expert on Germany currently working as a political commentator for Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Now the fate of the conflict will be decided not in diplomatic corridors, but on the battlefield, where the American-trained Georgian troops are engaging Ossetian fighters.
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