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Analysis & Opinion
10.08.09 Reflecting On The Tragedy
By Dmitry Babich

As Russia commemorates the first anniversary of its short-lived war with Georgia, the press, the expert community and politicians are all asking the same questions: what were the war’s real casualties? Was the war inevitable? Could Russia, Georgia and the international community have behaved differently, and thus avoided the tragedy? Can the war repeat itself? Russia’s leading public opinion research centers polled the public, asking these questions.

The polls revealed that the general appraisal of Russia’s participation in the war as a painful but unavoidable step remains almost unchanged since last year. However, moral justification of the war does not translate into a general feeling of security. Until recently, most of the polled still considered the situation around the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “tense” and “insecure,” and did not exclude the possibility of another armed conflict in this area.

Polls by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM), conducted at various stages of the standoff around South Ossetia during the last five years, allowed the pollsters to track several main attitudes toward the events in Georgia prevalent in Russia’s public opinion. The first was a relatively pacifist and passive attitude before Mikheil Saakashvili’s coming to power in 2003. This attitude was gradually replaced by one of concern and sympathy for Ossetians, as armed skirmishes on the border became widespread at the start of Saakashvili’s rule in 2004. The public even slipped into a jingoist mood at the moment of his initial attack against South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali in August 2008, and the armed intervention of Russian troops was received with more or less general approval. After the shock of the war was offset by the economic crisis in 2008 to 2009, the public remained convinced of the need to support South Ossetia, but enthusiasm for economic aid somewhat lessened. Options of political, diplomatic and military support became more popular than direct cash transfers and state-financed construction projects.

According to a poll conducted by VTsIOM among 1,600 respondents at 140 locations, 60 percent of the respondents said that Russia “did the right thing” when it got involved in the fighting, and only six percent said Russia was “wrong” to do it. The most widespread justification for the war had a humanitarian character. Responding to a question on why Russia had to get involved, people most often claimed that “otherwise, South Ossetians would have been slaughtered.” But were these fears justified?

Speaking in the morning of August 8, after the overnight bombardment and capture of Tskhinvali by Georgian troops but before the onslaught of Russian forces which reached South Ossetia in the afternoon of the same day, the Georgian Minister of Reintegration Daviv Yakobashvili said that Georgia’s goal was not the destruction of Ossetian civilians, but the reestablishment of constitutional order on the whole of Georgia’s territory, with amnesty “even for some members of the South Ossetian government.” Yakobashvili did not specify what would happen to the other members. Russian human rights groups, as well as observers from Human Rights Watch and Memorial NGOs, reported widespread casualties among the South Ossetian population on the day of the Georgian attack. At least 160 civilians were killed (the South Ossetian authorities, who initially came out with the figure of around two thousand victims, later reduced it to several hundred, providing names and details of more than 300 killed or missing persons).

According to the poll conducted by another respected Russian pollster, the Levada Center, 47 percent of Russians consider the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia “tense,” a drop of 7 percent from last year’s 54 percent. According to the Levada poll, 54 percent of Russians think that Russian troops ought to stay in South Ossetia. Only 24 percent of the polled think that troops should be withdrawn, with 22 percent of respondents undecided on the issue.

This pattern of public attitudes marks a stark contrast with 2004, the first year of Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidential tenure, when the situation on the line dividing South Ossetia with Georgia proper started to intensify. At the time, only six percent of the polled spoke for providing military assistance to South Ossetia, and 34 percent said Russia should not support either the Georgian or the South Ossetian side of the conflict. Among possible roles for Russia in 2004 “brinksmanship” and “mediation” were the most popular ones, garnering about 29 percent of support.

So what made the Russian public change its mind? Was it merely the propaganda emanating from the state-owned television channels? “This can provide just a partial explanation for the change of the mood in society,” said Olga Kamenchuk, VTsIOM’s director of communications. “Tensions around South Ossetia have been growing steadily for many months, but the dramatic outcome was still a surprise to many. Even some people who had access to Western media during the conflict supported the intervention of the Russian troops. Many of them noticed that the United States and the EU countries were very slow in their reaction to the initial attack against Tskhinvali, and that the Western media’s criticism of Russia had some tinges of propaganda in it. In this situation, the society was consolidated around the idea of intervening on the side of the Ossetians – for various reasons.”

The war made many Russians reconsider their very attitude toward the conflicting principles of state sovereignty and the right of nations to self-determination. The share of people supporting the right of nations to self-determination grew from 19 percent in 2004 to 35 percent today, obviously reflecting the feeling of compassion for South Ossetians. Thirty-four percent more people think that the right of nations to self-determination should be respected “in certain circumstances,” and that cases like this should be reviewed “on an individual basis.”

However, when faced with the realities of politics, people are not always sure what Russia and South Ossetia should do with their newly-formed alliance and South Ossetia’s de facto independence from Georgia. One thing is for sure: Russians do not want to see South Ossetia as a part of Georgia again, as only three percent of respondents supported this solution. Fifty-five percent of VTsIOM’s respondents suggest treating South Ossetia as an independent state, 24 to 29 percent would like to see it as a part of the Russian Federation, and nine percent suggest the partial solution of taking South Ossetia into the Union State of Russia and Belarus, a largely formal alliance whose institutions are still weak.

The politicians’ reactions to the tragic and controversial events of last summer reflect a certain vagueness in the public perception. “I have no doubts that Russia had to get involved in the conflict,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party. “However, the scope of that involvement could have been much smaller. I don’t think it was the right step to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries, because this attitude contradicted Russia’s stance on similar cases in other countries. But I have no doubt, and international experts confirm this, that it was Saakashvili who organized the provocation.”

As it so often happens in Russian history, the question “who is to blame?” is answered much more eagerly than the question of “what is to be done?”
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