I have to admit that I was misled about the Georgian blood bath. From what I heard at first on television and read in the newspapers it seemed that – out of the blue – Russia had launched an unprovoked attack on its tiny neighbor. I was ready to believe this version of events because Russia’s leaders are ex-KGB thugs who give lip service to democracy but blatantly rule through intimidation and trickery.
They have also been fingered in spy-meets-spy murders abroad. You know the old adage: Give a dog a bad name and you might as well hang him. So I was too quick to place all the blame for the Georgian mess on Vladimir Putin and his gang .
But I have since searched the Web for background information and I have found the Russian attack was not sudden or unprovoked. The situation in Ossetia and Abkhazia has been simmering for a long time, and Russia has actually been involved in a peacekeeping role.
South Ossetians first rebelled (unsuccessfully) against Georgian rule nearly a century ago. And when the Soviet Union started to disintegrate, South Ossetian separatist guerrillas took up arms once more. That led to the then-Georgian government calling in international peace keepers. A force with 500 troops each from Russia, North Ossetia-Alania (part of Russia), South Ossetia and Georgia has been monitoring a 1992 truce between South Ossetia and Georgia. South Ossetia has even been using Russian rubles as its currency.
What’s the beef in South Ossetia? Most of the people there belong to a separate Iranian ethnic group driven from their homes along the Don River by invading Mongols more than 500 years ago. Only about a fifth of the province’s population are ethnic Georgians. The non-Georgian South Ossetians have long complained that they have been discriminated against culturally, socially, economically and politically. In a 2006 referendum, full independence was supported by 99 per cent of the province’s voters.
When Mikhail Saakashvili replaced Eduard Shevardnadze as president in the “Rose Revolution” of 2003, Georgia’s political climate changed. Saakashvili is a western educated lawyer who rose to power on a platform of anti-corruption and economic reform, which emphasized free market solutions and privatization.
He has been working closely with the Bush administration and has brought in U.S. advisers to train and arm Georgian troops. He has made huge purchases of Israeli and U.S.-made weapon systems, expanding his country’s military budget from $30 million to $1 billion (U.S.) a year. He has also applied for membership in NATO, a move the Russians regard as provocative.
It was Saakashvili who suddenly sent his army into the breakaway provinces in an effort to bring them back under Georgian rule. Putin accuses him of “genocide” in that operation.
Several anti-U.S. world leaders are accusing the Bush Administration of ordering the Georgian putsch, and Vladimir Vasilyev, the chairman of Russia’s State Duma Security Committee, put it this way: “The Americans have prepared the force, which destroys everything in South Ossetia, attacks civilians and hospitals.”
I know, I know, the Russian leaders lack credibility – to put it mildly – so why should we believe them? Still, it is a fact that the U.S. helped arm Saakashvili’s forces.