Published by the League for the Fifth International (Predecessor organization of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, RCIT), 22.8.2008
The August conflict
The Georgia conflict (or more accurately the South Ossetian conflict) ended with a crushing defeat for Georgia, unable to stand up to the Russian military for more than a day before calling a retreat out of South Ossetia. The conflict was started by a Georgian military missile bombardment into South Ossetia followed by an invasion into the break away region in order to 'restore order'.
This violated a decade old agreement with Russia to not send in military forces into the region. It was timed to coincide with the opening ceremony of the Beijing games; most of the important heads of state were away watching the fireworks when Georgia launched its attack on Tskhinvali, the capital of the Georgian Ossetians. Georgia is desperate to become a client state of the USA in order to secure itself against the threat of a Russian take over. To this end it has applied to join NATO and worked hard to establish a close relationship with the western powers. In order to join NATO however a member state must not be waging an internal conflict within its own borders something that prevents Georgia from entry into NATO (but curiously, not Turkey, which is waging a violent war against the Kurdish minority). Georgia's military is trained and equipped by the US and Israel. The military closeness is demonstrated by the US airlift of 800 Georgian troops from Iraq (where they constituted the third largest component of the invasion force in 2003) to Georgia in order to help fight the Russians.
When Russia intervened into South Ossetia the Georgian army was forced back and quickly ramped up the international media blitz. The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, appeared repeatedly on international news programmes giving direct interviews to the News presenters appealing for help from the outside world to stop Russian aggression. Like a bully who beats up a small child and then runs to the teachers when the child's big brother enters the fight, Georgia wanted to use this as a force the hand of the US to further isolate Russia. The most pro US states jumped at the chance to bash Russia. Jim Murphy, a British minister referred to Georgia as a "small beautiful democracy", ignoring the brutal suppression of anti government protests on November 2007 which resulted in 600 people being hospitalised and critical journalists being attacked by the Georgian security forces. Many ministers rushed to condemn Russian aggression and violence. The US attempted to put a resolution to the security council of the UN, a hopeless task as China and Russia would have vetoed it without a moment's hesitation.
Certainly Russian objectives reflect its desire to maintain hegemony in its near abroad. Having "lost" the Baltic states to NATO and with the US on the verge of stationing its anti-missile defence system in Poland, not only Georgia but also more ominously Ukraine are being slated for NATO-membership by the USA. The latter country has a huge Russian minority and the Crimea (largely Russian speaking is the main naval location for the Black Sea fleet. Acting in such a way as to support the Ossetian and Abkhazian demands for self determination whilst not going so far as to militarily annex the regions 'for their own good' preserves Georgia in a perpetual state of internal conflict. This helps to neuter Georgia and prevent its entry into NATO. But even more significantly it is an implicit warning to Ukraine.
The military conflict was not unexpected by the US. Not only did the swift and slick propaganda campaign of the Georgian government give away the prior planning of the 'information war' but also several sources reported the joint US-Georgia-Israel training exercise in the weeks before. The training exercise ended a week before the missile attack on Tskhinvali. In response to this exercise, Russian military units appeared on the border with Georgia and organised their own 'training exercise'. This explains the rapidity with which the Russian army was able to mount an invasion the South Ossetian region. Israel has played a not insignificant role in this conflict also. It is a partner in the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, a crucial oil and gas route to the eastern Mediterranean, which is a major business venture by the US government, alongside Bechtel, Turkey, Azerbaijan, France and several others. According the BBC and other news sources, Israel has military advisors in Georgia as well as a joint military venture that involves the upgrading of Georgian military equipment and providing aircraft to the Georgian air force.
South Ossetia is a small mountainous region in central Georgia with a border that runs along Russia, where many 'northern' Ossetians live. It represents a minority nation within Georgia itself. Descendants of a nomadic people the Alans- that ranged from the south Russian steppes to the Hungarian great plain, they have been settled in the Caucasus for over a thousand years.In 1921 the Red army, after invading Menshevik Georgia in support of a Bolshevik uprising, granted autonomy to the Ossetians as an 'autonomous oblast', a province which practised a degree of autonomy and was allowed to use its own languages in schools, theatres and in various publications, maintaining its national identity through the 70 years of the USSR.
In 1990 the South Ossetians voted for independence after the break up of the USSR. But the Georgians- who invaded in 1991, starting a 17-month war against the tiny nationality- absolutely refused to recognise this. Vicious fighting followed between the Georgian military and the South Ossetian 'rebels' marked the conflict. In 2006 a poll was conducted with a 99% turn out which overwhelmingly voted for independence from Georgia. The international community who refused to recognise its validity ignored this poll. The right of nations to self-determination- enshrined in so many declarations of human rights, including those of the UN, is rarely if ever recognised, being usurped by the conflicting principle of the inviolability of the borders of sovereign states. The Ossetians make up a majority in South Ossetia, where Georgians make up only about 1/3rd of the population. Their desire for independence, of for joining up with the North Ossetians in Russia and the threat they feel from is demonstrated by the fact that most of the 70,000 Ossetians hold Russian passports, and prefer to use Russian currency instead of Georgian.
Considered almost as a side show to the war in South Ossetia, a similar struggle is taking place in Abkhazia, to the west of Georgia. The Abkhaz resistance has driven Georgian troops out of key positions in the region and regained control of strategic areas over the last few weeks.Abkhazia too was autonomous under the USSR - from 1921, until Stalin incorporated it into Georgia in 1931. Although still formally autonomous, its language was sharply repressed and Georgian was taught in schools and was the only legally language for publication.
Making similar claims to independence as South Ossetia, the region broke away in 1992 but, as with South Ossetia, was denied any formal recognition by any government. It declared independence proper in 1999, after having driven the Georgian forces out a few years earlier. There was also significant ethnic cleansing by the Abkhazians in order to ensure their claim to national self-determination.
Abkhazia situation is complicated by the fact that the Abkhaz themselves are a minority within the region, constituting only around 43.8% of the population according to the 2003 census. Georgians make up 23%, with 20.8% Armenians and 10.8% Russians. Many were driven out during fighting before 1993, now roughly half have returned, some of them as labourers who cross the border between Georgia and Abkhazia regularly to work in agriculture.
Whilst the claim to self-determination in Abkhazia is complicated by these factors it is still necessary to respect the right to exercise self-determination in the Abkhazia region by a full and fair vote without interference from either Russia or Georgia.
Increasing tension between Russia and the USA
However since the downfall of the USSR in 1991 Russia has suffered a serious loss of influence across the Baltic's and eastern European countries. Most of the new capitalist democracies rushed into the arms of the west, seeking "prosperity" through EU membership and "security" through joining up to NATO. The west- above all the American Big Brother of the alliance - has held out the prospect of Georgia and Ukraine following Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, declaring with breathtaking cynicism that NATO is no longer aimed at Russia. This prompts the question who then is it aimed at then? And if so why not invite Russia to join it? The western backed independence of Kosovo is one of only the latest in a string of defeats for Russian political hegemony and reflect to some degree the balance power just across the Russian borders still largely favours the USA. The US has aggressively promoted programmes to win states away from Russia's sphere of influence, including the partnership for peace programme and the GUUAM network of Georgia, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova. The US, via the medium of its NGOs and stateside émigré populations, brought about a series of "civil society revolutions" (often named after colours or flowers) in countries adjacent to or with governments sympathetic to Russia. The 5 October 2000 revolution in Serbia, which overthrew Slobodan Milosevic, acted as a spur to the Rose Revolution in George where the vehemently anti-Russian Mikheil Saakashvili replaced the mildly pro-Russian Eduard Shevarnadze. In Georgia the US billionaire George Soros was implicated in funding the pro western political movements with several million dollars. The biggest of them all was Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-05, which saw pro-western Vicktor Yuschenko replace the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan followed in 2005.
Russia has moved into increasingly hostile relations with states that have become, or seek to become, client states of the USA, 'gas wars' with Ukraine, military threats against Georgia, etc. In return the USA imposed economic sanctions on Belarus, which is traditionally a more loyal ally to Moscow.
Coupled with this is the expansion of huge military bases across central Asia and Eastern Europe, now placing bombers and troops in a web around Russia's western border. The straw which broke the camel's back is the development of the US missile defence shield, which despite protestations to the contrary from the Pentagon is primarily aimed at neutralising Russia's nuclear deterrent (its intercontinental ballistic missiles). A situation allowing the world's only superpower to use nuclear blackmail without fear of retaliation does not make the world a safer place, given the fact that the US has recently repeated its refusal to rule out a first-strike option. It is after all the only state to have actually used this supreme weapon of mass destruction. Russia's refusal to put itself at the mercy of the US is rational and explains its pressure on the Czech republic and Poland, key countries in the missile shield network, to abandon the project. In mid August Russia threatened to make Poland a target if it sited the missiles on its territory: an action the Murdoch press in the UK predictably headlined as "Russia to nuke Poland!"George Bush's comment that "Georgia is a sovereign nation and its territorial integrity must be respected," must of course also be seen in the light of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the threats of war against Iran. The US plays the good democrat when it wishes and brutally tramples these principles whenever it suits them.
The role of the leading EU member states- France and Germany - in the recent conflict indicates that they are not as hawkish or prone to military posturing as the US administration. Sarkozy, currently president of the EU, rushed to Moscow to enter into political dialogue with the Kremlin. Merkel was very cautious, laying the blame 'not just one side', calling, not to look for someone to blame, but for a "constructive solution". Some senior Italian, French or German politicians openly expressed their "understanding" for the Russian position.
This is not because the EU is any less imperialistic than the transatlantic colossus but rather that these powers seek Russia as a present source of oil, gas and other raw materials and indeed as a future ally, a counterweight to the USA. In addition they are aware that the US plan to create a belt of pro-US client statlets around Russia, is also designed to hem in a future European super state. Indeed, this conflict has already been openly expressed before, i.e. at the NATO summit in April 2008, where Germany blocked a US-initiative to enter negotiations with Georgia to enter NATO.
Russia: A growing power
The decline of Russian hegemony started with the spectacular collapse of the USSR but was compounded by the structural weaknesses of Russian capitalism in the post Soviet period. Marked by corruption, graft, nepotism and criminality. The "shock therapy" IMF treatment resulted in a decade in the wilderness for Russia in terms of its ability to maintain its role as a global power. Russia emerged from the USSR as a minor imperialist power with a rapidly dwindling sphere of influence. This situation started to change in the 21st century when Russia began to flex its muscles more. It became more vocal about US interference and political involvement in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. It restarted long-range bomber flights in 2007. From 2006 it started an increasingly bitter diplomatic spat with the British, including the assassination of critics of the Putin regime in London, which caused a huge Russophobic media campaign. In July 2007 Russia even expelled four diplomatic staff from Moscow.
The economic basis for this was the 1998 crisis, which saw the devaluation of the rouble, and the beginnings of an expansion of the Russian economy. By 2000 the Russian economy started a pronounced upward curve of development, GDP per annum rising to nearly 7% in 2006. The growth of oil and gas prices helped to enrich its coffers further. However it is still less industrialised and less rich that most other G8 countries (in 2005 its GNI was only just slightly ahead of Brazil, for instance)
However internally within Russia itself there is a marked tendency towards a bonapartist regime, using repressive measures against all oppositionists that might attempt a "velvet revolution there." Indeed the first signals that the US and its Institute for Democracy was showing an interest in the upcoming election, that it was seeking alliances with the ousted oligarchs of the Yeltsin era, produced a violent reaction from Putin - in 2001 proclaimed a personal friend of Bush and ally of America in the "war against terrorism". The reaction in Moscow to the US meddling has been highly disadvantageous to sincere supporters of democratic rights. The election of Medevev in late 2007 was essentially an agreed hand over of power between Putin and his chosen successor, facilitated by massive government involvement in the media to ensure that the public got the right message. International observers described the elections as 'not fair' and condemned the role of Putin in the affair. Anti government demonstrations have been brutally suppressed and opposition leaders locked up. Reactionary movements have been allowed to flourish; recently hitting the international headlines when the gay rights march in Moscow was attacked by fascists, reactionary Christians and the police. However, Russia's economy is still too weak to allow it to really compete far beyond its own region- the near abroad of former USSR states. The stock market in Moscow has plunged several times over the last period and many of the banks are in serious financial trouble. Russia even invested $100 billion of its gold and foreign currency reserves (about 18% of the total) in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the US mortgage companies, another example of Russia's bad luck on the economic front.
The growing connection between Russia and China, indicated by joint military exercises and trade agreements for oil and gas, as well as a common understanding to respect each others political actions, reflects the tension between the rising powers and the overweight world hegemon, the desire for the contenders to the throne to co-operate against the world bully, as long as that co-operation is in their interests.
Therefore we can conclude that events in Georgia show there is a tendency towards growing inter-imperialist rivalry between the USA and Russia. The US is the primary antagonist in this, as it is operating more openly in Russia's backyard. Russia is running to catch up, but the global balance of military power will be very difficult to alter in its favour in the near future, outside its own region. There however it has indicated that it will not tolerate any more NATO expansion. Should the US push the inclusion of Ukraine we can expect a major crisis that could lead to the dismemberment of that country. At the very least we can expect to see growing diplomatic strains, political manoeuvres for position and more military adventures that will require a careful balancing act by both sides to decide of how far to push them and how to respond.
It is wrong for anti-US imperialist socialists to see the Russian military involvement as a sort of philanthropic act of a 'concerned neighbour' or s to side with Russia because it is the weaker imperialism and to a large extent the victim of US expansion. They supported and encouraged self-determination for the South Ossetians because it is a thorn in the side of the US allies, but they vehemently reject it for Kosovo, because Kosovo is a thorn in the side of Serbia, a Russian ally. Most scandalous of all it is willing to commit near genocidal terror in Chechnya, its own break away region, a violation that gathers very little interest, let alone protest from the international 'community'. Russia is an imperialist power motivated in this conflict as in all others by the will to dominate and exploit not to defend democratic rights and must therefore be opposed. As socialists we must oppose the imperialism of the US and Russia equally, whilst being clear that the main protagonist on a global scale is still the USA. The geo political concerns of the USA are to secure its own energy supplies and prevent the emergence of Russia and China as serious global rivals. As the imperialists move and counter move for supremacy the small nations will increasingly be caught in the middle as the division and redivision of the world carries on. In the long term this will lead to some form of imperialist conflict as it has done twice before already. The current phase that we are in however is marked by US aggression across the globe and cynical moves by other imperialists to undermine the global hegemon.
Socialists must maintain a principled position against all attempts to deny self-determination to national minorities. In defending this right and calling on the international workers movement to render them direct assistance we advise them in the strongest terms not to link their struggles to one or another of the imperialist camps. If they are consistent in defending the democratic rights not only of one another but also of their national minorities (including allowing them the right to secede if they so wish) then the ëgreat powersî ("great bullies and great chauvinists" as Lenin called them) will have less opportunity to intervene and pit them against one another. The only long term solution to this outside fomenting of national antagonisms is a socialist federation of the Caucasus, just as in the BalkansIn the imperialist heartlands we must oppose all our rulers military adventures, even if oppressed national minorities or threatened small states urge the involvement of one or other military power. We are for the dismantling of NATO, the missile defence shield and the ripping up of all military treaties between the US and its clients and Russia and its 'near-abroad' allies.