- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 14, 2008

They’re called “frozen conflicts.” They are areas of the former Soviet Union where ethnic hostilities have simmered for 15 years, since the end of the Cold War, awaiting the slightest provocation to escalate into a wider war.

When Russian tanks rolled across the border into Georgia last week, one such conflict, between the former Soviet republic of Georgia and the breakaway province of South Ossetia, heated up.

Whether the Russian intervention was, as its leaders have stated, to protect its peacekeepers and civilians or was a broader message to the West to stem its incursion into the former Soviet sphere of influence, the scene was reminiscent to many of Cold War-style aggression.

Amid disputes over a declared cease-fire, it remains to be seen how the West will respond to Russia and whether Russia’s military incursion was an isolated response or a significant change in policy toward the West.

“Georgia is the first test case,” its president, Mikhail Saakashvili, said at a rally in the capital, Tbilisi, on Tuesday. “It was chosen first because it was a very successful democracy. We had the highest economic growth rate here; we have freedom of press, civil society.”

Relations between Russia and Georgia have deteriorated steadily since Mr. Saakashvili’s election in 2004. The pro-Western Mr. Saakashvili, who ousted former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in what is referred to as the Rose Revolution in 2003, dramatically increased military spending and applied for NATO membership.

His efforts to reach out to the United States were rewarded with a visit in April 2005 from President Bush, who encouraged “closer cooperation with NATO” and lauded the ties between Tbilisi and Washington.

Georgia deployed 2,000 troops to Iraq, marking the third-largest coalition contingent behind the United States and Great Britain. Most of those troops were withdrawn when the armed conflict with Russia began.

The growing ties between Georgia and the West have angered Russia. Some analysts say that while Russia’s military action was a means of punishing Georgia for moving into the separatist region of South Ossetia, it also was a response to Georgia’s turning its back on Moscow and throwing in with the West.

Over the objections of the United States, several NATO nations at an April summit in Romania blocked preliminary applications by Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance. Opponents cited Russian objections to further NATO enlargement, which would take the Western military alliance to Russia’s southern border.

The alliance was expected to take up the issue again at meetings in December, but the leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Wednesday called on NATO to give Georgia a clear road map to membership in the alliance in response to Russia’s military action.

Russian leaders seethed as Georgia brought in Americans to arm and train its troops. One of the first spots reportedly struck by Russian aircraft was a military base outside the Georgian capital where more than 1,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers led exercises last month.

The dispute has put the Bush administration in the position of middleman between a promising ally it wants to help and the powerful former adversary next door whose help it needs.

Washington praises democratic development in Georgia, delights in its contribution of combat troops for Iraq and acknowledges valuable intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation. But Moscow’s cooperation is vital to numerous Washington aims in Iran, North Korea and elsewhere.

“For all those reasons and the fact that Georgia has demonstrated that it is a close ally, we cannot simply sit by and say, ‘So be it, what does South Ossetia mean to us?’” said Janusz Bugajski, director of the new European democracies project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Georgia as a whole means quite a lot.”

The country’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are among the few places where ethnic, nationalist or other complications mean the Cold War went dormant but didn’t die.

“Within the Soviet Union, Georgia, along with Ukraine and the Baltic republics, posed some of the greatest problems for rulers in Moscow,” said Timothy Synder, a professor of history at Yale University. “The basic dynamic is that at all points of historical crisis - in 1917, 1991 and today - Georgia seeks international support for full control over its territory, while the local minorities seek support from Russia for their autonomy.”

Mr. Snyder said Georgians predominate in the country as a whole but minorities rule in small regions. He said Georgians see themselves as a separate nation with a Christian history older than that of most European nations. The country, actually named Sakartvelo, apparently is referred to as Georgia because of St. George, the country’s patron saint.

About the size of South Carolina, the country of just fewer than 5 million people borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia. It was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In 1918, Georgia took advantage of the Russian Revolution to declare independence, but it ended up in the power sphere of the Soviet Union after the country was attacked by the Red Army in 1921.

Ossetians, an Indo-European ethnic group, are scattered throughout Georgia, Russia and Turkey. Of the estimated 700,000 Ossetians worldwide, about 500,000 live in Russia, largely in the province of North Ossetia; about 60,000 to 70,000 live in South Ossetia. The Ossetians settled in the Caucasus Mountains in the 18th century and sided with Soviet Russia during the period of Georgian independence in 1918 to 1921.

South Ossetians began seeking more sovereignty in 1989 for their autonomous republic in north-central Georgia, but the Georgian Parliament abolished South Ossetia’s autonomous status.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet president at the time, declared the act unconstitutional in January 1991 and ordered Georgian troops out of the area.

Scattered clashes broke out between Ossetians and Georgians, with the Soviet army trying to keep order.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Georgia declared its independence. In May 1991, South Ossetians voted to unite with their ethnic kin in North Ossetia, across the border in Russia. Violent conflicts erupted between South Ossetia and Georgia, but in the face of Russian intervention, a cease-fire was negotiated that left South Ossetia with autonomy within Georgia.

The people of Abkhazia live under a similar arrangement. Like South Ossetians, many Abkazi separatists are loyal to Moscow.

South Ossetia’s rebels appear to favor incorporation into Russia, whose North Ossetia province contains their ethnic brethren. Abkhazia’s separatists lean more toward independence but are well-disposed to Russia and could opt for incorporation.

“It’s important to note that both nations consider themselves to be of distinct origins and to be distinct nations,” said Charles King, a professor at Georgetown University.

“Both separatists fought a war with the Georgian regional government, one that was assisted covertly by the Russians, and the Georgian military was beaten,” he said. “Since then, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have held de facto independence even though the international community recognizes them as part of Georgia.”

Georgia says the Russians support the separatists and complains that a four-party “joint control commission” consisting of Russia, North Ossetia, South Ossetia and Georgia that was to work out the region’s final status was weighted against it.

Since coming to power, Mr. Saakashvili has vowed to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under Georgian control.

Russia formally recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia as parts of Georgia, but it sides with their separatist leaders in disputes with the Georgian government and has granted many of their residents Russian citizenship - one of the justifications used by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to send military forces.

Tensions soared between South Ossetia and Georgia in recent weeks amid accusations by each side that the other was staging attacks as provocations. Mr. Saakashvili, who had called a unilateral cease-fire just hours before the major fighting began, said Georgia began the assault of Tskhinvali, the regional capital of South Ossetia, in response to separatist violations of the cease-fire.

The Russian incursion came after Georgian forces took control over six villages near Tskhinvali earlier in the day - an attack Russian defense officials claimed resulted in the death of its peacekeepers, who have been stationed in South Ossetia after an agreement ending South Ossetia’s separatist war in 1992.

It is unclear whether Russia would try to take permanent control of pieces of Georgia outside the two separatist regions. Such a move would bring international condemnation, but Russia so far has angrily dismissed world criticism.

As for the breakaway regions, Western diplomats and analysts say Mr. Saakashvili has little hope of reasserting his authority after his failed invasion of South Ossetia.

Sergei Shamba, self-styled foreign minister of Abkhazia, told Reuters that Georgia should accept that it is a separate country.

“We have held talks with Georgia for 15 years, and now we will only talk with them after recognition of our independence,” Mr. Shamba said.

  • This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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