The Russian-Georgian Conflict: An Inside View

Right in the middle of an 18-month treatment for a pair of amenorrheic ovaries on strike due to poor diet, I couldn’t help wondering, sitting in the waiting room of the Moscow clinic earlier this year, whether my Georgian-born gynecologist would be at any minute snatched away by the Russian security services, put on a Tbilisi-bound plane and sent back home indefinitely.

After all, this is exactly what happened during Russia’s anti-Georgian campaign two years ago. The Kremlin’s response to the fall 2006 standoff with its former Cold War foe, which had been brewing since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2004 and moved Georgia closer to the West, was a well-planned purge of Russia’s Georgian Diaspora, complete with economic sanctions, suspension of transport and mail links, harassment of Georgian businesses, tougher visa rules, mass deportations, and the Moscow police asking schools to turn over lists of children with Georgian-sounding last names so as to locate their parents. Ethnic cleansing, no less.

A phone call this weekend to Diana Tsintsadze at ON Clinic allayed my fears: “All is well, the crisis hasn’t affected me, neither personally nor professionally,” she said.

Still, as a Moscow resident for eight years before hopping on a Moscow-MIT one-way flight, I can’t help thinking about the 100,000 or so Georgians living in Moscow, or their US-based compatriots such as the 5,000 living in the New York area. And then, about the thousands of citizens in Georgia and the independent enclave of South Ossetia displaced and wounded in the most violent confrontation between the two old rivals in decades: the five-day war of August 8–12, 2008 between Russia and Georgia.

Overnight, the brief war that was fought after Tbilisi’s August 8 invasion of the pro-Russian separatist region of South Ossetia, which sparked the larger-scale Russian invasion to drive the Georgian forces back, has thrown all these people and the little-known regions they are from into the midst of high geopolitics and new Cold War rhetoric.

In their criticism of Russia’s violent and sudden response, Western nations have framed these people’s fate and the whole conflict as a clear-cut tale of evil Russia bent on the demise and annexation of West-loving Georgia.

There is no doubt that Saakashvili’s Georgia has shown impressive economic growth and a genuine desire to integrate with the Western world, and that Russia’s skillful political tactics, such as issuing South Ossetians with Russian passports and then integrating them into the Russian social welfare system, has amounted to the covert assimilation first of the population and then the whole region, into the Russian Federation. Given the expansionist nature of Russian ambitions, it is not hard to imagine Russia’s full-scale annihilation and annexation of Georgia.

But this conflict is far more complex. The first frictions between Russia and Georgia can be traced back to the battle of Aspindza in 1770 and there are plenty of possible culprits for the current ones: the Georgians for stoking up ethnic hatred in 1992, the Ossetians for racketeering and constant provocation, Saakashvili for irresponsibly shelling a city, Putin for a brutal and cynical takeover, and America and the West for failing to keep a close watch on Saakashvili’s madder impulses, to back its democratic rhetoric with action, for watching it all passively and letting Russia get away with it almost unscathed. In Europe, such cowardice allowed Hitler to take over.

Now, as Sarkozy’s skillfully negotiated ceasefire agreement gives hope for an end to this destructive episode and Russian troops withdraw, crucial questions remain: what is the true death toll in Tskhinvali? Will there be a full investigation into the causes and lessons of the war? Where were Saakashvili’s American military advisors who should have heard of his wild scheme and helped avert it? Above all, now that Russia has won this small war against one of its neighbors, will it stop there?

If one needs more evidence that Russia’s real goal is to bring back Georgia, and by extension its former soviet Republics and who knows what else, within its orbit, its planned increase in defense spending may offer some clues: it will reach 1.28 trillion rubles ($50 billion) in 2008 and will be boosted 26 percent next year, according to Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. President Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement last week that following the war with Georgia he will make modernization of the Russian army a top priority is but the latest of the Kremlin’s repeated pledges to create powerful armed forces, which it sees as key in Russia’s national revival.

One can also look at the little clues — the city-drafted poster on the front door of my apartment building in Moscow, which says “Moscow for Muscovites!” — or the mass street patriotic hysteria stretching across nine time zones that followed Russia’s upset of the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the Euro 2008 football championships in June. Some signs are more sinister, such as the use of a new textbook in schools this fall, titled “A History of Russia, 1900–1945,” which “explores Stalin’s personality” and is part of a series of revised education materials the authors say will help promote patriotism in young people.

The question is not whether Russia dreams of, and plans to regain its lost power and territories. It is whether it is capable of doing so. And the answer is “no.”

There is cause to treat with skepticism the renewed strength, regained superpower status and rebirth that Russia has been trumpeting about to all and sundry, sometimes through thuggish foreign policy. It is clear it wants them. But its crumbling, underfinanced social infrastructure, mindless and passive populace, brainwashed beyond belief through the mostly state controlled media, its stunted and disorganized opposition, emaciated army and outdated weaponry, and paranoiac fear in the face of NATO expansion make Russia look weak, and even tragically funny. Like the little boy in the kindergarten’s playground throwing a tantrum: everybody can hear him and sure, it’s noisy, but what real threat does he pose?

There is no doubt that Russia dreams day and night of regained status, expansion and maybe more, as the recent events in the Caucasus confirm, but these are just that — dreams.

One needs real capacity to implement plans, such as ideas, a thoughtful, critical and creative people, and values such as integrity and freedom, which will allow them to thrive. Russia is very poor in all these areas. Also, it has few friends, and its friendships are dysfunctional. One day these friends are by its side, the next they are gone or ready to stab her in the back, should their own interests be compromised.

Russia’s attempts — and failure — at winning support from its Central Asian allies on Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence are symptomatic. Even Venezuela, to whom Russia has sold $3.5 billion worth of arms in recent years, hasn’t offered recognition, despite the close personal ties Putin has developed with President Hugo Chavez.

Russia has oil and gas, but not much else. Essentially, it is alone. One more reason the United States and the West should not fear its expansionist fantasies.

“What about the United States’ own imperialistic agenda?” I hear you say — but since when have someone’s evil acts absolved one from one’s own?

Florence Gallez is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative Media Studies.