“The aggressor has been punished” said Russian President Dimitri Medvedev of his decision to stop bombing Georgia. It’s a statement which could have been uttered by any number of leaders, and once in a while it’s even true, though in this world it is aggression which is usually rewarded, while no good deed goes unpunished. The veracity of the statement in any case, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. But if the reports are true that Russian forces were deliberately trying to terrorize the civilian population inside and outside the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, then perhaps the aggressor is not the one who was punished, at least according to Medvedev’s definition. And given that Russian troops moved out of the friendly separatist enclaves into undisputed Georgian territory in Senaki and Gori, perhaps Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was on track when he said that “Russian imperialist boots are stomping us.”
Sticks and stones (and cluster bombs and mortars) may break bones, but in this case, name-calling on either side not only won’t hurt anyone, since no one pays attention to it anyway, but it also isn’t the point. The point is that the conflict isn’t exactly about politics, nationalism, religion or ethnicity, though those play a hefty role in the brouhaha. Rather, it is, for lack of a better term, legal. Since the break up the Soviet Union and the ascendancy of the European Union, there are legal processes quite separate from politics which are causing all sorts of people in all sorts of countries to rethink how they approach international relations. The rash of secessationism which recently flared up all around the world like Chicken Pox is the proving ground for these new legal processes.
Punishment of aggression comes not only in a military form; it also comes in the form of alarmed investors who, in this case, are causing the fall of the ruble and Russian stocks. No only that, but Russia’s show of force might have the unintended consequence – as most shows of force eventually do have – of rallying the normally fractious Georgian body politic, half of which yearns to return to the bosom of Mother Russia, while the other half wants to join the EU and NATO, round the rose-colored flag. That is exactly what various media outlets have been accusing Saakashvili of aiming for when he launched the military operation in S. Ossetia back on 7 August. Perhaps. But if he was also hoping for Western governments to come dashing to his rescue from imperialist boots, he was looking through rosy-colored glasses, as is attested to by the roaring silence from his putative deliverers. But that lack of response might just aid Saakashvili in the end, too. There’s nothing like a blushing young democracy being jilted at the alter of European inclusion to spur a little nationalist solidarity at home.
It seems like there’s not much but nationalist pride behind the Georgian determination to drag Abkhazia and S. Ossetia, kicking and screaming, from the clutches of Russia. If they want to join the imperialist aggressors so much, why not let them go? After all the Abkhaz are Muslim (well, sort of; it is reported that only a small portion of them actually go to mosque. Also, only a small percentage of the Orthodox Georgians and Greeks in Abkhazia go to church. They’re busy.), and the Ossetians, both North and South, never really fit in, and neither area is located atop oil reserves or even much in the way of arable land. But then, before the Abkhaz secessationist movement in 1992, there were almost as many ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia than Abkhaz, Russians, Armenians and Greeks put together. The displaced Georgians want to go home. Besides, some of the best beaches are in Abkhazia, and the climate is exceptionally salubrious. Who’d want to give that up? And Ossetians have always been a rambunctious bunch, declaring themselves autonomous over and over again to whomever is currently holding the reins. But the formation and then dissolution of the USSR left S. Ossetia a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages, which are hard to divvy up, though Georgians only made up about a quarter of the population. Most of all, though, fighting for Abkhazia and S. Ossetia is a matter of grumbling “give ‘em an inch, those imperialist boots, and they’ll take a mile.”