Thursday, August 14, 2008

Georgia On Our Mind

My wife's extraordinary daughter-in-law, Christina Ezrahi, has been a student of Russia and the Caucasus for many years. Born in Munich to a pan-European industrial family, she recently completed her doctorate in Russian history at the University of London, writing about Communism's political uses of classical ballet. A few years back, she worked for the United Nations in Moscow, and traveled often to war-torn Chechnya.

Christina sent us this email this morning, in despair about Western coverage of the Russian conflict with Georgia:

The whole situation makes me weep. But Russia's actions don't any more than Georgia's. It is too early to really know what's been going on. But Condoleezza Rice is using dangerous, completely inaccurate historical analogies which will not contribute to solving this crisis. On the contrary, Rice's comparison of Russia's move into Ossetia to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 is so wrong that it almost gave me a heart attack. It certainly made me (once again) extremely cynical about the rhetoric of American foreign policy which, at least under this administration, is setting a world record for combining moral arrogance with complete ignorance of history; for a disregard for the complexity of reality, especially in an ethnically diverse region like the Caucasus.

The last thing I want to do is to justify Russian actions which have definitely gone too far. But Saakashvili went into South Ossetia first. The Russians are nationalistic and xenophobic, but so are the Georgians. When the Soviet Union collapsed, South Ossetia (which had been an autonomous region within the Georgian republic, and which even enjoyed brief independence in the 1920s) wanted to join Russia. North Ossetia is a part of Russia, and 98% of the population in the south voted in favor--especially as the Georgian regime after the collapse of the USSR operated under the strongly nationalistic slogan "Georgia for the Georgians," seriously threatening ethnic minorities like the Ossetians. Georgia then marched into South Ossetia and razed much of it to the ground. After an international agreement, the Russians were appointed peacekeepers, but the situation continued to be a ticking time bomb.

I know the US loves Saakashvili because he was educated in the US and speaks good English, but he is anything but a little democratic lamb. He also ran on a platform to regain full control of separatist regions like South Ossetia and started to build up troops there. The situation further deteriorated since the international acknowledgment of Kosovo's independence.

Watching all of this, I can't help thinking that the US clearly applies the principle of self-determination very selectively. If Georgia were Russia, and Russia were Georgia, the US would call for the world to accept South Ossetia's right for self-determination. Again, I am not in favor of what Russia has been doing, but I am appalled by the US rhetoric because it will only contribute to further escalation. Why can the US never see shades of grey, but instead has to use the rhetoric of black vs. white, good vs. evil?

The US understandably cares about the balance of power in the Caucasus, but why does it need to evoke 1968 and throw oil on the flames? This is not the moment for warped rhetoric and sound bites, but for astute diplomacy. And as always, the civilians in both South Ossetia and Georgia are the ones who'll suffer.