Back in October 2006, I found myself engaged in a classic pub conversation: I was convinced that there must be a country that would appear before Afghanistan in an alphabetical list. LB was less sure. As it turns out, we were both kind of right: we discovered a small state struggling to assert its independence from Georgia but learned that although it was apparently a de jure independent state, it hadn't actually been recognised by the UN. The argument then predictably became a stand-off as LB adopted the purist line that until Abkhazia was recognised by the United Nations, then it didn't count as a country and Afghanistan was still first. For the purposes of my argument, I became a staunch advocate of Abkhazian independence and began to do a bit of research that might back up my point. What I discovered was something of an eye-opener, as I stumbled across a fierce conflict that had completely escaped my attention and probably the attention of at least 99% of the rest of the world.
Here's what I said at the time:
"Land of beauty and contrasting landscapes, from coastal forests and citrus plantations all the way through to snowcapped mountains. Home to some of the tallest trees in Europe and the world, with some Nordmann Firs reaching as high as 70m / 230ft. It is also home to one of the most bitterly fought (and yet strangely unreported) struggles for independence in Europe. Abkhazia has a history dating back to the ancient kingdom of Colchis, the legendary home of the Golden Fleece and the destination of the Argonauts. More recently, Abkhazia was an autonomous republic within the Soviet Union. Georgia declared independence from the USSR on 9th April 1991, and the following year the ruling military council announced that it was abolishing the Soviet Constitution. The Abkhaz government saw this as an attempt to abolish their autonomous status and on 23rd July 1992 they declared secession from Georgia. Troops were despatched and a bloody struggle began with gross human rights violations being reported on both sides. A ceasefire was agreed and independence was declared in 1994, but this has not been officially recognised by a single country (although, oddly, Abkhazia is apparently internationally recognised as a de jure autonomous republic, and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what the distinction is. Afghanistan and Iraq are presumably both therefore de jure puppet states of the USA)
Tensions between Abkhazia and Georgia remain high. The fragile peace is maintained by UN military observers and by Russian peacekeepers. The UN patrols the buffer zone which keeps the Abkhaz and Georgian sides apart. There are sporadic shootings and kidnappings with the potential for violent explosion never far beneath the surface. Abkhazia, turning increasingly towards Moscow, insists there can be no settlement until Georgia recognises its independence, something which Tbilisi has sworn it will never do. There is no sign that a way out of this volatile impasse will soon be found."
Oddly, my post was picked up by antiwar.com as a reference for a post that Justin Raimondo made on the "Conflict in the Caucasus". Leaving aside for the moment any thoughts you might have on why an apparently serious article would use me talking about a pub conversation as a reference, the antiwar.com article itself was actually quite interesting. It highlighted the conflicts in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia - both autonomous regions of Georgia struggling for their independence. The 'ethnic Russians' in South Ossetia had been calling for 'reunification' with Russia (I think as much because the Russians weren't Georgia as because of any genuine desire to be reunited with Russia). Apparently John McCain was over there in August 2006 long before he got the Republican nomination for the 2008 Presidential election and had dipped his oar into the debate:
"I think that the attitude there is best described by what you see by driving in [Tskhinvali]: a very large billboard with a picture of Vladimir Putin on it, which says 'Vladimir Putin Our President.' I do not believe that Vladimir Putin is now, or ever should be, the president of sovereign Georgian soil."As the article points out, "Is it really the role of a U.S. senator to decide what is and is not 'sovereign Georgian soil'?"
Is it the role of any foreign politician to make that kind of a remark? Of course, recent events in Georgia have brought all of this into stark focus: Georgia made a move to quell what it saw as unrest in South Ossetia, and now Russia has responded by sending in the troops to 'protect' their people from Georgian agression. Thousands of people have been displaced and who knows how many people have been killed as the Russian troops advance deeper into Georgia and largely cast aside the pretence that they are there on a peacekeeping mission.
The antiwar.com article from 2006 suggested that the real reason for US interest in the region was an attempt to exclude Russia from the oil bonanza in Central Asia and to claim the region as a viable alternative source of energy to the Middle East. The conclusion was stark:
"What seems like a small, obscure dispute could balloon into a major crisis because of the stakes involved. The rising amount of U.S. aid to Georgia greatly aids [Georgian President] Saakashvili's military buildup: his belligerence begs for a stern rebuke, perhaps an aid cutoff. It's time to rein in this would-be Napoleon-of-the-steppes and nip Georgian imperialism in the bud – before it destabilizes what is, after all, a volatile region. If John McCain, George Soros, Anne Applebaum, and the usual neoconservative suspects have their way, Georgia may be the first battleground of a revived Cold War. The problem is that the conflict may turn hot with frightening swiftness."Now, this is very politically slanted, but that last remark about a conflict turning hot seems remarkably prescient. Prescient, that is, unless you are a student of the politics of the area, in which case it has been brewing for years. Georgia is a key transit country for oil from the landlocked Caspian sea. Indeed, there is a pipeline, the second longest in the world, running through the country taking oil from Baku in Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Meyhan on the mediterranean. The pipeline was built to deliberately avoid Russian soil and to deny them a key source of influence. Oil is one thing, but denying Russia any possible source of influence is a key part of the US strategy. They are also keen to see Georgia join NATO as soon as possible, moving them even further away from Russian influence, an idea opposed by other NATO countries like France and Germany. Needless to say, Russia don't like this idea very much either, and see Georgia as part of their natural, USSR-era, fiefdom. They've been stirring up trouble in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for years, and now they have seized the opportunity to try to take back by force what they rightfully believe is theirs.
The tragedy is that neither the USA or Russia appears to have any genuine interest in supporting independence in Abkhazia or in South Ossetia. The USA has stated loud and clear this week that they support the integrity of the Georgian State. On the face of it, this means that they want Russia to stay out, but it's also a clear signal that neither will they be supporting any moves that will strengthen Russian influence in the area - so they certainly won't be supporting any struggling states in their quests for independence. Not here, anyway. Distracted by the Middle East and unwilling to confront Russia, the USA is extremely unlikely to send troops to the region. It would surely be political suicide for no obvious gain. Russia, meanwhile, are happy to use South Ossetia and now Abkhazian claims for independence as an excuse for an armed incursion into Georgia to strengthen their grip on the region and to remove a president who has been a thorn in their sides since his election in 2004 to replace Eduard Shevardnadze (he is a president, incidentally who has been a keen supporter of the Bush "War on Terror" and has sent troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq... no wonder the US are reluctant to criticise).
As fate would have it, Georgia and Russia are scheduled to be squaring up at the Olympics this week: a beach volleyball court will be the somewhat unlikely setting for these two nations to meet on Wednesday. As ways of settling your difference, it might seem a little unorthodox, but compared to tanks, it's surely got a lot to recommend it. And the uniforms are more appealing to the spectators. Russian and Georgian athletes have already made a show of unity on the podium at the 10m airpistol event this afternoon. Is this a symbol of the Olympic ideals in practice, or is it utterly absurd that they can carry on as normal as their two nations are at war and as innocent civilians are apparently being slaughtered? What were Putin and George Bush doing watching the opening ceremony in Beijing the other day, even as the first shots were being fired? Apart from making sure that they were seen together by the cameras, what are they actually doing? How much does either side really want to stop this conflict?
Once again, I find myself marvelling at how little I know about the world and how much a simple pub conversation has opened my eyes about one tiny little region of the world that is now -- together with some sporting event in China -- capturing the attention of the world.