Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Russia and Georgia – Background and implications of a five day war

August 26, 2008

By Rob Jones, CWI in Moscow

Introduction

The world’s press had their attention diverted from the glitter of China’s Olympic Games as the conflict between Russia and the Caucasian republic of Georgia over the small breakaway region of South Ossetia suddenly escalated into a nightmarish military conflict.

After weeks of growing tension in South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili sent troops to seize the region. Over the night of 6th and 7th August Georgian troops attacked Tskhinvali and five other towns with automatic weapons and artillery. Claims vary on the number killed in the initial stages of the fighting. A Russian journalist said the South Ossetian capital had been badly damaged. “The town is destroyed. There are many casualties, many wounded,” Zaid Tsarnayev told Reuters from Tskhinvali. “I was in the hospital yesterday where I saw many civilian wounded. The hospital was later destroyed by a Georgian jet. I don’t know whether the wounded were still there”. Both South Ossetia’s president, Eduard Kokoiti, and Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have claimed that over 1500 people, mainly peaceful residents were killed during the attacks. At least 15 Russian “peacekeeping troops” based in Tskhinvali were killed.

With the Georgian troops having initially seized the town, Russian troops, headed by a huge column of heavy tanks, crossed the mountain passes from Russia into South Ossetia, ostensibly to defend the people of the area. Fighting again broke out in Tskhinvali and for days, both Russian and Georgian military spokesmen claimed control of the city. Both sides used aviation. Russian troops then moved out of South Ossetia, occupying the city of Gori and attacking military and economic targets throughout the rest of Georgia. Gori ended up in the same state of destruction as Tskhinvali. Many were killed or wounded in these attacks. The Georgians also claim that Russian aircraft bombed ships in Georgia’s Black Sea Ports and that the oil and gas pipelines crossing the country were also attacked.

Saakashvili declared that Georgia was in a state of war, announced the call up of reservists and the immediate withdrawal of the country’s contingent from Iraq. Georgia has 2,000 troops there, the third biggest contingent after the US and Britain,. Huge diplomatic pressure was put on both sides to tone down the conflict. The US came out openly hostile to Russia, with Condoleezza Rice in effect holding Saakashvili’s hand throughout the conflict. The EU tried to be more bi-partisan, with Merkel and Sarkozy shuttling between the two capitals trying to find a compromise. Iran, which borders on the Caucasian region, offered to arbitrate in the dispute, whilst China called for a ceasefire “which is the traditional response during the Olympic Games”!

Now, although many Russian troops remain in Georgia, the fighting war appears to be over. But the world has dramatically changed.

Regional tensions escalated

Long-running tensions in the region around Georgia escalated considerably after the end of 2006 in parallel with the increase in tensions between the US and Russia internationally. What the Russian government called the “frozen conflict” heated up as a result of a number of factors. Military exercises near Tbilisi in July of this year, involving over a thousand US marines, Georgia’s continued attempts to join NATO, (although the last attempt was pushed back at the beginning of this year) and Georgia’s open support for the US missile defence system based in Eastern Europe have all played a role in bringing the conflict closer.

Not coincidentally a nasty racist campaign had been launched by the Russian authorities against Georgians living in Russia towards the end of 2006, supposedly after the Georgians arrested four Russian spies. The government imposed an economic boycott of Georgian goods, mainly wine and brandy. As a result many cafes and bars “ran dry”. At the same time harassment of Georgians living in Moscow was stepped up dramatically – passports and work permits constantly checked. Russian TV showed hundreds of Georgians, who were supposedly ‘illegal’, being loaded onto ‘Ministry of Emergencies’ aircraft for deportation. Many hundreds more were sent by train.

The question of NATO has acted to polarise opinions on both sides. Saakashvili had made the entry of Georgia into NATO a key policy of his administration. He was therefore bitterly disappointed that the application was pushed back (together with the Ukraine’s) at the Bucharest Conference earlier this year. Some analysts have suggested that he therefore decided to attack South Ossetia in order to attempt to push NATO into action on Georgia’s side. This is an unlikely explanation. Saakashvili’s government has been meeting increasing economic difficulties. For the majority of the population, the promises and hopes of the Rose Revolution that somehow Georgia would join the West with its high living standards and freedoms, have been dashed. As opposition to his rule grew, protesters began to come out on the streets Saakashvili, in early November 2007, used police and troops to attack demonstrators in Tbilisi and declared a state of emergency. Then, in an attempt to cut across this growing opposition, Saakashvili announced an early presidential election and a referendum on when to hold parliamentary elections in January this year. While he was re-elected the opposition accused Saakashvili of “subtly rigging” January’s election. These events led at least some European powers to begin to try and distance themselves from Saakashvili. It is therefore more likely that Saakashvili, rather than following a well thought out strategic plan, was actually desperately trying to find a way out of the corner into which he had been forced.

A key turning point for the Russian government was the recognition of Kosovo independence in February of this year. This was a blow to Russian interests in the Balkans as it saw an openly pro-US Kosovan government granted recognition against the wishes of Russia’s historical ally Serbia. Russia’s ruling elite reacted with venom spitting through clenched teeth. The then still Russian president, Putin, stated that, “The precedent of Kosovo is a terrible precedent, which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries. They have not thought through the results of what they are doing. At the end of the day it is a two-ended stick and the second end will come back and hit them in the face”.

Russia’s envoy to NATO, nationalist politician and long time Kremlin insider Dmitri Rogozin was even more explicit. This decision, he stated means that: “We too would then have to proceed from the view that in order to be respected we must use brute force, in other words armed force”. This comment follows on from his earlier comments concerning NATO expansion, in which Rogozin stated: “As soon as Georgia gets the promise to join NATO from Washington, on the next day the real process to separate these two territories from Georgia will begin.“

Following the recognition of Kosova, Russia lifted the economic restrictions it still had in place against Abkhazia and South Ossetia and activated its attempts to strengthen its support in the republics. The sixth months from February to August this year saw a steady increase in incidents provoked by both sides including flights into the no fly zone and shooting incidents. In the weeks before Saakashvili’s attack on Tskhinvali, Russia sent scores of “railway troops” into South Ossetia, ostensibly to restore the rail link with Moscow. This was interpreted by Tbilisi as a hostile act on sovereign territory, and indeed it helps to explain how the Russian army could get tanks and troops into Tskhinvali so quickly.

Hypocrisy – the first sign of war; truth – the first victim

As the Russian leadership point out, the US is unbelievably hypocritical when it attacks Russia for going in to Georgia. After all the war in Iraq is illegal and just as brutal. But the outbreak of open warfare in the second week of August saw even more incredible hypocrisy and propaganda on both sides. Suddenly the US is against self-determination, although it supports Kosovo independence. Russia supports self-determination although it has waged two brutal wars to prevent Chechen independence. The western that is pro-Georgian press put almost purely the pro-Saakashvili position. Almost no attention was paid to the initial attack by Georgian troops on Tskhinvali. The town was subjected to heavy artillery bombardment leaving many of the civilian population dead. 12 Russian “peacekeeping” troops were also killed. After the Russians sent tanks into Georgia, the press was dominated by the Russian occupation. Only after the initial five days war was over did articles start appearing, for example in the English Guardian suggesting, in a one-sided way, that the US was responsible for the conflict.

The Russian press towed the Kremlin line to a man. Columns reported on the suffering of the population in Tskhinvali but not a word was said about Russian troops moving into Georgia, or the vicious attacks on Gori. Exaggerations and rumours were reported with no independent checking. The claims of Kokoiti and Russian foreign minister Lavrov that between 1,600 and 2,000 civilians were killed in Georgia’s initial attack are taken as read. However ‘Human Rights Watch’, after surveying hospitals, talks of less than a hundred being killed. But this was enough for Russia to send the troops in. During the five days, Russian tank columns were spotted throughout Georgia. At the same time pro-Russian witnesses swore blindly they had seen columns of NATO troops moving through Georgia. Reporters on both sides who tried to be “objective” were victimised. A reporter for Russia’s world service, “Russia today”, tried to send reports from Tbilisi reporting on Russian attacks but was forced to resign. Reporters from western papers who attempted to go to South Ossetia through Russia were threatened with the sack. Varying terminology on both sides such as the “fascist” Saakashvili, the “genocide” of the Ossetian people, “aggressors” or the “Stalinist” Kremlin are thrown around to play on emotions and hide the real issues and distract from the grave human catastrophe taking place.

So what would socialists say?

Socialists base themselves on what is beneficial or detrimental to the working class and poor people. We reject attempts to analyse the situation in an empirical way – that is, ‘Who fired the first shot?’ Nor do we base our standpoint on national interests – that is, ‘Who is pro- or anti-imperialism? Who is pro- or anti-Russia (which itself is already an imperialist state)?’

Many lefts, especially from a Stalinist tradition, have chosen to give critical support to Russian capitalism, on the basis that Russia and its allies are the best defence there is in the world today against unbridled US imperialism. This is based on the pessimistic assessment that the international working class is incapable of uniting and struggling to overthrow capitalism. They still imagine they are backing a “lesser evil”.

Lefts with a reformist leaning and others speak of the need for a “neutral” force to oversee peace-keeping in the disputed regions. Calls are made for UN or OSCE troops to be used. However, as the experience of the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda show, these contingents also defend the policies of their own governments and are not capable of maintaining peace. Indeed the worst massacre of the conflicts in the Balkans, at Srebrenica took place while UN peacekeepers looked the other way.

In particular, the position facing revolutionary Marxists in Russia is hard. There is incredible pressure in society to support the Russian actions. All sorts of questions are thrown at us – “How else are we supposed to defend the rights of the Russian passport holders?” “Why shouldn’t Russia stand up to US imperialism and its Georgian puppet Saakashvili?” “Surely if the people of South Ossetia want to unite with North Ossetia, they should have the right?” “Russian troops are in Georgia just to ensure that the Georgian army is disarmed and can no longer attack us?” “Socialism is abstract, something has to be done now.” These questions have to be answered, but we also understand that, sometimes, socialists must adopt the longer view, rising above emotional responses and take a firm position in the long term interests of the working class.

Who should be defended?

The whole tragedy of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism is that there was no independent working class organisation capable of offering a programme to end the horrors of Stalinism and capitalism. As a consequence, the working class has become divided; social degradation and ethnic division have become the norm. This is no surprise. This is in the nature of capitalism. Even “modern, civilised” states such as Belgium, Britain and Spain have not succeeded in solving the national question. But in the former Soviet Union the newly developed capitalist elites have not baulked at consciously using ethnic conflict to further their aims.

Socialists need to speak out, not in favour of the defence of one nation or ethnic group against another, but in favour of the rights of the working class of all ethnic groups against their oppressors. This means, notwithstanding the aggressive policies of the Saakashvili government, we should give no support to the Kokoiki government in South Ossetia, based on KGB and army representatives and financing itself through smuggling and the black market, with the support of its Russian paymasters. Just as Saakashvili is a pro-American stooge, the Kokoiti government is a mafia government, defending mafia interests with the backing of Russian imperialism. We therefore call for the unity of the Ossetian, Russian and Georgian working class in defence of their common interests.

What does the right of self-determination mean?

As seen in the events around South Ossetia (and Kosova), the question of self-determination is used hypocritically by both sides. So-called leaders do not mean self-determination for the working class and poor, just for those who have armies and powerful friends. As genuine socialists, we defend the right of self-determination and fight against all forms of national discrimination and oppression through organising working class and international solidarity. As Kosovo and South Ossetia demonstrate, under capitalism there is no possibility of a nation being genuinely independent. Seeking the support of one or another imperialist power is no solution. Developing an independent working class force capable of challenging and overthrowing capitalism – nationally and internationally – is the only way to guarantee the right of self-determination. On the other hand, socialists do not always advocate separation and even when we do work to build the solidarity between and unity in action of the working class of all nationalities.

In South Ossetia, we have to ask which South Ossetia has the right to self-determination? Should South Ossetia join with North Ossetia, within the Russian Federation or as an independent entity? Should part of South Ossetia break away from another part (along ethnic lines) leaving the Georgian part in Georgia and the Ossetian part in Russia? Or should the people who live in South Ossetia be forced to return to the “status quo”? In each of these variations, we can say clearly that the fundamental economic and social problems of the region will not be solved unless capitalism is overthrown, So long as capitalism remains the region will still be subject to the permanent conflict of the world’s imperialist powers for control of the oil and gas pipelines, that repressive and nationalist governments will attempt to divide people along ethnic lines in the interests of the rich and powerful.
We support a genuine right to self-determination based on the rights of the working class and poor in society to decide where they wish to live. This can only be determined when the working class and poor have established their own organisations capable of defending their interests. At the same time self-determination of one group should not be at the expense of another. We therefore support the right to autonomy or independence of any groups within a federal or confederal structure if they so desire. While the maximum unity of the working class in the struggle for socialism, in the genuine and not Stalinist meaning, is our aim we are sensitive to national feelings. Thus if, for example, South Ossetia decided to become independent, the Georgian population within it should have the right to be autonomous or independent, if they so wish.

Who can defend the rights of workers?

Many now argue that at least the Russian army will defend the rights of South Ossetia now. But during the course of the last twenty years, the army (either in its regular form or through irregular units) has shown that it intervenes in the region in the interest of one section or another of the Russian ruling elite at the cost of ordinary people of all nationalities. In the Abkhazia context, it participated in the massacre of Georgians, for no other reason than that they lived in the wrong place. No attempt has been made to counter the recent statements of Kokoiti that Georgians living in Ossetia should not be allowed to return. In no way can the Russian army be said to have defended the rights of Chechens through two brutal wars, nor has it been able to ensure peace in Ingushetia or North Ossetia. Indeed it was the bungling of the army chiefs that worsened the Beslan catastrophe.
During the present conflict, by occupying Gori and attacking ships in Georgian ports, the Russian army has shown it is defending the oil and gas interests of Russia’s capitalist oligarchs.

It may be possible that for a short period, to create an image of stability, the army will be seen to defend the local population (at least those who have not been prevented from returning) but it will soon return to its normal role of defending the interests of the Russian ruling class.

In other such conflicts, we have raised the need to establish workers’ defence forces. But in these conditions they should not be simply “narodnii opolchentsi”, (people’s defenders) formed to defend residents of a particular area. As such they would just become ethnically-based militias. We need to argue that workers’ defence forces should be multi-ethnic, formed to defend workers and the poor from attack, whatever their nationality and under the democratic control of the working class.

Can the question be solved under capitalism?

It is too crude to say that the national and ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus are entirely the result of capitalism. The legacy of Stalinism and its bureaucratic approach to the question of nationalities has clearly left its mark in the region. However it has been the restoration of capitalism that has left the region so desperately poor, under the control of warring factions struggling to control oil and gas routes and subject to the never ending conflict between imperialist powers. If proper homes and jobs, a decent health service and education, pensions are to be provided for all, irrespective of nationality, then the struggle for self-determination has to be linked to the struggle against capitalism. If workers were to be sufficiently organised to take political power in any of the republics in that region, then the nationalities map would be dramatically re-drawn as the improvement in living standards and the possibility of genuine self determination would mean that ethnic groups would be able to cooperate and not be in conflict with each other.

Is this realistic?

Some will say, “Yes, that’s nice but we need to do something now!”. The problem is that there is no realistic solution as long as the region is dominated by the likes of Saakashvili, Kokoiti or Kadyrev and by their imperialist backers in Washington and Moscow. Of course we would welcome any short-term easing of the problems but have to warn that, to reach a genuine solution, capitalism has to be driven out of the region.

To achieve this the socialists’ programme is based around:

– a call on all worker and left activists in Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia, and of course in other countries, to demand that military activities are immediately halted. Workers cannot rely on the uncontrolled actions of their governments, diplomats or intervention by some outside forces to solve the conflict, they can only rely on their own forces.

– the withdrawal of all Russian and Georgian troops from South Ossetia and oppose troops supplied by other capitalist states. We call for the formation of trans-ethnic workers’ defence forces to defend workers and poor people from attack, whatever their nationality, and under the democratic control of the working class rather than so-called peace-keeping forces.

– for the right of South Ossetia and the other unrecognised republics to self-determination without military intervention.

– for united action by the working masses of Georgia, Russia and South Ossetia to overthrow those governments who wage war against ordinary people and to drive imperialism out of the region.

– the nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and management of the oil, gas and other natural resources in the region and the pipelines through which they are transported and for the use of the income from these for overcoming poverty in the region.

– an emergency construction programme and job creation to provide homes and incomes for all refugees of all nationalities in the region, under the control of democratically elected committees.

– the establishment of governments which will defend workers’ interests, overcome poverty and ensure peace.

– for a democratic socialist federation of the Caucasus.

Without this there can be no long-term solution for the conflict over land and resources.

What future now faces the region?

Whatever the final outcome of the current military manoeuvrings, nothing has been resolved. Georgia continues to be ruled by a clique set on forcing Abkhazia and South Ossetia against their will back into Georgia. Saakashvili has made a serious error in attacking South Ossetia in the way he did. Now many western leaders are realising that he is an unreliable ally. The US could not get NATO to agree to fully back him, and, if Obama wins the US Presidential election, US foreign policy tactics may change. Saakashvili will find himself with declining support at home and held at arm’s length by the world powers. Some opposition leaders in Georgia have issued the call for elections to replace Saakashvili, but these will have no purpose if Saakashvili is just replaced by another set of neoliberal politicians. There is an urgent need in Georgia to build a genuine left wing alternative to Saakashvili.

In Russia, the “Medvedev-Putin” tandem has won a Pyrrhic victory. This will not be a repeat of the success of Putin’s presidency after he waged the second Chechen war. On the one hand the whole Caucasus region will be more unstable as a result of these events, demanding even greater resources to “control” the area. But also the conditions no longer exist for a further ten years of economic growth. The US, EU and Japan are now experiencing a slow-down or recession. A further major fall in oil prices would hit the Russian economy hard. There was already a sharp decline in foreign investment into Russia even before these events. Finance Minister Kudrin says that as a result of the war $16 billion of foreign investment has fled the country. Although for a period there may be a temporary strengthening of the regime, this is unlikely to be permanent. If economic conditions worsen, in a couple of years people could well look back and say that the South Ossetia war was a turning point. The only question is whether a serious left wing alternative capable of capitalising on this can develop in time.

In the Caucasus as a whole, the situation is dire. The struggle by imperialist powers for control will be even more bitter. The building of the gas pipeline is now under question as the investors are unhappy about the instability. The apparent success of Russia in bringing Saakashvili to book may encourage the Azeri regime to try and wrest Nagorno Karabakh back under its control. The conditions now exist throughout the Caucasus for the explosion of a Balkan type of war, involving not only the regional powers but the major imperialist ones as well.

Internationally, the older imperialist powers find themselves in a much more difficult position. For two decades imperialism has been trying to gradually develop relations with Russia while maintaining their own superiority. Now it finds it has created a monster that is difficult to control. NATO is divided on how to react. On the one hand, Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic States rushed to Georgia’s defence. The US anti-missile defence system will now go ahead in Poland and the Ukraine. In reply, Belarus and Russia have announced they will build their own system in opposition. Calls have been made within the G8 to once again return to G7. The US is finding itself in opposition to some of the European capitalists over how to deal with Russia. And in the United Nations the US will find it much harder to carry its position, as Russia will be more willing to use its veto. Whilst the international organisations such as the UN and OSCE are reluctant for their peacekeeping troops to be pulled into the Caucasus, refusal will leave Russia in control. The imperialist powers are being dragged into the Caucasian powder keg.

But the conditions internationally are not the same as those at the start of the nineteen nineties, when the Balkan wars started. Then the Soviet Union had just collapsed, capitalism appeared to have won the ideological war, the world economy was growing steadily and the workers’ movement was disorientated and leaderless. Now, people are beginning to question capitalism more and more, the world economy is in a dire state, the workers movement internationally is beginning to flex its muscles.

The lessons of this nightmare situation in the Caucasus must be learned and the way opened for new generations to establish socialist cooperation on the highest scale.

Russia and Georgia, A background to the crisis – Georgia 1990 -2004

August 26, 2008

By Rob Jones, CWI in Moscow

Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union when the latter broke up at the end of 1991. The first years of independence were painful. The country had as president the former anti-Soviet dissident and nationalist writer, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. He leaned on the widespread mood of opposition to the centralised Soviet Union to become head of newly independent Georgia, but his rule proved to be not only nationalistic but far from democratic.

Georgia was racked by the economic and social collapse that affected the states of the former Soviet Union as they attempted to restore capitalism. In fact, it suffered the worst collapse of all of them with a 70% drop in production. Gamsakhurdia preferred to rely on nationalism rather than attempt to defend living standards for all those living in Georgia. His supporters demanded that “Georgia should be for Georgians” although at the time over 30% of the population were non-Georgians. The national minorities, in particular, the ethnic Russians and groups such as the Ossetians, had always been more pro-Russian than pro-Georgian and began to get concerned for their own position. Pro-Russian movements were deliberately whipped up to undermine the Georgian government, sometimes by the Russian state, as part of a conscious policy, and, just as often, by rogue elements within the Russian state and Russian nationalist politicians such as Russia’s current envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin.

Unhappy with the lack of progress with economic reforms, other sections of the ruling elite moved against Gamsakhurdia. Three ministers resigned, calling him a “demagogue and totalitarian”. The army divided into pro- and anti- Gamsukhurdia factions.

Most analyses of this period contain no clear description of what the real nature of the differences within the Gamsakhurdia government were, as the authors either treat history as a conflict between personalities or because they look at the question through the prism of their own national interests. But in general, throughout the ex-republics of the former Soviet Union at that time, the ideological disputes within the ruling elite centred on the best way to restore capitalism – through neoliberal “shock therapy” or a slower, state-regulated approach à la China. They often, but not always ran parallel with the conflict between pro- and anti- Russian interests.

On the level of the newly independent republics, these conflicts were complicated by clan interests. In Georgia’s case, neo liberals who expected the declaration of Georgian independence to lead to the rapid restoration of capitalism found themselves in conflict with Gamsakhurdia’s nationalism.

During the period of economic stagnation before the break-up of Soviet Union, when the conditions were ripening for the restoration of capitalism, the working class was unable to form its own political organisations with a revolutionary Marxist ideology that could have offered a genuine alternative to Stalinism and capitalism – a real socialism based on workers’ control and management, freedom and democracy, national self-determination and internationalism. Instead of taking society forward through a political revolution, the lack of a working class alternative led society backwards into capitalist restoration, with all the horrors that that entailed.

In Georgia, the divisions within the ruling elite led, in December 1991 to a coup d’état against Gamsakhurdia. After a week of fighting in Tbilisi, a military council took control of the country and appointed as president probably Georgia’s only real ‘elder statesman’, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. While without the direct involvement of the Russian government of the time, this coup took place with at least the participation of some of the most reactionary elements of the Russian state. Although Shevardnadze often caused difficulties for Russia, he waged a repressive campaign against former supporters of Gamsakhurdia and by the end of 1993 further armed conflicts broke out into a civil war affecting the west of the country. Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia all intervened to support Shevardnadze when it appeared that Gamsarkhadia might gain control of the Black Sea ports, and thus threaten their export potential. In return for his at least temporary victory, Shevardnadze ensured that Georgia joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Whilst he essentially had a pro-western position he managed mostly to maintain workable relations with Moscow.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Tensions between South Ossetia and Georgia began to increase before the collapse of the USSR. With his nationalist rhetoric, Gamsakhurdia proposed that the only language to be recognised should be Georgian. Ossetians have their own language and this provoked the South Ossetian leaders to appeal to the Soviet government for support and even recognition as a separate state. In response, the Georgian government moved to abolish their autonomous status within Georgia. Tensions grew and clashes developed, which eventually broke out into brutal, largely ethnically-based conflicts. At the end of 1991 ethnic clashes in South Ossetia left over a thousand dead and huge population shifts. Over 100,000 Ossetians were forced to leave Georgia (23,000 from within South Ossetia and the remainder from the rest of Georgia). They went to North Ossetia and the basis was laid for an ethnic conflict there as the Ossetians were allocated homes once occupied by Ingush people.

The ensuing Ingush-Ossetian War claimed hundreds of lives. At the same time, over 23,000 ethnic Georgians were driven out of Ossetia after their schools and homes were burned to the ground.
In Abkhazia, where the ethnic make up was much less homogenous, the war which broke out there was absolutely brutal. After the Georgian military seized hold of Sukhumi, they introduced a regime based on the exclusion of non-Georgians from power. This led to a flow of refugees from the city and the ground was laid for horrific ethnic conflict. The Abkhazians, with the support of significant sections of the Russian state responded to the Georgian attacks with ethnic attacks of their own. Within 18 months at least 10,000 ethnic Georgians had been brutally murdered, whilst a further 200-300,000 Georgians were forced out of Abkhazia. Many Georgians of course were opposed to the nationalist policies of their government, just as in the same way many Abkhazians opposed the ethnic cleansing. Indeed, it is wrong to even call the separatist forces purely Abkhazian. The hard core was made up of mercenaries from the North Caucasus with the later notorious Chechen, warlord Shamil Basayev, and his bandits playing a central role in the massacres of ethnic Georgians. These thugs did not care who they killed. On many occasions they slaughtered Abkhazians who attempted to protect their Georgian friends and neighbours or who refused to join them. One report from ‘Human Rights Watch’ says “Out of a group of 12 front line soldiers, 2 were Abkhazian, 2 were Armenian – 1 Armenian locally from Sukhumi, 1 from Yerevan who was too young to go fight the good fight in Karabakh – and the rest were either from the North Caucasus or from places like Siberia. What were they motivated by? Looting. They had been promised houses with tangerine gardens. They had been promised cars”.

Whilst the official Russian government policy was to call for an end to the conflict and for peacekeeping troops to be engaged, at key moments the involvement of Russian forces, mainly aircraft and special troops was critical. This is how ‘Human Rights Watch’ describes the attack on Abkhazia’s capital, Sukhumi, following the peace agreement signed early in September 1992.

“The Abkhaz separatists along with their allies were forced by the agreement to hold their advance and heavy bombardment of the city. The Georgian side was reassured by Russia that Sukhumi would not be attacked or bombed if the Georgian army would complete its withdrawal. The Georgian troops along with their tanks were evacuated by the Russian military ships to the city of Poti. The city was left without any significant defence. A large number of civilians stayed in Sukhumi and all schools were re-opened on September 1st. However, Abkhaz separatists, North Caucasian Volunteers, Cossacks and Russian special forces attacked Sukhumi on September 16 at 8 am. This marked the beginning of 12 days non-stop fighting around the besieged Sukhumi with intense fighting and human loss on both sides. Georgians who stayed in the city with some weapons were left without any defence from artillery or mechanised units. The city was mercilessly bombed by Russian air forces and separatist artillery. On September 27, the city fell as units of Abkhaz, Russians and Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (CMPC) stormed the House of the Government of Abkhazia. One of the most horrific massacres of this war was waged on the civilian population of Sukhumi after its downfall. During the storming of the city, close to 1,000 people perished as Abkhaz formations overran the streets of the city. The civilians who were trapped in the city were taken from their houses, basements and apartment buildings.”

These actions put into perspective the cynical statement of Russia’s then foreign minister, the pro-western neoliberal Andrei Kozyrev, at the UN General Assembly at the end of the war: “Russia realises that no international organisation or group of states can replace our peace-keeping efforts in this specific post-Soviet space”. Georgia was forced to accept a ceasefire to avoid a large scale-confrontation with Russia. The government of Georgia and South Ossetian separatists reached an agreement to avoid the use of force against one another, and Georgia pledged not to impose sanctions against South Ossetia. However, the Georgian government still retained direct control over substantial portions of South Ossetia, including the town of Akhalgori. A peace-keeping force of Ossetians, Russians and Georgians was established with the support of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia – de facto but unrecognised independence

Although unrecognised internationally, in effect Abkhazia and South Ossetia gained de facto independence, just as Chechnya gained de facto independence at the end of the first Chechen war until Yeltsin and Putin decided to end the insubordination at the start of Putin’s presidential election campaign in late 1999. In Chechnya, the Russians handed power to a renegade war leader. When he died in a bomb attack, his son took over and has effectively established a police state in Chechnya. In South Ossetia’s case, the Russians nominated the St Petersburg, based wrestler-turned-businessman, Eduard Kokoiti, as President. He returned to South Ossetia to put together a government team including Head of Armed Forces General Anatoly Barankevich, who leads the South Ossetian armed forces with soldiers mainly from North Ossetia. As Head of the South Ossetian KGB (still called KGB) he appointed a former head of the Kabardino-Balkaria FSB (Secret Service). (Kabardino-Balkaria is one of Russia’s small Caucasian republics and the FSB is the successor of the KGB in Russia).

Whilst Russia leant on Kokoiti and used South Ossetia as a means to pressurise Georgia, it did not want to encourage South Ossetia to go too far. It was already struggling to control instability throughout the Russian North Caucasus. If Chechnya had almost been brought under control under Kadyrev, it was at the cost of spreading discontent to the neighboring regions. Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia became zones of almost constant bombings and armed attacks. The North Ossetian town of Beslan gained worldwide notoriety after the school siege was incompetently handled by the Russian state, leaving hundreds dead. It needed to avoid further instability.

The South Ossetian ruling elite, however, used the autonomous republic’s position to their own benefit. No real economic activity was possible in the isolated state in one of the poorest regions of the northern hemisphere as indicated by the scale of South Ossetia’s GDP – just $15 million. The elite, however, ensured that they had enough to live on by developing smuggling into a business. When the population objected, they diverted attention by blaming Georgia. The success of the smuggling business was due to South Ossetia’s location in the Caucasus region, squeezed between Russia in the North, Turkey, the Black Sea and Europe in the West, Iran to the South and Central Asia to the East. As Georgia does not recognize South Ossetian independence, it does not put up border and custom patrols. The only route between South Ossetia and Russian North Ossetia is through the Roki tunnel under the Caucasus. Travel through this is controlled by the Russian state. It does not take much speculation to understand why the Russian army today is so keen to control Gori, which has traditionally been the first staging post on the smuggler’s route.

The Caspian energy corridor

With Russia’s economy beginning to grow and the oil and gas prices on world markets rocketing, naturally South Ossetia found itself subject to an increasingly bitter struggle for power and influence between the world’s imperialist powers. As Ronald Asmus, director of the Brussels Transatlantic Fund commented in the Herald Tribune, “There are those who say that this is really about Russia and the rules of the game for Europe writ large for the Caspian energy corridor”. Both the US and the EU grew increasingly worried about Russia’s growing influence on the oil and gas market. They decided to use the region around Georgia as the only possible transit route between the oil rich Central Asian and Caspian regions and Europe that by-passed both Iran and Russia. There are now three international oil lines running through the Caucasus with a further gas line planned. These enter the Black Sea through the Georgian ports of Kulumi and Poti and the Abkhazian port of Sukhumi. The BP-operated Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan line alone has a throughput of over a million barrels of oil a day. The pipelines are located in neutral zones in which so many metres to either side of the line are considered international property. In turn, the Russians are planning-through a joint project between Gasprom and Italy’s ENI – to build the South Stream pipeline through the region to try and maintain some control over supplies. The equation is quite simple, the larger the proportion of oil and gas supplies flowing through the Caucasus is controlled by the west, the weaker is Russia’s grip on Europe’s energy market and, of course vice versa.

In June 2004, tensions once again rose as the Georgian government launched a campaign against smuggling in the region. Dozens died in the subsequent wave of hostage takings, shootouts and bombings. A new ceasefire agreement was reached but both Moscow and Tskhinvali complained about the Georgian military build-up. They kept quiet however about the increase in the Russian military budget in the same period.

The Rose Revolution

This is the background to the wave of “coloured revolutions” that spread like wildfire across the region in the middle of the last decade. In broad strokes, starting with Serbia, through the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrghistan, these movements developed in countries in which there was widespread discontent with the state of the economy, social degradation and corrupt and undemocratic governments. Because of the absence of working class and left wing organisations capable of mobilising this discontent in a socialist direction, western orientated neoliberal politicians, with the backing of considerable financial and ‘polit-technological forces’ (‘spin doctors’) were able to parasitically use the popular discontent to overthrow the old broadly pro-Russian regimes. Threats by the western powers to encourage similar “revolutions” were used to essentially blackmail Azerbaijan’s president Akiyev and Kazakhstan’s president Nazarbayev to make concessions to western economic interests before the elections. As soon as agreement was reached, the US pulled the financial plug and money for the opposition dried up.

Shevardnadze attempted to balance between the US and Russia. In 2003, for example he signed big deals with Russia’s Gasprom and Russian Energy, effectively giving them control of Georgia’s energy market for 25 years. This so annoyed the US, they threatened to stop building the pipelines and stop financial aid. In the end Shevardnadze then signed another agreement, this time with the US which meant that US troops could enter and leave the country without visas, and army units, aircraft and ships could cross Georgia’s borders in any direction without restriction. For this right the US agreed to pay annually $75 million – 10% of Georgia’s budget, which is supposed to go to reforming the army to NATO standards. But by this time the US had become increasingly unhappy with Shevardnadze. He could not be fully controlled and the money they were pumping into the country just disappeared into corrupt pockets.

In 2004, following obviously rigged elections, Shevardnadze was overthrown in the Rose Revolution and replaced by the Harvard-trained Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili and his ally, Nino Burdzanadze, represented an alliance between anti-Russian, pro-US Georgian nationalism and neoliberalism. From his first day in power, Saakashvili expressed his determination to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under the control of Tbilisi. He demanded that the status of the “international” peace-keepers be changed to reduce the influence of Russia over the breakaway regions and waged an international campaign in defence of the “territorial integrity” of Georgia. This in itself was sufficient to raise the ire of Russia, but having come to power with the open backing of the US, Saakashvili clearly allied his government with the defence of US interests. Georgia applied to join NATO, troops were sent to Iraq and the main road from Tbilisi’s airport was renamed “George Bush Street”, Saakashvili stepped up the campaign against black market trading. One analyst described how “He closed the market in Ergneti, which was an outlet for contraband passing through South Ossetia, but also a point of sale for agricultural products from the regions of Tskhinvali and Gori. This vast black market constituted, in neutral territory, a place of precious exchange, the only economic integration of a highly divided region. Since its closure, all contact between Georgians and Ossetians has become more difficult, leading to an exacerbation of the alienation between the two sides. In Tskhinvali, as in Gori, many see this closure as a major mistake in the region.”

At the same time Saakashvili won a major victory in Adjara, a third breakaway region that had been Shevardnadze’s power base. He managed to essentially blackmail the local government to accept his conditions. Believing he could repeat his success and fully restore Georgia’s territorial integrity, he directed his attentions towards South Ossetia. However, international pressure held him back, but the relative stability of the previous years was disrupted.

Russian divide and rule

Once the Russian government realised the implications of Shevardnadze going, in order to maintain its position it stepped up its use of one of the oldest weapons in the imperialist arsenal – divide and rule. The leaders of the three breakaway republics were encouraged to strengthen their borders with Georgia to prevent “disruption spilling over”. They were then invited to Moscow to discuss “improving their relations with Georgia”. However, Edward Kokoiti, in South Ossetia, saw this as a chance for his breakaway territory to link up with Russia. Naturally the Georgian government saw this as a threat and stepped up their protests against the increasing Russian economic and political presence in the region and against the uncontrolled military of the South Ossetian side.

This is the background to the November 2006 referendum organised by the Kokoiti government. The question asked in the referendum was, “Do you agree that the Republic of South Ossetia should retain its current status as an independent state and be recognised by the international community?” This has been interpreted by Russian chauvinists, including Kokoiti, as meaning “South Ossetia should merge with North Ossetia in the Russian Federation”. The results of the referendum are however much more complex. According to the election commission there was a turnout of 95% with 52,000 people (99.9%) voting yes. These figures are clearly fraudulent. The whole population of South Ossetia is only about 70,000 and about 25% are Georgian. The majority of Georgians did not have the right to vote. So it is stretching the imagination to say that 52,000 voters participated.

The reality is that the referendum is just another in a long series of fixed votes organised by the Kremlin. For example, the so-called international observers from front organisations were organised by Modest Kolerov, head of the Russian Presidential Administration’s Directorate for Inter-regional ties. His deputy, Oleg Sapozhnikov, organised the international press centre in Tskhinvali. He is an experienced organiser, he was also responsible for running a similar press centre in Transdniestr, two months earlier! One of the most active observer groups was the Kremlin-organised youth group “Nashi”. As in the Russian Presidential election, it was responsible for organising the exit poll!

According to the Electoral Commission of Alternative Elections set up by Tbilisi, 42,000 voters turned out for the elections held in the region’s territories under Georgian control. According to authorities in Tskhinvali, the voters numbered only 14,000. In the alternative presidential election, Dimitri Sanakoev, the favorite candidate from Tbilisi, took 88% of the votes. More than 90% of voters voted for a return by South Ossetia to Georgia by way of a federation. These figures are obviously just as fraudulent. Needless to say, the Russian press reported only Kokoiti’s referendum, the Georgian press Sanakoev’s.

However, the two referendums reflect the reality of South Ossetia in the days before the war. On the one hand, Georgians populate the villages around Tskhinvali and nine new settlements have been established between Tskhinvali and the Roki tunnel, linked to the Tbilisi-controlled areas by a single path. The area to the north of the new villages was controlled by the Ossetian militias. This situation makes the statement by Kokoiti on Saturday, August 16, that Georgians will not be allowed to return, sound like a call for ethnic cleansing. Indeed there have been reports of Georgian homes being torched.

On the other hand is economic reality. Although the Russian North Caucasus is one of the poorest regions with average incomes (as opposed to wages, because there is practically no work) in the region of a hundred euros a month, the situation in Georgia is even worse. This explains why so many Ossetians have applied for Russian passports. (A Russian passport is an internal document, as opposed to the foreign passport, which allows for travel abroad.) Holding an internal passport entitles the holder to citizenship, and thus to pensions, which are more generous than the Georgian equivalent. Indeed in the referendum campaign in 2006, agitation mainly combined calls to “Build the Grand Alani” (an ancient empire once founded in Ossetia) with attacks on Georgia for its past aggressions and comparisons of how much better life is in Russia.

A clear understanding of questions like national conflicts can be arrived at only on the basis of patiently in examining facts. Clear analysis and readily understood programmes can then lead to the rapid building of the working class forces capable of ending capitalism with all its evils and rivalries and laying the basis for a future harmonious socialist society – nationally and internationally.