A Primer: Georgia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Russia
The dogs of war have been unleashed in Georgia. Hours before the opening of the Beijing Olympics it appears that Georgia launched a major military offencive to regain control of the South Ossetia region. Aside from the fact that this may be the start of a much larger war, this conflict illustrates much about the world geo-political situation, and just in general illustrates how wars get started. Here then is a quick primer to the background of this conflict so that readers can know what I’m talking about. I will update the map and this posts events require, but I wanted to get some background information out there so people can at least have some idea of what is going on, the mainstream press generally being very poor and nonobjective at providing background.
Georgia is a small country of some four and one half million people situated between Turkey and Russia on the west coast of the Black Sea. (Click here to open a full size version of the above map in a new window.) Georgia was formerly part of the Soviet Union, and declared independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Two small sections of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossestia, also declared independence at the same time, but are not generally recognized is such by the world community. Georgia is a near dictatorship run by a President Mikheil Saakashvili since he was elected in 2004. Mr Saakashvili has done everything he can to join NATO, even going so far as to send two thousand troops to Iraq. NATO has been cool to his efforts, probably because Georgia is wracked with violence and far from a peaceful democracy, and to at least some extent because they wish to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia.
Georgia violently resisted the Abkhazian and South Ossetian drive for independence, but with Russian support they both have achieved de facto independence. A lot of hard feelings were created and a lot of ethnic cleansing took place, mostly Georgians being expelled from Abkhazia and South Ossestia. As far as I can tell, and definitely in the case of South Ossetia, the people in these areas do genuinely want to be independent from Georgia, basically they are more ethnically related to groups living in Russia to their north. I mean, North Ossetia is part of Russia, so South Ossetians would rather be part of Russia than Georgia. The Georgians of course regard this Russian support for the rebels as meddling, which technically it most definitely is.
Georgia being a small country is only really important for one thing, its location. An important pipeline crosses Georgia supplying oil to Europe, illustrated above, and a larger one is planned. This allows Europe to get energy from central Asia without Russia’s hand being on the spigot, which explains both Russia’s interest in keeping Georgia out of NATO and the EU, and the west’s interest in Georgia. It’s not energy on par with Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and such, but it’s not chicken scratch either.
Lastly it should be noted that both Akhazia and South Ossetia are much smaller than Georgia, there are only 200,000 or so Akhazians, and fewer than 70,000 South Ossetians. There may be significant amounts of oil or gas in Abkhazia, another reason it too is of interest to Russia and the west. South Ossetia is mountains, farmers, and one small town. South Ossestia however is only about 50 miles from the Georgian capitol, Tbilisi, that’s another reason Georgia is loathe to let it become independent or part of Russia.
That’s the basic background. It’s a classic case of self determination vs national sovereignty. If one thinks that governments have the right to maintain their territorial integrity even should some of their citizens wish to declare independence, then Georgia has the right to retain control of its breakaway provinces, even with force if need be. If one thinks that people should be able to determine their own sovereignty, then one has to be sympathetic to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian declarations of independence, since it does seem clear that the overwhelming majority of ethnic Abkhazians and South Ossestians would prefer independence. Two referendums on the topic passed with 95% plus support in South Osesstia. There has been no referendum in Abkhazia on independence as far as I can tell, but the overwhelming majority of Abkhazians voted to stay in the Soviet Union in another referendum.
Finally, Russia has thrown its enthusiastic support behind the Osesstian and Abkhazian drives for independence. Even going so far as to grant Russian citizenship to large part of their populations. And now of course the Russian military is actively attacking the Georgian forces that were advancing into South Ossestia. And while the Russian motives may not be entirely selfless, there’s no doubt that the Ossestians and Abkhazians justifiably regard Russia as a friend in this situation.
In any event that’s the situation in a concise and objective manner as I can manage on such short notice, hopefully I have not made any egregious errors or omissions. Corrections and comments appreciated, as soon as possible I will be posting more on this unfolding crisis.
(The above image was created by me, the author, using a public domain map as a base. Credit and copyright: Doug Stych. Permission is granted to reproduce the image for non commercial educational use so long as a link to Doug’s Darkworld is provided. By the reported number of dead so for this already constitutes a war, God help all those living in Georgia and its breakaway regions, God grant their leaders and all world leaders the sense to avoid turning this into something far worse.)