What About the Ossetians?

by SHELDON RICHMAN

If Russia exited Georgia — as it should — and the Bush administration dropped its wish to expand NATO to Russia’s border — as it should — there would still be an issue to be dealt with: the secessionist ambitions of the majority in South Ossetia — the Georgian military response to which was the immediate cause of the current war. They are the forgotten party in the current conflict. When President Bush says the “territorial integrity of Georgia” must be respected and GOP presidential candidate John McCain declares, “Today we’re all Georgians,” they are putting politics above justice.

One need not side with Russian Prime Minister Putin, a cynical opportunist if ever there was one, to understand that the Ossetians south of the Russian border are an aggrieved party. Defenders of liberty will sympathize with the Georgian victims of Russian brutality, but they should also champion the cause of the brutalized Ossetians, who (like the Abkhazians) demand independence from Georgia. (This is in no way a defense of Ossetian crimes against peaceful ethnic-Georgian inhabitants of South Ossetia.)

“These regions are a part of Georgia,” Bush said of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, “and the international community has repeatedly made clear that they will remain so. There’s no room for debate on this matter.”

What could be more arrogant? Who is this “international community” and why should it have any say in who governs the Ossetians and Abkhazians?

When it comes to separatist movements, the American and Russian governments have no principles whatever. They take whatever side advances their political interests at the moment. When ethnic Albanians in Kosovo sought to break from Yugoslavia, the Russians sided with ally Serbia and opposed independence, but the United States backed the separatists and unleashed its bombers. Something similar happened when the Bosnians did the same thing. (The United States gave mixed signals when the Russians moved against separatists in Chechnya.) Yet when the Ossetians and Abkhazians want to be free of Georgia, the big-power roles are reversed.

If you hold your breath waiting for a sign of integrity from any government, you will turn blue.

Things are not always what they seem. Apparently-united countries often comprise disparate groups that do not wish to be ruled by others. When people speak of “Georgia,” what do they mean? The Ossetians and Abkhazians have different languages and cultures from Georgia and have wanted independence ever since Georgia won its independence from Russia in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union.

“It soon became clear to me that the Ossetians viewed Georgians in much the same way that Georgians view Russians: as aggressive bullies bent on taking away their independence,” writes the Washington Post’s Michael Dobbs. “I was there in March 1991, shortly after the city was occupied by Georgian militia units loyal to Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first freely elected leader of Georgia in seven decades. One of Gamsakhurdia’s first acts as Georgian president was to cancel the political autonomy that the Stalinist constitution had granted the republic’s 90,000-strong Ossetian minority…. I discovered that the town [Tskhinvali , the capital of South Ossetia] had been ransacked by Gamsakhurdia’s militia. The Georgians had trashed the Ossetian national theater, decapitated the statue of an Ossetian poet, and pulled down monuments to Ossetians who had fought with Soviet troops in World War II. The Ossetians were responding in kind, firing on Georgian villages and forcing Georgian residents of Tskhinvali to flee their homes.”

Do Americans really want to be in the middle of this conflict? While decent people wish the Georgians well in their efforts to stay free of the Russians, we should balk at supporting Georgian President Saakashvili — who is no defender even of the Georgians’ liberties — and his determination to hold the breakaway regions against their will.

Enough big-power politics, client states, and cynical Orwellian lies! Innocent people have suffered too much to let this go on another moment. Bush presumes Americans will take him at his word, not bother to do any fact-checking, and support his provocative agenda in the South Caucasus. If they do, more injustice will be committed in America’s name.

The moral alternative to Putin is not Bush or Saakashvili, but rather condemnation of all the governments involved. Freedom should always take precedence over “territorial integrity.” Secession is the indispensable check on government power.

SHELDON RICHMAN is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of The Freeman magazine.

 

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