The Georgian-Russian Conflict

2008 August 14

One of the big news items in this last week has been the conflict between Russia and Georgia. But what is the background to the conflict?

The fighting erupted over the status of two Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both regions have majority populations favourable to independence. In the war of 1992-3, more than 250,000 ethnic Georgians were “ethnically cleansed” from Abkhazia. The Abkhaz separatists were aided by North Caucasian volunteers, including Chechens. More than 25,000 Georgians were expelled from Tskhinvali in South Ossetia. At the same time many Ossetian families were expelled from Borjomi to Russia. In effect, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are independent of Georgia. Though their independence has no international recognition.

Since the Russian operations against Georgia, hundreds of civilians are reported to have been killed and tens of thousands displaced. It is still unclear who broke the ceasefire between Georgia and South Ossetian separatists on the 8th August that began the crisis. Leaders have criticised Russia for over-reacting in its attack, as well as Georgia of being foolish in their shelling of Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia.

I have researched the conflict and the history behind it. I include this below. Just click on the “continue reading” link. I include a list of sources at the end.

Whether Russia’s claimed intentions of protecting South Ossetian and Abkhazi civilians is genuine or not is debatable. Even if true, Russia does appear to have left itself open to accusations. These accusations are that its aims are to bully Georgia and the Ukraine into withdrawing NATO membership applications. Whatever their aims, they have risked relations with the West.

Avaaz has organised a petition for a Georgian ceasefire: http://www.avaaz.org/en/georgia_ceasefire_now

Georgian History

Georgia has been independent at times, and part of empires at other times. Before the seventh century it was divided into two kingdoms: Colchis and Iberia. Colchis was the land of the fabled Golden Fleece. After BCE 66 Colchis became a Roman client state for almost four hundred years. In CE 330 its king adopted Christianity, tying Colchis to the Byzantine Empire.

Colchis then became a battle zone between the Persian and Byzantine Empires. After this Colchis fell apart into feudal regions. The Arabs conquered Georgia in the seventh century. They ruled until a united Georgian kingdom gained independence in the eleventh century. Georgia then expanded into the northern Caucasus and the northern coast of Turkey.

The Georgian golden age came in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. During this time Georgia saw its own renaissance. Unusually for its time it practised religious and ethnic tolerance. But Georgia was conquered by the Mongols in 1236. The Mongol period saw the ethnic Ossetians settle in South Ossetia.

Georgia then fragmented and came under Mongol rule. From the sixteenth century Georgia was divided. The west became part of the Ottoman Empire. The east was ruled by the Persian Empire. Eastern Georgia gained independence from Persia in 1762.

In 1783 this independent kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti signed a protection treaty with Russia. In 1801 the kingdom became part of the Russian Empire. After a note of protest at this, the Russians dethroned the Georgian king. Western Georgia was annexed by Russia in 1810. Georgia’s territory under Russia was expanded from 1803 to 1878.

Georgia declared independence after the Russian revolution. Although a British protectorate from 1918-20, Georgia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1921. It remained a Soviet Republic until independence in 1991.

The Road to War

Months after independence Georgian democracy was overthrown by a bloody coup. A civil war then followed which ended in 1995. Former Soviet minister of foreign affairs Eduard Shevardnadze joined the coup leaders. He governed as part of the State Council until 1995 when elected president. During this period, South Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists began their campaign for independence. This lead to inter-ethnic violence.

In 2003, Eduard Shevardnadze was again returned as president. The election was denounced by local and international observers as rigged. Shevardnadze was deposed in the Rose Revolution. Civilian protesters took the parliament building. Afterwards, Georgian soldiers refused to follow the government. Shevardnadze resigned.

In 2005 Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president. He had been one of the leaders of the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili then began military and economic reforms. Georgia then pursued a more pro-Western stance. This and attempts to reassert Georgian control in South Ossetia led to a breakdown in relations with Russia.

Despite popular demonstrations again him, Saakashvili was returned to power in the 2007 election. At the same time Georgian voted in a referendum to join NATO. Under Saakashvili’s government Georgia has improved from 130th in the world in 2005 to 79th in 2007 in the Corruption Perceptions Index. In comparison Russia was 143rd and made little if any progress. Georgia is listed in June 2008 as 90th in Worldaudit’s democracy ranking. Russia is listed as 130th of 150.

The South Ossetian War

The current war dates back at least until the civil war from 1992-3. In 1994 a ceasefire agreement in Abkhazia lead to Russian peacekeeping troops being deployed. This was strengthened by a peace accord in 2001 between Georgia and Abkhazia. In 1992 Georgia was forced by Russia to sign a peace accord with South Ossetia. A joint Ossetian-Georgian-Russian peacekeeping force was deployed. After 2004 tensions began to build in South Ossetia. Kidnappings, shootouts and bombings began taking place.

Despite the Abkhazia accord, clashes have taken place between Abkhaz troops and Georgian paramilitaries. Russia accused Georgia of harbouring Chechen rebels. In 2002 President Putin of Russia warned of military action if Georgia failed to deal with them. Georgia cooperated with Russia.

In 2004 South Ossetia held parliamentary election unrecognised by Georgia. Later anti-smuggling operations by Georgia drew Russian criticism. In 2005 President Saakashvili of Georgia proposed autonomy for South Ossetia. But he said this was only possible if Georgian refugees from the region were allowed to return. Sporadic incidents have since taken place in Georgia and South Ossetia between Georgian police and separatists.

In 2003 work began on an international oil pipeline through Georgia. In 2006 explosions on the Russian side of the border cut off Georgian oil supplies in mid-winter. Russia blamed North Caucasus insurgents. Georgia accused Russia of sabotage. In 2006 Russia suspended imports of Georgian wine. It then banned imports of Georgian mineral water. Both bans were made on health grounds. Georgia then demanded that Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia had visas. Georgia later called for Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be replaced by international ones. Later that year, the international oil pipeline opened.

The tensions between Russia and Georgia then began to step up. In September 2006 a Georgian military helicopter carrying its Defence Minister was shot at in South Ossetia. NATO agreed closer relations with Georgia. Georgia detained Russian army officers on spying charges. Russia imposed sanctions and cut transport links. South Ossetia held a referendum returning in favour of independence. Georgia did not recognise the referendum.

In 2007 Georgia twice accused Russia of violating its airspace.

In April 2008 NATO deferred Georgia’s application for membership until December. Russia then said it was to step up ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia first warned that Russia was planning to annex the regions.

In May 2008 Russia shot down an unmanned Georgian drone over Abkhazia. Russia sent three hundred unarmed troops to the region. Russia said they sent them for railway repairs. Georgia again warned of Russian planned military intervention.

In June 2008 Russia warned of “serious consequences” if Georgia, and the Ukraine, went ahead with plans to join NATO. Abkhazia cut all ties with Georgia. They accused Georgia of being behind several bomb blasts. Georgia denied this.

In July 2008 Russia admitted flying military jets over South Ossetia.

At the beginning of this month fresh clashes broke out in South Ossetia. At least six people were killed. Georgia denied being behind the attacks, blaming separatists. Russia warned it would step in if the conflict escalated.

August 7th. Georgia and South Ossetian separatists agreed a ceasefire.

August 8th. Despite the ceasefire agreement, Georgian and South Ossetian separatist forces exchanged heavy shellfire. Russian media reported Georgian tanks attacking the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali. At least fifteen people died. During the clashes one resident whose house was hit said, “Neither Ossetians nor Georgians want to kill each other. But someone doesn’t want peace and is trying to provoke a war.” Most women and children in South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, had already left on Wednesday (6th). Georgia accused Russia of arming the separatists. Previously, Russia had given passports to residents in South Ossetia – the region being recognised as Georgian by the international community – vowing to defend them if war broke out. Russia engaged Georgian troops in and around Tskhinvali and mobilised more troops towards the region. Civilians sheltered in their cellars.

The world’s attention is given to the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games. The United States is relatively powerless during the last days of the Bush administration before the elections in November.

August 9th. The Georgian parliament approved the presidential decree of a state of war. Russia claimed it had captured Tskhinvali. Russia extended the conflict into the rest of Georgia with an air raid on Gori. Georgia reported 60 deaths when Russian bombs hit a residential area. At least 37 civilians died in South Ossetia. More refugees fled the region. Russia’s prime minister Vladimir Putin, despite now killing more civilians than the Georgian-South Ossetian exchanges earlier, accused Georgia of “genocide”. Georgian president Saakashvili accused Russia of trying to “destroy” his country.

August 10th. Georgia claimed it had ordered a ceasefire and was withdrawing from South Ossetia. Russia launched more air raids on the Georgian capital, Tbilisi – including the international airport. Russia deployed warships from its Black Sea Fleet to the Georgian coast. Georgia claimed they are blockading wheat and fuel shipments. The Ukraine said the Russian ships would not be allowed to return to bases in that country. Russia later withdrew the ships. Separatists in Abkhazia mobilised forces to drive Georgia out of the Kodori Gorge. The US deplored the “disproportionate and dangerous escalation” by Russia and warned of a “significant” long-term impact on US-Russian relations.

August 11th. Fresh clashes between Georgian and Russian troops took place still inside South Ossetia. Russia launched more air raids on Tbilisi. Russia issued an ultimatum to Georgia to withdraw from the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. Russia said it is deploying 9,000 troops to that region. The West continued to give strong words to Russia but no material support to Georgia. Meanwhile Russian stocks fell to a two year low and the Rouble weakened. European diplomats convinced Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili to sign a draft ceasefire agreement. Before their arrival, Russian officials rejected the agreement.

August 12th. Russia announced that its objectives had been achieved and that they would end their attacks. But Georgians still feared a large-scale assault. International efforts to secure a ceasefire appeared to be gaining some ground. But Russia continued air strikes on the Georgian town of Gori. They also reserved the right to “eliminate” any attackers. A Dutch TV cameraman is among several people reported killed. Russian-backed rebels in Abkhazia announced the start of operations against Georgian troops in the Kodori Gorge area.

August 13th. With reports that the ceasefire was being broken, the United States announced its military would deliver aid to Georgia. Russia warned the US it would have to choose between a partnership with Tbilisi or one with Moscow. The European Union agreed proposals to send EU monitors to Georgia. Numerous reports said there was still Russian activity beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Russian troops near Gori and Senaki were dismantling abandoned Georgian ammunition and artillery for the safety of civilians. Residents told BBC reporters of looting and revenge attacks.

Today – August 14th. Russia says it is beginning the handover of Gori to Georgian security forces. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev meets the leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and pledges support to whatever they decide about their borders, saying “Not only do we support it but will guarantee them both in the Caucasus and throughout the world”. The Georgian parliament votes unanimously to leave the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The US military sends its first shipments of humanitarian aid to Georgia. A series of explosions are reported in Gori. There are reports that Russian troops have entered the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti.




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