The Western media is finally discovering the Ossetians. The Washington Post details the destruction of Tskhinvali. The Post‘s Peter Finn writes,
The scale of the destruction is undeniable; some streets summon iconic images of Stalingrad during World War II or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was leveled in two wars between Russian and Chechen separatists.
The Financial Times also gives voice to the anger Ossetian refugees feel toward Saakashvili. My favorite quote in the article comes from an Ossetian woman’s take on the assault on Tskhinvali. “They must have been Nato troops,” she told the Times. “The Georgians don’t know how to shoot.”
The quote by this woman raises another interesting aspect to the coverage of the war. The vast majority of quotes from “average people” are from women. It all makes me wonder if the prevalence of women’s voices is because they are the majority of refugees (all the men have gone to fight), are more apt to talk to reporters, or women have more truth value as victims. Perhaps it’s a strange combination of all three.
The Independent‘s Shaun Walker looks at how the ethnic tensions in the Caucuses are the result of Stalin’s footprint in the region. “Borders between the different entities of the union were changed at will, often with the express intention of fomenting ethnic unrest,” he writes. Actually, he’s wrong. Borders weren’t changed at will nor were they drawn to foment ethnic unrest. The “divide and rule” thesis doesn’t apply anymore in light of archival evidence. Soviet border drawing was a complex process that implemented all the knowledges of modernity: census taking, ethnographic surveys, map making, as well as central and local administrative and political concerns. As Francine Hirsch writes in regard to border drawing in Central Asia in her masterful Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union,
The archival record suggests that the Soviet approach to Central Asia was consistent with its approach to the Belorussian and Ukrainian republics. In all of these cases, Soviet administrators and experts evaluated ethnographic, economic, and administrative criteria, while giving priority to larger all-union concerns. The archival record further suggests that the classic argument about the delimitation, which asserts that Soviet leaders set out to subordinate Central Asia by drawing borders in a way that would intentionally sow discord, misses the mark.
Adrienne Edgar finds a similar process in the formation of Turkmenistan in her Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan. Given the consistency in the making of Soviet national republics, one can assume that the process in Transcaucasia was no different. I suggest that Walker familiarize himself with this literature before making reductive assertions about the relationship between Soviet border making and ethnic identities and conflict. More often than not these conflicts tend to be more localized and contingent rather than an outgrowth of some grand scheme from the center.
Ossetian and Abkhazian self-determination is finally creeping into the agenda. The Russians have been emphasizing the breakaway regions right to decide their own fate for years (though they at the same time denied the Chechens theirs). Now the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe has come on board to the idea. Marc Perrin de Brichambaut, the OSCE’s secretary general, told reporters that “The fate of South Ossetia must be decided by the people of South Ossetia. They live in very difficult conditions and the context of what has happened is quite complex.”
The only problem is that the Ossetians already have. Twice. The first was in 1992 where the vote was 99% in favor of independence. The second was in November 2006. Again 99% of voters said “yes!” to the question: “Should South Ossetia preserve its present status of a de facto independent state?” Both votes, however, were dismissed as fixed by Russian interlopers and subsequently ignored. Maybe they should have the referendum again. What will be said is the outcome is the same?
Father Vissarion, the head of the Orthodox Church in Abkhazia succinctly defined Abkhazian sepratism to Reuters, “What does separatism mean anyway? It means you want to separate. And who do we want to separate from? From murderers.” “If a man beats his wife,” he continued, “a court will allow her to leave him. People say we are Abkhazian separatists, but this means what? Are we supposed to be Georgians? We have nothing in common with them.”
Russian President Medvedev announced that the Russian military will pull out its forces from Georgia beginning Monday, though there is no indication that they will leave South Ossetia. This will happen only after “the situation in the region stabilizes,” a Russian Defensive Ministry spokesman told Interfax.
Georgia has its own refugee problems. There is an estimated 100,000 displaced people from both Ossetia and Georgia. A lot has been said of the Ossetians. As for the Georgians, it’s clear that the Saakashvili’s government wasn’t even prepared. “This is a very hard situation for which we were absolutely unprepared,” said Besik Tserediani, a deputy in the Georgia’s Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation. “There’s a huge amount of people coming in, and it’s impossible to deal with it.”
The sentiment among Georgians is that the Americans and Europeans were supposed to help them. Now help, in the form of humanitarian aid, is coming after the fact. The Moscow Times reports that humanitarian aid is pouring into Georgia. The International Committee of the Red Cross is demanding safe access to South Ossetian but the Russians have provided no guarantees. As a result “South Ossetia is generally off limits for humanitarian workers at this stage,” says European Union spokesman John Clancy.
Here is Al-Jazeera‘s take on aid to Ossetia:
The Americans have pledged aid to Georgia and Georgia only. Two military aircraft landed in Tbilisi on Wednesday bringing $1.28 million in emergency supplies. These cargo lifts, of course, concern the Russians.
The Russians are engaging in their own partisan humanitarian work. One of Medvedev’s first acts was to order humanitarian aid to South Ossetia. There is no doubt that this has helped getting doctors, nurses and other medical aid there.
With the Americans aiding their proxies in Tbilisi and the Russians aiding theirs in Ossetia, it sadly looks like the new front in the war will take place on the humanitarian front.