Tuesday, August 12, 2008

South Ossetia

Just a quick query: has anyone come across thoughtful articles on the current Russia-Georgia conflict?  Having been preoccupied with moving and other sundries, I haven't had time to seek out decent commentaries, except for this thoughtful post on Crooked Timber, which I highly recommend to anyone worried about the situation and its broader implications.


gale said...

I read a couple of background-oriented stories in the Times, although as someone who has lived in Russia and visited Georgia, you know more than me about whether or not these are good articles.
(Here's one)

I also heard an interesting segment on the PBS News Hour last night with Richard Holbrook (sp?) and a Russian emigre who is US think tank policy guy now. They got into it something serious. They were interviewed just after Gwen Ifil interviewed the Russian ambassador to the UN, and while both commentators disagreed with the Russian ambassador, they also differed from each other. Holbrooke insisted on the badness of Russia and the relative blamelessness of Georgia; the Russian-think-tank-guy countered - Russia has no intentions of formally occupying Georgia (a point Holbrooke disputed) - AND, Saakashvili is certainly not the innocent in all of this either.

Here's the interview:

PS - Laura, what do you think of those Chinese gymnasts?

gale said...

I just read the Crooked Timbers post; it makes me wonder about the historical timeline of these national-ethnic disputes.

I wonder if the Cold War delayed the inevitable . . . the intranational conflicts among ethnic groups of nations forged during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This isn't all that profound, but it seems to me that we might think of these conflicts as something akin to decolonization movements in the 1960s and 1970s. They feed on each other and create odd bedfellows - Spain cannot support an independent Kosovo because of what it might mean for Catalonia.

In the United States (and the Western Hemisphere), the idea of nations developed at the same time as our nations were formed. It's written into the DNA of the many American constitutions in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In Europe, Asia, and Africa, it seems more artificial. An imposition of a particular Enlightenment ideology on top of forms of governance and various social groupings that had a much longer history than that of the presence of Europeans in the Americas.

Interestingly, all of this occurring at a moment when nationalism is emphasized to absurd proportions at the Olympics. Individuals are defined by their national identity - without a nation (and a flag and anthem) - you are nothing. Or you are forced to give up your national identity and flag, like "Chinese-Tapei," aka Taiwan.

Laura said...

Gale, I do think it's important not to fall into the Russia=bad, Georgia=good trap. Unfortunately, I don't know a lot about Saakashvili's policy with respect to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, though I imagine it is not all peaches and good will. Georgia never really was a nation, and it's been struggling to keep its borders intact ever since it seceded from the Soviet Union. That said, I think it's pretty clear that Russia's actions go very far beyond an attempt to keep the peace in South Ossetia and are intended to be read as acts of aggression against Georgia. I read some of the Russian press this morning, and it was really upsetting.

Also, you're right on about colonialism - this is the point I was always trying to make to all the Anglo- and Franco-focused people in my post-colonial theory class. The Caucasus and Central Asia were originally annexed by the Russian Empire. "National" lines were redrawn and ethnicities created by the Soviets in the 1920s, in part with the aim of splitting up cohesive territories to prevent rebellion. When the USSR came apart, these republics split off along the lines drawn by the Soviet colonizers - just as they did in Africa and the Middle East during decolonization. None of these states were ever nations and some, like Georgia, are home to dozens of ethnic and/or linguistic groups (not so different from tribal groups in Africa).

As for the Olympics, now that is a topic for a whole series of posts. It kind of blows my mind. But I do love the Chinese gymnasts. I like them better than the Americans, except for Nastia, who's my favorite.

gale said...

I also love Nastia best. She's the most elegant of the Americans. The other ladies tend to be very choppy in their performances, while she seems to have a more ballerina approach. Like Sasha on the American men's team - there's just something about those American kids of USSR gymnasts. I think it's because they have the seriousness of their parents and other athletes from the eastern bloc Olympics factories, but they are also American kids and have a sense of fun and play.

I bet a lot of money that the Americans kept thinking - we may not win, but at least we get to have (relatively) normal lives. The Chinese girls seemed to have the weight of the world on their shoulders.

gale said...

I would also add this to the articles on Georgia, Russia, and the United States' miscalculation.


What I find most disturbing is the image of Bush and Putin sitting down for a tete-a-tete. I suppose I've always known that this is how meetings between leaders happen, but nonetheless it seems like Putin wouldn't have to do very much to play his opponent. Neither did Saakashvili, apparently.

From the article it seems that our current commander-in-chief is actually a void between two disagreeing parties - Cheney et al. and the State Department.

Laura said...

It's disturbing that our "leaders" made such a gross miscalculation. I think it's telling that Condi - the actual Russian expert - got it right, and that she lost out in the Administration's debates. Anyone who has been watching Russia over the past decade and has any experience with the way the country's psyche and ambitions have evolved since, say, 1998, could have seen this coming.

That Cheney and his henchmen didn't see it coming seems to me a product of both their arrogance (in refusing treat Russia as anything other than either a Cold-War-style enemy or a weak post-Soviet failure) and their democratizing mission. Georgia's role in all of this as the model post-Soviet democracy is really interesting and seems to have been the thing that kept the Administration pushing forward where they might otherwise have pulled back. I've read articles in which people who knew they were taking risks said, yeah, but it was Georgia, there was that whole democracy thing. So, Georgia is given arms and its military trained in the name of democracy; we push forward with NATO membership in the name of democracy. And now whatever democracy exists in Georgia is under threat thanks to everything we did in the name of democracy.

And it's not that I entirely disagree. As far as non-Western post-Soviet nations go, Georgia, though far from perfect, is the model democracy. But there are times when "democracy" seems to be a proxy for "supports America and sends troops to Iraq in exchange for American military support." You can't blame Georgia for this - small, poor countries don't have a large range of foreign policy choices open to them - but the U.S. needs to think harder the content and consequences of its democracy building mission. Which is why we need Obama in the White House...

Laura said...

Also, Russia blockades Poti and Bush is on vacation?!? Although, maybe I'd rather have him issuing contentless statements from Crawford than looking into Putin's eyes and bungling relations between two nations whose fates I care about.

gale said...


I wonder how much of the Georgian military action in South Ossetia stemmed from misunderstandings of what the U.S. officials (esp. Bush) meant. You can completely imagine some luncheon where Bush starts going on about democracy, etc., and this gets interpreted in entirely the wrong way by Georgia . . . which is why we need a president who can hold his own in international dialogues.

The US and the administration comes across as total amateurs, while underlings in State and in the intelligence organizations are trying to stop a freight train collision.

In the same vein, I completely agree with the point about "democratization" equalling troops in Iraq.

gale said...

Another follow up - I heard on Morning Edition today a report by their Russian correspondent, and he said that the Russian army was putting on a show of departure for the foreign correspondents. They fired up some armored vehicles, loaded the reporters on board, and then headed out . . . while the rest of their forces remained. Sneaky. Except clearly the journalists saw through it.

gale said...

I add another thing (because the story gets thicker) - the Times ran a piece by Gorbachev this morning, front and center on the Op/Ed page. It is hard-core defense of Russia . . . and next to it is Thomas Friedman condemning Georgia, Russia, and the US - Clinton and Bush.

I noticed they are taking comments on the Gorbachev article . . . the response should be interesting.

Joyce Cheng said...

Laura and Gale,

Now that I've caught up with your discussion - I was wondering if any of you thinks that, ultimately, the thing between Georgia and Russia is about nationalism or about "who democratizes first," or who prostrates to the West/U.S. I'm interested because (as you can predict) the Green party in Taiwan is now freaking out because they think that China would do the same to Taiwan.

Laura said...

Joyce, not knowing much (or anything, really) about Taiwan, I'm not entirely sure what you're asking. The Russia-Georgia conflict is definitely somewhat about nationalism, but not so much, I don't think, about "who democratizes first," except insofar as Georgia's "democratization" signals its desire to turn its back on Russia and team up with the U.S. But maybe you could elaborate?