Sunday, August 9, 2009

Hot Caucasian summers

I must immediately apologize to my readers - to those making efforts for a more vivid discussion and to those reading rather passively either - as the topic of this post will have not much to do with ECE and its crisis. Of course, if one covers Russia's moves at its "near abroad" zone there is always a chance to point out some kind of significance for ECE as well, but I do not want to rely on such cheap methods, especially as Russia's relationship with Georgia is only very loosely connected to the economic crisis. (Last year the conflict happened at the height of rising oil prices, many people envisioning Russia's re-emergence as a world power on the back of this phenomenon.) But the newly arriving disturbing news from the region gives me a chance to reshape and reiterate some ideas of mine, not discussed publicly at that occasion.

The background is - hopefully - well known to everyone: In last August an armed conflict between Georgia, one of its breakaway territories, South Ossetia and Russia, at least nominally intervening on the latter's behalf, broke out. The Russian army crushed Georgia's resistance almost at once and their troops pushed quite close to Tbilisi, while Western statesmen and diplomats rushed into the area and to Moscow somehow bring about a standstill and any kind of lasting peace, while avoiding an explicit acknowledgement of an independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia (another province that de facto seceded from Georgia at the beginning of the '90s).

The result was not only the frantic diplomatic activity, but an international debate on Georgia, Russia and the US' diplomacy of the Bush era. The two opposites can be referred to as idealists and realists - maybe according to some keen observers not accurately, but expressing the most important difference: the former treated Georgia as a small outpost of emerging democracy in the post-communist world, threatened by Russia's will to establish a sphere of influence in which democracy plays only a subordinated role, while the latter argued that Georgia is neither a model democracy, nor Russia is the evil of the world and the West has its own chances to make lasting arrangements with Russia if it is treated as a real partner. The debate remained undecided (as it is almost always the result of such debates) but revealed that the perception of Georgia, Russia, the region, the US and its president that time is a dividing issue. A further conclusion was possible to be drawn: almost no one participating in this debate is ready to apply history as a means of understanding, interpretation and context building for the events, the field were the debate raged was international relation, with a bit of diplomatic and cold war history mixed in.

However instructive this debate was, it remained - at least for me - almost futile - as it didn't take account of some other important historical facts and contexts. First of all, the Caucasus is far from being the world of distinct nation states exclusively playing the role of international actor. In the area many other groups, loyalties and identities can be found, overlapping the national ones, contradicting them or existing in a peculiar mixture, but - and that is the important fact - always a resource for political (in the region it is often synonim with armed) action, therefore it is necessary to reckon with those loyalties and bonds. Many times the outcome of political conflicts is determined by those non-state and sub-state groups acting on the behalf of one or on the other side in an encounter. Not that those loyalties necessarily should be opposite to another loyalties, but the way of reconciling them should be found.

The Russian side - either because of their (let's say) historical experiences or because of their more recent ones in Chechnya - was aware of the fact, especially as they usually tried to retain the image of a country acting strictly in accordance with the basic principles of international law, therefore they were compelled to rely on such sub-state entities in order to subvert rival countries. Anyway, the Southern regions of the Russian Federation are not governed by the rule of law and through democratic political systems, rather through clan, tribal, religious etc. loyalties. The democratization process of the West - to the contrary - was based on the invention and/or strengthening of nation states in this zone. It is certainly an option and maybe - on the long run - a viable strategy. But as the nation state and the accompanying nation building process clearly poses a danger to other loyalties, unifying bonds and entities, this option almost certainly would lead to challenges to the nation state's authority. And as far as the state is not established as the sole actor that has a chance to act in the region's international conflicts those non-state entities will remain important elements of any balance of power. Either the theory of international relations is capable to deal with this reality or not.

Maybe even more important is the historical context of the whole conflict, usually missed by observers. The parts in this struggle are usually seen as elements of a specific post-soviet, transition context. Russia is the former superpower trying to regain as much from its former influence - after a decade of neglectment and decline - as possible, while Georgia is the small country, earlier oppressed by the Russians and now trying to establish a secure existence on the troubled waters of Russian "near abroad". The problems are usually seen as deriving from this common past and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Not many people noticed, that the Georgian-Russian relationship must be interpreted in another - somewhat obsolete, but still existing - context: the post-WWI Versailles-system and the phenomenon of revisionist countries, intertwinned in a very strange complex.

At first glance it could seem ridiculous, but even though Georgian nation building always refers to some distant but glorious past and portrays the country's history as the history of a distinct and somehow united entity, the facts are contradicting such assumption. The united Georgia - at least as a nation - never really existed and at the territory of present-day Georgia in the period what can be taken seriously as the nation's past many different - small or larger - states - kingdoms, principalities etc. - existed, either as independent ones, or in vasallage of one of the larger neighbours. The Russian Empire conquered those one-by-one in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but even in the framework of the Empire this imagined or perceived Georgia was never united. The territory, today considered to be under Georgia's sovereignty was divided into three Gubernias - administrative unit's under an appointed governor - Batumi, Kutaisi, Tfilisi. Only after the collapse of the Empire in the last phase of the WWI was a Georgian state - more or less uniting those territories - established, although its territorial extent remained highly contested by neighbours - Turks, Armenians etc. Present-day Georgia was born from the fires of WWI, as almost every country in ECE and its territorial extent was decided by similarly arbitrary measures and factors outside its influence. The Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union, from this perspective, was nothing else than an incubation house for a new small state, forging the necessary bonds and conveying to it a sub-state existence and legitimacy that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union was enough to support its claim for an internationally recognized existence as an independent state.

In this context it is less surprising that Georgia's fate fairly resembles the fate of almost every other successor country of the interwar period: highly uncertain territorial possession over its claimed zone of sovereignty and the accompanying insecurity of its existence as well. As no successor state was capable to survive even for two decades among its borders drawn in 1919-1920 and many of them even ceased to exist in the short period between 1938 and 1944, Georgia experiences the same. But even this late emergence of these problems is not necessarily astonishing, given the fate of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia after 1990, both a result - for a certain extent - of the same post-WWI Versailles-system.

The real surprise in Georgia's case is that it is simultaneously a country born from the Versailles-system, even though indirectly, and a revisionist one, playing the role that was embraced by the losers of the WWI, most prominently Germany or Hungary. But one can even in the interwar period found such peculiar examples, for example Italy, a winner and supporter of the revisions of the peace treaties. And as the fate of the new countries in ECE took a turn at the end of the '30s, the former winners became losers of Germany's emergence as Europe's dominant power for some years, they also promoted ideas of revision - although a revision of the revisions made earlier. Therefore it is not unprecedented to see countries in both roles at the same time. And Georgia is clearly one of them: claiming its independence under the terms set up after the WWI, while reclaiming any territories lost under the revisions of this settlement - despite the fact that the inner structure of the Soviet Union was never sanctioned internationally before the collapse of the Soviet state. Revisionism and justification of a territorial composition considered to be ideal by the vehement construction of an obviously "ahistorical" past was part of the interwar game of states too, as small scale armed conflicts had their role as well. As the portrayal of the enemy as the foremost danger for international peace and security was also inherent in the prevalent discourses. Not that such efforts would have been successful in preserving the advantageous international settlement in either case. The international system was dynamic that time and it remained still today. And it is clearly more problematic to depict a successor and revisionist state as being simply "good" and its opponent as being simply "bad" than it was the case with Georgia and Russia.

Some supplementary thoughts, in order to clarify my position: I'm not arguing in favor of Russia or Georgia, or any other entity. I'm opposed to the simplistic approach depicting the small Georgia bravely fighting the Russian bear (according to distinguished fellow historians a neo-fascist regime!), defending the democratic west and the stability of the world. But I'm not basing this objection on a realistic approach to the international relations, I rather put forward my interpretation of the existence of two countries equally subverting the fragile system developed in the last two decades - although with different means and aims -, therefore making it impossible to treat them substantially different.
Russia is clearly trying to reshape the situation to its own advantage and these attempts can be treated as a subversion of the existing system of states. But Georgia - more precisely its nation building process, targeting the existing group loyalties and unifying bonds different from the national one - similarly aims at the existing system and situation, phrasing it provokingly: tries to subvert it. If historical experience and knowledge has any use, than one can point out the similarities with the context of interwar Europe, where at last two opposing set of states emerged and retrospectively it is clear that the latter kind of attempts was not less important in determining this outcome as the former ones. (One should not think of Hitler, who was clearly not to be appeased, but Stresemann, who at the end achieved not too much with a more conciliatory and reconciling approach as nation-builders were not ready for concessions.) The existing framework of groups, entities and loyalties governing individual's behavior are important factors during such transition periods, when cornerstones of a former, lasting international system disappeared. And this is a strikingly similar situation to the present-day Caucasus.
One can argue that the ousted people of the breakaway territories deserve justice and it would be a position not easily contested. But otherwise this situation has already lasted for one and a half decade and at the moment not many people living in those provinces would be willing to embrace Georgia instead of their fragile entities. Yes, because those who haven't been so enthusiastic are not there. But anyway, it is an existing situation and it was the result of a more complex set of circumstances than a simple dichotomy of oppressor Soviets and freedom loving Georgians. I readily admit that I have no solutions for these moral issues and problems. But it won't change the fact, that the Georgian-Russian conflict can be seen through other lenses and maybe this perspective yields more than it is expected.

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