16.11.2008
The Caucasian War and Public Interest
№4 2008 October/December

The recent outbreak of violence in the Caucasus has given rise to a version of these developments in which a huge and aggressive authoritarian Russia, loaded with nuclear bombs and missiles, attacked a small, defenseless and democratic Georgia. Despite the U.S. role in initiating this war, almost all of the international mass media believed this version of events, and a large part the world community did as well, including members of the alter-globalist movement, most of whom do not sympathize much with the United States. Why did this happen?

THE BACKGROUND OF THE DECEPTION

This did not happen by accident. The Russian authorities have a very aggressive policy behind their backs; or, to put it bluntly, a bloody war against the Chechen people, in which tens of thousands were killed and the Chechen capital Grozny was destroyed.

The Russian authorities do not only have an anti-social policy behind them – Russia is building an economic and social model that is more liberal and market-oriented than even that of the U.S., but which is less socially oriented than the U.S. one – but also an increasingly anti-democratic domestic policy.

It is common knowledge that the Russian authorities also have plenty of examples of providing “not quite accurate” information.

This is why most people in the world, except in Russia, did not believe the Russian government when it actually did tell the truth – that the Saakashvili regime had committed acts of aggression against the citizens of South Ossetia. Meanwhile, almost all Russians immediately believed their government. That was not accidental either – Russians have not had the opportunity for a long time to be proud of their country, but they – for the most part – have not learned yet to think of their country in isolation from the state machinery and the army. People miss justice and a “good Tsar.”

In this very case – and largely as a result of the actions taken by Mikheil Saakashvili and U.S. President George W. Bush – the circumstances simply forced the Russian authorities to act in a more or less righteous and just way. They had no other choice and they began to protect those who really needed protection. Who knows, maybe they even did that with pleasure, happy that they could finally satisfy some people’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union. People sincerely supported these actions of the state.

The military and ordinary people were the first to act. The Russian authorities, who had long wanted to portray themselves as at least having some kind of empire and who had planned to do that precisely in the Caucasus region, could not but take advantage of the situation.

How exactly did they do this? Here we have questions that must be answered with facts in hand. The West lied a great deal about this war, but was it a lie that Russian aircraft bombed residential neighborhoods in Georgia and that the military killed civilians as well?

Why, how and by whose decision did Russian troops find themselves outside the territory of South Ossetia, in particular in Gori? And the most important question is: Were the actions by Russia and, no less importantly, the actions by the U.S. and Saakashvili, just and did they meet the interests of the peoples of the Caucasus and Russia?

WHY THE WAR BEGAN

There is no doubt that given the degree of the Saakashvili regime’s dependence on U.S. support, it could not undertake any military actions not only without the approval, but also without direct instructions from its U.S. sponsors. Therefore, the main question is not why Saakashvili launched his bloody military adventure, but why the United States needed it.

First of all, during this year’s presidential election campaign the Republican administration decided to give its candidate an opportunity to flex his muscles. And John McCain scored some points in the presidential race; so the Bush administration’s calculations came true.

A more fundamental reason lies in the U.S. and global economies, and there are several factors here.

First, for many U.S. administrations it has become commonplace to respond to economic difficulties by escalating international tensions, which enables them to inject additional funds into the economy in defense spending and to justify various kinds of unpopular measures. However, to all appearances, the U.S. is not going to give direct military support to Saakashvili, as that would mean a military confrontation with Russia. Washington’s problems in Iraq and Afghanistan make such confrontation undesirable; moreover, they make the U.S. interested in at least a favorable neutral Russia in those regions. Arms supplies to Georgia and financial support for Saakashvili, together with loud political rhetoric, could hardly produce the effect needed to warm up the economic climate in the United States.

Second, European countries have lost part of the market for their exports because of the U.S. economic decline and soaring inflation. The European economy is much more dependent on exports than the U.S. one. Therefore, the decline in the European economy already promises to be deeper than that in the U.S. economy. In these circumstances, sparing prices in long-term contracts for the supply of raw materials and fuel from Russia is one of the anchors that can keep Europe from plunging into an even more devastating crisis. To this end, Europe needs a trustful relationship with Moscow. But if the economic and financial situation in Europe sharply deteriorates, this may cause European capital to move to a seemingly more successful America – much to the joy of the Bush administration.

So far, Europe – at the diplomatic level – is demonstrating its Euro-Atlantic solidarity, although not as zealously as the United States would like it to. Yet it is quite obvious that Europe does not want to go further than verbal rhetoric. This is why the U.S. is paying so much attention to the new members of the European Union and NATO, viewing them as its clients capable of exerting pressure on Old Europe.

However, these plans have little chance for success. Russia’s tough position has had no small share in this, causing not only Europe but even the United States to exercise caution in their practical steps, however harsh their speeches and statements may be. Why then does Russia’s position on the South Ossetian, as well as Abkhazian, issue differ so dramatically from its position in the first half of the 1990s?

PROSPERITY IN JEOPARDY

The Medvedev-Putin tandem is undoubtedly aware of the economic and political factors that make a tough confrontation with Russia highly disadvantageous for Europe and the U.S. This is one of the reasons that both the president and prime minister are holding firm. But there are internal political factors as well.

Russia has strengthened both economically and militarily over its years of economic growth, despite the persistent problems in the army. Russia’s ruling elite is now reaping the benefits of a favorable economic situation and political stability. However, the country’s economic prosperity rests on a fragile foundation which is being further eroded by a host of deep systemic problems. These include the low technological level of Russian industries and, as a consequence, their low competitiveness; a low level of innovation activity and technological dependence on the West; the extremely deteriorated state of the country’s infrastructure; the crisis of the pension system; the loss of food independence; and the growing dependence of banking and corporate capital on Western loans.
The on-going economic crisis in the world and a possible continuous fall in oil prices are increasing the threat of economic shocks. In that case, the technologies of political manipulation which have so far ensured political stability may not work. Therefore, Georgia’s aggressive actions against the South Ossetians gave the Kremlin an opportunity to pose as a defender of national interests and thus receive additional public support (similarly, Putin’s actions to repel the bandit invasion of Dagestan in 1999 boosted his popularity).

The tactical political interests of the Kremlin administration and the interests of the overwhelming majority of the Russian people have now coincided. If we add to this the growth of nationalist sentiment in the country in recent years, then we will see that the ruling circles have made a win-win bet – they have secured mass support, especially since in this case the actions of the Russian authorities were seen as justified.

So what happened in South Ossetia? Aggression? Genocide? Yes, all that took place there. But there was also and still continues to be a cynical backstage game of countries like the U.S. which call themselves free, democratic and civilized – and which do not hesitate to sacrifice thousands of civilians for the sake of their own political goals. Also, the acute problem remains of Russia’s imperial ambitions and actions. And most importantly, there are the peoples of the Caucasus, who have to live and develop in these conditions.

PUBLIC INTEREST AND REALPOLITIK

There is a reason that geopolitics, like politics in general, is considered to be a business for “real people.” It is not acceptable in geopolitics to talk about principles, morality, etc., and if these things are even mentioned, it is done only for the sake of a promotion campaign of some kind.

Even less mention is made in geopolitics – especially in recent decades – of social and economic roots and interests. It rather operates such notions as ‘state’ and ‘elite,’ where ‘state’ – as government machinery – is implicitly, but widely identified with the people of a given country and its territory, while the ruling social and political forces are identified with the elite of the nation in the intellectual and moral sense. But is this really so?

The recent war in the Caucasus has once again demonstrated the parochialism of such views and serves as another in a series of lessons in recent decades, among them Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq. Adherence to principle in geopolitics has well-known “roots.”

If nations or peoples want to be independent and to have a statehood of their own, no one should stand in their way or even more so use force, especially from the outside.

If peoples and nations want to enter into alliances, these alliances must be voluntary, and the use of force against them – as well as economic sanctions or political/ideological manipulation – is unacceptable. Imperial ambitions by any states and their blocs must be resolutely countered.

One must remember that any nation and any people is not homogeneous and that the majority of citizens are now kept away from geopolitical decision-making. In some cases, clan-corporate groups, which have merged with the bureaucratic state apparatus, try to express their views. In other cases, this is done by the largest public-private corporate structures hiding under the cloak of liberal democracy. In still other cases, there are semi-feudal and semi-capitalist structures hiding behind religious ideas.

Moreover, one should not forget that any nation is under strong economic, ideological, political and power pressure exerted by a group of states and blocs seeking an imperial status, above all the U.S. and NATO. This is all true.

This is why it is particularly important to clearly formulate one’s principled position and use all available peaceful means to help the majority of “ordinary” citizens to formulate and uphold their position – in a democratic and independent way – and say what they want to achieve. Independence? A union? What kind of union, with whom, and on what terms? And then their view should be supported, while blocking external imperial or other pressure on these peoples and nations – especially if this pressure comes from the outside and has the nature of armed aggression; if peoples wishing to be independent ask for assistance; and if the UN and other international institutions keep silent. In these circumstances, peoples’ fighting for independence must be helped – including by force.

But afterwards this force must be immediately removed. Chopping off the head of a dragon is a matter of honor and conscience. But one must not take the dragon’s throne after that, because one will become a dragon himself. In this sense, Russia was right to support South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s desire for independence.

But those who do not believe the Russian dragon are right as well – formerly it already seized the dragon’s throne by force and changed from a liberator into an invader.

If the Russian authorities from the very beginning – that is, from the first Chechen War, if not earlier – had firmly held the position of protecting the rights of nations and peoples to self-determination, then there would have been much broader support for Russia in the present confrontation. But that has not happened. And this is why even democratic international organizations that oppose the U.S. do not trust the Russian government. Meanwhile, the Russian people finally want to believe their own political leaders, but…

And here I would like to single out some important aspects pertaining to lessons of the August war.

LESSONS TO LEARN

To begin with, the inconsistency of the Russian authorities – who sometimes oppose the sovereignty of “small peoples” and sometimes advocate it, depending on tactical considerations – has backfired, and very painfully, on themselves and, indirectly, on all Russians. This happened at the precise time that the Russian authorities did something really useful; that is, when they defended thousands of people in South Ossetia. The world does not believe the Russian government, and this is bad. But still worse, it does not believe Russian citizens, many of whom personally helped the South Ossetians and some of them even gave their lives for that cause.

This is bad for us. But it is equally bad for those members of the international civilian community who do not distinguish between the Russian government and Russian citizens.

Unfortunately, this is a well-deserved retribution for the failure of most of us Russians to oppose the government’s imperial geopolitics in the past; for the support that many of us now give to it; and for the feeble or active attempts by Moscow to pose at least as some kind of “empire.”

Now it is the right time for Russia to do – at long last – something really worthy: let not only the Abkhazians and Ossetians, but also the Chechens decide the issue of their independence in a truly free way; refrain from engaging in backstage bargaining with the heads of Chechen clans; make a clear distinction between the peoples of Georgia and the authorities that support Saakashvili; help ethnic Georgians living in Russia feel at home; and take steps to develop Georgian-Russian friendship in culture, education and public diplomacy.

It is also the right time for the West to rethink its unscrupulous policy regarding the self-determination of nations and regarding Russia, and to think of the importance of distinguishing between Russian citizens and the Russian government.

However, neither the government nor the larger part of Realpolitik forces both in Russia and the West are going to learn these lessons yet. In Russia, a real basis has emerged at last for public support of the state and a formal pretext has arisen in the West to find “the enemy of democracy.” Both of these tendencies lead nowhere.

The Russian authorities will hardly be able to implement the credit of trust which they have received due to their really lawful actions. The authorities express the interests of those forces that have been pursuing – and will continue to pursue – an anti-social, undemocratic and petty-imperial policy. They will lose this credit of trust sooner or later – in the same way the authorities of the Russian Empire lost their credit of trust earned at the end of the 19th century when they supported the truly just struggle of the Balkan peoples for independence in the war against Turkey – which, incidentally, was supported then by Britain, a super-empire of the 19th century.

At the same time, the West will see that the demonization of Russia as a country – as distinct from criticizing its rulers – is very harmful not only for the people of Russia but also for the West, which is witnessing a further growth of the already influential right-wing conservative political forces. These forces advocate a liberal-capitalist socio-economic policy line, aggressive imperial geopolitics, and an increasingly authoritarian/conservative policy at home to suppress human rights and freedoms, as well as the rights of unions, social movements and nongovernmental organizations.

This factor makes it very important to search for peaceful, consistently democratic, and anti-imperial alternatives, and to seek the solidarity of forces that advance and defend these alternatives, both in Russia and the world.