YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Might makes right

August 17, 2008|Tim Judah | Tim Judah covers the Balkans for the Economist. He is the author of "The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia" and the forthcoming "Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know."

Afew months ago, I traveled to Sukhumi, a balmy, war-wrecked seaside resort that is the capital of Abkhazia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as anyone who has followed the news of the last week cannot fail to know, are the two breakaway regions of Georgia. In pelting rain, I crossed the Inguri River from Georgia proper into Abkhazia and noticed that the Georgians had erected a giant sculpture on their side. It was of a pistol pointing at Abkhazia, but the barrel of the gun had been tied in a knot.

Even before the guns started firing 10 days ago, this gesture of peace and conciliation was a pretty futile one. Indeed, when I visited, there seemed no hope of a peaceful resolution to these two disputes, nor to two others that have dogged the Caucasus since the early 1990s. These are Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-controlled enclave that is technically within Azerbaijan, and Transnistria, the breakaway part of Moldova.

The roots of these conflicts run deep, and they are nothing peculiar to the post-Soviet space. The battles may go into remission, or a long "frozen conflict" phase, but even with the best goodwill in the world, they may never be resolved peacefully. Breakaways also tend to become the playthings of the great powers, which find them convenient as proxies in bigger conflicts. This has been the fate of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are useful to Russia to destabilize Georgia, and was the U.S.-cast role of Iraqi Kurdistan before the fall of Saddam Hussein.

That just compounds the near-impossibility of finding any resolution. For example, attempts to peacefully solve the Gordian knot that is Cyprus have failed miserably. After decades of U.N. resolutions, plans and referendums, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots seem no closer to reunification on their little island. Croatia, by contrast, solved its problem with the breakaway Serbs in the state of Krajina in 1995 with a massive, U.S.-encouraged armed assault. Virtually all of Krajina's Serbian population of 200,000 fled. Few returned.

Perhaps the Croatian example is what Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was hoping to emulate when he launched his attack on South Ossetia, which then went so dreadfully wrong for him.


In Sukhumi, I met Stanislav Lakoba, the man in charge of security, who might have warned Saakashvili of what awaited him. Lakoba scoffed when I suggested that Georgia was pouring millions into its armed forces and might one day attack. That, he said, would be "suicide." Clearly, he knew what he was talking about.

In the Abkhaz Foreign Ministry, the flags of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria stood next to one another. Their leaders had just been meeting.

Alongside their banners was that of Russia.

Without Moscow's support, none of the breakaways could survive. Quite apart from the military protection that Russia gives them, they use the ruble, speak more Russian than their own languages, and Russia has distributed passports to their people. But Russia is in a curious situation. It had, until now, claimed to support the territorial integrity of states. On Thursday, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, did a volte face. The world, he said, in a dramatic change of position, "can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity."

This was surely received as good news in Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- but Russia should remember that the breakaways have their own agendas. Ossetian officials whom I met in their capital, Tskhinvali, dream of a union with their kin in North Ossetia, which was left within Russia in the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Whether this would be as part of Russia or as an independent Greater Ossetia remains to be seen. This might seem fanciful now, but who knows what will happen to Russia in the future? Chechnya has, after all, already tried to break away. One day, it probably will try again.

Meanwhile, the Abkhaz just want to be left alone. When the Soviet Union split apart, they were a mere 18% of the population of Abkhazia. Now, although very much in control, they are still only 45% of its approximately 200,000 people, the rest being Georgians who live in the south, Armenians and some others. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians who fled in the early 1990s would like to come home, but the Abkhaz resist, fearing that once again they would become an insignificant minority in their own homeland.

They don't shout this from the rooftops, but the Abkhaz -- unlike the Ossetians -- distrust the Russians. The Russian czarist invasions of the 19th century sent huge numbers of their people into exile in Turkey. They faced wholesale deportations to Siberia under Stalin, who resettled Georgians to Abkhazia, sowing the seeds of the conflicts we are reaping today.

Los Angeles Times Articles