SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 121 - September 2008

Conflict in the Caucasus

The dramatic conflict between Georgia and Russia that erupted in early August will have profound consequences, in the Caucasus and internationally. ROB JONES writes from Moscow.

THE WORLD’S PRESS had their attention diverted from the glitter of China’s Olympic games as the dispute between Russia and the Caucasian republic of Georgia over the small breakaway region of South Ossetia suddenly escalated into a nightmarish military conflict.

After weeks of growing tension in South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, sent troops to seize the region. Over the night of 6-7 August, Georgian troops attacked Tskhinvali and five other towns with automatic weapons and artillery. Claims vary on the number killed in the initial stages of the fighting.

One Russian journalist reported on the damage the South Ossetian capital had suffered: "The town is destroyed. There are many casualties, many wounded", Zaid Tsarnayev told Reuters from Tskhinvali. "I was in the hospital yesterday where I saw many civilian wounded. The hospital was later destroyed by a Georgian jet. I don’t know whether the wounded were still there". Both South Ossetia’s president, Eduard Kokoiti, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have claimed that over 1,500 people, mainly peaceful residents, were killed during the attacks (although Human Rights Watch reported a much lower figure). At least 15 Russian ‘peacekeeping troops’ based in Tskhinvali were killed.

With the Georgian troops having initially seized the town, Russian troops, headed by a huge column of heavy tanks, crossed the mountain passes from Russia into South Ossetia, ostensibly to defend the people of the area. Fighting again broke out in Tskhinvali and for days both Russian and Georgian military spokesmen claimed control of the city. Both sides used their air forces.

Russian troops then moved out of South Ossetia, occupying the city of Gori and attacking military and economic targets throughout the rest of Georgia. Gori ended up in the same state of destruction as Tskhinvali. Many were killed or wounded in these attacks. The Georgians also claim that Russian aircraft bombed ships in Georgia’s Black Sea ports and that the oil and gas pipelines crossing the country were also attacked.

Saakashvili declared that Georgia was in a state of war, announcing the call up of reservists and the immediate withdrawal of the country’s contingent from Iraq. Georgia had 2,000 troops there, the third biggest contingent after the US and Britain. Huge diplomatic pressure was put on both sides to tone down the conflict. The US came out openly hostile to Russia, with George Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, in effect holding Saakashvili’s hand throughout the conflict. The EU tried to be more bipartisan, with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, shuttling between the two capitals trying to find a compromise. Iran, which borders on the Caucasian region, offered to arbitrate in the dispute, while China called for a ceasefire, ‘which is the traditional response during the Olympic games’!

Now, although many Russian troops remain in Georgia, the fighting war appears to be over. But the world has dramatically changed.

Regional tensions escalated

LONG-RUNNING TENSIONS in the region around Georgia escalated considerably after the end of 2006 in parallel with the increase in tensions between the US and Russia internationally. What the Russian government called the ‘frozen conflict’ heated up because of a number of factors. Military exercises near Tbilisi in July of this year, involving over a thousand US marines, Georgia’s continued attempts to join NATO (although the latest attempt was pushed back at its Bucharest summit in April), and Georgia’s open support for the US missile defence system based in Eastern Europe, have all played a role in bringing the conflict closer.

Not coincidentally, a nasty racist campaign had been launched by the Russian authorities against Georgians living in Russia towards the end of 2006, supposedly after the Georgians arrested four Russian spies. The government imposed an economic boycott of Georgian goods, mainly wine and brandy. At the same time, harassment of Georgians living in Moscow was dramatically stepped up – passports and work permits constantly checked. Russian TV showed hundreds of Georgians, who were supposedly ‘illegal’, being loaded onto ‘ministry of emergencies’ aircraft for deportation. Many hundreds more were sent by train.

The question of NATO has acted to polarise opinions on both sides. Saakashvili had made the entry of Georgia into NATO a key policy of his administration. He was therefore bitterly disappointed that the application was pushed back (together with Ukraine’s application) at the Bucharest conference. Some analysts have suggested that he therefore decided to attack South Ossetia to attempt to push NATO into action on Georgia’s side. But this is an unlikely explanation.

Certainly, Saakashvili’s government was an unstable one, which has been meeting increasing economic difficulties. For the majority of the population, the promises and hopes of the ‘rose revolution’ that brought Saakashvili to power in January 2004 – that somehow Georgia would join the west with its high living standards and freedoms – have been dashed.

As opposition to his rule grew and protesters began to come out on to the streets, Saakashvili, in early November 2007, used police and troops to attack demonstrators in Tbilisi and declared a state of emergency. Then, in an attempt to cut across this growing opposition, Saakashvili announced an early presidential election – and a referendum on when to hold parliamentary elections – for January this year. While he was re-elected with a claimed 53% of the vote, the opposition accused Saakashvili of ‘subtly rigging’ January’s poll. These events led at least some European powers to begin to try and distance themselves from Saakashvili. It is therefore more likely that Saakashvili, rather than following a well thought out strategic plan, was actually desperately trying to find a way out of the corner into which he had been forced.

The Kosovo precedent

A KEY TURNING point for the Russian government was the recognition of Kosovan independence in February of this year. This was a blow to Russian interests in the Balkans as it saw an openly pro-US Kosovan government granted recognition against the wishes of Russia’s historical ally, Serbia. Russia’s ruling elite reacted with venom spitting through clenched teeth. The then Russian president, Vladimir Putin, stated: "The precedent of Kosovo is a terrible precedent, which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries. They have not thought through the results of what they are doing. At the end of the day, it is a two-ended stick and the second end will come back and hit them in the face".

Russia’s envoy to NATO, nationalist politician and long-time Kremlin insider, Dmitri Rogozin, was even more explicit. This decision, he stated, means: "We too would then have to proceed from the view that in order to be respected we must use brute force, in other words, armed force". This comment follows on from his earlier comments concerning NATO expansion: "As soon as Georgia gets the promise to join NATO from Washington, on the next day the real process to separate these two territories [South Ossetia and Abkhazia] from Georgia will begin".

Following the recognition of Kosovo, Russia lifted the economic restrictions it still had in place against Abkhazia and South Ossetia and activated its attempts to strengthen its support in the republics. The six months from February to August saw a steady increase in incidents provoked by both sides, including flights into the no-fly zone and shooting incidents. In the weeks before Saakashvili’s attack on Tskhinvali, Russia sent scores of ‘railway troops’ into South Ossetia, ostensibly to restore the rail link with Moscow. This was interpreted by Tbilisi as a hostile act on sovereign territory, and it helps to explain how the Russian army could get tanks and troops into Tskhinvali so quickly.

As the Russian leadership points out, the US is unbelievably hypocritical when it attacks Russia for going in to Georgia. After all, the war in Iraq is illegal and just as brutal. But the outbreak of open warfare in August saw even more incredible hypocrisy and propaganda on both sides.

Suddenly, the US is against self-determination, although it supports Kosovan independence. Russia supports self-determination, although it has waged two brutal wars to prevent Chechen independence. The western pro-Georgian press put out the pro-Saakashvili position. Almost no attention was paid to the initial attack by Georgian troops on Tskhinvali. After the Russians sent tanks into Georgia, the press was dominated by the Russian occupation. Only after the initial five days war was over did articles start appearing, for example in The Guardian, a British-based newspaper, suggesting, in a one-sided way, that the US was responsible for the conflict.

The Russian press toed the Kremlin line to a man. Columns reported on the suffering of the population in Tskhinvali but not a word was said about Russian troops moving into Georgia, or the vicious attacks on Gori. Exaggerations and rumours were reported with no independent checking. The claims of Kokoiti and Lavrov that between 1,600 and 2,000 civilians were killed in Georgia’s initial attack are taken as read. However, Human Rights Watch, after surveying hospitals, talks of less than a hundred being killed.

But this was enough for Russia to send the troops in. During the five days, Russian tank columns were spotted throughout Georgia. At the same time, pro-Russian witnesses swore blindly they had seen columns of NATO troops moving through Georgia. Reporters on both sides who tried to be ‘objective’ were victimised. A reporter for Russia’s world service, Russia Today, tried to send news from Tbilisi reporting on Russian attacks but was forced to resign. Reporters from western papers who attempted to go to South Ossetia through Russia were threatened with the sack. Varying terminology on both sides such as the ‘fascist’ Saakashvili, the ‘genocide’ of the Ossetian people, ‘aggressors’, or the ‘Stalinist’ Kremlin, are thrown around to play on emotions and hide the real issues, and to distract from the grave human catastrophe taking place.

So what do socialists say?

SOCIALISTS BASE THEMSELVES on what is beneficial or detrimental to the working class and poor people. We reject attempts to analyse the situation in an empirical way, that is, ‘Who fired the first shot?’ Nor do we base our standpoint on questions that can be used to disguise national interests. Thus we see some asking simply, ‘Who is pro- or anti-US imperialism?’ Others ask, ‘Who is pro- or anti-Russian?’ But these questions miss the point that the real reason for this clash is the competing imperialist interests of the ruling classes in both Washington and Moscow. This is why the workers’ movement must maintain its independence from both.

Many lefts, especially from a Stalinist tradition, have chosen to give critical support to Russian capitalism, on the basis that Russia and its allies are the best defence there is in the world today against unbridled US imperialism. This is based on the pessimistic assessment that the international working class is incapable of uniting and struggling to overthrow capitalism. They still imagine they are backing a ‘lesser evil’.

Others speak of the need for a ‘neutral’ force to oversee peace-keeping in the disputed regions. Calls are made for troops from the United Nations (UN) or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to be used. However, as the experience of the former Yugoslavia shows, these contingents also defend the policies of their own governments and are not capable of maintaining peace. Indeed, the worst massacre of the conflicts in the Balkans, at Srebrenica, took place while UN peacekeepers looked the other way.

In particular, the position facing revolutionary Marxists in Russia is hard. There is incredible pressure in society to support the Russian actions. All sorts of questions are thrown at us: How else are we supposed to defend the rights of the Russian passport holders? Why shouldn’t Russia stand up to US imperialism and its Georgian puppet Saakashvili? Surely if the people of South Ossetia want to unite with North Ossetia, they should have the right? Aren’t Russian troops in Georgia just to ensure that the Georgian army is disarmed and can no longer attack us? Socialism is abstract, something has to be done now.

These questions have to be answered, but socialists must also adopt the longer view and take a firm position in the interests of the working class. The whole tragedy of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism is that there was no independent working-class organisation capable of offering a programme to end the horrors of Stalinism and capitalism. As a consequence, the working class has become divided; social degradation and ethnic division have become the norm. This is no surprise. This is in the nature of capitalism. Even ‘modern, civilised’ states such as Belgium, Britain and Spain have not succeeded in solving the national question. But in the former Soviet Union, the newly developed capitalist elites have not baulked at consciously using ethnic conflict to further their aims.

Socialists need to speak out, not only in favour of the ethnic group under attack, but also in defence of the rights of the working class of all ethnic groups against their oppressors. This means, notwithstanding the aggressive policies of the Saakashvili government, we should give no support to the Kokoiki government in South Ossetia, based on KGB and army representatives and financing itself through smuggling and the black market, with the support of its Russian paymasters. Just as Saakashvili is a pro-American stooge, the Kokoiti government is a mafia government, defending mafia interests with the backing of Russian imperialism. We therefore call for the unity of the Ossetian, Russian and Georgian working class in defence of their common interests.

As seen in the events around South Ossetia (and Kosovo), the question of self-determination is used hypocritically by both sides. So-called leaders do not mean self-determination for the working class and poor, just for those who have armies and powerful friends. As genuine socialists, we defend the right of self-determination and fight against all forms of national discrimination and oppression through organising working-class and international solidarity. As Kosovo and South Ossetia demonstrate, under capitalism there is no possibility of a nation being genuinely independent. Seeking the support of one or another imperialist power is no solution. Developing an independent working class force capable of challenging and overthrowing capitalism – nationally and internationally – is the only way to guarantee the right of self-determination. On the other hand, socialists do not always advocate separation and, even when we do, work to build the solidarity between and unity in action of the working class of all nationalities.

In South Ossetia, we have to ask which South Ossetia has the right to self-determination? Should South Ossetia join with North Ossetia, within the Russian Federation or as an independent entity? Should part of South Ossetia break away from another part (along ethnic lines) leaving the Georgian part in Georgia and the Ossetian part in Russia? Or should the people who live in South Ossetia be forced to return to the ‘status quo’? In each of these variations, we can say clearly that the fundamental problems of the region – economic and social, national and ethnic – will not be solved unless capitalism is overthrown. So long as capitalism remains, the region will still be subject to the permanent conflict of the world’s imperialist powers for control of the oil and gas pipelines, and repressive and nationalist governments will attempt to divide people along ethnic lines in the interests of the rich and powerful.

We support a genuine right to self-determination based on the rights of the working class and poor in society to decide where they wish to live. This can only be determined when the working class and poor have established their own organisations capable of defending their interests. At the same time, self-determination of one group should not be at the expense of another. We therefore support the right to autonomy or independence of any groups within a federal or confederal structure if they so desire. While the maximum unity of the working class in the struggle for socialism is our aim, we are sensitive to national feelings. If, for example, South Ossetia decided to become independent, the Georgian population within it should have the right to be autonomous or independent, if they so wish.

Who can defend the rights of workers?

MANY ARGUE THAT at least the Russian army will defend the rights of South Ossetians now. But during the course of the last 20 years, the army (either in its regular form or through irregular units) has shown that it intervenes in the region in the interests of one section or another of the Russian ruling elite, at the cost of ordinary people of all nationalities. In the Abkhazia context, it participated in the massacre of Georgians, for no other reason than that they lived in the wrong place. No attempt has been made to counter the recent statements of Kokoiti that Georgians living in Ossetia should not be allowed to return. In no way can the Russian army be said to have defended the rights of Chechens through two brutal wars, nor has it been able to ensure peace in Ingushetia or North Ossetia. Indeed, it was the bungling of the army chiefs that worsened the Beslan school siege catastrophe in September 2004. During the present conflict, by occupying Gori and attacking ships in Georgian ports, the Russian army has shown it is defending the oil and gas interests of Russia’s capitalist oligarchs.

It may be possible that for a short period, to create an image of stability, the army will be seen to defend the local population (at least those who have not been prevented from returning) but it will soon return to its normal role of defending the interests of the Russian ruling class.

In other such conflicts, we have raised the need to establish workers’ defence forces. But in these conditions they should not be simply ‘narodnii opolchentsi’ (people’s defenders), formed to defend residents of a particular area. As such, they would just become ethnically-based militias. We need to argue that workers’ defence forces should be multi-ethnic, formed to defend workers and the poor from attack, whatever their nationality, and under the democratic control of the working class.

It is too crude to say that the national and ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus are entirely the result of capitalism. The legacy of Stalinism and its bureaucratic approach to the question of nationalities has clearly left its mark in the region. However, it has been the restoration of capitalism that has left the region so desperately poor, under the control of warring factions struggling to control oil and gas routes, and subject to the never-ending conflict between imperialist powers. If proper homes and jobs, a decent health service, education and pensions are to be provided for all, irrespective of nationality, then the struggle for self-determination has to be linked to the struggle against capitalism. If workers were to be sufficiently organised to take political power in any of the republics in the region, then the nationalities map would be dramatically redrawn, as the improvement in living standards and the possibility of genuine self-determination would mean that ethnic groups would be able to co-operate and not be in conflict with each other.

Some will say, ‘Yes, that’s nice but we need to do something now!’ The problem is that there is no realistic solution as long as the region is dominated by the likes of Saakashvili, Kokoiti or Ramzan Kadyrov (the gangster president of Chechnya) and their imperialist backers in Washington and Moscow. Of course, we would welcome any short-term easing of the problems but we have to warn that, to reach a genuine solution, capitalism has to be driven out of the region.

To achieve this the socialists’ programme is based around:

· A call on all worker and left activists in Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia, and of course in other countries, to demand that military activities are immediately halted. Workers cannot rely on the uncontrolled actions of their governments, diplomats or intervention by outside forces to solve the conflict, they can only rely on their own forces.

· The withdrawal of all Russian and Georgian troops from South Ossetia and opposition to troops supplied by other capitalist states. We call for the formation of trans-ethnic workers’ defence forces to defend workers and poor people from attack, whatever their nationality, and under the democratic control of the working class rather than so-called peacekeeping forces.

· For the right of South Ossetia and the other unrecognised republics to self-determination without military intervention.

· For united action by the working masses of Georgia, Russia and South Ossetia to overthrow those governments who wage war against ordinary people and to drive imperialism out of the region.

· The nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and management of the oil, gas and other natural resources in the region, and the pipelines through which they are transported, and for the use of the income from these for overcoming poverty in the region.

· An emergency construction and job creation programme to provide homes and incomes for all refugees of all nationalities in the region, under the control of democratically elected committees.

· The establishment of governments which will defend workers’ interests, overcome poverty, and ensure peace.

· For a democratic socialist federation of the Caucasus – without this there can be no long-term solution to the conflict over land and resources.

Profound repercussions

WHATEVER THE FINAL outcome of the current military manoeuvrings, nothing has been resolved. Georgia continues to be ruled by a clique set on forcing Abkhazia and South Ossetia against their will back into Georgia. Saakashvili has made a serious error in attacking South Ossetia in the way he did. Now, many western leaders are realising that he is an unreliable ally. The Bush administration could not get NATO to agree to fully back him and, if Barak Obama wins the US presidential election in November, US foreign policy tactics may change. Saakashvili could well find himself with declining support at home and held at arm’s length by the world powers. Some opposition leaders in Georgia have issued the call for elections to replace Saakashvili, but these will have no purpose if he is just replaced by another set of neo-liberal politicians. There is an urgent need in Georgia to build a genuine left-wing alternative to Saakashvili.

In Russia, the ‘Medvedev-Putin’ tandem has won a Pyrrhic victory. This will not be a repeat of the success of Putin’s presidency after he waged the second Chechen war. On the one hand, the whole Caucasus region will be more unstable as a result of these events, demanding even greater resources to ‘control’ the area. But also the conditions no longer exist for a further ten years of economic growth. The US, EU and Japan are now experiencing a slowdown or recession. A further major fall in oil prices would hit the Russian economy hard. There was already a sharp decline in foreign investment into Russia even before these events.

Finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, says that as a result of the war $16 billion of foreign investment has fled the country. Although for a period there may be a temporary strengthening of the regime, this will not be permanent. If economic conditions worsen, in a couple of years people could well look back and say that the South Ossetia war was a turning point. The only question is whether a serious left-wing alternative capable of building mass support can develop in time.

In the Caucasus as a whole, the situation is dire. The struggle by imperialist powers for control will be even more bitter. The building of the gas pipeline is now under question as the investors are unhappy about the instability. The apparent success of Russia in bringing Saakashvili to book may encourage the Azeri regime to try and wrest Nagorno Karabakh back under its control. The conditions now exist throughout the Caucasus for the explosion of Balkan-type wars, involving not only the regional powers but the major imperialist ones as well.

Internationally, the older imperialist powers find themselves in a much more difficult position. For two decades they have been trying to gradually develop relations with Russia while maintaining their own superiority. Now they find that they have created a monster that is difficult to control.

NATO is divided on how to react. On the one hand, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States rushed to Georgia’s defence. The US anti-missile defence system will now go ahead. In reply, Belarus and Russia have announced they will build their own system in opposition. Calls have been made within the G8 to exclude Russia from this forum. The US is finding itself in opposition to some of the European capitalist powers over how to deal with Russia. And in the UN, the US will find it much harder to carry its position, as Russia will be more willing to use its veto. While the international organisations such as the UN and OSCE are reluctant for their peacekeeping troops to be pulled into the Caucasus, refusal will leave Russia in control. The imperialist powers are being dragged into the Caucasian powder keg.

But the conditions internationally are not the same as those at the start of the 1990s, when the Balkan wars began. Then, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, capitalism appeared to have won the ideological war, the US appeared as an unchallengeable superpower, the world economy was growing steadily, and the workers’ movement was disorientated and leaderless. Now, people are beginning to question capitalism more and more, the limits of US power have been revealed by the Iraq debacle, the world economy is in a dire state, and the workers’ movement internationally is beginning to flex its muscles. The lessons of the nightmare situation in the Caucasus must be learned and the way opened for new generations to establish socialist co-operation on the highest scale.


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