Reasons and Root Causes of Ossetia War

Monday, August 11, 2008

Interview with Dr. Bahram Amir-Ahmadian

After almost a decade of calm, the region turned into a new battle field, a war which brings to mind the tensions and wars of early 1990s. Hundreds of people lost their lives during three days of confrontation between the Georgian and Russian armies and an equal number of innocent people were injured while thousands of people were displaced.

This war is apparently going on between the army of the small government of President Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia and the powerful Russia but in fact is a big confrontation between Georgia’s allies with the Kremlin. We conducted an interview with Dr Bahram Amir-Ahmadian, an expert on the Caucasus regarding the events in South Ossetia.

Q. Mr. Amir-Ahmadian, why the political crisis between Georgia and South Ossetia easily turned into a military conflict?

A. To answer this question, we should take a cursory look at the background of this region. The Ossetia tribe has an Iranian root. They migrated to their country at the time of Tamerlane and after his attack on Iran. They entered this region after passing through the Caucasus Mountains and were stationed at the present location. Therefore, when Ossetia rose up and asked for autonomy, Georgia claimed that Ossetia has no territory to take over its autonomy. Of course, the Ossetians say they were the ones who entered the area first and the Georgians joined them later. Such disputes were not important as long as the region was administered under the flag of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, this dispute gained broad dimensions and widened to the extent that South Ossetia, which acted as an autonomous state, called for separation and becoming a republic.

Georgia which did not have much power at that time failed to resist. War broke out in the region at the time of President Eduard Shevardnadze early in 1990s. With the interference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe peace was established in the region. Afterwards, Ossetia held two rounds of self-proclaimed presidential elections. The Ossetians who are few in number and have limited monetary resources, have survived with the help of Russia through North Ossetia. During this very same time, Moscow granted Russian passports to South Ossetian citizens and treated them like Russian citizens. After the dismissal of Shevardnadze and coming to office of Saakashvili as a result of a “rose revolution” in 2003, conditions changed in South Ossetia.  When Saakashvili was trying to come to power, he made numerous promises to the Georgian people, promises such as eliminating unemployment, financial scandals and administration corruption. He also promised to regain the parts separated from Georgia, that is Abkhazia, Ajaria and South Ossetia. He easily kept his promise regarding Abkhazia but in Ossetia and Ajaria he failed severely, and faced problems particularly in South Ossetia. They even engaged in a war. Saakashvili, himself, was present in one of these battles. Cease-fire was declared according to international agreements in the region after escalation of tension between Georgia and South Ossetia and Russia dispatched its peacekeeping forces to the region. Issues got more complicated between Russia and Georgia when the latter decided to join NATO and put its bases at the disposal of the US to build missile shield. Even Ukraine, which is a US ally, started sending special assistances to Georgia. All these issues made Russia more and more discontented until it led to the current war.

Q. Do you consider this war pre-orchestrated or a war which erupted as a result of surprising logic which was out of control of the two sides?

A. In Spring 2008, Russia conducted war games in the region which totally indicated Moscow’s prediction that a war would erupt in the region. With the threats issued by Georgia and grounds being prepared for it, they considered this war completely probable since that time. Russia was totally ready for such thing and maybe its opposition with Georgia’s NATO membership was for this reason because had Georgia joined NATO it could have now asked for military assistance from all NATO member states as per Article 7 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Q. How do you assess the role of players outside the region? Can these events be regarded part of confrontation between the West and NATO with Russia?

A. It is completely true that players outside the region are regarded an important parameter in the conflict. The US has to push out Russia from the Caucasus in order to have a footing there. It can materialize this intention only by regional countries. Of course, the US failed to implement this policy in Azerbaijan. Heydar Aliyev and after him Ilham Aliyev did not let this happen by establishing the policy of balance. Beside the US, NATO is willing to be present in the region. The organization has carried out maneuvers in the region within the framework of peace and friendship since the 1990s.

Furthermore, Georgia is willing to preserve its territorial integrity but the fact is that the country is not in a condition yet to be able to establish security and have its own sovereignty and national economy. It is natural that with the presence of all these signs, Russia shows reaction and manages to challenge the US and launches arms race.

Q. What are the demands of the two parties to end the conflict and would the crisis abate if Georgia really gave up NATO membership?

A. Joining NATO will only bring about problems for Georgia. The country thinks it would have more power in this way and its conflicts would grow less, but this is not the case. Turkey and Greece, which are members of NATO, are suffering from differences. Of course maybe they feel more security as far as expenditures are concerned but on the whole the cases of Ajaria and Ossetia are complicated issues for Georgia and it is unlikely for it to settle them in a near future. Resolving such conflicts require passage of time and generations. Therefore, it is better for Georgia to show restraint and resort to better solutions than military option which would cost it heavily. The truth is that Georgia is not in good monetary and economic conditions to launch such attacks especially that they will be costly due to the mountainous situation of the region. At present the financial assistance offered to Georgia is very little and the income gained from the gas pipeline passing through the country is not enough to finance such expenses (of course, this pipeline has been ruptured for some time due to an explosion in Turkey). Moreover, a great number of Georgian active manpower work in Russia and bring in considerable amount of foreign exchange. Thus continuation of this tension is detrimental to Georgia.

The cold war which broke out as a result of these tensions is stretching more and more and blanketing the entire Caucasus turning it to a crisis center gradually engulfing other regional countries and making Karabakh and Armenia suffer the consequences.

Continuation of the tension would also have grave consequences for Georgia domestically, namely the opposition would get stronger and the president’s popularity drop.


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