The Creeping Caucasus Catastrophe
by Thomas Goltz
"Get ready for a long, cold winter in Georgia,
with social chaos around the corner."
On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
The Russian / Georgian Conflict and Its Impact on Azerbaijan
Tbilisi, Georgia, August 23, 2008 - Russian troops and tanks may have completed (at least partially) their pull-out from Georgian territory seized during its August 8, 2008 blitz of this tiny post-Soviet country, but that should be little reason for friends of Georgia to celebrate, as the real (if creeping) catastrophe has just begun.
In addition to humiliating the Georgian army and generally reducing any Georgian military installations to rubble, the Russian blitz has humiliated the EU, the US and NATO by exposing just how little 'friends of Georgia' could do in the country's hour of need.
Even after Russia has announced that it regards in compliance with all points of the emergency cease-fire plan negotiated by France, Russian troops continue to occupy numerous locations in western Georgia, and are in the process of setting up a self-declared "security zone" well outside the legally defined geographic limits of the two contested "autonomous" areas of Georgia that sparked the week-long conflict.
As of this writing, Moscow effectively keeps one hand throttling Georgia's economic throat, and the other ready as a mail-fist to smash this proud, ancient nation of poets and artists to pulp again, should need arise.
At the last check-point outside the hub-city of Gori, yesterday, scores and even hundreds of Russian tanks and Armored Personal Carriers poured out of feeder roads and fields as part of the well-ordered pull-back, but there was absolutely no sense that the Kremlin was somehow bending to any outside pressure in doing so. Rather, the sense was that the Russian military was flaunting its success, and was quite content with allowing a damaged Georgia to come to understand the enormity of the disaster which had just washed over it, and tacitly encourage a spirit of revolt to fester against the government of the young, brash Mikheil Saakashvili, whom many have incorrectly blamed for igniting the conflict in the first place.
The list of projected problems directly associated with the disaster is truly ominous. According to European Union experts, the country suffered some $1 billion in direct infrastructural loses, and will lose a projected $1 billion more in direct foreign investment over the next year or so, as foreign capital shies away or decides to cut losses and walk away-and just when Georgia, with a population of about five million, seemed to have turned the economic corner and was starting to look and feel like a prosperous place.
One small example of what can be expected to steam roll into is the fate of Karl Griffin, an old friend of mine who has been running the Caucasus Construction LTD firm in Tbilisi for the past 2.5 years.
"We had contracts worth $7.5 million, were employing 152 workers, and looking to grow," said Karl. "But now the government has frozen our accounts and we cannot even pay or Value Added Tax. I paid my workers during the week of war because most are reservists who got called up. But now I have been forced to serve them all notice that at the end of the month, they are all officially unemployed."
Laying off 152 men might not seem like much, but Karl says the situation is mirrored across the economy, and will result in the sort of knots of sullen, unemployed men that used to people road-sides from Tbilisi to Batumi not so many years ago, joining the estimated 120,000 displaced people from the current conflict as the lush and productive Georgian country-side turns from green to grey with the coming of winter in a few months. Gas and electricity will once more become a concern.
"We are looking at a creeping catastrophe," said Peter Semneby, EU Ambassador to the three Caucasus countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. "The only silver linings I can see are the level of international political support expressed to Georgia as a result of this crisis, as well as the strange fact that it seems to have shocked Armenia and Azerbaijan into more serious dialogue to resolve their long standing problems."
This may turn out to be mere wishful thinking, although the fact that both Armenia and Azerbaijan sent railway construction crew to work side by side with their Georgia counterparts to help repair a critical bridge blown by the Russians is, perhaps, a hopeful sign.
Other concerns for Saakashvili's government include the cutting of revenue to look after the refugees and newly unemployed, at least in a temporary manner.
Baku-Tbilisi Ceyhan (BTC) Pipeline
The first to come to mind is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline linking Azerbaijani oil and gas fields to an eastern Mediterranean terminal [Ceyhan] in Turkey. The BP-run line was shut some weeks before the conflict, due to Kurdish sabotage in Turkey that does not seem to be connected to the brief Georgian-Russian war. BTC will, no doubt, come back online in the near future. But the idea of building other lines through a country that might get bombed again will be met with extreme caution by Caspian hydrocarbon producers.
Azerbaijan has now started to export its crude via a smaller gauge line that passes through Russia, even though the $4 billion BTC was specifically built to by-pass Russia. Longtime observers in the region can only chuckle at the idea of the rapid completion of a new railway line, the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku (KTB) initiated with such fanfare in the Turkish city of Kars on July 14 of this year. This so-called 'Steel Silk Road' project was to spur trade from Central Asia all the way to Europe when completed in 2014. Azerbaijan had advanced credits to Georgia to pay for its portion of the line, but will soon be looking at a credit crunch itself until the BTC (and another cross-Georgia line that ends at the Black Sea terminal of Supsa) come back on-line.
How the Crisis Started
So why or how did Georgia find itself in this mess, that is now impacting the South Caucasus as a whole?
There is sufficient evidence to suggest that Saakashvili was warned by the United States and others that Russia was planning a provocation that would result in precisely the sort of destruction of the Georgian infrastructure and (eventual) social cohesion and stability if Georgia rose to the bait, and that Saakashvili should do everything in his power to avoid direct conflict with his huge neighbor.
"We had to do it," he told me, when I was summoned to a meeting in the presidential apparatus at around 3 AM Friday morning, referring to the initial Georgian resistance to the mass of Russian armor that poured into northern Georgia like a steel tsunami on the early morning of August 8th, when the fiction that Georgia was merely over-reacting to South Ossetian militiamen had been lifted. That fiction had begun with skirmishing on the 7th, with said 'militia' forces employing types of weaponry theoretically not allowed in the 'Peace Keeping zone,' and using Russian 'Peace Keepers' there as sort of willing (military) human shields. Willing, that is, until some ten were killed. After this 'outrage,' the propaganda campaign on both sides went into high gear. My friend and former war-correspondent colleague Lawrence Sheets, now the senior analyst for the Brussels' based International Crisis Group, has been working on an exact time-line of who did what to whom, and when, as are numerous other experts from all sides.
While a certain amount of fuzziness exists, the main point is that Georgian forces inside the South Ossetian region were responding to provocations against the Georgian civilian population living there, provocations that continued to grow in force, leading Saakashvili to call for the first unilateral cease fire on the evening of the 7th. And then 'violate' it when fighting continued with reports of Cossacks entering South Ossetia-meaning northern Georgia - from Russia proper.
By dawn of August 8th, there was clear evidence that a well-prepared 58th Russian Army itself was entering the fray from Russia, and the decision was taken in Tbilisi to bomb bridges and close the main road north of Tskhinvali. Satellite photographs now provided by a UN body called UN0SAT clearly show that the main destruction caused by Georgian firing in the vicinity of Tskhinvali is not in the city itself (although there is some there) but on the road leading to the Roki tunnel that the Russian army would use.
By mid-morning of the 8th, Russian planes were bombing not only Georgian positions in and around Tskhinvali, but other 'targets of opportunity' around the main Georgian military base at Senaki, and eventually hitting radar installations in Poti and outside Tbilisi while their tanks pushed the out-gunned Georgian forces out of South Ossetia towards the city of Gori.
The Russian rationale for the invasion was by that time being expressed by the the claim that some 2,000 'Russian citizens' (Ossetians who had been given Russian traveling documents over the past few years) had been killed during the first 24 hours of the conflict in an act of 'ethnic cleansing' and even 'genocide' mounted by marauding Georgians. The bodies of these alleged victims of Georgian atrocities have yet to be displayed; the morgue in the regional capital of Tskhinvali confirmed that it had only processed some 44 corpses for burial during the same period.
It soon became clear that this was nothing more than a well-constructed pretext for Russia to project strength and seize territory, and possibly topple the obsessively pro-western Saakashivili government and forever dash Georgian hopes of becoming a member of NATO (and possibly the European Union as well).
But Saakashvili decided that even if he ducked and dodged on August 8th, there would be another provocation, and then another, and that the only thing to do was make a stand, allow the conflict to escalate, and then hope for some sort of international intervention. Brinksmanship, in a word, in true Caucasian style. Saakashvili's popularity ratings - which some say had dipped down to 14 percent recently - has allegedly seen a surge by approving Georgian men, because they feel like men again.
The reader will note that I have thus far avoided using the term "South Ossetia" as the place the conflict began. The reason for this is that it is my contention that using this somewhat exotic term only serves to confuse the root nature of the conflict, and that it might be more accurate (or at least informative) to describe the conflict area as "northern Georgia."
While it is true that the area enjoyed the status of being an "autonomous district" of Georgia during Soviet times, theoretically serving as a sort of national homeland for Georgians citizens of Ossetian ethnicity, in reality, the population of some 60,000 that lived in the region as defined on maps was in fact not exclusively Osset, but about half ethnic Georgian, and it was these citizens who Saakashvili had to protect. (Indeed, of the total population of Ossetian citizens living in all of Georgia, who number around 100,000, only half lived inside the "autonomy," with the rest scattered around the rest of the country.)
Root Cause of Invasion
So, what was the root cause of the invasion? In addition to the standard canard about "Resurgent Russia Under Vladimir Putin" (which is certainly true), the conflict can be traced back to the time leading to the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, when there (briefly) existed a rabidly nationalist (and anti-Soviet) regime in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, that declared its policy as one of "Georgia for the Georgians."
As part of this policy, the regime made efforts to dissolve the special status of the autonomous district, resulting in a brief, bitter war of secession that effectively detached about a third of the territory from the control of the central government. But another third remained under de-facto Georgian control; the remaining third of the region was more or less uninhabited.
The "Ossetian" third sought and received protection from Russia, and soon devolved into a "black hole" criminal state famous throughout the region for smuggling and counter-band activities that enriched the elite but left normal citizens increasingly impoverished. Tension ebbed and flowed over the intervening years since 1990 even as the Georgian state under Mr. Saakashvili endeavored to share much of the increased prosperity it has seen in recent years in an effort to re-integrate the area into the national whole.
At the same time, the Ossetian third of the South Ossetian region, along with a second breakaway region known as the 'autonomous republic of Abkhazia' on the Black Sea, served as a Trojan Horse for Russian efforts to destabilize Georgia, cripple its economy and permanently put-paid to Saakashvili's efforts to have his country accepted as a full member of NATO.
The irony is that Russia apparently decided to invade following the NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania, when and where Georgia was denied the fast-track membership program known as the MAP, precisely because certain European members of the alliance-specifically, France and Germany-were concerned that including Georgia under the NATO umbrella of collective security (known as Article Five) might drag the entire alliance into conflict with resurgent Russia.
In the event, the fighting was fast and furious and over almost as soon as it began, with Russian forces dispatching the newly-trained up Georgian forces with unsurprising ease. The most interesting aspect of this was the relative discipline shown on both sides. The Georgian forces actually obeyed when instructed to affect a unilateral cease-fire and save themselves from annihilation; even the hot-headed and revenge-code driven local population also refrained from tossing grenades at Russian soldiers taunting them from multiple road-blocks, even while Russian irregulars indulged in a good bit of looting of Georgian villages and small cities such as Gori.
Once they received their orders to pull back, the Russians, too, evinced a discipline no-where evident the last time I saw them in action, in Chechnya in 1999. (Although it should be noted that the pull-back is far from complete). The level of casualties, too, has been surprisingly low, and appears to number in the several hundreds and mainly consist of self-sacrificing Georgia soldiers in the early days of the conflict, and is certainly nowhere near the "thousands" of Ossetia citizens announced by Russia as a central part of its cause for belligerence.
Which may not be over yet. The most disturbing news I have received since the guns fell silent is that Russia may still be attempting to force renewed violence by means of truly devious provocations, such as false-flag "volunteers" to the Georgian cause-i.e., to get Georgia to accept mercenary muscle in the form of Blackwater-like "private security companies," and then expose that as a propaganda coup (or use as a provocation).
"The last thing Georgia needs at this moment are guys with guns wandering around the countryside outside of the direct control of the central government," said Patrick Worms, a PR consultant to the government of Georgia for media affairs when I brought up this subject with him. He also noted that the arrival in Tbilisi of a group of some 80 Estonian humanitarian relief specialists nearly resulted in a diplomatic rupture between the tiny Baltic state and behemoth Russia, and deep concern that Russia might use the "saving its citizens" pretext in another area on its long frontier.
Lastly, there is the question of where all this leads.
At this point, the West has few pressure points on Moscow. Weirdly, the best might be oil. If the West (and now China and India) could wean themselves off their hydrocarbon addiction and cause the collapse of Russia's main stream of income and control over much of western Europe, its behavior might be modified.
In the short-term, Moscow has all the cards.
Get ready for a long, cold winter in Georgia, with social chaos around the corner.