Roots of Georgia-Russia clash run deep
The war broadened Monday as Russian troops moved beyond rebel provinces into Georgia proper.
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Whatever the outcome, the conflict has already inflamed old hatreds and its consequences seem likely to reverberate destructively around the entire multinational Caucasus region, which was conquered by Russia in the 19th century and later divvied into ethnically defined cantons by Soviet social engineers.Skip to next paragraph
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Why Ossetians want Georgia out
The Ossetians, who claim to have inhabited the same territory for centuries, say their nation was broken in two by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who awarded South Ossetia to the Georgian Soviet republic against the Ossetians' will. (Stalin also took away Abkhazia's independence and made it an autonomous republic within Georgia.) As the USSR was collapsing, Ossetians fought a brutal war of independence against Georgia, which ended in a three-way peacekeeping agreement in 1992. Under that deal, Russian, Georgian, and South Ossetian forces were to jointly guarantee security until a final settlement was reached.
The arrangement collapsed in a hail of artillery fire and bombs last Friday.
"This is an historical problem. My great-grandmother told me that in the 1920s she saw Georgians massacring the South Ossetians," says Gavril Guzitayev, one of many young Ossetian men gathered Monday at Vladikavkaz's main recruiting center. "She said they came in fast on horses and attacked with sabres."
Along with other young men waiting to sign up for the Russian army and fight in South Ossetia, Mr. Guzitayev says "after all this, I don't believe Ossetians and Georgians can live together.... I just want a machine gun, and to ... stand beside my brothers."
Many Georgians argue there that South Ossetia is actually the ancient Georgian territory of Samochablo, given by the Soviets to Ossetian settlers for aiding the Bolsheviks in crushing Georgian independence in the 1920s. They point out that Georgia, which emerged as a sovereign state from the ruins of the USSR in 1991, enjoys full rights to the territory under international law.
Georgia has offered limited autonomy to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but both have declined. In 2006, South Ossetians voted overwhemingly for independence in a referendum, which Georgia denounced as illegal.
"Only the state has the right to grant independence to a territory," says Archil Gegeshidze, analyst with the independent Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. "The principle of self-determination is superseded by the right of the state."
Why Georgia wants South Ossetia back
Many Georgians say they still believe the only course is for South Ossetia to rejoin Georgia. "The nation has the right to control its territory," says Giorgi Margvelashvili, a researcher at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, a nongovernmental group in Tbilisi. "Reconciliation will be a long, painful process before we can find common ground, especially as one regional superpower wants us to remain enemies. Reaching understanding won't be done by politics, but by a human process."
Russia has accused Georgia of committing "genocide" in its assault on the rebel republic, which they say killed at least 2,000 civilians and displaced 34,000.
Western human rights monitors caution that it's too early to make any judgments about what happened. But Lev Ponomaryov, head of the Moscow-based Movement for Human Rights, says he hopes the West will hold Saakashvili's feet to the fire on this issue.
"I can't say whether this is a case of genocide, but it certainly is a humanitarian catastrophe," he says. "The methods Saakashvili used to establish constitutional order have to be condemned by the international community."
Georgia-Russia conflict: 2008 timeline
April 3 – NATO agrees that Georgia and Ukraine can one day join the alliance.
April 16 – Russia orders semiofficial ties with separatists in Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
April 20 – Georgian spy drone shot down over Abkhazia. UN later blames Russia.
April 29 – Russia sends extra troops to Abkhazia.
May 6 – Georgia says that move has brought them to brink of war.
July 8 – Russian fighter jets fly into Georgian airspace to "cool hotheads in Tbilisi."
Aug. 7 – Georgian troops invade South Ossetia after a truce with rebels breaks down.
Aug. 8 – Russia repels the assault.
Aug. 10 – Georgia proposes a cease-fire.
Aug. 11 – Russia rejects the cease-fire and issues an ultimatum to Georgian forces near Abkhazia to disarm or be attacked. Georgia rejects the demand. Russian troops move into Senaki, a city in Georgia proper.