Russia-Georgia conflict: Why both sides have valid points
As Russian troops prepare to withdraw from Georgian bases and cities they invaded last week, a look at the two contradictory stories of what happened and why.
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In 2003, the pro-democracy "Rose Revolution" brought Mr. Saakashvili to power on pledges to reunite the country and lead it into the premier Western military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Georgia claims that Russia, which brutally suppressed its own separatist uprising in Chechnya, backed the Ossetian and Abkhazian rebels in order to keep Georgia weak and dependent upon Moscow.Skip to next paragraph
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After Saakashvili was elected, Russia began upgrading its relations with the two rebel statelets and issued Russian passports to the majority of its citizens – in preparation, Tbilisi says, for a showdown. It contends that this year, as NATO considered Georgia's application for entry, the Russian 58th Army – which roared into South Ossetia 10 days ago to blunt the Georgian assault – massed provocatively near Georgia's border.
The separatists' case?
Abkhazians and Ossetians are both distinct ethnic groups with a long history of tense relations with their Georgian neighbors. Both groups claim that they were folded into the Soviet Republic of Georgia against their will by dictator Joseph Stalin (an ethnic Georgian), who also ordered Georgian settlers to flood into their territories. Abkhazia and Ossetia argue that their citizens were Soviet citizens, never Georgians, and therefore they had a right to declare independence as Soviet Union was collapsing. Tbilisi's reaction, which was to attempt to suppress both rebellions with military force, invalidated Georgia's rights to sovereignty, they say.
Abkhazian Deputy Foreign Minister Maxim Gunjia says that Tbilisi's latest attempt at reconquest settles the issue. "Neither Abkhazia nor South Ossetia will ever be part of that country; Georgia has shown us its true face," he says in a telephone conversation from Sukhumi, Abkhazia.
Georgia has traditionally responded to such claims by saying that any independence referendum in the breakaway territories must take into account the views of the Georgian population displaced by the wars of the early 1990s. Nearly a quarter of a million Georgians were driven out of Abkhazia in 1993 and workers from the New York-based Human Rights Watch have found evidence that ethnic Georgian civilians were targeted in the latest fighting in South Ossetia, where nearly a third of the population was Georgian.
The UN refugee agency says more than 150,000 have been displaced by fighting in Georgia, including 30,000 in South Ossetia.
What is the Russian position?
Many Russians bristle defensively in the face of Western accusations of "aggression" against Georgia, maintaining that the Kremlin was left with few choices when the Georgians began bombarding Tskhinvali – the capital of South Ossetia, where 9 in 10 residents carry a Russian passport.
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while calling some of Russia's actions "disproportionate" after meeting with President Medvedev, said that "it is rare that all the blame is on one side. In fact, both sides are probably to blame. That is very important to understand."