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.

Bela Szandelsky/AP
Russians manned the gate of a Georgian Army base they took over in the western town of Senaki last week. Though Russia has signed a cease-fire deal, it remains unclear when they will pull out.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

As Russia's flash war with Georgia winds down, two distinct – and contradictory – stories about what happened and why are taking shape. The Moscow press paints a one-sided picture of a beleaguered Russia forced to respond to naked aggression by a pro-Western adventurer, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in order to save Russian citizens from "genocide." In the West, some depict the war as a replay of the USSR's invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan, and warning that a resurgent, oil-rich Russia is returning to Soviet-style domination of its neighbors with brute force.

But close examination reveals a more complex picture – one that suggests each side also has some valid points in its defense. Correspondent Fred Weir gives an overview from his longtime perch in Moscow.

Who started the conflict?

There seems little doubt that the conflict began with a massive military assault, launched overnight by Georgia on Aug. 7-8, apparently aimed at retaking the breakaway republic of South Ossetia before Moscow could react.

Human rights monitors and Western journalists now being admitted to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali can find little evidence to back up Russian claims that the Georgians committed genocide.

But their reports so far implicate the initial Georgian artillery and rocket bombardment of the city of 10,000 people as causing the massive destruction they're finding, including schools, churches, and the main hospital.

Also crucial, from Moscow's point of view, is that the Georgian attack on Aug. 8 killed 15 Russian peacekeeping troops, stationed there under 1992 peace accords, and injured dozens.

But the causes of the conflict run deep and, like the layers of an onion, the conflict has many different levels.

What is Georgia's view?

When the USSR broke up in 1991, Georgia won its independence and was admitted to the United Nations as a sovereign state within its Soviet-era borders. Under international law, therefore, the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia belong to Georgia. Tbilisi alleges, with considerable evidence, that Russian meddling during the bitter civil wars that followed helped the two statelets win their de facto independence and that Moscow's support has been crucial to keeping them going ever since.

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.

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."

Many Russian officials here argue that it's not so strange that, as the successor state to the Russian Empire and the USSR, post-Soviet Russia should have ongoing obligations to former subjects such as the Ossetians and the Abkhazians. Russia was a key party to the accords that ended the cycle of conflicts in the early '90s, which left Russian peacekeeping troops holding the tripwire position in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Under a 1992 law that entitled any former Soviet citizen to apply for a Russian passport, most inhabitants of the two breakaway republics have since acquired Russian citizenship.

Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow, says that Americans ought to be more understanding, since the US has guaranteed the security of at least one breakaway statelet, Taiwan, with its own military force for over half a century.

More recently, Russian officials point out, NATO fought a 1999 war that was labeled a humanitarian intervention, which wrested the Albanian-populated province of Kosovo away from Serbia. Despite the fact that Serbia, a member of the UN, includes Kosovo within its sovereign territory, most Western powers recognized Kosovo's self-declared independence earlier this year.

Russia opposed the Kosovo war and later argued that the West should preserve Serbia's territorial integrity by convincing the Kosovars to accept Serbian offers of sweeping autonomy instead of independence. Now that Kosovo's independence has been effectively granted – though it has not been admitted to the UN – the Kremlin warns the West has upset the rules that formerly covered separatist movements around the world.

Some extreme nationalist politicians in Moscow, jubilant about this Kosovo precedent, say it's only a matter of time before Russia follows suit, and unilaterally recognizes Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and perhaps other breakaway statelets in the post-Soviet region as well.

Are President Saakashvili's democratic credentials solid?

The West has rallied around Georgia and its embattled president, Saakashvili, who was overwhelmingly elected by Georgians after leading the "Rose Revolution," which culminated in Saakashvili and his supporters storming the parliament building mid-session. But no Georgian transition of power has ever occurred in a constitutional way: Saakashvili's predecessors, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze, were removed by revolutions, not democratic elections.

Saakashvili's own record in power has been mixed. He's made great strides in fighting Georgia's endemic corruption and, in 2004, he peacefully persuaded another breakaway region, Adjaria, to return to central government control.

But last November, he shocked many by ordering riot troops to violently disperse peaceful protesters in Tbilisi, and declaring a draconian state of emergency – though he quickly rescinded it. His decision to invade South Ossetia has Georgia's opposition muttering that it may be time for him to go.

[Editor's Note: The original version misidentified NATO.]

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