Leaders in the Caucasus must stop flexing military muscle and develop the grounds for lasting peace
- The Guardian, Wednesday August 13 2008
The past week’s events in South Ossetia are bound to shock and pain anyone. Already, thousands of people have died, tens of thousands have been turned into refugees, and towns and villages lie in ruins. Nothing can justify this loss of life and destruction. It is a warning to all.
The roots of this tragedy lie in the decision of Georgia’s separatist leaders in 1991 to abolish South Ossetian autonomy. Each time successive Georgian leaders tried to impose their will by force - both in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia, where the issues of autonomy are similar - it only made the situation worse.
Nevertheless, it was still possible to find a political solution. Clearly, the only way to solve the South Ossetian problem on that basis is through peaceful means. The Georgian leadership flouted this key principle.
What happened on the night of August 7 is beyond comprehension. The Georgian military attacked the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali with multiple rocket launchers designed to devastate large areas. Russia had to respond. To accuse it of aggression against “small, defenceless Georgia” is not just hypocritical but shows a lack of humanity.
The Georgian leadership could do this only with the perceived support and encouragement of a much more powerful force. Georgian armed forces were trained by hundreds of US instructors, and its sophisticated military equipment was bought in a number of countries. This, coupled with the promise of Nato membership, emboldened Georgian leaders.
Now that the military assault has been routed, both the Georgian government and its supporters should rethink their position. When the problems of South Ossetia and Abkhazia first flared up, I proposed that they be settled through a federation that would grant broad autonomy to the two republics. This idea was dismissed, particularly by the Georgians. Attitudes gradually shifted, but after last week it will be much more difficult to strike a deal even on such a basis.
Small nations of the Caucasus do have a history of living together. It has been demonstrated that a lasting peace is possible, that tolerance and cooperation can create conditions for normal life and development. Nothing is more important. The region’s political leaders need to realise this. Instead of flexing military muscle, they should devote their efforts to building the groundwork for durable peace.
Over the past few days, some western nations have taken positions, particularly in the UN security council, that have been far from balanced. As a result, the security council was not able to act effectively from the very start of this conflict. By declaring the Caucasus, a region that is thousands of miles from the American continent, a sphere of its “national interest”, the US made a serious blunder. Of course, peace in the Caucasus is in everyone’s interest. But it is simply common sense to recognise that Russia is rooted there by common geography and centuries of history. Russia is not seeking territorial expansion, but it has legitimate interests in this region.
The international community’s long-term aim could be to create a sub-regional system of security and cooperation that would make any provocation, and the very possibility of crises such as this one, impossible. Building this type of system would be challenging and could only be accomplished with the cooperation of the region’s countries themselves. Nations outside the region could perhaps help, too - but only if they take a fair and objective stance. A lesson from recent events is that geopolitical games are dangerous anywhere, not just in the Caucasus.
· Mikhail Gorbachev was the last president of the Soviet Union; he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1990
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