Home to a majority Ossetian population, South Ossetia has a sizeable minority of Georgians, plus an admixture of Russians, Armenians, and Jews. Exact figures are hard to come by since the 2002 census could not be conducted there due to ethnic cleansing. At last count, Abkhazia's population consisted of Abkhazians, Georgians, Armenians, Russians, plus a tiny Greek minority. Georgia itself is not so much a country as a miniature empire, in which probably 70 percent of the population speaks Georgian as a native language, followed by Russian, Abkhaz, Ossetian, Armenian and Azeri.
Formerly part of the Tsarist Empire, Georgia enjoyed a brief flirtation with independence in 1918, and was annexed by the USSR in 1920. In 2004 the country was swept up in the `Rose Revolution' that replaced Eduard Shevardnadze with the U.S.-educated Mikhail Saakashvili, who achieved solid economic growth after the chaos of the early post-Soviet period, right up until 2008, when the global economic crisis coincided with civil and international war.
Such is the background of the situation in a nutshell. So what is the conflict really all about?
When the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1991, admitted American military expenditures amounted to $410 billion annually. Based on the phantasmagorical assumption of relative peace and stability in the Middle East, the projected budget for 2010 is $636 billion. The average member of Congress is now 60 years old, and it's the former Vietnam War protesters who are calling the shots in today's only remaining superpower. True romantics, they remember the psychedelic colors and the flowers their girlfriends deposited in the gun barrels of less fortunate contemporaries who were unable to defer themselves out of the draft by staying on into graduate school.
The 60s generation remains true to the images of its youth, if not necessarily its ideals, as it engages in a global interventionism that makes the former Brezhnev Doctrine appear muted and restrained. Ukraine's and Azerbaijan's revolutions were christened orange, Kyrgyzstan was tulip, Moldova was grape, George W. Bush's proposed hue for Iraq was purple, Burma, saffron. Armenia somehow remained colorless, while Belarus was denim; Yugoslavia, which got a decidedly rougher treatment, was "bulldozer."
The tiny Georgian empire had been one of the major participants in the Coalition of the Willing (2,000 soldiers, as opposed to a combined total of zero for France and Germany), and it was rewarded with guns, lots of them. Ukraine forwarded some of its weaponry. The United States even supported NATO membership for the disintegrating Georgia. Georgia took the view that quelling the attempted secession of Abkhazia and Ossetia was an internal affair and hoped to move quickly enough so as to present Russia with `facts on the ground.' As we now know, that calculation proved false.
But then the media reported that Russia had been approached to sell advanced anti-aircraft systems to Syria and Iran, and Israel hoped to get oil and gas from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline from the Caspian, which any serious international unrest would probably disrupt. Basically, Russia and America set different priorities. The Caucasus is high on Russia's agenda. For America that place is reserved for the Middle East. As Henry David Thoreau put it, "truths and roses have thorns about them." So it was pretty much inevitable that Saakashvili's handlers would end up not giving him a rose.
John Glad is a former Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.
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