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No quick fix to S Ossetia conflict

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Washington

 Georgia and its breakaway regions

The dog days of August are generally a quiet time in the world's foreign ministries and newsrooms - a time when second-string officials hold the fort while their senior colleagues sun themselves on vacation.

So news of a crisis in South Ossetia will have had plenty of people reaching for their atlases and dictionaries of pronunciation - after all, only old hands will remember the way violence flared here in the past as Georgia began to build its independence on the ruins of the old Soviet Union.

South Ossetia was one of the three enclaves within the new country - the others were Abkhazia and Ajaria - which had traditionally enjoyed the status of semi-autonomous regions under the Soviet constitution.

Separatists in each region decided their interests and loyalties lay with Moscow and set about resisting attempts by the newly independent government in Tbilisi.

There were inconclusive bouts of violence, which established two key facts - first, Georgia didn't have the military firepower or the political will to bring the rebel regions to heel.

Secondly, the existence of those loyalist populations gave Russia a licence to meddle in the affairs of a republic which it regards as a permanent part of its own sphere of influence.

Question of sovereignty

So Georgia's independence has always been constrained to some extent by the proximity of that powerful and intimidating neighbour to the north.

Grab of TV footage showing rocket fire around Tskhinvali
Rocket fire lit up the night skies over the regional capital, Tskhinvali
As Russia began to transform itself from the stumbling and shambolic failed superpower of the Boris Yeltsin era into the powerful and diplomatically-assertive, energy exporting giant over which Vladimir Putin presided, that constraint began to become a little more obvious, and a little more problematic.

Georgia's American-educated, English-speaking leader Mikhail Saakashvili is always careful to stress that he wants better relations with Russia - but his attempts to exert control over the wayward enclave of South Ossetia were always bound to bring him into conflict with Moscow.

He has a point when he argues that this off-shore off-shoot of Russia has become a haven for criminality and corruption, but this is really all about sovereignty.

It has implications far beyond the frontiers of the old Soviet Union though, because of the strategy the West pursued as the communist superpower collapsed in the early 1990s.

Essentially, it held out the promise for countries like Georgia of full membership of the club of Western nations - and that meant the right to join Nato as well as the European Union.

It was relatively easy for countries like Poland and the Czech Republic to travel that road - they were after all merely former satellite states of eastern Europe.

It was possible - although more difficult - for the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

They had been independent European states within living memory, had plenty of support from old allies in the continent and in any case began the process while Russia was still reeling from Soviet collapse.

Low expectations

In Russian eyes, at least, Georgia is different.

First it lies on Russia's southern border in the turbulent Caucasus region, and the Kremlin would not want to see a Nato presence in such a violent and unpredictable place.

More importantly, it is part of what Russians would regard as a kind of heartland of influence - Russians have seen their borders fluctuate in recent centuries according to their fluctuating political fortunes but they believe their right to influence in certain areas transcends the precise location of those borders at any given moment.

Mr Saakashvili - Western-oriented and ambitious for his country - tends to complicate the picture.

Western leaders would admit that guarantees were given to republics like Georgia in the past, but the world of diplomacy is a world of pragmatism and those guarantees have to be seen in the overall context of the West's desire to maintain the best possible relationship with Moscow.

So expect plenty of calls for restraint and ceasefire from the West, but don't expect much else - after all America needs Russian co-operation on more pressing issues like North Korea and other members of the Western alliance like Germany will hardly be anxious for a confrontation with a country that supplies much of their energy needs.

You don't start a military showdown with someone who can turn the gas off.

Quick fix

President Saakashvili sees the world to some extent in the same moral and ideological terms as George W Bush, and is very free with talk of the need to defend liberty.

He compares Russia's military actions today with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, or the Soviet intervention to crush Czechoslovakian liberalisation in the Prague Spring of 1968.

In both cases of course, the democracies of the West were unwilling or unable to contain aggression - and Mr Saakashvili is hoping to shame them into reacting more strongly this time around with those carefully chosen examples.

He is likely to be disappointed.

It would be difficult even for Washington to accede to a Georgian request for transport aircraft to bring Georgian combat troops home from Iraq without looking as though it was involving itself directly in an armed conflict with Russia.

The best the US state department and the foreign ministries of Europe can hope for is a quick fix to end the violence and bring in humanitarian supplies, followed by some long-term commitment in Moscow and Tbilisi to some kind of dialogue.

With little thought having been given to the Caucasus region in recent times though, even achieving those limited goals is not going to be easy.


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