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Soviet roots to Georgian conflict

Diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall traces the fault lines in the current Georgian conflict back to the Soviet era and finds some ominous echoes of the Cold War.

Russian soldier in South Ossetia
There have been ominous signs of score settling between Russia and Georgia

My first visit to Georgia was in 1977. I was staying with an old lady, the widow of a rather famous Russian artist called Vassily Shukhaev¸ who spent 10 years in exile in Siberia under Stalin.

She came to live in balmy Georgia because, she told me, "I've seen enough snow in my life. I never want to be cold again."

Tbilisi then was chaotic, ramshackle and delightfully wayward after the stifling torpor of Brezhnev's Soviet Russia.

Georgians, to my amazement, blithely referred to "the Soviet Union" as another country, somewhere in the north over the mountains, distancing themselves from it psychologically.

With the Soviet lid still firmly on, if there were resentments, they simmered beneath the surface. It was a long way off yet from the burning knotted frustrations which ignited this latest violent conflagration.

But this is not a eulogy for Soviet times and its duplicitous Cold War slogan, that hailed "Friendship of Nations."

Soviet legacy

Far from it. Because it is in part the legacy of the Soviet Union - that network of autonomous regions and republics still peppering the landscape, which engendered the so-called frozen conflicts.

Like so many Soviet concepts, the idea of autonomous regions, inside the 15 main republics that made up the USSR, was both laudable and devious.


In theory, it gave smaller ethnic groups some autonomy, a structure within which to nurture culture, language and history.

And in the Caucasus especially, each language and culture, whether Abkhazian, Georgian, Ossetian or any of dozens more, should be a jewel to be treasured and protected, especially in our inter-connected world, where bland homogeneity threatens to wash over all of us.

'Moscow's safety net'

But in the Soviet era, the Kremlin's patronage of smaller ethnic minorities was not only about protecting difference.

It was also a deliberate ruse and a political safety net, so elites in these autonomous regions could be encouraged, when needed, to play the part of a Trojan horse, a loyal legion to curb the ambitions of any upstart republic, by ensuring disobedience to Moscow was challenged from within.

This is, of course, what happened when the Soviet Union fell apart. Independent Georgia found that its two enclaves on Russia's border were resisting the new order.

South Ossetia wanted to retain close links with North Ossetia on the Russian side.

Abkhazia feared losing its identity altogether if Georgia's first president made good his threat of delivering a, "Georgia for Georgians."

Even more alarming is the dangerous international fault line opening up

Plenty of blame has been thrown around in the last week, both contemporary and historical.

One of the tragedies of this conflict is that there are now two opposing accounts of what happened - one Ossetian, backed by Russia - one Georgian, backed by many Western countries.

Two contradictory views of events that divide not just political leaders, but ordinary people - the Orwellian inversion inherent in that old Soviet claim of Friendship of Nations finally stripped of its cloaking.

Galloping crisis

But even more alarming is the dangerous international fault line opening up. Only one week on, and this is no longer about Trojan horses and tiny frozen conflicts. The crisis is galloping full tilt towards a wider battle.

Husband and wife in Gori during Russian attack
There are two opposing accounts of what happened in South Ossetia

Already Russia and the West are at loggerheads over the real reasons for this latest violence and where it might be heading.

Russia insists it moved into South Ossetia to respond to a humanitarian crisis.

This is what any civilised country does, say its spokesmen, like Nato attacking Serbia to protect Kosovo refugees in 1999, or the US after 11 September, retaliating for a murderous attack on its citizens.

The United States is now openly accusing Russia of a blatant land grab to punish Georgia for daring to try to join Nato and integrate with the West, to reclaim the Caucasus as its sphere of influence, and to send a veiled threat to other former Soviet client states .

And what is interesting about that, is that it reveals the US too sees this as a battle for geostrategic power, and is marshalling its diplomatic defences.

Already Poland has rushed to conclude negotiations with the US over the controversial missile defence shield Russia had protested so vigorously about.

Ukraine's defiance

Ukraine's President Yushchenko, another Nato aspirant, has sent early defiant signals, that if the Kremlin hopes to intimidate him too, it is not working.

His shot across the bows was to warn Russia its Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol in the Crimea sits in harbour on Ukrainian soil. He has provocatively demanded Russia give notice before vessels leave port.

But Putin's government has already in recent months made noises about the desirability of the Crimea, with its vociferous pro-Russian population, being Russian territory, despite Khrushchev's gifting it to Kiev.

Ukraine could be the next battleground.

And if it goes on like this a wider East-West split looks inevitable.

Not a return to the Cold War, but it could mark a chilling end to the post Cold War era of collaboration.

From Our Own Correspondent will be broadcast on Saturday, 16 August, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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