Thu, Aug 06, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The battle for South Ossetia: a frozen conflict, not a Cold War

Tens of thousands lost their homes and hundreds their lives in a war for which Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili still has not had to pay a serious price

By Jonathan Steele  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

So anxious was Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for support from the fledgling administration of US President Barack Obama that even though he had not been invited to make a speech, he raced to the annual Munich security conference in February to try to meet the key guest, US Vice President Joe Biden. Witnesses reported that Obama’s deputy initially sought to avoid a handshake or even eye contact, but the Georgian’s bullying won through, obliging Biden to arrange a chat the following day.

Saakashvili followed up this forced encounter by telling journalists: “It is obvious that during all types of negotiations between the United States and Russia, Georgia will be high on the agenda.”

Not so. Obama’s trip to Moscow last month made it clear that last August’s war between Georgia and Russia neither revived the Cold War, nor did it impact on the trend toward greater US-Russian cooperation that Obama promised during his election campaign. Georgia is a sideshow.

The reason is clear. A year on from the five-day war, most European governments as well as the Obama administration agree Saakashvili bears most of the blame.

As Nino Burjanadze, once a close Saakashvili ally, put it: “Saakashvili, deeply unpopular at home, launched a desperate and doomed military adventure in South Ossetia, so providing the Russians with an excuse to reoccupy bases they lost only three years ago.”

Biden’s latest encounter with the Georgian president in Tbilisi last month, reconfirmed the shift of tone from the Bush era. Although Biden made the usual noises about recognizing Georgia’s territorial integrity and rejecting any Russian sphere of influence, no formal agreements were made.

The trip was only arranged to show that Georgia had not been totally forgotten. Unless there were secret agreements as yet unreported, Biden disappointed Saakashvili by giving no clear promise to re-arm Georgia’s battered forces. He told the Georgian parliament the US would modernize the country’s military “with the focus on training, planning and organization.”

Uncoded, that could mean greater US oversight over the army and tighter control over any repetition of last August’s folly.

Biden’s officials also used the visit to deny Saakashvili’s hints that US monitors would soon join the EU team that patrols the Georgian side of the border with the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The EU has confirmed no such plans exist and that the issue will not be discussed until the autumn, if at all. That is welcome news. While Russian officials oppose any US role as “extremely harmful,” that is not the best reason for the EU to reject it. The EU must be able to operate independently of the US and the Georgian mission is a good place to show it can, especially as it was European rather than US mediation that achieved a ceasefire last August.

Biden’s call for democratic reforms and his meeting with opposition politicians in Tbilisi also struck a different note from the Bush era. While Bush pressed for Georgia to enter NATO and turned a blind eye to Saakashvili’s attacks on civil liberties, the new US administration wants an end to repression, while turning a blind eye to Georgia’s NATO aspirations.

The stalemate between Saakashvili and his local opponents continues, and the situation on the ground remains deadlocked. The villages where Georgians once lived inside South Ossetia have been ethnically cleansed and razed. The exodus of Georgians from Akhalgori, the last mixed area, carries on remorselessly. Diplomatically, the Russians have got their way by achieving the withdrawal of the observer mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which used to work in and around South Ossetia, as well as the UN mission that covered Abkhazia, Georgia’s other breakaway region.

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