An August surprise: Russia-Georgia conflict explodes on world scene

The U.S.-backed militarization of the Caucasus in the former Soviet Union exploded on the night of Aug. 7. Under cover of darkness and as the world watched the Olympics, the government of right-wing Georgian President Saakashvili ordered an all-out military attack on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.

The aerial bombardments by U.S. and NATO-supplied planes and the ground attacks against the city’s Russian inhabitants continued until almost all the homes, hospitals and the university were destroyed and 2,000 unarmed civilians were lying dead in their homes and in the streets, Russia’s government charged.

The Associated Press reported “the air and artillery bombardment left the Ossetian capital without water, food, electricity and gas. Horrified civilians crawled out of basements into the streets as the fighting eased to find their city destroyed.” The Deseret Morning News, Salt Lake City, reported that 34,000 civilian survivors fled from South Ossetia to safety in Russia.

Russia responded with overwhelming force, sending airplanes, tanks, armored vehicles and thousands of ground troops into the autonomous region (called “breakaway” in U.S. media), resulting in dozens of civilians killed and scores of displaced people. But the actions forced the Georgian military to withdraw from South Ossetia and the Russians declared a cease-fire.

South Ossetia is a small area on the border between Georgia and Russia where most residents are either Russian or members of non-Georgian ethnic groups. During the Soviet era it was an autonomous area in the Soviet Union. After Georgia became independent in 1990, it claimed South Ossetia. The population opposed this claim and with Russian support, Georgia granted South Ossetia autonomy. It has functioned as a de facto independent country ever since.

In 2006 an internationally sponsored referendum was held in South Ossetia (Germany, Poland, Austria and Sweden were the sponsors). Ninety-nine percent of the vote backed full independence from Georgia with a ninety-five percent turnout of the voting-age population.

Peacekeepers from Russia commissioned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been stationed in South Ossetia since then. The peacekeepers were among the first to be killed when Georgia invaded South Ossetia last week.

Since 2004, Georgia’s right-wing government has developed close ties to the Bush administration and has applied for membership in both the European Union and NATO. Georgia has the third largest number of troops in Iraq (2,000) after the U.S. and Britain. Last month, the U.S. military held a joint war game “training exercise” in Georgia with the Georgian military. The Pentagon admits that it left “military advisors” in Georgia after the exercise.

It’s important to note that Russian oil pipelines go through the Ossetia region from central Russia to the Black Sea, transporting the black gold to European markets. There have long been aspirations to use the Caucasus region as a steppingstone to grab the world’s largest supply of oil and natural gas — from Nazi Germany’s unsuccessful drive to the Caucasus to more present-day oil corporations and other capitalists’ interests. Other geopolitical strategies are at work as well. Russia has said it would never tolerate a NATO country on its borders and is fighting the attempts by the Pentagon to put missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. A NATO country in the Caucasus could also be used to launch attacks on Iran.

There are also those who are fearful of recent security and other agreements between Russia and China. (See related story on page 7.)

And then, there is the use of international conflicts to influence the U.S. elections. Invoking his Russo-phobia, McCain ranted and raved in an Iowa speech that “we should immediately call a meeting of the North Atlantic Council (sic) to assess Georgia’s security and review measures NATO can take to contribute to stabilizing this very dangerous situation.”

Then McCain — as always undeterred by reality — demanded, “The U.S. should immediately convene an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to call on Russia to reverse course.”

The reality is Russia, before it deployed its military, did exactly that. Russia convened an emergency session of the UN Security Council, calling on both South Ossetians and Georgians to immediately cease hostilities, return to the negotiating table and renounce the use of force. However, the U.S. opposed the resolution, objecting to the call to “renounce the use of force.”

McCain has other motives for his one-sided stance. His top foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, has a long financial relationship with Saakashvili and lobbies for him in the United States. In 2005, McCain introduced a Senate resolution essentially calling for official attachment of South Ossetia to Georgia which was posted on that country’s worldwide website. Georgia hired Scheunemann to lobby for its entrance into NATO and McCain soon thereafter endorsed the idea. In a speech given in Germany in 2006, McCain said of the Georgian government: “The country has implemented far-reaching political, economic, and military reforms and should enter NATO. Georgia is America’s best friend and Russian peacekeepers should be thrown out.” Interestingly enough, Saakashvili was criticized by the White House just a year ago for cracking down on political dissidents.

However, the Georgian government has been unable to quash all of its political opposition. On Aug. 12, the Peace Committee of Georgia issued a statement condemning the attack on South Ossetia and mourning the loss of life of Ossetians, Russians and Georgians.