Today’s Wall Street Journal carries an unfortunate propaganda piece from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (sorry, no link), which predictably paints the South Ossetians as a band of criminals and the villains of the piece. In this frankly dishonest portrayal of events, Mr. Saakashvili understandably cast all of the blame for the recent outbreak in violence on the South Ossetians. In fact, the facts about the fighting that erupted earlier this month are not at all clear. Naturally, both sides claim that the other was the one to break the ceasefire. What is certain is that the main, immediate cause of this renewed fighting is the insistence on the part of the Georgian government to reincorporate its separatist territories, even though Mr. Saakashvili must have known full well what response this would bring.

It can hardly have helped matters that this summer’s local elections in the newly-reincorporated breakaway region of Ajaria were probably tainted by significant fraud to the advantage of Saakashvili’s political allies. It may be that a majority of people in Ajaria now support Saakashvili, and it may be that Ajarians, who are ethnic Georgians, really do want to reunite with Georgia, but this is plainly not the case with the other two separatist regions.

Because the South Ossetians do not have the ear of powerful cliques in the Western media, as Mr. Saakashvili apparently does, their view will inevitably be ignored and sidelined. Already the nonsensical rhetoric has begun, with Mr. Saakashvili as the defender of a multiethnic and democratic order and the South Ossetians as brigands and criminals. Of course, the criminality and corruption of the Georgian regime itself is hardly a secret to anyone who follows the news in the region.

The Ossetian view of the recent fighting is best summed up in this news report:

On Monday [August 16] [South Ossetian] President Kokoiti called the fighting a well-planned provocation by Georgia but he insisted he was still willing to search for a compromise.

Many South Ossetians want to join up with their ethnic brethren in North Ossetia, which is part of Russia.

As part of the ceasefire deal, the two sides had agreed to create additional buffer zones between their positions.~ BBC News, August 17, 2004

As is often the case with disputes in relatively unknown countries on the other side of the world, the Western press almost always fails to provide sufficient background to explain the causes of the current conflict. Most either abandon any attempt at serious research, and write off the conflict as some ancient bloodfeud that no rational person can grasp, or they become a cheerleading section for whichever side appears to be the most in harmony with secular, progressive ideology.

In most of these postings, I have consciously been acting as a counterbalance to the standard line that Mr. Saakashvili represents some sort of legitimate democratic order, re-establishing its lawful authority over these separatist regions, but I also hope that my posts are more informative or thoughtful than simply taking the other side of the issue and ignoring official Georgian claims. Georgia and Russia agree that South Ossetia is part of Georgia, and I believe Georgia probably technically has international law on its side in retaining sovereignty over these territories. To its credit, Georgia has apparently begun withdrawing some soldiers from the area since Saakashvili sent them in, and fortunately the Russian government’s public statements have been fairly reasonable and responsible. But the basic policy of the Washington-backed regime in Tbilisi is the source of the current trouble. Until Mr. Saakashvili ceases his provocations, the region cannot work its way towards stability.

It is very difficult to accept that reigniting this conflict will serve the Georgian people, for whom I have nothing but sympathy, or that Georgia could not come to co-exist with an autonomous South Ossetia, when it was the abolition of Ossetian and also Akbhaz autonomy that prompted the original secessionist rebellions. Mr. Saakashvili’s claims that he desires a peaceful settlement of the situation are shown to be false by the hostile actions his government has taken and the policy of reincorporation that his government espouses. As Simon Whelan wrote back in April of this year:

For Georgia’s long-suffering population the Saakashvili regime represents both a continuation and a worsening of what went before. Saakashvili’s policies are accelerating the already precipitous decline of Georgian social conditions and the growth of social inequality, through his strict adherence to structural adjustment measures. At the behest of Washington he also threatens to throw the country into a further civil war, the third since independence. Whilst incited by Washington to subjugate troublesome breakaway republics, Saakashvili has received no such mandate for bloodshed from the Georgian people.

He has received no mandate, because ordinary Georgians have nothing to gain from further conflict. They do not need an already-dictatorial ruler further strengthening his hold on power with a war. For its part, the Ossetian leadership is clearly intent on retaining its own power and the area’s semi-autonomous existence. To insist on reincorporation, when the inhabitants of the region to be reincorporated seem not to desire this, is ultimately as bankrupt of a policy towards South Ossetia as Russia’s policy towards Chechnya has been these last ten years. Mr. Saakashvili would not dare to play this dangerous game, though, were it not for the financial and political support of the United States. It is not a question, then, of choosing whether to side with the Georgians or Ossetians (Americans themselves have no real interest in siding with either, of course), but whether Americans will tolerate their government propping up an effective dictator in his aggressive actions.

A fair, brief explanation of the conflict and some history of the area can be found at this site, and here is a quote from the site that briefly summarises the ethnic and territorial dispute:

Words and concepts have played an important role in the development of the conflict. The term “South Ossetia”, for instance, has never been accepted by the Georgian side, as it seems to prompt demands for reunification with North Ossetia, which is a part of the Russian Federation. The term “South Ossetia” was used in the 19th century in a cultural/geographical sense, but the area was granted administrative status only under communist rule. Although the rural population of the region has been predominantly Ossetian for the past few centuries, the Georgians consider the region a Georgian historical province, called Shida Kartli (Inner Kartli) or Samachablo, (Land of the Machabeli, from the name of the Georgian feudal family which allegedly ruled it), the Tskhinvali region.

A few other miscellaneous notes about South Ossetia: Ossetians, who are reputed to be descendants of the Iranian Alans, were converted to Christianity in medieval times and South Ossetia continues to be predominantly Orthodox. As The Economist reports this week, ordinary Ossetians and Georgians do not want this war, and all blame the governments involved. The Economist, as is typical with that (European) liberal magazine, pins most of the blame on Russia and makes Saakashvili into a hero of “western values.” That doesn’t say much for western values.

For a little more information on South Ossetia, visit this site.