Following the media coverage of the bloodletting in the Caucasus, I found myself recalling the words of the old triumphalist Union marching song of 1865:
“We’ll raise the Union banner from Atlanta to the sea
When Sherman goes marching through Georgia.”
The Union had been saved; the secessionist states had been defeated. The USA would never again allow itself to be torn apart.
Was not the right to secede also an issue in this other Georgian question? I suppose that, to some of those with a smattering of history, it might appear that George W. Bush was simply being true to the principles of Lincoln’s GOP in his support for Georgia’s “territorial integrity” when he solemnly warned the Russians that it was “unacceptable in the 21st century to invade the territory of a sovereign state.” What is truly astonishing is that such a statement from the man who led the invasion of Iraq was not met with universal howls of laughter. Before attempting to disentangle fact from fiction, lies from truth, in the Caucasian imbroglio, it may be instructive to turn to another recent example of a federal state torn apart by secessionist forces: Yugoslavia.
Whatever may have been its shortcomings, the Yugoslavia of Tito managed successfully, for more than forty years, to maintain peace in the Balkans between the different ethnic and linguistic groups that comprised its six federative republics. The break-up of Yugoslavia was not inevitable. The federation was dismantled as part of the U.S./ E.U. plan to ensure that the post-communist states of Eastern Europe were weakened and drawn into the orbit of the “free market” that they were determined to expand eastwards as quickly as possible. The newly re-united Germany initiated the dismantling of Yugoslavia, by encouraging the breakaway of Croatia. The Yugoslav system held together states that were very uneven in their economic development. With the disintegration, after Tito’s death in 1980, of the ideological cement that held the whole together, and faced with mounting economic crisis, the dominant political forces in the smaller republics and autonomous provinces resorted to national chauvinism to further their own ends, demanding secession from the federation. In this they had the support of the U.S., the E.U. and NATO. Serbia, the largest and most powerful of the republics, was determined to resist the secessionist onslaught and certainly acted with brutal determination to prevent the dismantling of Yugoslavia. But nationalism and xenophobia were not the monopoly of the Serbs.
The version of events sold to Western Europeans during the 1990s as Yugoslavia was broken apart, cast Serbia as the sole villain. The only accounts of ethnic cleansing seriously reported in the Western media were those purportedly perpetrated by Serbs against Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians. There is no doubt that atrocities were committed by Serb forces in their determination to hold together the Yugoslav Federation. The tough, but fair system presided over by Tito, which played down national rivalries and ethnic and religious differences, was blown away. The E.U. and the U.S. were directly implicated in this. The problem, however, is that once you release the genie of ethnic and national separatism, it is impossible to control it. The newly formed Croatian state, presided over by the extreme nationalist, Franjo Tudjman, adopted the same flag as that used by the Ustasa fascist regime installed in an “independent Croatia” by the Nazis following the German invasion of 1941. The Serbs had very good reason to remember the atrocities committed by the Croatian Ustasa during the Second World War as they were the most numerous of its countless victims.
The Western powers encouraged the secession of the republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serbian province of Kosovo. But they refused to accept the right of self-determination or secession for Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the case of Kosovo, the Western powers encouraged a motley crew of bandits and ultra-nationalist Albanians, armed and trained by private military corporations, calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) which, in the words of British Defence Secretary, George Robertson in 1999, “were responsible for more deaths in Kosovo than the Yugoslav authorities had been.” The Bosnian Muslim forces were aided and abetted by an influx of 4000 Mujahedin, armed and supported by the U.S. The two most egregious examples of ethnic cleansing to occur during the break-up of Yugoslavia were the expulsion in 1995 of 250,000 ethnic Serbs from the Croatian-Serb province of Krajina, and, in 1999, the expulsion from Kosovo of 200,000 Serbs and Roma, driven out of by the KLA. But these have been conveniently ignored in the slanted accounts designed to demonise only the Serbs.
The U.S.-led NATO attack on Serbia (March – June 1999) was launched supposedly to save the Kosovo Albanians from genocide at the hands of the Serbs. After the bombing war it was claimed that the Serbs had killed hundreds of thousands of male Albanians – the highest figure mentioned was 500,000. But, following one of the most thorough forensic investigations ever undertaken, the final body count amounted to about 4,000. This piece of evidence is also inconvenient for the NATO powers as it undermines their case for launching the war against Serbia. Therefore, it is ignored.
From Kosovo to the Caucasus
Since August 7th we have been treated to another example of the same kind of distorted reporting that presented the break-up of Yugoslavia as a struggle between good and evil.
This time the Russians (once again) are the villains, and, in place of the persecuted Kosovo Albanians, we have “plucky little Georgia.” Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, proclaiming his country the victim of an unprovoked invasion by Russia, has dominated the international media while hosting a stream of Western political visitors falling over themselves to assure him of their staunch support in his country’s hour of need. Dire warnings have been issued to the Russians. The violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity will not be tolerated! U.S. Vice President Cheney has told Medvedev and Putin that this act of aggression against an innocent neighbour will not go unanswered. Exactly how it will be answered is not clear. Let’s consider what actually happened.
On August 7th Saakashvili launced an all-out attack on South Ossetia. South Ossetia and Abkhasia, nominally part of Georgia, had been autonomous regions of the Geogian republic during the Soviet era. Both have large non-Georgian majorities, large numbers of whom hold Russian passports. Both regions are strongly pro-Russian. In 1992, a now independent Georgia, backed by the Western powers, attempted to reassert control over them by military force. The attempt failed, but the consequences were disastrous. South Ossetia and Abkhasia suffered terrible depredations at the hands of Georgian troops. Thousands of Georgian refugees fled the regions into Georgia proper. Saakashvili has been determined to reclaim the breakaway regions, hence his assault on South Ossetia. According to very reliable reports which have received far too little attention in the Western media, the August 7th attack unleashed terrible atrocities on the inhabitants of South Ossetia, leading to a mass flight across the border to North Ossetia, part of the Russian Federation. The Russian response should not have come as a surprise. Indeed it would have been surprising if the Russians had done nothing. As it is they quickly disposed of the Georgian forces in a massive counter-blow that did not stop at the South Ossetian border. Only now, two weeks later, are the Russian forces withdrawing. The question that has rarely been addressed is why did Saakashvili imagine he could succeed in a military operation of this kind?
Saakashvili is a U.S. puppet. An ardent admirer of George W. Bush, he seems to imagine that he can run his country as a member state of the USA in the Caucasus, with a fully privatised economy, armed to the teeth by the US and Israel and an aspirant to membership of NATO. He seems to think that he can do all this – and use military force against his separatist subjects – without bothering to heed the likely Russian response. And he has been encouraged in his delusions by the U.S. government. He has come badly unstuck.
The response of the U.S., the U.K., most E.U. countries and NATO has been one of the most breathtaking hypocrisy. Hardly a word about the unprovoked Georgian attack on South Ossetia; unqualified support for Saakashvili; warning of dire consequences to Russia. Let’s compare it with Kosovo.
In February of this year, Kosovo, a province of Serbia, declared its independence. It received full backing from the U.S. the E.U. and NATO. The Russians had for long warned the Western powers against recognising an independent Kosovo – to no avail. However mixed may have been Russia’s motives for intervening in Georgia, the Western powers do not have a leg to stand on over South Ossetia. Why should the territorial integrity of Serbia count for less than the territorial integrity of Georgia? Why should Croatians, Bosnian Muslims and Kossovo Albanians have the right to self-determination, but not Serb minorities in Croatia or South Ossetians and Abkhasians in Georgia? It would be interesting to hear G.W. Bush’s, Dick Cheney’s and David Miliband’s answer to this. But no-one ever asks them.
What of the Russians? Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reach of the former great power was drastically reduced. In particular, the Baltic States, the Ukraine, the former Caucasian republics became independent. In most of these territories there remain very sizeable ethnic Russian populations – the basis of possibly explosive confrontations in future. The Yeltsin years were an almost unmitigated disaster for Russia. The assets of the Soviet state were pillaged by a gang of kleptocrats, in the greatest robbery of a country’s assets known to history. All this was done under the auspices of representatives of the Chicago school of Friedmanite economists, determined to extend the “freedom” of market capitalism wherever disastrous political and social collapse gave them an opening. It was assumed that the collapse of the Soviet system heralded the “end of history.” The “Free World” as understood by Milton Friedman, had triumphed. Russia could be humiliated.
It appeared at first that there would be no future role for NATO. After all, NATO had existed since 1949 supposedly to counter the “Soviet threat” to the “Free World”. As the world was now completely free (with the exceptions of one or two minor irritants like Cuba) and the Soviet Alliance, the Warsaw Pact, had ceased to exist, what possible raison d’etre could there be for NATO? But no, too much had been invested in it to allow it to disappear. New threats had to be found to justify the alliance’s continued existence and expansion. The U.S. – always the driving force in NATO – found its raison d’etre in the war against Serbia. Now, since under the leadership of Putin, Russia has emerged as an oil and gas rich power to be reckoned with, NATO has to be extended as far eastwards as possible, embracing all those states who have chosen to identify themselves with the U.S. It is hardly surprising that the Russians feel themselves to be threatened by encirclement. The claim by the Bush administration that the anti-ballistic missile shield to be placed in Eastern Europe, is directed against Iran has not fooled the Russians for a moment.
I shall return to this theme in my next column, but I want to make two final points, one factual, the other imaginative.
My source for the first is Misha Glenny who revealed the story in an article in the New Statesman on August 18th. Apparently Saakashvili was convinced by neo-conservatives in Washington and representatives of a private weapons manufacturing company in Israel called Defensive Shield , that Georgia’s armed forces could beat the Russian army and take back South Ossetia. The Georgian minister for “the reintegration of South Ossetia and Abkhasia”, Termur Yakobashvili, believing that the Israeli trained Georgian troops were beating the Russians, thanked the Israelis for their assistance, telling them that the Georgian soldiers had wiped out a whole Russian division. “The Russians”, he said, “have lost more than 50 tanks.”
But Russian intelligence had already told them all about Defensive Shield and they knew that Georgia had purchased tens of millions of dollars worth of military equipment. Just before the conflict broke, Putin called Shimon Peres and told him bluntly: “Pull out your trainers and weapons or we will escalate our co-operation with Syria and Iran.” Misha Glenny comments: “Peres does not suffer the same illusions as Georgian ministers and the Israeli set-up left Tiblisi within two days.”
Imagine this. The Russians announce that they have just struck a deal with Cuba which involves placing an anti-ballistic missile system on the island and supplying millions of dollars worth of military equipment and special training for the Cuban armed forces. But the U.S. has no need to worry as it is not directed against them. Does it ring any bells?
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