Plaything of the gods
South Ossetia is a scrap of land with only a few thousand inhabitants.
As it tries to break away from its neighbour Georgia, independence movements around the world wonder what its fate will mean for them. But is it just a pawn in a larger political game? Tim Judah, who has just visited the region, reports Even before the fighting that claimed so many lives, Tskhinvali, the putative capital of South Ossetia, was a pretty miserable place. Stalin Street (really) was its one and only proper thoroughfare; it had a tiny market with a couple of old women selling vegetables and batteries, and billboards celebrating eternal Ossetian-Russian friendship. A couple of miles away, bored Georgians soldiers sat keeping warm around a brazier.
When I visited it a few months ago, South Ossetia seemed like the end of the world, not the place that would spark a new war in the Caucasus. It was one of the four so-called "frozen conflicts" of the former Soviet Union and, as it had been for years, still very much in the deep freeze.
The mood was not much different in Sokhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, to the west. This city by the Black Sea, much of which remains in ruins from the war of the early 1990s, was once the holiday playground of the Soviet elite. Now old men played chess under gently swaying palms in front of wrecked hotels, and I visited a memorial for the Abkhaz soldiers who had died fighting the Georgians. At the Inguri river, where you crossed from Georgia proper, the Georgians had erected a sculpture of a huge pistol pointing north to Abkhazia - but in a futile gesture the barrel had been tied in a knot.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia both broke away from Georgia in savage fighting when the Soviet Union disintegrated. The other two "frozen conflicts" in this region are Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave wrenched from Azerbaijan, and Transnistria, whose Slav population rebelled against Moldova, whose people and language are closely related to Romania. All are the unhappy legacies of Stalinist map-making, lines drawn in a period when the wishes of people counted for little and the demise of the Soviet Union was beyond imagination. All are unrecognised but exist as de facto states, albeit with support from Russia and, in Nagorno-Karabakh's case, Armenia.
Take South Ossetia, which like Abkhazia had autonomous status within Soviet Georgia. Although many South Ossetians live in Tbilisi and elsewhere in Georgia, its people are really connected in terms of family, kin and language with North Ossetia, which is now in Russia, across the mountains to which it is connected through the Roki tunnel.
Ossetians speak a language related to Persian and believe (truly) that the King Arthur of British myth was actually an Ossetian. I found billboards in Tskhinvali emblazoned with pictures of men dressed as knights in armour celebrating the 17th anniversary of South Ossetia's declaration of independence.
Its population is tiny - somewhere between 22,000, as the Georgians claim, and 70,000, according to the South Ossetians. The numbers vary not least because, as there is no work (and no university) in South Ossetia, many go to Russia and only come home for the holidays.
Even before last week, South Ossetia was hardly a candidate to be a viable state, especially as large swathes of it - as much as a third - were held by the Georgians. Only 800 metres separated the centre of one Georgian-controlled village from Tskhinvali. The Georgians had recently built a brand new cinema and sports complex in that village, and roads and infrastructure were being upgraded.
The head of the Georgian administration for South Ossetia was a burly former military man who had defected from the separatists. He cut little ice in Tskhinvali, where officials scoffed at his notion of striking a deal and making peace with Georgia. Indeed, their plans were rather more ambitious.
"Our aim is unification with North Ossetia," Alan Pliev, the deputy foreign minister of South Ossetia, told me in his broom cupboard of an office. "We don't know if that would be as part of Russia or as a separate united Ossetian state." Juri Dzittsojty, deputy speaker of parliament, says: "I would prefer there to be an independent and united Ossetia, but today it is not possible. It is safer to be with Russia. The main aim of the struggle is to be independent of Georgia."
A few hours' drive away, along the road now cut by Russian troops, the Abkhaz dream was a different one. Their goal is simply to hang on to what they have got. And here's the rub. Before the Abkhaz war of the early 1990s, less than 18% of its population were ethnic Abkhaz. Today, of some 200,000 people, this group still constitutes only 45% of its people, and hundreds of thousands of Georgians who left Abkhazia in the 1990s want to return home. The Abkhaz, who are in firm control of the government and of all levers of power, argue that to allow more of these refugees back than they have already permitted would simply be to turn back the clock and to make the Abkhaz once more a small minority in their own homeland.
In the foreign ministry of the unrecognised republic I waited to see Maxim Guinja, Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister. Then he came out, and before we talked he tidied away some flags in the waiting room. There had just been a meeting in Sokhumi of the leaders of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria.
"We became 18% because of Soviet rule and Russian before that," he explained. Abkhaz were deported to Siberia and Turkey, and Georgians settled here. "My grandfather was put on a train in 1937 with thousands of others, and the next day a train arrived with Georgian settlers. No one returned from Siberia." His dream is that one day hundreds of thousands of Abkhaz - or rather their descendants who fled the Tsarist invasion to Turkey in the late 19th century - will come home. A pipe dream? Maybe, but Guinja said that he had a very clear precedent in mind. Israel did it, so why not Abkhazia?
In the meantime, the Abkhaz have to play gingerly with the Russians, whom they distrust as much the Ossetians trust them. "For Russia, Abkhazia is just a card that can be played," I was told by Leyla Taniya, who runs a thinktank in Sokhumi. "Abkhazia is linked to Russia, and Russia is the only country that actually cooperates with Abkhazia, and today many are afraid this could lead to our political absorption." She wants to correct a "common misunderstanding" in the west: despite its small size, Abkhazia "is not a Russian puppet".
It is easy to comprehend why such a misunderstanding should exist. The Abkhaz, like the South Ossetians, have all been given Russian passports and vote in Russian elections, even though their unrecognised statelets are legally part of Georgia. They use the rouble, their people work and study in Russia and they speak Russian at least as much as Abkhaz or Ossetian. Their elderly receive their pensions from Russia. And, as the last few days have helped demonstrate, without Russian military support, it is doubtful whether the breakaways would still exist.
Yesterday, Abkhazia began a military operation to take back a strategic sliver of territory held by the Georgians within Abkhazia. They could do this because Russian troops had struck far outside Abkhaz territory, routing the Georgian forces. No wonder everyone was so relaxed when I was in Sokhumi. I went to see Stanislav Lakoba, the Abkhaz official in charge of security. Georgia, I put it to him, was pouring 10% of its GDP into its army, was bidding to join Nato, had intensely courted the US and was demanding that Russia pull its so-called peacekeeping troops out of Abkhazia, 14 years after their deployment. "Georgia just screams about it," he said laconically. "It would just mean suicide if they attacked." He obviously knew what he was talking about.
Despite its massive military support for the breakaways, the curious thing is that Russia does not actually want their full secession. It is a case of, "Listen to what I say, not what I do." After battling separatists in Chechnya and beyond for well over a decade, Moscow is afraid of anything that might set a precedent and encourage the break-up of the Russian Federation. It is not the only big power with such concerns: China is nervous about anything that might boost separatist hopes in Tibet or Xinjiang, let alone Taiwan.
This year the argument over breakaways and precedents has reached fever pitch, and the reason for that is Kosovo. On February 17, Kosovo, which has a population of some two million, 90% of whom are ethnic Albanians, declared independence from Serbia. Serbia of course rejects its independence, as does Russia, China and indeed the majority of countries in the world, including Georgia. Twenty out of 27 EU states have recognised it, however, alongside the US and other western countries. But in doing so these 45 states seem to have crossed a legal Rubicon. Until then, the only new states in Europe had been the six republics of the old Yugoslavia, such as Croatia or Bosnia, the 15 former Soviet republics and the Czech and Slovak republics. Kosovo is different. Like the four post-Soviet breakaways, it was a province or part of an existing republic. So, argued Serb leaders, it did not have the same right to independence as the republics did. "Yes, we do," argued the Kosovo Albanians. Their struggle, they argued, was based on the legal right of a people to self-determination - just like the Serbs argued in 1991 when they briefly set up a breakaway republic of Krajina in Croatia.
Quite simply then, in Kosovo as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two pillars of international law - that is to say, the territorial integrity of states versus self-determination - stand in stark opposition to one another.
Hence Russia's refusal to back Kosovo's independence. "The threat of a disintegrating Russia - comparable to the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 - is still today seen as a very real threat by the Kremlin and the Russian elite," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading Russian commentator. "The west is seen today by many in the Russian elite and public as a threatening force that is plotting to tear Russia apart and rob it of its natural resources. By supporting Serbia's right to veto Kosovo's secession, the Kremlin clearly believes that it is defending Russia's undisputed right to sustain its territorial integrity by any means available."
Of course, Russia is interested in its territorial integrity, not Georgia's. By supporting Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it has the means to keep Georgia at its mercy and prevent it from following the pro-western path chosen by its electorate. But beyond that, it has little real interest in the breakaway states. Where the EU has poured billions into the reconstruction of Sarajevo and other Balkan cities ruined by wars of the 1990s, Russia has spent not a kopek in rebuilding Sokhumi or Tskhinvali.
In September, Serbia will ask the General Assembly of the United Nations to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to hand down an advisory opinion on whether Kosovo's declaration of independence was legal or not. If this ever happens, the ruling could have tremendous impact - or not, as the case may be. If Kosovo's 1.8 million people can declare independence and be recognised without the permission of Serbia, then so can Abkhazia or South Ossetia, to say nothing of the Republika Srpska (the Serb part of Bosnia), Iraqi Kurdistan and - who knows? - one day perhaps even Catalonia or the Basque country.
On the other hand, the ICJ could declare that Kosovo's declaration was indeed illegal - and then what? Not much, probably. In 1975, the ICJ ruled that the people of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara had the right to self-determination. This was disputed by Morocco, which had occupied the country. Now, 34 years later, Morocco, a good friend of the west, is still occupying Western Sahara, most of the population has been driven out and lives in miserable camps in the Algerian Sahara, and the Moroccans have built a wall around the country to keep separatist guerrillas out. No one outside the region cares a hoot about them because, when it comes to these types of conflicts, hypocrisy is everyone's order of the day.
What it comes down to is simple: being in the right place at the right time and having the right friends with the right guns and interests. Precedent, for all of the diplomats' fear of the word, is only part of it. It is where you are on the map and what you can get away with that counts. In 2002, on a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, I was struck by the way the Kurds' homeland had been carved up as the Ottoman empire collapsed. Few Kurds I met then made any secret of their desire not just to achieve independence from Iraq but also to act as a vanguard that would eventually rally Kurds from Iran, Syria, and Turkey into one large Kurdish state.
I asked one official if the aim of a Kurdish federal unit in Iraq was to provide an example for Kurds in Turkey and so that later they could join together. "Yes," he said. "That's the aim." Then, embarrassed, he added: "But don't write that down." Musa Ali Bakr, the man who was then in charge of refugees in the Kurdish region of Dahuk, explained that if the Iraqi Kurds moved too quickly their neighbours would strangle them by closing the borders. He then summed up what for me then was the Kurdish dilemma, but I now realise is really the dictum of all successful separatists: "If you are sick, you visit the doctor. He prescribes the medicine. You take a spoonful three times a day and eventually you are better, you are free. However, if you drank the whole bottle all at once, it would kill you."
· Tim Judah covers the Balkans for the Economist. He is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, and Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know, which will be published by Oxford University Press in September.
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