U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is an intelligent woman. So how can she possibly want to tell the world that Russia’s response to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia resembled the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The comparisons should be the reverse. The Russian willingness to go to the aid of a small region under brutal attack contrasts greatly with the empty Western rhetoric back in the days when Czechoslovakia or other regions were under Moscow attack. And the knee-jerk anti-Russian reactions of the media and other commentators too biased or lazy to question the official U.S. version of events parallels the Russian media’s knee-jerk acceptance of Moscow’s distorted explanations for past misdemeanors such as Chechnya.
Let’s begin with the facts. On the morning of Aug. 8 we woke to reports of a fierce Georgian Army attack on the small town of Tskhinvali, the capital of the small South Ossetia autonomous district within Georgia. Civilian casualties were put in the thousands. As well, 10 or more Russian “peacekeepers,” stationed after a previous Georgian attack on South Ossetia in 1991-1992, were killed.
Russian troops then intervened, first to drive the Georgian troops out of Ossetia and then to neutralize Georgian military bases elsewhere. Without that intervention it is quite certain that the Georgians would have stripped the area of its autonomous status, with those Ossetians not killed or cowed being forced to move to North Ossetia on the other side of the Caucasus ranges.
But for the Western media none of this was relevant. For them, everything seems to have begun with the Russian intervention, portrayed as a crime of aggression and even ethnic cleansing (somehow the Georgian attack on the small Ossetian minority is not ethnic cleansing).
U.S. President George W. Bush condemns the Russian attack as a violation of Georgian sovereignty. Did sovereignty concerns ever bother the United States during its attacks on various nations? Besides, we now have doctrines that say nations have moral obligations to intervene to defend peoples under immoral attack, regardless of sovereignty concerns. The Russians could easily claim that in Ossetia.
The Russians are right to use the Kosovo example as a proof of Western hypocrisy. There, too, the Serbian minority population was under attack from Western-backed Albanian guerrillas. Serbian attempts to stop the attacks were amazingly described as Serbian ethnic cleansing.
This in turn was used to justify prolonged U.S.-NATO bombardment of civilian and military targets in Serbia, in a bid to make Belgrade abandon its internationally recognized sovereignty over Kosovo.
And once again most of the Western media were too lazy or spineless to challenge the official versions justifying Western behavior. Few wanted to do the homework needed to find what the dispute was about, and not just in Kosovo but earlier in Croatia and Bosnia too. Even today we get little mention of continuing ethnic cleansing efforts by ethnic Albanians to drive out all minorities, including Jews and Gypsies.
I visited Ossetia back in the Soviet days, to check out the existence of this 400,000- member ethnic minority that speaks a unique language of Iranian origins and is divided into two autonomous areas on either side of 5,000 meter Caucuses ranges. But to get there in those primitive days you had to take a local bus on bad roads crossing the 3,000 meter passes from North Ossetia. (Today there is a large tunnel. Some say the Georgian failure to close that tunnel was proof they were sure U.S. support would prevent a Russian intervention.)
It was a rough trip, wedged in with earthy Ossetian farmers clutching their chickens and bags of farm produce. But there was one consolation — you could easily spot the KGB types trailing you. They were the ones without the chickens. Soviet concern to keep the many Caucasus peoples under its control was strong and we were followed relentlessly wherever we went. Eventually we reached Tskhinvali, the small rustic capital of South Ossetia and hardly the kind of place where you could expect an East-West confrontation to be triggered.
It was only after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union that Ossetia began to hit the headlines. It had tried to use its autonomous status to claim independence from Georgia. But with their 1991-92 attacks the Georgian authorities made it clear they had other ideas and the pro-Russian Ossetians had to settle for autonomy with Russian peacekeepers. The attack on the night of Aug. 7-8 made it clear the Georgians would not accept even autonomy, just as earlier they had tried to challenge the autonomy of pro-Russian Abkhazia in eastern Georgia.
Yet none of this seems to make much impression on the allegedly impartial Western media. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev tried on a CNN program to point out the need to look at the Aug. 7-8 events before passing any other judgments. But his questioner seemed unable to grasp the point. Established wisdoms have few doubters in the West once their propaganda agencies go to work. In Darfur the talk turns easily to war crimes, despite the civil war reality there. But when Georgia attacks innocent South Ossetian towns and villages it is those who defend the towns and villages who are said to be guilty of war crimes.
The media accept it when the U.S. says it needs to stay on Iraq to guarantee security. When the Russians say they need to linger longer in Georgia for the same reasons we get more Western talk about sovereignty violation and Czechoslovakia.
Cambodia was the classic example of the hypocritical way Western policymakers and propagandists distort events. The U.S. and others at first recognized the brutal Khmer Rouge regime there simply because it was anti-Vietnam. They even condemned as aggression the Vietnamese attacks needed to put an end to the killing fields there. Then when they decided the Khmer Rouge were evil after all, the talk turned to Khmer Rouge war crimes, forgetting the fact that much of the killing field brutality had been due to the remorseless and secret U.S. B-52 bombings on innocent villages and civilians for much of the early ’70s — war crimes by any definition.
The Sino-Indian frontier dispute had strong Ossetia parallels. In 1962 India had made a foolishly adventurous attack into territory that even Western maps recognized as Chinese. Even so, the Chinese counterattack was fiercely condemned by the West as aggression aimed at annexing Indian territory, discrediting the Indian government and so on.
Almost no one bothered to look at the material proving where the original attack had occurred. Heavy support for India was promised. Western propaganda agencies set out to demonize Beijing. Even after the Chinese went back to their original positions six weeks later, returning even the weapons they had captured, the myth of innate Chinese aggressiveness was set in motion, with the tragic results we were to see in Indochina just a few years later.
If the extraordinary efforts to demonize Moscow over South Ossetia succeed, the results could be equally tragic.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net