Forty years ago this week, the night sky above Prague began to rumble with the sound of transport aircraft. On distant frontiers, tanks lurched forward. The invasion of Czechoslovakia had begun.
Today, there are Russian tank columns on Georgian roads. Again, a small country lies prostrate before the military power of the Kremlin. Poland, in turn, is informed by a Russian general that by agreeing to station American missiles, it has made itself a nuclear target — perhaps no more than a brutal statement of the obvious.
But there are big differences between now and 1968. First, the Georgians fought back before being overwhelmed, something they will remember. Second, this is something less than total occupation. Anything may still happen, but this Russian action looks more like a punitive expedition.
What do the Russians want? The world does not yet know. Possibly the Russians do not know either; their tradition is to enter a crisis with several contrary game plans and then to play it by ear. But some short-term purposes are already clear.
They want to destroy Georgia’s military hardware so thoroughly it will take a decade to rebuild. That is what the roving armored units are doing. They want to upgrade their “peacekeeping” forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia so Georgia will never dare to attack across their borders again. They want to discredit President Mikheil Saakashvili so utterly that the Georgian people will depose him. They want to show the world the sort of price that would be paid for taking Georgia into NATO.
But Russia may also have plans for a new relationship with Georgia. While U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Western leaders try to implement the ceasefire, President Dimitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would like to get rid of all these international mediators, above all the Americans. They would almost certainly prefer to impose on defeated Georgia a new bilateral treaty with the Russian Federation. Any such treaty may include returning to Russia one or more of the military bases in Georgia that they evacuated a few years ago.
By last weekend, Russian forces had ceased to shoot but Georgia’s agony continued. Much more terrible than the soldiers are the civilians who come behind them, big-bellied men with machine pistols wearing army jackets thrown over T-shirts. They are doing the murdering, looting and burning, as they drive the last Georgians out of South Ossetia. Now they can reach Georgian territory as far as Gori, so they are following and killing them there.
They are Ossetians, helped by Chechen volunteers and by ultra-patriotic Russian “Cossacks.” A year ago, most of these Ossetians probably lived in neighborly peace with the local Georgians in the next village. But the spark of war ignites madness. The neighbors became traitors, spies, saboteurs, snipers.
These gunmen are Ossetians, but if Saakashvili’s surprise attack had succeeded, the killers would be Georgians and the victims Ossetians. The first outrush of Ossetian refugees from the fighting in Tskhinvali reported that Georgian atrocities against them had already started.
Now the outrush is Georgian. They will become helpless, homeless IDPs — internal displaced persons — crowded into dirty huts and abandoned factories with thousands of older IDPs who have been rotting on the fringe of Georgian society for 15 years.
For all this has happened before.
That is the worst thing about the tragic war over South Ossetia. The impetuous Georgian resort to force, the appeal to Russian armed strength giving Russia a chance to weaken Georgia’s independence, the terrible crimes carried out by civilians of the winning side against the helpless families of the losing side, the ethnic cleansing, the refugees — all these horrors happened here only 15 years ago.
The trouble in Abkhazia began when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Georgia moved to full independence, asserting that Abkhazia was part of its territory. The Abkhazians retorted that association with Georgia within the Soviet framework had been one thing; downgrading to an ethnic minority directly and ruled from Tbilisi was quite another. Agitation began.
Then in August 1992, the Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze suddenly flung the army against Abkhazia. Like Saakashvili, he tried to reassert control by bombarding and seizing the capital, Sokhumi. Violent fighting broke out. In the war that followed, Russian weaponry and airstrikes helped little Abkhazia — with less than a tenth of Georgia’s population — to an unexpected victory.
When it was over, Abkhazia’s towns and villages lay in ruins. And atrocities had followed the fighting troops. At first, it was the Georgian militias who did their worst against non-Georgian civilians. But then, as the war turned their way, Abkhazian paramilitaries and the wild north Caucasus volunteers who had swarmed in to help them took indiscriminate vengeance. Almost the entire Georgian and Mingrelian population, some 150,000, fled with the Georgian Army. Many of them live in bleak refugee settlements to this day.
The point of this history is that nobody learned anything from it, nobody except the Russians. So history has repeated itself. In the years that followed, Georgian politicians failed to see that only imaginative diplomacy, not rockets, might bring about some kind of rapprochement with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Abkhazians, independent but recognized by nobody, have no choice but to accept unofficial Russian hegemony. But at heart they resent it. They dream of escaping into the big world and genuine independence. Saakashvili, when he came to power, could have exploited that resentment by making a fresh start with Abkhazia. A few gestures and proposals were made. But the Abkhazian leaders, grimly suspicious, rejected them all as eyewash. Saakashvili, they insisted, was a nationalist demagogue who intended to recapture both Abkhazia and smaller South Ossetia by force. Today they are entitled to say: “We told you so.”
It’s time the West stopped talking about “Georgian territorial integrity,” and about South Ossetia and Abkhazia as “breakaway regions of Georgia,” as if their “illegal secession” can somehow be reversed. It cannot. The question now is quite different. It is how their independence can be recognized and made real. Only in that way can the outside world make it harder for Russia to use them as pawns in the game of crippling Georgian freedom.
It may not be possible to rescue South Ossetia, tiny and without resources, from becoming a Russian protectorate or even part of the Russian Federation — and most of its people seem to want that. But Abkhazia , with its once-flourishing holiday coast and rich agriculture, can be a perfectly viable Black Sea state. The European Union has a Black Sea neighborhood program. It’s time for the EU to stop pretending that Abkhazia does not exist, to integrate it into the program and to give it vigorous help.
And Georgia, that miraculous little nation that contains some of the world’s most talented people, and some of its worst politicians, must change. It is not Georgia that has been defeated, but a particular Georgian policy that has again and again played into Russian hands.
We know now that Russia’s revival as a big power is under way. Outside competition for influence over the ex-Soviet nations is going to be fiercely resisted. After Georgia comes Ukraine, where attempts to join NATO could end by splitting the nation and, with the Russian fleet still based in Crimea, bring about a terrifying confrontation.
NATO, with the Americans, can protect its own members against blackmail by standing firm. But the brutal truth is that if NATO is to survive, it must not sign up nations for which at heart it is not prepared to fight. The best way to prevent war is not windy condemnation, but clear, credible rules of engagement. Bluffing can be fatal.