Aug. 21, 2008
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
Georgia … on my mind
The line-up was impressive. The presidents of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia stood beside Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi. As members of a unique fraternity, each represented a nation which, at one time, fell within the Soviet sphere of influence. Each understood the imposing weight of political and economic encroachment by Moscow. Identification as a Soviet satellite or republic dictated who your allies were, who your enemies were, and even which holidays you celebrated.
It didn’t matter that the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989. Political memory remains crystal clear among these developing democracies. Forging commercial relations with the West, joining alliances such as NATO and throwing off the wearying cloak of stepchild status in Europe are viewed as tantamount to preserving political autonomy.
Russia’s flexing of its military muscle in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia encouraged the show of support. The carefully choreographed photo opportunity sent a clear, distinct message: Georgia is not alone. The world, especially former Warsaw Pact nations, is watching.
I am not an expert on Georgia. I decided it was time to learn a little about the history and geography of this country whose long-simmering ethnic conflict recently reached a flashpoint, spilling across print and electronic media.
Georgia, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, is a small country in Eurasia bordering the Caucasus Mountains. The former Soviet republic encompasses approximately 26,911 square miles, making it comparable in size to Illinois. Of its 5.4 million inhabitants, 70 percent are ethnic Georgians. Minority groups sprinkled across the mountainous landscape include Armenians (8 percent), Russians (6 percent) and Ossetians (3 percent). Georgia’s president, fluent in English, earned his Juris Doctor law degree at Columbia University. He’s been actively courting Washington while aggressively pursuing NATO membership.
The break-up of the U.S.S.R. in the early 1990s severed Ossetia in two along the Russo-Georgian border. North Ossetia remained part of Russia; South Ossetia became part of the newly-independent nation of Georgia. This unnatural land split ignored ethnic realities, fueling tensions on both sides.
South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia on November 28, 1991. No one seemed to notice much. Prominent western European nations did not rush to acknowledge the South Ossetians’ claim to independence. NATO recognized the area as a legitimate region of Georgia.
Simmering dissension burst into flames when the Georgian military rolled into South Ossetia on Aug. 7 in response to Russian troop movements near the border. The Russian army crossed into the region the next day. President Dmitry Medvedev challenged Georgia’s sovereignty by sending troops onto foreign, though familiar, soil. The Russians maintain their presence is to preserve Ossetian autonomy. Vigorous land and air assaults, coupled with encroachment further south beyond South Ossetia’s border, imply more complex political motives.
Ethnic Ossetians comprise roughly 67 percent of South Ossetia’s population. If the region pursues and achieves independence, this may lead to considerable shuffling and displacement of people.
Estimates of numbers killed, including civilians, seem too unreliable to commit to print. Villages are smoldering, cities have been bombed and desperate refugees dot the landscape. As I write this, negotiations have started but bullets continue to fly.
It somehow seemed a simpler, cleaner break when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia this past February. The Serbian province was overwhelmingly Albanian with a mere 4 percent of its population identified as Serbs. Displacements, if they became necessary, would be minimal. Germany and Sweden quickly recognized Kosovo. They were soon followed by the United States, United Kingdom, France and most of the other European Union nations. Russia vehemently opposed Kosovo’s independence, standing solidly beside Serbia. Belgrade officials head to the United Nations General Assembly in September to argue their case. The matter remains far from resolved.
There are no easy answers to this conundrum. Localized ethnic tensions are sometimes co-opted by powerful political entities to further hegemonic goals. Hitler’s 1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia, allegedly to protect ethnic Germans in Sudetenland suffering deprivations, revealed far darker intentions.
Czechoslovakia’s strategic geopolitical position played a far more important role in Hitler’s insatiable appetite for liebensraum (living space) for Germans.
As events unfold in Eurasia, I wonder what Russia’s true intentions are. Coincidentally, I wonder what America’s true intentions are in oil-rich Iraq.
Poland recently entered into an agreement with the United States to allow an American missile base on its soil. The Interfax news agency quoted Russian Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn warning that Poland, by doing so, “is exposing itself to a strike — 100 percent.” Last I checked, Poland was a sovereign nation.
I’m planning a trip to Cracow next summer to visit my family. In the meantime, I’ll keep Georgia … on my mind.