So says the highly emotive front page of today's Times. Such a headline has reflected a broader trend across the media to represent Georgia as an innocent party in the current conflict. As ever, the story is far more complex than that, not least because the conflict was instigated by a Georgian leader eager to boost his ratings and please his Western allies.
Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2004 after the so-called 'Rose Revolution' that brought to an end the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili rode into power on the back of a commitment to unite Georgia and usher in a new era of pro-Western Georgian politics (much to the alarm of the Russian government). Eager to appeal to the West, Saakashvili's party, the United National Movement, moved away from its previous centre-left positioning and took up the mantle of 'liberal conservatism'. The main focus of the post-revolution party was economic liberalism alongside civic nationalism - a recipe clearly designed to appeal to the West (particularly America, who had already referred to the 'Rose Revolution' as a 'powerful moment' from a 'key ally in the region'). In fact, so wide-ranging have their reforms been, that the World Bank has named Georgia as the number one economic reformer in the world, and the country is ranked 18 for 'ease of doing business'.
As a supporter of free market economics, it was clear that the Georgian leader would seek closer links with the West, and so it has proven. Since coming to power, Saakashvili has courted the EU and NATO in a bid to gain membership to these prestigious Western organisations. So keen has he been to seek America's favour, that he even agreed to double the number of troops Georgia sent into Iraq, making Georgian forces one of the largest outside the US and UK. Furthermore, the Georgian government, through it's attempts to court NATO membership, has also shown it's willingness to be utilised as a base for America's so-called 'missile shield' in Central and Eastern Europe. Certainly, Bush has been keen to give the Georgian government full NATO membership, although he has so far been defeated (incidentally, it is worth noting that NATO intends to vote on Georgian membership once more in December). There is no doubt that this is Bush's man. An economic liberal eager to open up markets and adopt a Western style of government in a region dominated by the former Soviet Union.
Despite the appearance of the Georgian leader in the Western media, Saakashvili is certainly not whiter than white. On July 1st 2005, Georgian police violently clashed with protesters in central Tbilisi over the detention of two athletes for blackmail. The initial demonstration soon turned into a demonstration against the central authorities, who had already stopped attempts at an earlier rally. Anti-riot police and special military forces armed with machine guns proceeded to violently disperse the rally and put an end to the anti-government protests. As a result of the rally, 25 people were arrested, including 5 opposition politicians.
Further demonstrations occurred in November 2007 when 50,000 demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the allegedly corrupt Georgian regime. Saakashvilli was accused of presiding over an authoritarian regime and there was a growing demand for fresh democratic elections. Once more the crowds were dispersed with armed riot police utilising tear gas, rubber bullets and water canons. Protesters were beaten and men dressed in black clothes and black masks also attacked protesters. As a result of the violence, some 508 people were admitted to hospital, most suffering with the effects of exposure to tear gas.
This is, of course, the kind of leader that Bush admires. As Naomi Klein has demonstrated in The Shock Doctrine, new liberal policies go hand in hand with violent crackdowns on the civilian population. Saakashvili has been instrumental in Georgia's neo-liberal development over the past four years (hence it's standing with the World Bank) whilst simultaneously crushing dissent and cementing his position at the head of an authoritarian regime. It comes, therefore, as no surprise to see the Western response to the latest crimes against humanity perpetuated by this Friedmanite Georgian leader.
Whilst it appears to have been forgotten by much of the media, it was Georgia that instigated the recent violence. Keen to recover the kind of popularity he received at the instigation of the Rose Revolution, Saakashavili has seen his approval rating plummet from around 86% when entering office to around 16% at the end of 2007. Given the problems in South Ossetia, an attempt to unify Georgia would surely boost approval ratings. All that was needed was the support of the US and other Western allies to ensure that it could go ahead without getting in the way of Georgia's broader ambitions (EU, NATO etc). Given the strategic significance of the region for the US (particularly in light of the missile defence program), there was no way that the US would stand in the way. In fact, there has been some evidence that the US had been actively involved in the assault on South Ossetia.
As recently as July this year, around 1,600 troops from the US, Georgia and other Eastern European countries had been involved in exercises near the Georgian border. Good old Condi Rice even visited the region recently during a particularly tense stand-off in the region during which time one US state official stated that:
And it even appears that Israel has been involved in training the Georgian army in what appears to be a repeat of the assault on Lebanon in 2006:
The fact that Georgia had increased it's military spending from $30 million to $1 billion, and that the US was giving massive military aid, indicates that the Georgian government were preparing for open conflict. Furthermore, the US has further worsened the situation in South Ossetia by airlifting Georgian troops from Iraq into Georgia in an attempt to aid the Georgian government. Bush's finger prints are all over this one. Clearly they have pushed the boat out to aid a fellow economic liberal in yet another disastrous foreign intervention. Much like the situation in Lebanon in 2006, the US's actions will only lead to a strengthening of the power they were seeking to undermine. The 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon led to the strengthening of Hezbollah and Iran. There is no doubt that this current conflict will lead to the strengthening of Russia within the region.
Putting aside the tactical error made by the Bush administration, there has been a series of serious human rights abuses perpetuated by the Georgian armed forces during the assault on South Ossetia. According to one source:
"Much of the city (Tskhinvali) was reportedly in flames Friday. The regional parliament building had burned down, the university was on fire, and the town’s main hospital had been rendered inoperative by the bombardment."
Vesti radio reported that Georgian forces burned down a church in Tanara in South Ossetia where people were hiding, to the ground, with all the people inside. The Deputy Director of an information agency as an eye witness reported that fragments of cluster bombs of were found in Tskinvali. There have also been reports by a South Ossetian reservist that civilians who were hiding in basements were shot dead by Georgian soldiers.
Wikipedia reports that, "Russian soldiers captured group of American mercenaries on territory of South Ossetia. Group was captured near of Zare village."
An estimated 1,500 people have died in the onslaught and 30,000 more fled across the Russian border. Large swaths of the city have been reduced to rubble including the one hospital that was pounded by Georgia bombers. Georgia has cut off the water supply to the city.The Red Cross now anticipates a "humanitarian catastrophe" as a result of the fighting.
“I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars,” Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, told the Associated Press after fleeing the city with her family to a village near the Russian border. “It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.”
At least 15 Russia peacekeepers were killed in the initial fighting and 70 more were sent to hospital. Georgia's army stormed the South Ossetia capital, Tskhinvali, killing more than 1,000 fleeing civilians. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told news agencies in an interview how the hostilities began:
Russian peacekeepers "were killed by their own [Georgian] partners in the peacekeeping forces. There is a Russian battalion, an Ossetian battalion, and a Georgian battalion... and all of a sudden the Georgians, Georgian peacekeepers, begin shooting their Russian colleagues. This is of course a war crime. I do not rule out that the Hague and Strasbourg courts and institutions in other cities will be involved in investigating these crimes, and this inhuman drama that has been played out."
And yet, these human rights abuses seem to have underplayed whilst the US and her partners continue to attack Russian aggression, and simultaneously refusing to condemn the actions of the Georgian government. Saakashvili has shown his quality in the past. He is not afraid of abusing individual human rights to maintain his stronghold on the country and seek favour with the US. The fact that he is prepared to compare the situation with Kosovo when his own forces have behaved so barbarically in South Ossetia reveals the lengths to which he is prepared to go to win the PR battle, a battle that he certainly seems to be winning in the West when one glances at the media. Whilst there is no excuse for a Russian invasion of Georgia, observers must remember that the Georgian leader is behind this crisis and he has proven that he is nothing more than a war criminal with authoritarian tendencies. One can only hope that his gross folly will lead to his inevitable removal and the Georgian people can have a leader that cares about the interests of the populace and not neo-liberal global posturing to court favour with the West.