Small war's big lessons

SCMP August 27 2008


Georgia may have been a small war but it contains a multitude of lessons for Asia as well as Nato and Russia's other neighbours. If not learned, there is reason to fear that peripheral issues could become the unwitting cause of bigger conflicts.

Lesson one - which the Georgians should not have needed reminding of. When it comes to ruthless suppression of what it sees as threats to its interests, Russia has few peers. If it could destroy one of its own cities, as Vladimir Putin did to Grozny, to crush Chechen separatism, what could Georgia's president have expected when he invaded a Russian-protected enclave?

Lesson two - for the US in particular. If you cannot protect friendly states, yet also cannot prevent them from foolhardy actions, do not encourage them to believe that because they have elections and love foreign investment that they will get your practical support. Complaining about invasion and enforced regime change cuts little ice, least of all with Russians, after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lesson three - for Europe. Stop believing that any and all separatist groups have a right to self-determination regardless of wider consequences. A continent with a system that can accommodate states ranging from Germany to Malta may be able to absorb political fragmentation into a bigger construct. But that is far more difficult for others; Russia's treatment of Georgia is a direct outcome of the west's support for Kosovo's independence from Serbia. Indeed, indirectly, Europe bears some responsibility for the break-up of Yugoslavia into a chaos of ethnic cleansing and multiple states. If Kosovo has a case, why not the South Ossetians, say the Russians. That is no doubt hypocritical, as the Ossetians may want independence. But, for now, they may prefer to be ruled by far away Moscow than nearby Tblisi.

Lesson four - for all neighbours. Never underestimate the strength of ethnic Russian nationalism - which can easily morph into outright racism - and is again closely allied to the Russian Orthodox church. The recent adventure was ostensibly in support of the "Russian citizens" in Georgia. The fact that 40 per cent of the population of Kazakhstan is Russian will not be lost on the Kazakhs - or the Ukraine and Baltic states, all with large ethnic Russian minorities.

Lesson five should be for the Russians themselves. The worst way in the long run to try to protect your own crumbling empire is to encourage secession in little bits of your neighbours' territories. The post-Soviet Russian Federation just about works despite Chechnya. But the possibility of more Chechnyas is real, given the size of the non-Russian population in many of the southern and eastern parts of the federation.

Lesson six - this is for everyone, perhaps most of all in an Asia where many countries are still struggling with post-colonial boundaries, ethnic complexities and multiple minorities. Clearly, fragmentation into ever-smaller political units is a recipe for increased conflict between states and, in some cases, for ethnic cleansing to be rid of troublesome minorities. Yet suppression of minorities can be an endless and fruitless, as well as bloody, business. Instead, there needs to be measures of genuine autonomy for groups, whether Tibetans and Uygurs in China, the Acehnese or Papuans in Indonesia, or the Shans and others in Myanmar.

Logic would also suggest some agreed border changes, such as the cession by Thailand of its three southern provinces to Malaysia. But that will not happen, ensuring an enduring legacy of troubles and friction.

Which brings us back to Georgia, whose borders were set by that Georgian expert in divide and rule, Joseph Stalin. By standing on its recently acquired sovereignty as a reason to bring South Ossetia to heel, Georgia exposed the dangerous futility of a lot of nationalism. Georgia itself would be a much more viable state today if it had accepted that the Russian-backed Ossetians wanted out.




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