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
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
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
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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