James von Geldern, I.S., on the South Ossetia War

By Hazel Schaeffer

On August 8, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia sent troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia. In response, Russia invaded Georgia, quickly driving out the Georgian military from both South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Western governments condemned Russia’s actions, but the Kremlin stood firm, withdrawing its troops on its own timeline to “buffer zones” which it decided for itself by Aug. 24. For more insight into this important contemporary issue, The Mac Weekly interviewed International Studies and Russian Studies Professor James von Geldern.

The Mac Weekly: Were you surprised to learn of the military conflict between Georgia and Russia, both in terms of Georgia moving in and Russia’s response?

Professor James von Geldern: This has been brewing for fifteen years. It’s a situation where Georgia has not been in control of its territory since it had a civil war in 1992…The fact that the Russians used this as an opportunity to strike back at the Georgians is also no surprise. They have been very displeased with the Georgians, who they think of as their own ally or satellite since 1921. I was very surprised, though, at how aggressive the Russians were and how far they went in violating international law. They had a U.N. mandate to stop the Georgians from going into Ossetia. They had no mandate to go into Georgian territory, and all the destruction of civilian targets they did, they had absolutely no right.

TMW: Why was Russia willing to jeopardize its standing in the international community by invading Georgia?

JVG: This is a very difficult question to answer. One possibility might be that they simply miscalculated. They might have thought that the world had its attention focused on Beijing for the Olympics and that America had over extended itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this was a good opportunity to reestablish their control over the belt of countries surrounding them. It would be a clear massage, not just to the Georgians, but to all surrounding countries that they have to maintain some balance between their Western alliances and Eastern alliances.

TMW: Do you believe the U.S.. played a role in provoking the conflict?

JVG: If you take the point of view as I do that Ossetia is part of Georgian territory and that they have a right to assert control over that territory, then there is no provoking that conflict. It was a rightful action, and the only unlawful action was what the Russians did in moving into Georgian territory. Having said that, though, I am sure the Georgians felt more secure in sending the observer planes over Ossetian territory, thinking that they had the backing of the U.S. and the European allies.

TMW: Prior to the conflict, what was the nature of U.S. – Russo-Soviet relations, and how has that changed since August 8th?

JVG: Well they’d been declining for many years for obvious reasons: the fact that Russia has reestablished its ability to be an independent actor in foreign affairs – Russia’s internal politics are such that any assertion of independence from the West or any ability to push back against the West is a way to win approval with voters in Russia. So it has been happening for years as Russian residents have become more inclined to view themselves as countries separate from the West.

TMW: Do you feel that Russia or Georgia is more to blame in starting the conflict?

JVG: Complicated question. Starting the conflict: if Georgia had been willing to maintain the status quo, not control other territory, then the conflict would not have sparked up, so you can say in that sense they are to blame. The fact that it flared up to such extreme proportions is certainly the Russians’ fault because the Georgians were not capable of doing that.

TMW: Do you believe that this conflict marks a new era in Russian aggression?

JVG: Yes…it is very worrisome because there are a lot of small countries surrounding Russia that are trying to assert their sovereignty for the first time since the Soviet Union that will now have to deal with the threat of Russian forces. NATO has been pushing for Ukraine – which is a very large and important country -for membership, and that’s going to be the source of a great conflict. So yes, I think there’s going to be a lot more conflict.

TMW: What can you tell us about the tensions that existed between the different ethnic groups before the war in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions broke out?

JVG: Ossetians live in two regions: North Ossetia which is part of the Russian federation, and South Ossetia, which is part of Georgia. [South Ossetia has the majority of Ossetians] in their region, view themselves as being distinct from Georgians, and want to be united with thief fellow Ossets in Northern Ossetia. Abkhazians have, for over a century, been a small minority of people in their own republic. During the years of the Georgian Civil War, the Abkhazian military took the opportunity to drive Georgian residents out of Abkhazia. 250,000 people were driven out of Abkhazia in what was essentially an ethnic cleansing. So needless to say, tensions are pretty high.

TMW: Do you have any ideas on how the conflict can be resolved?

JVG: There are two big issues. One is how do you decide how an ethnically diverse region earns self-determination. Is it by having some degree of autonomy in a republic, or independence? Second, how do you find out what people in that region think? … If you are going to have a referendum, who do you allow to vote in the referendum in Abkhazia? Just the people that are living in Abkhazia, or do you take the Georgians who were forced out and allow them to vote too? So I think people need to be resettled back in the regions where they had been removed from, then have a referendum.

TMW: I know that you are currently interested in human rights. In which ways were human rights violated during the war, and how are they being abused currently?

JVG: The unfortunate thing is I think every side is abusing human rights in one way or another. Any time you have a war and civilians are being killed, there are massive abuses of civil rights. You have governments that are just trying to form their legal structures; you have abuses of rights like due process, you have abuses of rights on the basis of nationality, of gender, and this is being done by the Russian government, by the Georgian government, by the rump government in Abkhazia, by the rump governments in Ossetia. Plus, you have all these paramilitaries running around…doing horrible things to people..

TMW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JVG: No, I am glad you are writing about this. When this happened everyone was paying attention to the news about the elections.., and the Beijing Olympics were coming on. I kept telling everyone the most important item on the news today is something that is going on in the country you have not even heard of, because it is going to be with us for many years.