Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The EU and the Georgian war: Saying ‘everyone is to blame’ isn’t good enough

scalesThe EU fact-finding mission, headed by Switzerland’s Heidi Tagliavini, into the causes of last summer’s war in Georgia has released its Report. The Daily Telegraph has misrepresented the latter’s conclusions as amounting to an attribution of primary blame to the Georgian side in the conflict, with the satisfying result of inducing some premature gloating on the part of various pro-Putin elements who didn’t bother to read the text themselves. Whereas the Daily Telegraph‘s headline proclaimed ‘EU blames Georgia for starting war with Russia’, this is untrue: the Report is damning primarily for the Russian side. It is characteristic of the EU’s customary inability to take clear moral standpoints that its fact-finding mission has drawn up an extremely balanced, informed and objective summary of the facts but then shied away from drawing the appropriate conclusion.

The report rules absolutely against Georgia on one count only: that its inital assault on South Ossetia was not in accordance with international law. It states: ‘There is the question of whether the use of force by Georgia in South Ossetia, beginning with the shelling of Tskhinvali during the night of 7/8 August 2008, was justifiable under international law. It was not.’ The report goes on to state that the Georgian assault was not proportionate to the requirements of a defensive operation, while South Ossetia’s actions to repel this attack were in accordance with international law. After that, the report rules against Russia on almost every count. To sum up:

1) The report acknowledges the massive and sustained provocations to which Georgia had been subjected by Russia in the period preceding the conflict. Among these, ‘The mass conferral of Russian citizenship to Georgian nationals and the provision of passports on a massive scale on Georgian territory, including its breakaway provinces, without the consent of the Georgian Government runs against the principles of good neighbourliness and constitutes an open challenge to Georgian sovereignty and an interference in the internal affairs of Georgia’ (p. 18). Furthermore, ‘The decision by the Russian Federation to withdraw the 1996 CIS restrictions on Abkhazia (March 2008) and to authorise direct relations with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sides in a number of fields (April 2008), added another dimension to an already complex situation in the area’ (p. 31).

2) The report acknowledges that the Georgian offensive did not come out of the blue, but in the context of escalating military preparations and activities by both sides over the preceding months, involving exchanges of fire and explosions on both sides of the front lines, so that the ‘ever-mounting tensions in the conflict zone were approaching the level of open military confrontation’ and ‘the stage seemed all set for a military conflict’ (pp. 18-19).

3) The report states that although ‘[t]he Mission is not in a position to consider as sufficiently substantiated the Georgian claim concerning a large-scale Russian military incursion into South Ossetia before 8 August 2008′, nevertheless it does not reject the claim; on the contrary, it lists several pieces of evidence that lend weight to Georgia’s accusations of a preparatory Russian military build-up prior to the war, including ‘the provision by the Russian side of training and military equipment to South Ossetian and Abkhaz forces prior to the August 2008 conflict'; ‘an influx of volunteers or mercenaries from the territory of the Russian Federation to South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel and over the Caucasus range in early August, as well as the presence of some Russian forces in South Ossetia, other than the Russian JPKF battalion, prior to 14.30 hours on 8 August 2008′; and the fact that ‘it seems that the Russian air force started its operations against Georgian targets, including those outside South Ossetian military boundaries, already in the morning of 8 August, i.e. prior to the time given in the Russian official information’ (p. 20).

4) The Report rejects Moscow’s claim that it was waging a defensive or legal war in Georgia. It notes that ‘much of the Russian action went far beyond the reasonable limits of defence'; that Russia’s actions ‘cannot be regarded as even remotely commensurate with the threat to Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia'; that Russia’s ‘continued destruction that came after the ceasefire agreement was not justifiable by any means'; and that ‘the Russian military action outside South Ossetia was essentially conducted in violation of international law’. It therefore concludes that ‘insofar as such extended Russian military action reaching out into Georgia was conducted in violation of international law, Georgian military forces were acting in legitimate self-defence under article 51 of the UN Charter.’ Consequently, ‘In a matter of a very few days, the pattern of legitimate and illegitimate miliary action had thus turned around between the two main actors Georgia and Russia’. The report notes in addition that the second front against Georgia opened by the Russians and Abkhazians in Abkhazia was ‘not justified under international law’ (pp. 23-25). 

5) The Report rejects any possible justification of the Russian intervention in Georgia on humanitarian grounds, both because ‘Russia in particular has consistently and persistently objected to any justification of the NATO Kosovo intervention on humanitarian grounds’ and ‘can therefore not rely on this putative title to justify its own intervention on Georgian territory’, and because ‘as a directly neighbouring state, Russia has important political and other interests of its own in South Ossetia and the region. In such a constellation, a humanitarian intervention is not recognised at all’ (p. 24).

6) The report categorically rejects Russian claims that Georgia committed genocide against South Ossetian civilians: ‘After having carefully reviewed the facts in the light of the relevant law, the Mission concludes that to the best of its knowledge allegations of genocide committed by the Georgian side in the context of the August 2008 conflict and its aftermath are neither founded in law nor substantiated by factual evidence’ (pp. 26-27). It notes that the total number of South Ossetian civilian casualties in the whole of the August 2008 conflict was only 162, not the two thousand initially claimed by Moscow (p. 21).

7) Conversely, the Report attributed the worst and most systematic atrocities to the South Ossetian side: ‘With regard to allegations of ethnic cleansing committed by South Ossetian forces or irregular armed groups, however, the Mission found patterns of forced displacements of ethnic Georgians who had remained in their homes after the onset of hostilities. In addition, there was evidence of systematic looting and destruction of ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia. Consequently, several elements suggest the conclusion that ethnic cleansing was indeed practiced against ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia both during and after the August 2008 conflict’ (p. 27).

8 ) Finally, the Report condemns Russia’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as contrary to international law: ‘South Ossetia did not have a right to secede from Georgia, and the same holds true for Abkhazia for much of the same reasons. Recognition of breakaway entities such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia by a third country is consequently contrary to international law in terms of an unlawful interference in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the affected country, which is Georgia’ (p. 17).

Far from blaming the Georgian side for the conflict, the Report ends with a conclusion that most reasonable friends of Georgia could readily endorse: ‘This report shows that any explanation of the origins of the conflict cannot focus solely on the artillery attack on Tskhinvali in the night of 7/8 August and on what then developed into the questionable Georgian offensive in South Ossetia and the Russian military action. The evaluation also has to cover the run-up to the war during the years before and the mounting tensions in the months and weeks immediately preceding the outbreak of hostilities. It must also take into account years of provocations, mutual accusations, military and political threats and acts of violence both inside and outside the conflict zone. It has to consider, too, the impact of a great power’s coercive politics and diplomacy against a small and insubordinate neighbour, together with the small neighbour’s penchant for overplaying its hand and acting in the heat of the moment without careful consideration of the final outcome, not to mention its fear that it might permanently lose important parts of its territory through creeping annexation’ (p. 31).

To sum up: the Report rules against Russia on every ground except one. Although it acknowledges the illegality of the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali, it describes this assault not as gratuitous or unprovoked, but as having occurred in the context of a long period of sustained military and diplomatic provocations on the part of Russia, a great power, against its small neighbour, whose fears about permanent territorial loss were very real. The Report rejects Moscow’s claim that it acted for humanitarian reasons; that it acted to stop genocide; or that its action was in accordance with international law. On the contrary, it explicitly condemns Russia’s military actions as illegal under international law, and acknowledges the legality of Georgia’s attempts to defend itself from Russian invasion. The Report attributes by far the worst atrocities to the South Ossetian side, and endorses Georgian accusations of South Ossetian ethnic cleansing. It meanwhile rejects the massively exaggerated Russian claims of Georgian atrocities.

This is a Report that all friends of Georgia and opponents of Russian imperialism should be publicising to the best of their abilities. It amounts to a ringing endorsement of those of us who at the time recognised the Russian military action for what it was: an act of aggression, illegal under international law, by a hegemonic power against a small and ‘insubordinate’ neighbour. Yet while the factual conclusions of the Report represent such an endorsement, the Report’s authors seem unfortunately unable to draw the only natural conclusion from the evidence they have amassed. Instead, they conclude with a few wishy-washy ‘everyone is to blame’ platitudes of the kind that made the EU synonymous with moral bankruptcy at the time of the Bosnian war in the 1990s: ‘Where lies responsibility for what has happened ? Overall, the conflict is rooted in a profusion of causes comprising different layers in time and action combined. While it is possible to identify the authorship of some important events and decisions marking its course, there is no way to assign overall responsibility to one side alone. They have all failed, and it should be their responsibility to make good for it. Finally, it must be noted that there are no winners in this conflict [etc. etc.].’

Contrary to what the Report concludes, there was a winner in the Georgian war, and it was Russia, which was able to provoke a war against a former colony and current Western ally, inflict a heavy military blow against it and torpedo its chances of joining NATO, all without incurring much in the way of punishment from the Western alliance. The Obama Administration’s recent abandonment of the US plans to install a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic is further proof that Moscow has been successful, through its assault on Georgia and other aggressive acts, in extracting concessions from the Western alliance vis-a-vis the area that Russian imperialists view as their backyard. So long as we are afraid to draw the logical conclusion from evidence that is staring us in the face, and are afraid to call a spade a spade, an aggressor an aggressor and a victim a victim, we are simply encouraging further violent acts of the kind that the Report’s authors deplore.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Sunday, 25 October 2009 Posted by | Abkhazia, European Union, Former Soviet Union, Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia | , , , | 2 Comments

Bosnia: Weighing the Options

tworoadsThese days, even the most ardent Bosnian patriot or foreign friend of Bosnia-Hercegovina finds it difficult to be optimistic about the country’s future. In its current constitutional form, Bosnia is a state that does not and cannot work. No conceivable solution appears very good, while even bad solutions appear unachievable. Yet the status quo appears worst of all. I have been defending Bosnia-Hercegovina for seventeen years – ever since I campaigned on its behalf when the war broke out there in 1992. In this article, however, I shall weigh up Bosnia-Hercegovina’s different options and prospects as cold-bloodedly as possible.

The Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 established a Bosnia-Hercegovina that was more partitioned than united. For every year that it exists, the constitutional arrangement for Bosnia established by Dayton brings Bosnia another step closer to full and complete partition. Every year, Republika Srpska further consolidates itself as a de facto independent state; the Office of the High Representative declines in power and authority; the international community’s will and ability to coerce the Republika Srpska are that much weaker; the already dim prospect of Bosniaks and Croats returning to Republika Srpska recedes further; and the share of the Bosnian population that can remember the unified, multinational country that existed before 1992 becomes smaller. Despite apparent steps toward reintegration taken while the Office of the High Representative was headed by the energetic and determined Paddy Ashdown, subsequent high representatives have lacked either the will or the international support to continue down Ashdown’s path, with the result that Bosnia has further unravelled in recent years. However monstrous the injustice that Bosnian partition would represent, with every year that passes, the injustice is further forgotten by the world and full partition – like death – draws nearer. We need only look at the other injustices that have become realities on the ground: the three-way partition of Macedonia in 1912-13; the dispossession of the Armenian population of Anatolia; the dispossession of the Palestinian population of present-day Israel – these are realities on the ground. The partition of Bosnia is steadily becoming as irreversible as the partition of Macedonia.

Consequently, the best strategy for Bosnian Serb nationalists who want to achieve an independent Republika Srpska is simply to continue the existing constitutional arrangement while quietly chipping away at Bosnia from within. Ironically, however, the present arrangement may serve the interests of the Bosnian Serb political classes at the present time better than a full partition. A unified, homogenous Serb nation embracing the Serb populations on both sides of the River Drina is a myth; the dominant historical thrust of Bosnian Serb nationalism is toward an independent Bosnian Serb state rather than toward annexation to Serbia. Thus, for the Bosnian Serb political classes, the existing arrangement, whereby the Republika Srpska increasingly enjoys complete de facto independence, may be preferable to a full partition that would threaten them with being swallowed up by Serbia. One day, the Serb population of the Republika Srpska may cease to support annexation to Serbia, as the Greek population of Cyprus has ceased to support enosis with Greece. Until then – and until international conditions are fully favourable to the disappearance of Bosnia – Republika Srpska’s leadership might sensibly desire to stay put.

Conversely, the best hope for supporters of a unified Bosnia may be for Milorad Dodik’s increasingly arrogant regime to continue and escalate its present policy of rocking the boat, inciting Serb-nationalist passion and baiting the Bosniaks and the international community. Eventually, we may hope, Dodik might become sufficiently stupid actually to attempt unilateral secession prematurely, or some other such outrage that would provide Bosnia and the world with a legitimate pretext to overturn the Dayton order and reintegrate Republika Srpska with the rest of the country. This is not a wholly dim prospect, as recent antics on the part of the leaderships of both Serbia and the Republika Srpska highlight the continued Serb-nationalist propensity to self-destructive nationalist confrontation. Last month, Dodik issued a gratuitously offensive denial of the Tuzla massacre of 1995.  This followed hot on the heels of Serbian president Boris Tadic’s recent act of provocation against Bosnia, when he visited the Bosnian Serb entity without Bosnia’s permission, to open a new school named ‘Serbia’ in Pale, the former Bosnian Serb rebel capital outside of Sarajevo.

At this point, we should be clear about what partition would mean. Partition might be appealing for those Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats who would be able to unite with Serbia and Croatia respectively, exchanging their citizenship of a dysfunctional state for citizenship of states that function. But for the Bosniaks, partition would cement their confinement to what is effectively a ghetto comprising the two territorial enclaves around the Sarajevo-Zenica-Tuzla triangle and Bihac respectively. The EU’s recent extension of visa-free travel to Serbia, following on from Croatia, thereby in practice to Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats but not to Bosnia and the Bosniaks, is evidence that this is indeed a ghetto. An ‘independent’ Bosniak entity comprising these enclaves would be non-viable, while its embittered and demoralised population would fall under the influence of the most reactionary form of conservative Islamic politics. Bosniaks would be fully justified in choosing war before accepting such a grim fate.

A territorially fairer form of partition – which one or two of my own Bosniak correspondents have suggested to me – would envisage both Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Croats giving up territory to the Bosniaks in exchange for the right to secede, resulting in a separate Bosniak entity comprising somewhat less than half of Bosnia, with roughly a third going to the Serbs and a fifth to the Croats. This would represent a great injustice to the Serb and Croat inhabitants of the transferred areas, who would suddenly find themselves ethnic minorities in a Bosniak national state. The Republika Srpska, at least, would find such a solution unacceptable, so it would have to be imposed unilaterally – involving, in effect, a new war and ethnic cleansing. This is not something that twenty-first century Europe can sanction.

Any form of outright partition, furthermore, would destabilise Bosnia’s neighbours: Serbia, Croatia and those further afield. Serbia and Croatia have slowly and painfully democratised over the past decade, turning their back on aggression and expansionism. In Serbia, in particular, the struggle between pro-European reformists and aggressive nationalists is far from over. The acquisition of new irredentas would mark a huge setback for this process: the newly expanded states would be unstable as they struggled to integrate the new populations; their party systems would be further fragmented; the expansionist nationalists would be vindicated and revived. Serbia, in particular, would be encouraged by such an annexation to pursue further expansionist goals – possibly against fragile Macedonia or even NATO-member Croatia. Ultimately, what Serbia needs to prosper is to be kept firmly within its existing legal state borders. The reason why Bulgaria and Romania entered the EU before Serbia is that they were fortunate enough to have lost World War II and to have been confined to their own borders, with no prospect of further territorial expansion. Serbia, which came out of World War II ambiguously – neither wholly as victor nor as vanquished – and which appeared to have some prospects for territorial expansion in the 1990s, has paid a heavy price. The last thing Serbia needs is to be tempted off the wagon.

The redrawing of international borders and partition of a sovereign state would encourage those elements in the Balkans that wish to partition Kosovo and Macedonia as well. Partitioning Bosnia outright could open a Pandora’s box, with unforseeable consequences. Yet as we have seen, the status quo – the Dayton system – represents not an alternative to outright partition, but de facto partition with the likelihood of full de jure partition at some point in the future, when circumstances are more favourable to the Bosnian Serb nationalists. In the meantime, the Bosniaks have the worst of both words. Not only have they been squeezed into a ghetto and forced to inhabit a dysfunctional state, but their energies must be expended in permanent political conflict with Serb and Croat politicians who do not want the state to cease being dysfunctional. The Bosnian Croats, meanwhile, suffer as the minority party within the Bosnian Federation, permanently squeezed by the embittered Bosniak majority. The Republika Srpska leadership, by contrast, should feel wholly satisfied with the existing order, which grants it all the cards except one: the right to secede formally one day without complications. Republika Srpska’s lack of the right to secede comprises the only strong card in the hands of supporters of Bosnian unity, though the card is unlikely to remain strong indefinitely.

The Western alliance should have cause to regret the rise of Republika Srpska, which may be relied upon to undermine its interests in South East Europe. In May, Dodik unilaterally withdrew Bosnian Serb soldiers from Bosnia’s participation in NATO exercises in Georgia, which he then boycotted, in a move attributed to pro-Russian sentiment. Nebojsa Radmanovic, the Bosnian Serb member of the Bosnian presidency, recently stated that most Bosnian Serbs oppose NATO membership, and mooted the possibility of a referendum on NATO membership in Republika Srpska. A de jure or de facto independent Republika Srpska will obstruct the Balkans’ Euro-Atlantic integration and serve as a bridgehead for Russian influence in the region.

Supporters of a unified Bosnia-Hercegovina, both inside the country and internationally, must act now if Bosnia-Hercegovina is to be saved. Highlighting the fact that the Dayton system is leading inexorably toward the outright partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina, they must campaign for an end to this system and the restoration of a unified, functioning Bosnian state, through the reintegration of Republika Srpska with the rest of the country. This should not involve the entity’s outright abolition; rather, it should involve the transfer of all meaningful power to the central government in Sarajevo, leaving Republika Srpska a de facto administrative entity. Justification for such a move may be found in numerous places: Dodik’s repeated calls for Bosnia-Hercegovina’s dissolution; his continued denial of the Srebrenica genocide, in disregard of the verdict of the international courts; the Serb failure to arrest Ratko Mladic as the Dayton Accords required; the Republika Srpska’s failure to permit the return of Bosniak and Croat refugees. This is not a good option, but it is the least bad of the possible options.

If they do not wish to or are unable to campaign on this platform, Bosnia-Hercegovina’s supporters might as well give up and accept that at some point in the future, Bosnia-Hercegovina is likely to disappear from the map of Europe.

This article was previously published in Bosnian by BH Dani, and in English by the Henry Jackson Society.

Sunday, 11 October 2009 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, NATO, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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