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Friday, 15 August 2008

15 August 2008

All right, it may be a bit too soon to start talking about winners and losers in Georgia, but not too soon for a provisional tally, or to learn some lessons from the events of the past week.

Obvious loser: Georgia, and more especially, President Mikheil Saakashvili. He thought he could resolve the long-standing dispute with separatists in South Ossetia by military force – and he was wrong.

Obvious winner: Russia, and more especially, the Medvedev-Putin double act. They reacted swiftly and effectively, and demonstrated to their neighbours with brutal efficiency that it is definitely not a good idea to stamp on Russia’s toes.

Less obvious loser: the US. It was slow to react, and gave its allies in the region the impression that when push comes to shove, they’re on their own. Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states will all have taken note. (Last night, Poland signed on the dotted line for a US anti-missile installation to be built on its soil, although the foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski insisted when I interviewed him on last night’s programme that the decision to sign had nothing to do with events in Georgia. I leave you to make up your own mind …)

Less obvious winner: the European Union, and more especially President Nicholas Sarkozy of France. As the current older of the EU’s rotating presidency, he was impressively quick out of the starting blocks, and with the help of his hyper-active Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (whose CV, incidentally, includes having worked as a Red Cross doctor in Biafra in the 1960s, and then co-founding the relief agency Medecins sans Frontieres in the 1970s), he brokered an admittedly fragile ceasefire within less than a week of the conflict erupting.

We’ve learned a few useful lessons over the past week. First, Russia’s Putin-inspired national confidence can be – and will be – translated into military action when the Kremlin decides that’s what’s needed. (Arguably, the Chechens learned that lesson several years ago.)

Second, the Western enthusiasm for intervening in other people’s conflicts (Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor) hasn’t survived the new millennium. (Afghanistan and Iraq were very different stories, which don’t need to be retold today.) The Nineties were the first post-Cold War decade, and post-Soviet Russia was in meltdown, so for a brief few years, the West had things pretty much its own way. Remember President Bush Senior’s “new world order”?

Then, on the very last day of 1999, President Yeltsin resigned. His successor, Vladimir Putin, lost no time in rebuilding Russia’s self-confidence and national pride. Steadily rising oil prices meant cash was soon pouring into the Kremlin’s coffers, and Georgia has seen over the past few days what that can mean for Russia’s neighbours.

And here’s a lesson that the Kremlin has learned. If the West backs breakaway Kosovo, against the wishes of the sovereign UN member-state Serbia, on the grounds that it’s the wish of the majority, then Moscow can back breakaway South Ossetia, against the wishes of the sovereign UN member-state Georgia, on precisely the same grounds.

Life was a lot simpler when everyone agreed that “territorial integrity” was a sacrosanct principle. But now that the UN, no less, has agreed on a new principle – the “responsibility to protect” people at risk – then why shouldn’t Russia protect the people of South Ossetia when they come under attack from Georgian forces? Isn’t that exactly what NATO did in Kosovo when ethnic Albanians came under attack from Serb forces?

Back in 1992, in the warm glow of those early post-Cold War days, the American academic Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in “The End of History”: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Now the warm glow has long gone. Not so much the “end of history”; more the beginning of a new, more complex, and arguably more dangerous, history.

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