Don't let Georgia down, Cameron
On the second anniversary of the Russia-Georgia war, the UK should follow the US lead and support Georgian sovereignty
7 August 2010
This weekend marks the second anniversary of the Russia-Georgia war. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, including the "reset button" being pressed by President Barack Obama in terms of relations between the US and Russia. George W Bush was an evangelist for the Georgian people. So was Senator Joe Biden, now the Democratic vice-president.
The switch from a Republican to a Democrat administration in Washington has seen a new, grownup politics on display. The reset button has yielded tangible benefits for global security, but has not been at the expense of Georgia or other US allies in the Caucasus and former CIS. Last month, Hillary Clinton visited Georgia to defy the notion that better relations with Russia means the White House is dumping Georgia. Far from it. The US secretary of state reaffirmed American support for the Georgian government, led by Mikheil Saakashvili, on her visit to Tbilisi. She made clear that "the US is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The US does not recognise spheres of influence".
The UK government should do likewise. Europe should continue to call for Russia to abide by the August 2008 ceasefire commitment, including by ending the occupation and withdrawing Russian troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to their pre-conflict positions.
Officially, this weekend marks the time when the war started; but the independent international enquiry into war noted that the build-up began several weeks before that when Russian tanks, warships and cyber attackers began manoeuvring towards an inevitable invasion of another sovereign state. It takes two to tango and make war, and Saakashvili fell into Russia's trap as he saw armoured divisions crossing his nation's northern borders and opened fire.
Sovereignty and nationhood has also been very much in the news in recent days. The international court of justice has ruled that Kosovo's declaration of independence (UDI) is legal, after many months of deliberation. It was the example of Kosovo that President Vladimir Putin of Russia used as an excuse to invade Georgia, on the bogus grounds that Russian forces were somehow protecting the "independence" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The judgment of the ICJ – while obviously welcome in Pristina – does, however, prove how wrong and illegal Putin's arguments two years ago were.
The foreign secretary, William Hague, was correct when he said last week that Kosovo "is a unique case and does not set a precedent". Of course the ICJ cannot make instant decisions, and had it decided the Kosovo "unilateral declaration of independence" (IDI) was legal at the time, it may have only fuelled Putin's determination to invade sovereign Georgian territory. His warped thinking was: if the Americans can support a UDI for Kosovo, then why should not Russia act to support similar moves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Warped thinking indeed. No parallel can be drawn between the self-determination of Kosovo and the Russian occupation of Georgia's regions.
Kosovo's UDI followed an international intervention aimed at stopping the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians – the vast majority of the population of the region – led by the central authorities of the Serbian Republic. In Georgia's case it was totally different. In the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia there was an ethnic cleansing of the vast majority of the population (ethnic Georgians and other ethnic groups) by Russian "peacekeeping" troops and their proxies, in the form of Ossetian militias. Therefore recognising the pseudo independence of the occupied territories – in fact, a rampant annexation by the Russian Federation – would validate ethnic cleansing as a tool to change international borders.
But let us not dwell so much on the past. There is good news to talk about in terms of the measures the Georgian government is taking to seek to live with the continued occupation of 20% of its territory (and that Russia remains in breach of all six points of Nicolas Sarkozy's peace plan negotiated two years ago). The government of Georgia has accepted it will not seek or expect to take back its sovereign territories by force. So instead it has drawn up a constructive plan to continue to develop trade, economic, cultural and language links with the occupied territories.
The Russians may be trying to give the Abkhazs and Ossetians Russian passports, but Georgia's minister for reintegration, Temuri Yakobashvili, must be praised for his innovative and ambitious "Action Plan for Engagement" document published this summer. The plan includes concrete steps to build bridges between the different communities. On a recent visit to Tbilisi, Cathy Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, welcomed the strategy as "a significant step forward towards a policy of engagement with the populations living in the regions". She is right with her analysis that "reaching out to the populations is a prerequisite for finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict".
And Georgia has been praised by the international community, financial institutions and NGOs for its progress on democratic reforms, including the opposition in drafting a new constitution and election code. The recent local and first mayoral elections in Tbilisi were a success, with an official report by election observers noting that "significant progress" had been made since previous polls. David Cameron defied the wiseacres of traditional diplomacy when he went to Georgia to stand shoulder to shoulder with this tiny but proud nation as it faced a Russian assault by land, sea and air.
Britain, like America, should now make clear that the Kremlin's annexation of the sovereign territory of a member of the UN and Council of Europe is not acceptable. Cameron must not let down Georgia now he is prime minister.