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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Georgian Milosevic?

Alice asked me what I thought of a recent New York Review of Books article by Robert English about Georgian nationalism. My thinking about a response elicited the following letter:

To the Editors:

Robert English ("Georgia: the Ignored History", November 6 2008) rightly complains that historical context has been missing from analysis of the Russian-Georgian war, and he does readers a service by relating the horrible nationalism of Georgia's first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Without this context, readers might indeed think that the Georgians in the initial post-Soviet period were entirely innocent victims of separatism and Russian imperialism.

But this history as explained by English is little better than the version he denounces; he too omits important context.

English is eloquent when describing the oppression of the ethnic Abkhaz end Ossetian minorities, including Gamsakhurdia's barring their political parties and taking over an Abkhaz university. But the past pain suffered by Georgians does not receive similar attention, despite this pain being no better known to casual readers.

We hear in detail of threats, sabre-rattling, denunciations, and destruction, all suffered by Abkhaz and Ossetians. Amidst all this, a reader might miss the brief words English devotes to the suffering of Georgians, when he mentions that Russian-supplied Abkhaz separatists "eventually forced over 200,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes".

Ponder that sentence fragment for a moment! English goes to great pains to ensure a reader will know some people's suffering, but not others. He even names Slobodan Milosevic twelve times in comparing him to Gamsakhurdia. But the hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees are never compared to forcibly displaced Kosovars or Bosnians, and it is hard to believe English would not invoke ethnic cleansing if it had been Abkhaz or Ossetian who were forced out instead.

Per English, "civilian killings" are only killings of Abkhaz or Ossetians by Georgians, not Georgians by Abkhaz or Ossetians or Russians; whereas in reality both have happened, in significant numbers.

English presents quotes from Georgians from the time that are shrill, hateful and nationalistic--and he is absolutely right to point to the horror of this. The other side, in contrast, is represented by an unnamed Ossetian leader who tells English simply that "We could have left the [Soviet] Union together as brothers." This is an absurd juxtoposition. People need not be angels to deserve independence, of course, but the idea that Abkhaz and Ossetian separatists were forced by circumstance to evict hundreds of thousands of Georgians is ridiculous--no less so in this case than in so many other excuses for mass evictions and the suffering of thousands of families at gunpoint.

English also cherry picks events and quotes in order to suggest that Gamsakhurdia's views held, and hold, greater sway in Georgia than has been true. English would do well to mention that after his election, Gamsakhurdia was condemned as a dictator by much of Georgia's citizenry; that his own prime minister, and several ministers, resigned to protest his authoritarianism; that Eduard Shevardnadze's Georgian government which succeeded him, as well as, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia--four powers with quite a few disputes between them--all cooperated to oppose Gamsakhurdia's bid to return to power; and that he has not been championed by any significant party in Georgia for a decade.

Current president Mikhail Saakashvili did ceremoniously rehabilitate Gamsakhurdia in 2004, in the course of moving his remains, but Saakashvili's speech made clear his intention to close the book on a disgraceful part of the nation's past; the circumstances of Gamsakhurdia's apparent suicide had long been disputed and there were even lingering rumors that he was alive and still posing a threat.

I have worked as a consultant for the Saakashvili administration, and keep up with Georgian politics, and so I know what English surely knows, though he's not about to clue readers in--that the Saakashvili government has sharply departed from Gamsakhurdia's treatment of ethnic minorities. College entrance examinations are now being conducted in Russian, rather than just Georgian, so as to accommodate the many Russian speaking Armenians, Azeris, Abkhaz, Ossetians, and other minorities. New colleges are being opened in ethnic minority regions of Georgia, with affirmative action programs to ensure they serve the local communities. Much of Georgia's Millennium Challenge grant is being spent on infrastructure in the mostly ethnic Armenian south. Most Ossetians living in Georgia's territory actually live outside South Ossetia, in the rest of Georgia, and there is a very high rate of Georgian-Ossetian mixed families. And, most crucially, the Saakashvili government has long offered a peace settlement to both separatist regions that would give their ethnicities perpetual power over the Georgia majorities within their regions and local control of nearly all matters of government. This may not be an acceptable plan to Abkhaz or Ossetians, but it is a serious proposal that does much to recognize their need for protection and autonomy. The Georgians also have a standing offer to open talks with the separatists without preconditions; Russia has denounced such talks, and the breakaway regions have steadfastly refused to enter them. Meanwhile, the regions' economies have been in shambles for fifteen years, the poor organization of their pro-war governments has made them havens for international trafficking in arms and people, and hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees continue to live displaced, facing bullets if they attempt to peacefully return to homes their families often built.

I imagine a reader of English's one-sided history begins to suspect that there is a litany of complaints and pleas for brotherhood that a Georgian can articulate as well. So why this strange document, straining so hard to spin history to a readership otherwise unfamiliar with the dates and names involved? I suspect the answer lies toward the ends of English's essay, when he suggests Russia's attack on Georgia was not offensive but defensive (even "preemptive"), because of Georgia's NATO aspirations and the American policy of "encircling" Russia (as if China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus were mere US client states, or Georgia's 5 million people an Asia-spanning mob). Make of that argument what you will; to me it smacks of apologia.

The worst part of this is that the region really is too nationalistic, Georgians included--too unwilling to appreciate the earnest ethnic national aspirations of others, and in need of wise counsel and international assistance to resolve their frozen conflicts. The United States has been inconsistent in playing this role in the wider region, to say the least, but our Georgia policy has been led by an eminently talented and widely trusted State Department team, who have traveled to the separatist regions numerous times, established working relationships with all sides, and certainly do not fit English's fantasy of "American officials who embrace this simplistic narrative" of "blindly follow[ing] the Georgian nationalist line in discounting Ossetian and Abkhazian grievances". No one presenting an evenhanded history of the region could compare United States policy to Russia's disastrous policy of proxy wars, not to mention recent non-proxy war.

-Benjamin Wheeler
Brooklyn, NY
Oct. 28, 2008

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