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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Georgia's Lessons for Asia

August 19, 2008

Russia's latest conflict has troubling echoes for other multi-ethnic regions
Philip Bowring
Asia Sentinel
August 15, 2008

The crisis in and around Georgia may seem rather remote from most of
Asia. Yet there are issues and lessons from this latest fall-out from
the break up of the Russian/Soviet empire that are relevant in Asia,
which still faces border disputes and ethnic minority issues left
over from European and other imperialisms.

Of course, the Russians are proving once again that for thuggish
behavior they have few peers. Putin's 1999 destruction of Grozny, the
capital of Chechnya, comes to mind, as does the brutalization of
Budapest in 1956. Instead of merely pushing the Georgians back from
their attempt to regain control of the Russian-backed breakaway
region of South Ossetia they launched a brutal onslaught on civilians
as well as the Georgian military.

High on oil money, the Russians will get away with all this as the
rest of the world merely issues pious statements. The US is
infuriated because it strongly supported Georgia's hot-headed
President Saakashvili but is unable to give him any practical
help.  George Bush fulminates against his former pal Putin and
presidential contender John McCain makes bellicose but empty
statements, all to no avail.  Europeans wring their hands and
reluctantly admit that strategies such as pipelines through Georgia
and Turkey to avoid Russia are even more subject to political
disruption (by Kurds as well as Russia) than ones through Russia itself.

In the long run this is a very dangerous game for the Russians to be
playing. The patchwork of nationalities in the Caucasus are often at
each others' throats, but they do not have any great love for Russian
overlordship, actual or attempted. Chechnya could again revolt
against Moscow, predominantly Muslim Dagestan and Ingushetia have
potential trouble as do the various republics in southern and eastern
Russia where minorities are the majority.

Even the Ossetians, for whom the Russians now claim to be fighting,
are themselves a minority and other minority and border issues also
have an impact on larger neighbors, Turkey and Iran and the smaller
independent Caucasus republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Despite
Chechnya, post-Soviet federalism has not been a failure and has been
helped by Soviet-era infrastructure integration. But underlying
tensions remain and the demographics favor the minorities as Russian
numbers start to decline.

But the west has barely begun to admit that it also bears plenty of
responsibility for the problems in the Balkans and Caucasus that
followed the Soviet break-up and the collapse of Yugoslavia into
warring states. Europe in effect encouraged the emergence of
multi-states from the single entity that a wiser Europe devised after
World War I. Then Yugoslavia was created from bits of the defunct
Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires. It made a lot of sense. It may
have had three main religions – Catholic and Orthodox Christian and
Muslim and two scripts (Roman and Cyrillic) - but the spoken language
and social mores had much in common. Yet after the death of Marshall
Tito and the fall of Communism in Europe it rapidly degenerated into
civil war and genocide.

A united Europe not only made scant efforts to hold it together, but
in the name of "freedom of choice" last year furthered the process of
Balkanization by supporting Kosovo's break from Serbia, creating
eight states (Bosnia is in effect two) from the former Yugoslavia, an
act that infuriated Russia, which warned of serious consequences.
Those have now begun to unfold in Georgia.

"Self-determination" is a powerful concept at the root of all
independence movements. But drawing lines between a theoretical right
and a practical reality is very difficult. In post-colonial Asia
newly independent nations have naturally focused on maintaining
whatever territorial borders they inherited. Re-alignment of some
borders might have made a lot of sense – for example, Thailand and
Malaysia would both be stronger if Thailand has lost its three
Malay-Muslim southern provinces, as almost happened in 1945. It would
still make sense now – but is politically impossible.

Even the tiniest of border adjustments can take years to negotiate --
as witness the China-Russia dispute over a small island in the Issuri
River. In addition, minorities often get short shrift a nationalistic
majority makes second class citizens of minorities who yearn for
their own self-determination. Serbia, Israel and Burma are all
countries that have excelled in this regard.

In Asia there is no European Union supporting the break-up of others
in the name of self-determination. But do not imagine that similar
centripetal forces could not emerge in Asia.  For the foreseeable
future, China may be able to keep the lid on the demands of Tibetans
and Uighurs, but sooner of later some other power will want to
promote their demands for strategic reasons. And given Beijing's
crude approach to these minorities, animosities run deep and can
become endless sources of trouble for China. Can China loosen a
centralism rooted in its history of bureaucratic rule and Han
chauvinism as well as more recent Communist Party domination?

Burma's irredentist problems are vastly greater, with minorities
comprising perhaps 40 percent of the population. The military regime
has had some success in limiting the activities of the numerous
separatists groups -- Shan, Karen etc. What is unclear is how far any
future government in Rangoon, democratic or not, would deal with
these issues. What sort of federal system would hold the country
together while allowing large measures of autonomy? Or are the Shan,
for example, as entitled to their own state as the Georgians or the Kosovans?

Even India, with its multiplicity of languages and religions, has
trouble with minorities, particularly in the northeastern hill
regions. But overall de-centralism does seem to work quite well in
India, at least in terms of maintaining political unity even at cost
of efficient government. Indonesia may be finding the same now – and
not only in dealing with Aceh. Meanwhile, Timor Leste is showing that
even with oil, independent mini-states can create more problems than
they solve. Nor do divisions reluctantly conceded necessarily lance
the boils. Ethiopia has been in almost continuous war with Eritrea
ever since the latter gained independence in 1993 after the collapse
of the Marxist regime in Addis Adaba.

Indeed, Africa has countless border and tribal issues to contend
with. So it is of no help at all that the west, led by movie stars
and singers, gets incensed about Darfur with scant understanding of
the ethnic and economic complexities there or the history of the
Darfur Sultanate, which was incorporated into Sudan in 1916. China is
attacked for supplying arms to Khartoum while humanitarian activists
turn a blind eye to the supplies provided to the rebel groups via
Chad. The most likely sources of funds are the French, who have long
viewed Chad as a client ex-colony, and Israel, eager to keep up a war
that the western media likes to present as demonic Arabs fighting
innocent black Africans.

Even when small, newly independent states are not at war with each
other or oppressing minorities, they find cooperation very difficult.
The ex-Soviet Central Asian 'stans all have economic problems --
mostly centering on power and water -- and each can make life for the
others more difficult, or together they can work out a balance of
interests. Thus far there has been mostly stalemate.

Yet the most dysfunctional 'stan of all, Afghanistan, was once almost
a model of a loose federation of tribes and tongues held together by
a king and a desire to keep foreign powers at a distance.

The Caucasus region is an extreme example of the collision of
post-empire self-determination and multi-ethnic geography. But for
that very reason the issues in Georgia and with neighbors big and
small deserve close watching in Asia if only as examples of what not to do.
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