South Ossetia Border Issue Is the News But Not the Story

S54534534534What is going on here in Georgia, a country of never-ending flux, reform and intrigue? Various NGO-backed youth organisations and other ‘vested interests’ have begun conducting protests. This is not unusual in itself, but they are working at the behest of people like Mikheil Saakashvili and Carl Bildt, who don’t exactly have good reputations in Georgia. Worse, they are being funded to do so.

The latest issue they are protesting about is the dispute over the borderline between Georgia proper and the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which gained a semblance of independence in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008. A lineup of politicians and NGO types have closed ranks to make provocative statements about what is happening there and gain political ground. Individually and collectively they are making scripted statements like the following:

“Steps that could be perceived as provocative must be avoided, as must any action that is detrimental to ongoing efforts to stabilise the situation, in an atmosphere conducive to longer-term conflict resolution and regional stability.”

This is the usual doublespeak, which we are left to infer things from because those things can’t actually be said. The actual crux of the matter is, what is actually going on, and who is doing what to whom and why?

Scripted statements are par for the course

It is entertaining to read press reports on this issue. Both the Georgian and Western press are talking about “Russian-backed occupying forces”. Who exactly are they? The Ossetians who already live in the district, and always have done? They can’t be Russians if they’re being “backed” by the Russians, but if they are Ossetians how can they be called an “occupying force” in what Georgians consider to be Georgia by Georgians who consider them to be Georgian?

This confusion is understandable, because it is conflict itself which a lot of people are interested in, not the claims of either side. Various peacemakers, those who make money off conflicts, are calling for restraint and for the use of existing mechanisms such as the Geneva International Discussions and the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) to defuse ongoing tensions. Yet, as often happens, their actions on the ground are perceived by both insiders and some in the international community as highly suspect.

Andro Barnovi, leader of one of the NGOs, took a party of his supporters and local media whores, who are more of a story than anything they write about, to the border region. The locals they claim to be defending told them, in polite language, to “go forth and multiply”. They were also called cowards by the Georgian farmers living in the contested border zone, who are wise to what the NGO and media types are up to, and whom they are really working for.

“They come, make noisy statements, boast and then turn away and go back to Tbilisi, while our situation here gets worse. We are no longer allowed to even work on our land,” said one of the farmers. “If they (journalists) are really so brave, why don’t they come and stay here with us. We now have to start our harvest while under serious risk. If Andro Barnovi and others are really so brave, we urge them to come here and help us with the harvest,” another told InterpressNews.

It has not gone unnoticed that the ‘STOP Russia’ meetings in Tbilisi, organised and paid for by outsiders, NGO players, have coincided very conveniently with recent events in Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as if all these diverse peoples are suddenly singing from the same hymn sheet. The locals also now that Barnovi, Founder and Leader of the Movement for Independence and EU Integration, is also Chairman of the Board of the Saakashvili Presidential Library and a Member of the Political Council of the United National Movement. He was also Head of the Presidential Administration during 2013 and served as a Deputy Minister of Defence back in 2011/12.

It was, of course, Barnovi’s beloved Saakashvili who moved into South Ossetia and killed his own citizens with cluster bombs. These people don’t want an end to the conflict. The more people suffer, the more political capital they can gain from accusing others of that suffering.

Whose issue?

It is now being reported Russian troops in the Georgian breakaway state have installed signs marking the “state border” further inside Georgia proper, into territory that Russia, Georgia and the international community acknowledge as entirely Georgian, not part of the contested region.

This has, understandably, been seen negatively in Georgia. “The main plot of this Russian ‘Borderisation Business’ is to cut and incapacitate the highway between Eastern and Western Georgia. That is their primary strategic aim. One more such step and it will seriously destabilise the country, as the highway is the strategic artery that keeps the country’s heart beating,” read a typical opinion piece.

What those who read these stories, valid in themselves, do not realise is who is behind them. At the time of his attempt to reclaim South Ossetia in 2007 Saakashvili was a client of Swedish PR firm Kreab. The chairman of this company is Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister who was foreign minister at the time of the intervention. This is the same Carl Bildt who makes public speeches saying that “Orthodoxy is the enemy” and threatens international sanctions against Georgia if it keeps prosecuting members of the former government who are the only people who could have been responsible for crimes which have undoubtedly been committed. Senior Kreab staff continue to freelance and backstop for Saakashvili and his minions, not only in Ukraine but in Georgia.

The money to pay for all this continues to come, as it always has, from the United States. The US is paying the salaries of the fugitives from Georgian and international justice now gathering round Saakashvili in Odessa, but not the other staff who work there. This self-proclaimed ‘Georgian government in exile’ also spends a significant portion of Odessa’s budget on advertisements in international media outlets such as BBC Worldwide and CNN, just as they did, again using American money, in Georgia.

The more issues there are, the more the retained firms can justify their fees. That is what these stories are really about, not the real and justified concerns of Georgians.

What does it mean?

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, paid an official visit to Georgia on July 20-21. This was described as a ‘social call’. Interestingly enough, it coincided with a civil rally against the “pro-Russian course” of the present Georgian government, organized by the United Nations, which would presumably have little interest in the matter.

Tusk has been invited to make social calls several times before, but this visit was not a long-delayed one but a recently organised, one-off trip. The most probable cause of this visit was the recent statement of Georgian Prime Minister Gharibashvili that, “Destructive forces inside the country are trying to cause tension especially before the European Youth Olympic Games.” These “destructive forces” are the Saakashvili-supporting NGO and media forces who have been inserted into Ukraine and going to the disputed border. Tusk wanted to know exactly what Gharabishvili meant by saying, “this is a purposeful anti-state action that needs to be punished”.

Whenever any civil conflict arises outsiders try to twist it to fit their own agenda. If someone complains about the drains, some will say they are calling for all the drain cleaning companies to be nationalised or all the council workers to be sacked. The dispute over South Ossetia is real and genuine, and causes real problems for real people who have every right to protest about these. But that does not mean they want the solutions any particular side is offering, or agree with the rest of that side’s agenda, whatever it may be.

South Ossetia is being used as a convenient issue by those who are trying to destroy Georgia from within, just as they did before they were booted out of office. They do not care for anyone but themselves – either they are furthering their own misguided belief that they are acting of their own free will, and therefore their actions are justified, or they are actively seeking to bring yet another duly-elected government down, regardless of the consequences. These are hardly European values, but it is Donald Tusk and his friends who are supporting these people, and would find another excuse if the Ossetian conflict was actually resolved.

How clever are the Russians?

One further point to consider is – how clever are the Russians? By banging a few sticks in the ground they have drawn all the usual suspects around, leaving the Georgian authorities with no option but to arrest them. This will provoke further conflict between Georgia and the Europe it wants to join, making concerted action against the effective Russian occupation ever-more difficult.

Saakashvili and his gang know that this is what is going on, but regaining power and retaining their funding are their concerns. They had years in power to resolve the Ossetian issue. Having only made things worse they won’t give the present government the opportunity to achieve anything in that region. The locals have fully justified concerns over the very existence of this border, but no one is listening to them, just waiting for them to say something which can be used for their own ends.

We all saw what happened in Ukraine when the grievances of protestors were turned into something else because the EU and US wanted that, and who bears the consequences now. The dispute over Ossetia is serious and the extreme difference in the various sides’ positions does not to be at least reduced for the public good. But the stories now appearing are about bringing back criminals, not helping the Ossetian people, whichever side you are on.

Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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