Blaming the Victim in Georgia

Writing in the Weekly Standard Matthew Continetti writes an editorial on behalf of the magazine denouncing those who would blame the victim concerning Russia’s attack on Georgia:

Blaming the victim is nothing new. But, in the days since Russian tanks first rolled into democratic Georgia, we have been rather surprised at the alacrity with which some–on both the left and right–have blamed that tiny country for the onslaught, and the West for encouraging Georgia’s liberalization. That encouragement, it has been argued, led Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili to believe he could use military force to quell insurgents in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, thereby all but guaranteeing Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s retaliatory assault. This is not just a foolish argument, it is a pernicious one. It masks the true nature of the conflict and assumes that all the actors in this drama are moral equals. They are not.

Putin has been pressuring Georgia for years. Indeed, Russian despots have long considered the southern Caucasus, along with Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, their personal stomping grounds. There is no need to rehearse the long, complicated, and bloody history; suffice it to say that the tradition did not end with the Soviet empire. In the Caucasus, for example, Russia almost certainly had a hand in the fall of Georgian nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1992, as well as that of Azerbaijan’s president Abulfaz Elchibey in 1993. Both were replaced by pro-Moscow strongmen. But Russian hegemony over Georgia was upset in November 2003, when the pro-Western democrat Saakashvili came to power.

Saakashvili cuts a colorful figure. And his rise set a powerful example. The Rose Revolution that ushered in a new era for Georgia was the first of the “color revolutions” bringing youthful democrats to Russia’s near abroad. That is probably why Putin, who on his borders seeks client autocracies, has done so much to undermine it. He has used Georgia’s territorial conflicts with the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to weaken Saakashvili personally and undermine the Georgian people’s national aspirations. To that end, Russia began to distribute passports to the Abkhazians and South Ossetians as early as 2004. It used its power to appoint Russians and pro-Moscow locals to positions in the territories’ independent governments. And it built up its military presence in both places under the guise of peacekeeping operations.

At first the warfare was economic. “Trouble started brewing in 2006,” writes Edward Lucas in The New Cold War, “when from March to May Russia imposed an escalating series of import restrictions, first on wine, vegetables, and fruits; then on sparkling wine and brandy, finally Georgian mineral water–at the time one of the country’s most important exports.” That July, Lucas continues, “Russia abruptly closed the only legal land border crossing” with Georgia. It was the equivalent of a blockade. Georgia had done nothing to provoke these punitive measures. It was Saakashvili and democracy that offended Putin.

On September 27, 2006, Saakashvili ordered the arrest of four Russian GRU officers whom he accused of plotting a coup. He paraded them in front of the cameras. Moscow was not amused. Putin recalled his ambassador from Tbilisi and, according to Lucas, “cut postal, phone, and banking links with Georgia.” Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, announced a price spike specific to Georgia. The following month Putin’s government began to detain and expel ethnic Georgians living in Russia–more than 2,300 of them, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Some were Russian citizens. “Russian authorities denied basic rights to many of the detained,” the authors from Human Rights Watch wrote, “including access to a lawyer or the possibility of appealing the expulsion decision taken against them. Most were given trials lasting only a few minutes. Georgians were held in sometimes appalling conditions of detention and in some cases were subjected to threats and other ill-treatment. Two Georgians died in custody awaiting expulsion.”

In March 2007, Russian military forces attacked villages in Abkhazia that had recently fallen under Georgian control. This was an illegal act, and when the United Nations investigated the incident Moscow did not cooperate. Another attack–one that failed–occurred in Georgia proper, near Tbilisi, in August 2007. Russian intransigence followed that incident, too.

Then, in April, Putin issued an order that, according to Johns Hopkins professor Svante E. Cornell, treated Abkhazia and South Ossetia “as parts of the Russian Federation.” Also around this time, Russian MiGs began destroying Georgian unmanned aerial vehicles. Russia increased its troop deployment in Abkhazia. And in July, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was about to visit Georgia, Russian jets flew over South Ossetia in a show of force. Also that month, thousands of Russian troops went to the Georgian frontier for so-called “training exercises.” According to the New York Times, Russian cyberattacks on Georgian computer networks began “as early as July 20.”

Such was the pattern of Russian belligerence prior to Saakashvili’s commitment of ground forces to South Ossetia in early August. Russia views that decision, of course, as its casus belli. But even here, the story may be more complicated than Georgian provocation and Russian reaction. For his part, Saakashvili wrote in the Washington Post last week that “a massive assault was launched on Georgian settlements” in South Ossetia just hours after his government sent a peace envoy to the territory.

“Our government then learned,” Saakashvili went on, “that columns of Russian tanks and troops had crossed Georgia’s sovereign borders. The thousands of troops, tanks and artillery amassed on our border are evidence of how long Russia had been planning this aggression.” So Saakashvili sent in his troops, and the war began.

Whatever the precise sequence of events, however, nothing Saakashvili did provided a reason for Putin to invade Georgia proper; or to bomb Georgian targets in the days after the initial ceasefire; or to charge Saakashvili with crimes against humanity; or to attempt regime change in a democracy that abides by international norms and seeks integration in the liberal international order. Nothing.

Nor is it true that the ultimate blame for this conflict lies with the United States and its NATO and EU allies. It is true that these nations and alliances encourage democratic governance, free markets, and the promotion of human rights in all countries, including those in Russia’s near abroad. And it may well be that Russia sees many of the independent states on its borders, so long under its hegemony, moving in a liberal direction. But why does Russia feel threatened by this? And what say ought Russia to have over the decisions of other governments to choose freedom and prosperity?

No one forced Georgia or Ukraine or Poland or Latvia or Lithuania or Estonia to move toward Europe and the United States. The elected leaders of those countries decided for themselves. And they made that decision partly because they understand the distinctions between dominance and submission, freedom and slavery, prosperity and penury, aggression and comity. They lived those distinctions. Is it too much to ask that we learn from our friends, and call a culprit a culprit and a victim a victim?

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