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Imperial Ambitions Need to be Blocked


The New
Caucasus War

Ambitions Need to be Blocked

By Andrey
Kolganov and Aleksandr Buzgalin
authors are members of the Central Council
of the All-Russian Social
Movement “Alternatives”)

To most
Russians, it was obvious from the beginning that the latest war in
the Caucasus began with an attack by Georgian forces on South
Ossetia, and that ultimately, it was unleashed on the initiative of
the US. To the West, meanwhile, it was just as clear from the outset
that the August war in the Caucasus represented an assault on small,
defenceless and democratic Georgia by huge, aggressive and
authoritarian Russia, replete with rockets and nuclear warheads. This
is what almost all the world media have asserted, and continue to
assert. To a significant degree, this is even believed by a
significant section of world civil society, including by
alterglobalists who for the most part have little sympathy for the US
establishment. Why is this? Why are there such directly counterposed
versions of the same events? Why, after nearly twenty years of warm
post-Soviet “friendship”, have Russia and the US so rapidly, and
in such radical fashion, taken up positions on the opposite sides of
the barricades? Are the politics of Putin and Medvedev so different
from those of Yeltsin? Has Russia really become either an “enemy of
democracy” (from the point of view of Westerners), or the “defender
and hope of the anti-imperial forces” (from the point of view of
Russian state officials)? What does the conflict in the Caucasus
signify? Is it the prologue to a new worldwide confrontation between
the “democratic” empire of the West (with its centre in the US)
and Russia’s mini-empire off on the periphery? Or is it “merely”
one in a series of local wars?


1. The Russian authorities
demonstrated long ago that they should not be believed. This time,
however, things are different.


We shall not be saying anything about the “democratic” and
“pacifist” nature of the Saakashvili regime; a great deal has
been written on this topic already. We must, however, address the
subject of Russia, since it is no accident that so many people in the
West are convinced of Russian aggression.

Concealed behind the fa?ade of the Yeltsin-Putin administration (and
Putin, we should recall, presents himself openly and officially as
the successor to Yeltsin) lies a thoroughly aggressive strain of
politics whose most vicious manifestation has been the bloody war
against the Chechen people. Tens of thousands have been killed, and
Grozny has been reduced to ruins…

Behind the fa?ade erected by our authorities are to be found not
just increasingly antidemocratic domestic policies, but also a
continuation of antisocial, hardline market “reforms”. In Russia,
Putin and Co. are putting into practice an economic and social model
that is more market-liberal even than in the US, and even less
socially oriented than in the US; in this sense, the Putins and
Medvedevs are more than worthy pupils of the Bushes).

The Russian authorities, as is generally known, have been responsible
for countless examples of “not quite precise” information.
Everywhere except in Russia, therefore, most people have refused to
believe it when the Russian authorities have for once told the truth:
the Saakashvili regime launched an aggressive assault on the citizens
of South Ossetia.

As will be explained later, the Russian authorities did not, of
course, tell the whole truth this time either. Their main assertion,
however, was correct: Georgian forces used rocket artillery to
unleash powerful blows against South Ossetia. They attacked Ossetian
villages and seized the capital, Tskhinvali. In the process, they
destroyed houses, hospitals and infrastructure. They killed more than
2000 peaceful citizens, including old people, women and children.
That is the truth; it has been documented, including by Western
journalists and reputable public figures. It is a truth which most
people in the West do not want to know about.

Here in Russia, almost everyone believed it immediately. This was no
accident either. For many years, people in our country have longed to
be able to take pride in their homeland. Most of us, meanwhile, have
never learned to conceive of our homeland as anything except the
state. Nor have we learned to understand the state as anything except
the president and the army. This is regrettable, and monstrous, but
it is a fact.

Russians have yearned for just authorities, for a “benevolent
tsar”. They have longed to be complicit in some good deed or other.
This is why they immediately believed the authorities, and why most
of our compatriots do not even want to hear about the
far-from-innocent actions of the Russian authorities in this

have written repeatedly about the sources of this yearning on the
part of the majority of Russians, and it is not this that we are
addressing here. What the discussion relates to in this case is the
fact that circumstances were such that the top authorities in our
country, largely as a result of the actions of Saakashvili and Bush,
were forced to act more or less justly and properly. The logic of
these spontaneously unfolding events simply did not leave the Russian
authorities any alternative. Who knows, perhaps some of them even
rejoiced in the chance to finally give effect to an ex-Soviet
nostalgia for things just and proper. Whatever the case, they started
defending people who really needed defending. They did this badly,
using appalling methods. They will try, and are already trying, to
make use of these basically justified actions to further their far
from justified imperial ambitions. But they did this, and willingly
or unwillingly, placed themselves in the position of an alternative
to the US and NATO. Did the Russian authorities want to enter into
opposition to NATO in such a radically new way? In our view, no. But
the logic of events forced them to take precisely these
steps, and to adopt this

Meanwhile the Russian people, hungering for at least something just
and worthy in the actions of their state, have given this state their
wholehearted backing.

repeat that such behaviour by the official Russian authorities was
almost certainly not the result of a consistently thought-out
position of defending justice and the right of nations to
self-determination in the world political arena. The Russian
authorities have never taken this position, and are not doing so now.
This position has resulted from the fact that the armed forces and
ordinary people, first of all, began acting
in a way that they considered just. They could not fail to resist the
mass extermination of a peaceful population. The Russian peacekeepers
in South Ossetia began taking armed action against the hirelings of
Saakashvili, in some cases fighting to the death. The commanders of
Russian army units gave them resolute backing. The majority of the
Russian people gave their immediate and unconditional support to
these actions….

Precisely how the Russian forces acted, and what happened in the
Caucasus on the second, third and subsequent days, is a different
question. A very important question, but a different one.

Almost nothing has been said in our country on this topic, but the
Russian authorities, who have long aimed to make Russia out to be
some kind of empire, and who have planned to do this precisely in the
Caucasus region, could not fail to exploit this situation. And
indeed, they exploited it.

How precisely? And were their actions always just?

In our view, no.

It is a fact that the Russian armed forces struck blows against
military bases outside the territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia
(in Gori, Senaki, Vaziani, and elsewhere). The results of these
strikes included the destruction of civilian installations, and there
were victims among peaceful residents.

It is a fact that the Russian armed forces significantly strengthened
their positions in Abkhazia, substantially altering the status quo as
it existed in early August.

It is a fact that the Russian authorities are seeking to exploit the
new situation to strengthen their geopolitical positions in the

These are facts. There are also numerous questions which must be
answered with facts ready to hand, and finding such facts has been
almost impossible.

There have been many lies in the West about this war, but have the
reports of Russian aircraft also bombing residential districts in
Georgia, and of Russian troops also killing peaceful civilians,
exclusively been lies?

Did the threat of an attack by Russian forces on Tbilisi, a threat
which forced the Georgian military and officials to flee from Gori,
represent a real danger?

Why, how precisely, and on the basis of whose decision, did Russian
forces penetrate beyond the borders of South Ossetian territory? Why,
in particular, did they appear in Gori? And so forth.

Then there is the supremely important question: were the actions of
Russia and (no less important) those of the US and Saakashvili
justified, and were they in the interests of the peoples of the
Caucasus and of Russia? What relation do these interests have to the
principles of international law?


2. Why the war began: the
international roots of the attack on South Ossetia


Given the degree of dependency of Saakashvili’s regime on US
support, there is no doubt that armed actions could be undertaken
only with the approval, and indeed on the direct instructions of the
overseas sponsors of the present-day Georgian authorities. The main
question, therefore, is not why Mikhael Saakashvili contrived a
bloody military adventure, but why this was necessary to the US.

The major reasons for such actions on the part of the administration
of Bush the younger are two in number. One of these is conjunctural,
and the other more fundamental.

The conjunctural reason is associated with the forthcoming US
presidential elections. The Republican administration decided to
allow its candidate to “show some muscle”. To judge by a CNN
poll, the overwhelming majority of Americans — despite the
propaganda lies — understand who in this case was the aggressor and
who the victim. Nevertheless, this same majority is highly
susceptible to the jingoist rhetoric of its politicians. John McCain
thus scored some points in the election race, though only a few, and
in this respect the calculations of the Bush administration were
borne out.

The more fundamental cause has to do with the situation in the
American and world economy. Here there are a number of components.

In the first place, it has long been customary for many US
administrations to react to economic difficulties by whipping up
international tensions. This makes it possible to inject additional
funds into the economy in the form of military spending, and to
justify a range of unpopular measures. Will such methods work this
time? It is doubtful. The US is already involved in two drawn-out
military operations, in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose prospects are
dim. The evidence suggests that the US is not about to give
Saakashvili any direct military backing, since this would mean a
military confrontation with Russia. Meanwhile, the Iraqi and Afghan
problems make such a confrontation undesirable; indeed, they give the
US an interest in having Russia maintain at least a benevolent
neutrality in the regions involved. Arms shipments to Georgia and
financial support for Saakashvili, together with loud political
rhetoric, would hardly succeed in creating the effect needed to
improve the economic conjuncture in the US.

Secondly, the US is not above using the situation against its
European partners. In the 1990s the NATO action against Yugoslavia,
by exacerbating tensions in Europe, allowed the US to slow the rise
in the exchange rate of the euro and the rapid strengthening of the
role of the euro as a reserve currency and as a currency for
international contracts. Now, with the decline in the US economy and
the growth of inflation, the European countries are losing part of
the export market for their goods. The European economy is
significantly more dependent on the state of its exports than is the
economy of the US; this is why the decline in the European economy is
already more severe than in the case of its US counterpart.

In these circumstances, one of the anchors capable of saving Europe
from sliding into a still more destructive crisis is represented by
the relatively low prices in the long-term contracts under which
Europe is supplied with energy and raw materials from Russia. To
maintain these prices, Europe needs good relations with Moscow. This
is why the US has made such efforts to exploit the tragedy in South
Ossetia in order to force its European partners into a sharp
worsening of relations with Russia. The calculations of the Bush
administration are relatively simple, and there is nothing new about
them: if there is a significant deterioration in the economic and
financial situation in Europe, this could provoke a flight of
European capital to America, where conditions appear to be at least
relatively more prosperous. This would allow the US to bolster its
tottering economy.

this trick work? So long as Europe is inclined on the diplomatic
level to make a show of Euro-Atlantic solidarity, even if not with
any special zeal, the US will want to do the same. It is quite
obvious, however, that Europe has no wish to go beyond verbal
rhetoric. This is why the US devotes such great attention to the new
members of the European Union and NATO, counting on them as clients
who are able to exert pressure on the “old” Europe. In
particular, this is why the US agreed so promptly to Poland’s
conditions for the stationing of elements of the anti-missile defence
shield on its territory. For the US, the chance to mobilise the
efforts of Poland and other “novices” to advance its positions in
NATO and the European Union is no less important than the
anti-Russian thrust of the anti-missile system.

chances that such schemes will be successful are not, of course, very
great. By no means least important here is the tough position adopted
by Russia; this has forced not only Europe, but even the US to show
caution in its practical moves, however sharp the tone of the
speeches and declarations. Why is Russia’s position on the South
Ossetian problem (and on that of Abkhazia) now so different from its
position in the first half of the 1990s?


3. Georgian aggression and the
position of Russia


There is
no doubt that Medvedev and Putin have taken into account the economic
and political reasons why a serious confrontation with Russia would
be extremely disadvantageous both for Europe and for the US. This is
one of the secrets behind the Russian leaders’ firmness. But there
are domestic political reasons as well.

In the
course of its economic recovery Russia has grown stronger both in
economic and in military respects, despite all the problems remaining
in the Russian army. The Russian ruling elite are now making use of
the fruits of a favourable economic conjuncture and of political
stability. The economic prosperity, however, rests on insufficiently
solid foundations. It is undermined by a series of profound systemic
problems that include the low technical level of Russian industry,
resulting in poor competitiveness; weak innovation, and consequently,
technological dependence on the West; extremely obsolete and worn-out
infrastructure, including the communal service networks in the towns,
the energy and transport systems, and so forth; the crisis of the
pension system; the loss of independence in food supplies; the
growing dependence of banking and corporate capital on Western
credits; and so forth.

threat of economic shocks is growing as the world economic crisis
unfolds, and as the possibility appears of a further fall in oil
prices. If this happens, the techniques of political manipulation
that have ensured political stability until now may not work any
longer. Hence the aggressive action by Georgia against the Ossetian
people has allowed the Kremlin to take on the role of defender of the
general interests of Russian society, and in the process, to win
additional support among the population (in the same way, it was
Putin’s actions in repelling inroads by bandits into Dagestan that
spurred the growth of his authority).

In the
present case, the conjunctural political interests of the Kremlin
administration and the interests of the overwhelming majority of the
Russian people have coincided. If we add to this the growth of
nationalist moods in Russia, something that has now been under way
for many years, the ruling circles have made a bet they cannot lose.
They are guaranteed of mass support, especially since in this case
the actions of the Russian authorities have in the main been

So what
has happened in South Ossetia? Aggression? Genocide? A stern rebuff
to presumptuous Georgian warriors?

Yes, all
these have been present.

But the
acute problem of the imperial ambitions and actions of Russia has
been present as well, and it remains a factor.

present, and remaining, has been a cynical behind-the-scenes game by
countries that describe themselves as free, democratic and civilised,
but which unhesitatingly sacrifice thousands of peaceful citizens to
their political calculations. This, undoubtedly, is the crime of the
ruling elites of the US, and of its satellites and allies.

importantly, there remain the people of the Caucasus, who are
compelled to live and develop under these circumstances.


The principled defence of the interests of peoples is more important


is no accident that geopolitics, like politics in general, is
considered a matter for “realists”. Here it is not considered
good form to speak of principles, morality and so forth. If people
mention such things, it is only in connection with the need to mount
one or another public relations action.

less has it been considered good form, especially in recent decades,
to speak of interests and of the socio-economic roots of policy in
the context of geopolitics. More and more, the discussion here is of
“states” and “elites”. Meanwhile, the state as an apparatus
of power is identified vaguely but universally with the people of a
country and with its territory, and the ruling socio-political forces
with the nation’s elite in the intellectual and moral sense….

But is
this really how things are?

The new
war in the Caucasus has once again shown the inadequacy of such a
view; in this respect, it continues the series of lessons from
Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Iraq (to speak only of recent decades).
In geopolitics, principled behaviour has well-known foundations.

nations or peoples want to be independent, and to have their own
statehood, they must not be opposed in this. Especially with force,
and especially from outside.

peoples and nations want to enter into unions, these unions must be
voluntary. And here the use of force, including economic coercion and
politico-ideological manipulation, is inadmissible.

imperial ambitions of any state or bloc of states must be resisted,
and decisively.

it must be remembered that nations and peoples are not homogeneous,
and that under modern conditions the majority of citizens are
excluded from the deciding of geopolitical questions. In some cases,
clan-corporate groups interwoven with the bureaucratic state
apparatus attempt to express citizens’ opinions. In other cases it
is the largest private and state corporate structures, concealed
beneath the trappings of liberal democracy. In yet other cases it is
semi-feudal, semi-capitalist structures, hiding behind one or another
set of religious ideas.

It must
also be remembered that any national grouping is subject to enormous
pressure (military, economic and ideological-political) from a group
of states and blocs (above all, but not only, the US and NATO) that
lay claim to imperial status.

This is
familiar to everyone, but no less pertinent for that fact.

for this reason, in geopolitics it is especially important for states
that claim to be cooperating justly and democratically in solving
international conflicts to clearly formulate the principles on which
they stand, while using all available peaceful means to help the
majority of “rank and file” citizens of one or another social
entity — South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Chechnya or Kosovo — to
formulate, express and defend their positions democratically and
independently. It is necessary to say out loud: what are they
seeking? Is it independence? Is it membership in a union? Which
union, with whom, and on what conditions?

It is
especially important to support this approach through blocking
external imperial or other pressure on peoples and nations that are
seeking independence. This is especially true if the pressure comes
from outside and takes the character of armed aggression. And if
those seeking independence ask for help. And if the UN and other
international institutions fail to make their presence felt…. If
all this is the case, then it is necessary to aid the people’s
struggle for independence, including through the use of force.

that, however, it is necessary to remove this force, promptly and
without fail. To cut off the head of the dragon is a matter of
conscience and honour. But to seat oneself in the dragon’s armchair
is categorically forbidden; there, one will grow horns, fangs and a

In this
sense, Russia acted justly when it supported the aspirations of South
Ossetia and Abkhazia to their independence.

But the
people who do not trust the Russian dragon are also correct. Seizing
the dragon’s throne by force, Russia has already turned from a
liberator into an invader.

If the
Russian authorities from the very beginning (and the beginning here
is the first Chechen war, if not earlier) had taken a firm position
of defending the right of nations and peoples to self-determination,
the support which these authorities enjoy in the present
confrontation would be incomparably broader. But that was not and is
not the case. Consequently, even international democratic forces that
are critical of the US do not trust the Russian authorities. And
consequently, national groupings within Russia that would have been
willing finally to trust the Russian authorities, have instead…
etc., etc.

Here we
would like to point to a few more important elements that bear on
various lessons of the August war.

however, a few words about international law and the principle of the
inviolability of national boundaries. Over the past twenty years the
world political map has changed repeatedly and radically. The borders
of the USSR have vanished along with the USSR itself. The borders of
the Federal Republic of Germany have moved eastward. On the territory
of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, independent states have arisen.
More than fifteen years ago, virtually all consistently democratic
forces (unlike the pro-Yeltsin “democrats”) took a stand in
defence of the right of the Chechen people to self-determination,
even though this would have been an obvious breach of the principle
of the inviolability of borders. Quite recently, the western
political establishment gave decisive support to a new breach of this
principle, concerning recognition of the independence of Kosovo.

the experience of recent decades shows that most of the NATO states
and Russia as well regard both the right of peoples to
self-determination and the principle of the inviolability of national
boundaries in cynical and pragmatic fashion. If it is advantageous
for them to support these principles, they will support them. If this
support is disadvantageous, the principles will be ignored.


5. A few words on the lessons of
the new Caucasus war


We shall begin by
noting that the inconsistent geopolitical approach of the Russian
authorities (who depending on what they find advantageous, either
support the sovereignty of “small nationalities” or oppose it)
dealt them a painful blow precisely when they did something really
useful, defending thousands of people in South Ossetia. The worst of
the situation is that this blow, in a sort of ricochet effect, is
also being felt by the citizens of the Russian Federation and by the
antifascist forces of most of the world’s countries.

Outside our country’s
borders, the Russian authorities are not trusted, and this is bad.
Far worse, however, is the fact that this mistrust extends to the
citizens of Russia, many of whom aided their Caucasus comrades
honestly and sincerely, at the expense of their energies and
sometimes their lives.

This is bad, and bad
for us. It is bad for those members of international civil society
who do not distinguish between the Russian authorities and Russian

Unfortunately, this
is a well-earned payback for the fact that most of us Russians did
not oppose the authorities’ imperial geopolitics earlier. And it is
a payback for the fact that many of us are now inclined to support
these geopolitics more strongly than ever.

It is also a payback
for the attempts, variously active and half-hearted, by our country’s
authorities to depict themselves as the rulers of a “mini-empire”.

It is high time for
us, and the country, finally to do something really worthwhile. Such
as giving not only Abkhazians and Ossetians, but also Chechens the
right to finally make a genuinely free decision on the question of
their independence. In doing this, we should stop relying on
behind-the-scenes trade-offs with the chiefs of various local clans.

We should make a
clear distinction between the people of Georgia and the authorities
that support Saakashvili, and we should help Georgians living in
Russia to feel at home. We should take a series of steps to develop
Georgian-Russian friendship in the fields of culture, education and
popular diplomacy.

The West as well
would be strongly recommended to start thinking about its policies,
about its lack of principle with regard to questions of the
self-determination of peoples. Also with regard to Russia, and to the
importance of distinguishing between the citizens of Russia and the
Russian authorities….

These are lessons,
however, which neither the authorities nor most of the forces that
practice Realpolitik are so far prepared to draw from their
experience. Neither in Russia, nor in the West. Here in Russia, the
tendency to support the state is growing ever stronger. In the West,
formal pretexts have appeared for at last finding the “enemy of
democracy”. Both of these roads lead into a dead-end.

We are certain that
after having merited a certain trust as a result of actions that in
their essence were genuinely correct, the Russian authorities will
hardly succeed in turning this potential for trust into reality. The
Russian authorities express the interests of forces which have
pursued, and most likely will pursue, policies which are
fundamentally antisocial, undemocratic and petty-imperial. With their
character as it is, the Russian authorities sooner or later will
squander this potential for trust. They will squander it in the same
way as the authorities of the Russian Empire, which in the late
nineteenth century supported the genuinely just struggle by the
Balkan peoples for their independence in the war against Turkey
(which at that time, we should note, enjoyed the support of Great
Britain, the super-empire of the nineteenth century).

The West will make
certain that the demonisation of Russia as a country (unlike
criticism of the Putins, Medvedevs and so forth) is monstrously
damaging not only for the peoples of Russia, but also for the West,
where the first volleys in a new cold war are strengthening
conservative right-wing political forces which even without this are
becoming increasingly influential. These forces support a
liberal-capitalist social and economic course; aggressively imperial
geopolitics; and increasingly conservative, authoritarian domestic
policies, crushing the rights and freedoms of individuals, of unions,
and of social movements.

All this means that
peaceful, consistently democratic, anti-imperial alternatives are now
more important than ever. So too is solidarity between the forces
advancing and defending these alternatives, in Russia and around the

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