Sunday, August 10, 2008

Enter the arc of mountainous agony

Looks like we are going to need this map. Click on it for a somewhat larger version. Click your browser's "back" button to return to the post.

There's a war on in another of those distant places people in the United States don't know about and our government is, as usual, not an entirely disinterested bystander.

Some basics: the country of Georgia is one of the successor states that emerged out of the break up of the Soviet Union. This Southwest Asian Orthodox Christian statelet, located south of Russia between the Black Sea, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, was absorbed by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. In the communist era, it was a decidedly non-autonomous republic, most notable as the birthplace of Stalin.

Since becoming an independent republic after 1991, the state has been something of a protectorate of the United States. Our government has so far failed to persuade reluctant Europeans to bring Georgia into NATO. (Maybe someone knows enough not to embrace trouble they can't handle?) Georgia had the largest contingent of occupation troops in Iraq after the U.S. and Britain, though its government has rather desperately sought to bring them home to face the Russian army in the last few days.

South Ossetians are an ancient demographic group in Caucasus Mountain region, Orthodox Christians who speak an Iranian Indo-European language -- and who decidedly do not identify with the Georgians inside whose state they found themselves. Some 70-90 percent of them carry Russian passports. Since 1991, there's been a good deal of ethnic cleansing in the area, sending Georgians south and Ossetians north.

But Georgia, with U.S., European and U.N. support, has refused to recognize Ossetians separatist aspirations. Russia, never happy with being surrounded by U.S. supported statelets (however demographically distinct and historically ancient), has been propping up the South Ossetian separate entity. The President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, decided the opening day of the Olympics would be a great time to take back the disputed territory; the Russians threw their enormously superior force into the fight; and as of today the question has become, will the Russians carry the war into Georgia proper?

Then there is Abkhazia (see that map), where the Georgians claim the Russians are also attacking. Abkhazians speak Abkhaz, and comprise a large (how large is disputed) fraction of this bit of the state of Georgia. They accuse Georgians of attempting ethnic cleansing in the area -- and the Georgians respond that the Abkhazians were the aggressors. Interestingly, the area's economy consists of its desirability as a destination for Russian tourists. It's a resort. Russia has supported the separatist ambitions of the Abkhazians and 80 percent of them carry Russian passports.
Where’s the U.S. in all this? Getting its ass bit by its inattention to on-the-ground grievances, including those of the Russian state which doesn't like being encircled by hostile U.S. clients. There is not a lot the U.S. can do to protect the rash Georgians at this point. Our administration is currently trying for a U.N. resolution -- and Russians, Ossetians, Abkhazians, and Georgians are getting chewed up in the great power meat grinder.
I went to the trouble to research this post which probably no one wants at all because I think in the next few years people in the United States will be forced to learn the geography and history of Central Asia, just as the last few years have forced many of us to attempt at least a nodding acquaintance with the core states of the Middle East. The war the U.S. sponsors in the failed state in Afghanistan is going to move front and center. The whole region, in a band from Turkey east to through Kashmir, is profoundly unstable and the U.S. is mucking about in it ignorantly and incompetently. Readers can expect more pre-primer efforts like this one in the days to come. I think I'll label the series "arc of mountainous agony" in the tags.


Jane R said...

Thank you!

johnieb said...

A good, helpful, and timely report: thank you.

Judy said...

Appreciate you efforts, keep th information coming.

Nell said...

How I wish I thought you were wrong about the growing need for Central Asian primers...

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