Bird Droppings from Estonia: Georgia on her mind (3)
Archived Articles 04 Sep 2008 Hilary BirdEWR
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My little Swift (piritaja or apus, apus), spread his scythe-like wings, deposited a great dropping on my hand on August 4th and flew away, before I got up, the next morning. The storks left last week. The summer is over.

Several of you have asked me about the spiteful little war in Georgia and I have tried to impart a flavour of the Big Picture in this issue of ‘Droppings’ although it has been written quickly and can only be considered a snapshot. The fate of Georgia has, in recent years become intertwined with Estonia and this is taken into consideration.

A word about geography. The Caucasus is a mountainous region between Europe and Asia that comprises Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and south Russia. North Ossetia is in the Russian Federation. The area includes the disputed territories of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. All are considered, like the Baltic States’ the ‘near abroad’ by Russia.

The roots of the current problems in all the ‘near abroad’ stem from 1989-1990 and the disintegration of the USSR when post-imperial security became an issue. The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe was signed during the last years of the Cold War to limit conventional weaponry in Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. The treaty proposed equal limits for the 16 members of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the 7 members of the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet Union and its satellites). NATO, it should be remembered, was formed after WWII and its first Secretary, General Lord Ismay, famously stated the organization's goal was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." A goal that it succeeded in doing throughout the Cold War and one, it seems, that is being resurrected.

Many of the problems that arise from the collapse of empire are the result of emerging ethnic tensions (c.f. India-Pakistan, the Balkans) and the end of Pax Sovieticus was no exception. Tension arose in the Caucasus between the Georgians (who are Caucasian in origin) and the Ossetians (who are Persian in origin). In 1989 –91 the Georgian Supreme Soviet ignored the requests of the Ossetians for an ‘autonomous republic’ within Georgia and an Ossetian separatist movement proclaimed South Ossetia as a Soviet Republic at the same time as Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia declared their independence from the USSR and established democratic governments in Northern Europe.

The USSR itself was dissolved in 1991 and, on Dec. 31st, individual republics assumed the role of government. The USA recognised countries in existence in 1933, the year the Americans established diplomatic relations with the USSR. Thus the Baltic States (who were independent at the time) were clearly eligible for recognition as nation states but the territories of the Caucasus - who had been an integral part of the USSR since the 1920s – were not. Ossetia became part of Georgia and a short nasty war erupted between Ossetian separatists and Georgia. 1,000 – 2,000 die and around 10,000 ethnic Ossetians from the ‘Republic of South Ossetia’ and from Georgia flee to North Ossetia, in the Russian Federation. 23,000 Georgians flee to Georgia. (Source: Human Rights Watch). A peace was concluded in 1992. The EU, the UN, the OSCE (Organisation for the Security & Cooperation in Europe), NATO and the Russian Federation refuse to recognise South Ossetia. An uneasy truce begins maintained by the Joint Control Commission, with reps from Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, and the Russian republic of North Ossetia. Each has the rank of a co-chair in the commission and maintains an equal number of peacekeepers in the conflict zone. The OSCE participates as an observer. The EU has a presence in South Ossetia through the Economic Rehabilitation Program (ERP), of which it is the largest donor.

Meanwhile, In Russia, Boris Yeltsin becomes the first popularly elected president of Russia after 74 years of communist single party rule. He comes to power on a wave of high expectations but never recovers his popularity after a series of economic and political crises in the 1990s. The Yeltsin era is marked by widespread corruption, economic collapse, and enormous political and social problems. By the time he leaves office, Yeltsin has an approval rating of 2% by some estimates. Russia, that had hoped to become a junior partner to the USA in a new alliance of capitalist super-powers, and even a member of the EU, is demoralised and humiliated. On leaving office Boris nominates ex KGB agent Vladimir Putin who later wins two presidential elections. Putin enjoys high approval ratings as the economy, fuelled by soaring world energy prices, booms; GDP increases six-fold (72% in purchasing power parity– source IMF), and average monthly salaries increase from $80 to $640 – a 150% rise (source: MSNBC). Russia provides the EU with a 33% of its oil and 40% of its natural gas. Germany relies on Russia for 34% of its oil and 36% gas and Slovakia, Finland and Bulgaria use Russian 90% gas that heats homes, cooks meals and powers factories. Business and public affairs become murkier and murkier. The government establishes chummy relations with the ‘oligarchs’ (businessmen who command enormous economic power). Russia becomes the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Critics of the regime disappear, the most well known is Anna Politkovskaya, writer and human rights activist who was shot dead on Putin’s birthday in 2006, some say as a gift for the president. Opposition parties are seriously nobbled at elections. Internal conflicts in Chechnya and Dagestan are repressed with brutal ruthlessness. Relations with the former Soviet Republics become increasingly volatile, vituperative and threatening as the ‘Singing Revolutions’ of the Baltic States are followed by similar revolutions in the South. The Baltic States join the EU and NATO in 2004.

The popular ‘Rose Revolution’ in Georgia takes place in 2003-4 after parliamentary elections are denounced by local and international observers, including the ISFED (International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy), as being grossly rigged. Mikheil Saak’ashvili, an avid Westerniser, became President. One of Saak’ashvili’s goals is to restore South Ossetia and Abkhazia (a region with a similar separatist movement) to Georgian control. The USA sells Georgia arms and sends military advisers. George Bush visits in 2005 and calls the country a ‘beacon of liberty.’ Georgia sends troops to Iraq (its contingent is the third largest) as a member of ‘The Coalition of the Willing’ and aspires to join NATO. Close relations, meanwhile, grow between Estonia and Georgia as Georgia adopts an open-door neo-conservative economic policy similar to that of Estonia.

The popular Orange Revolution in the Ukraine takes place slightly later in 2004 –5 after parliamentary elections are denounced by local and international observers as being grossly rigged. After widespread popular protest a second run-off, under intense scrutiny by domestic and international observers, was declared to be "fair and free" by the Supreme Court of the Ukraine. The results show a victory for the West-leaning candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who received about 52% of the vote, compared to Viktor Yanukovych's (the pro-Russian candidate) 44%.

Elections in South Ossetia take place in November 2006.The official separatist candidate is Russian backed Eduard Kokoitky. The South Ossetia for Peace (SOP) party field an alternative candidate for president - Dmitry Sanakoyev - who had fought on the separatist Ossetian side during the 1991-2 war between South Ossetia and Georgia but now supports the restoration of an autonomous republic within Georgia. Both results are iffy. An EU fact-finding mission in January 2007 finds neither of the two alternatives acceptable. South Ossetia remains in limbo.

Vladimir Putin makes an unequivocal warning speech about the Eastward expansion of NATO at the Munich Security Conference on February 10th, 2007. ‘I cannot help but mention the pitiable condition of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (see above). It took into account a new geopolitical reality, namely the elimination of the Warsaw bloc… NATO countries openly declared that they will not ratify this treaty, including the provisions on deploying a certain number of armed forces in [buffer] flank zones, until Russia removed its military bases from Georgia and Moldova… But what is happening at the same time? The creation of so-called flexible frontline American bases with up to five thousand men in each. [In 2002 the Bush administration set up an 18-month, $65m programme aimed at training and equipping Georgia's impoverished army in a move against the ‘War on Terror.’ In 2004 the US Ambassador says they are in Georgia to stay. See It turns out that NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders ... I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have anything to do with …ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them. But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary …on 17 May 1990 who said that: “the fact that we will not place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee”. Where are these guarantees? “

The next month, March 2007, the USA proposes missile defense plans in Europe. Russia threatens a "moratorium" on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Russia’s demands were not met satisfactorily at conference in Vienna in June and Russia suspends the observance of its treaty obligations in July.

At the NATO Summit April 2007 (2-4 April), Bucharest, the USA strongly supports membership for Ukraine and Georgia. The UK, France and Germany are opposed. Their view is that, although there was full theoretical support for both Ukraine and Georgia, these new nations are too undeveloped and unstable and it is not worth risking the wrath of Russia to admit them. Dmitry Sanakoyev of the South Ossetia for Peace party becomes head of a government in exile created by Georgia.

Amidst rising tensions between the EU and Russia, the ‘Bronze Night’ riot occurs in April 27th 2007 in Tallinn, Estonia. Rioting by Russian youths follows the removal of a Soviet war memorial. Estonians are branded ‘Fascists’ by the Russian press, insisting that the Red Army liberated the country in 1944 instead of replacing one repulsive regime with another. Komsomolskaya Pravda (the Young Communist League newspaper), currently the top-selling newspaper in Russia, publishes the following:

The Pskov division is not far off,
A short forced march and Tallinn falls.

They may say public opinion will be against it
Now that Estonia is in NATO.
So what? Who in NATO cares?
I will not hang on their words.
So what if they call it an occupation?
They will grumble and grind their teeth
Saying the flame of freedom is doused again.
But we will settle with those greedy swine
Who would sell their mother and father for gas.
I am not scared to tell you Estonians,
The EU will not be able to help you…

Komsomolskaya Pravda has a daily circulation ranging from 700,000 - 3.1 million (source: Soviet Encyclopaedia, re-published since 2004 by ukase of Tsar V). One can take comfort that this number is, at most, 0.00045% of the population: Russia has a population of 145,166,731 (2002 Census). This thoroughly unpleasant piece of aggressive doggerel has been translated by Edward Lucas – read it in Russian at Lucas’ book ‘The New Cold War,’ by the way, is indispensable reading for anyone interested in contemporary Russia.

War breaks out in South Ossetia during August 1-7 2008 with the Georgians on one side and the Ossetian separatists and their Russian allies on the other. Both sides blame each other for starting the violence. There are no independent sources to confirm either story. After days of heavy exchanges of fire and several fruitless attempts to arrange peace talks, the Georgian side had called a unilateral ceasefire. But then Georgia announced that it had sent troops into South Ossetia “to restore constitutional order in the entire region’ after reports of "a massive column of 150 units" crossing through the Roki tunnel (from North Ossetia in the Russian Federation) during the night. It was this that had triggered Georgia’s decision. Within hours Russia had launched its own "peace enforcement" operation in support, it said, of Russian peacekeepers and civilians in the region. The first air strikes on the Georgian town of Gori (birthplace of Joseph Stalin) were reported on the morning of 8 August, and over the following days convoys of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles were rolling into South Ossetia and on into Georgia.

Diplomatic activity starts on August 12 with an EU ceasefire, brokered by Nicolas Sarkozy the president of France (current holder of the EU presidency) bringing a formal end to the conflict, although each side accuses the other of breaking the agreement. On 12th August the presidents of Estonia and Lithuania, the prime minister of Latvia, Poland's president Lech Kaczynski and Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko all travel to Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia) to express their solidarity. The five leaders appeared together on stage at an anti-Moscow rally joining hands and holding them aloft to cheers from a crowd of tens of thousands of people.

The confusion and destruction go on. On Aug 13th a reporter for the Guardian posted on the spot stated that "the idea there is a ceasefire is ridiculous," and that he could see villages near Gori burning, amidst claims that Chechen, Cossack and Ossetian irregulars were advancing through Georgian villages. CNN reports that journalists had seen no Russian tanks in Gori , contrary to Georgian claims. According to Sky News, Georgia's deputy interior minister said "I'd like to calm everybody down. The Russian military is not advancing towards the capital." The same report said "Sky News correspondents confirmed there were tanks in Gori, which has suffered extensively from Russian bombing raids" The Arabic TV station Al Jazeera reported a "continuous build up" of Russian forces throughout the day. Russia's deputy chief of General Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn said sporadic clashes continued in South Ossetia between Georgian snipers and Russian troops. Meanwhile, Poland agrees to station interceptor rockets at missile silos as part of a US missile defence shield in the Baltic region.

Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state arrives in Tbilisi after the route of the Georgian army and invasion of Georgia by Russia. She tells reporters that the immediate goal is to get Russian troops out of Georgia. Washington rules out sending in troops. (Guardian). Two American naval ships and a Coast Guard cutter transport humanitarian relief supplies to Georgia on 21st August.

Meanwhile, in Northern Europe, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, arranges a hasty visit to the Baltic states, who are now very apprehensive of what Russia’s foreign policy may hold in store for them, on August 25th . France calls an emergency summit for September 1st to review relationships with Russia. The French president is, apparently, furious with what he sees as Russian double-dealing (source: BBC). Differences in approach between "old Europe" (such as Germany and France) and "new Europe" (such as Poland and the Baltics) over how to deal with Moscow are once again an issue. The Berlin Centre for Transatlantic Security opined that "Merkel must try to calm down some of the rhetoric because to my understanding the current policy of some new (EU) members like Poland and the Baltics is counter-productive, not only in respect to Georgia but also in respect to Russia." Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, commented that “the Russian leadership has chosen a route that means confrontation, not only with the rest of Europe, but with the international community in general.”

The plot thickens. On August 26th Russia recognises the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia drawing a parallel with Kosovo - a state carved out of Serbia as a result of Western military intervention in February 2008. The former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Sir Ivor Roberts, said: "Moscow has acted brutally in Georgia. But when the USA and Britain backed the independence of Kosovo without UN approval, they paved the way for Russia's 'defence' of South Ossetia. What is sauce for the Kosovo goose is sauce for the South Ossetian gander" (BBC). Support for Russia has come from the usual suspects. Belarus expressed its intention to recognise the two republics, and Venezuela has voiced strong support. Condemnation of Russia was voiced by reps from NATO, the UN, the OCSE, the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the G7, and the government of Ukraine. Russia claimed that its policy was supported by the SCO (the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a security alliance comprising China, Russia and the ‘Stans’ with India, Pakistan and Mongolia as observers) but this is not so. Instead (on 28th August) this important bloc of powerful emerging nations issued a statement saying that ‘The SCO states express grave concern in connection with the recent tensions around the South Ossetian issue and urge the sides to solve existing problems peacefully, through dialogue, and to make efforts facilitating reconciliation and talks." This is good news for those of us wishing to avoid a new Cold war.

The violence , meanwhile, went on. On August 28th Human Rights Watch researchers personally witnessed Ossetian militias looting and burning down ethnic Georgian villages . Satellite images show widespread fires in ethnic Georgian villages around Tskhinvali on August 10, 12, 13, 17, 19 and 22, when a lack of cloud cover allowed the satellites to view those locations. These fires were seen well after active hostilities ended in the area on August 10. (

At the meeting of the EU summit on September 1st most MEPs supported the need to respect Georgian territorial integrity, saying that Russia's reactions were disproportionate. They also called for a boost to the EU's neighbourhood policy (the EU has a ‘near abroad’ too) and a need to move away from dependence on Russian energy supplies. Most MEPs condemned Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while others questioned whether Georgia's action was appropriate. Talks on a new EU-Russia partnership agreement have been suspended until Russia withdraws its troops. The key conclusions included firm condemnation of Russia's unilateral action and support for every country to choose its foreign policy and its alliances. (full report at

So. Why did war break out at the time it did, considering that it been bubbling under for 16 years. I am inclined to see the situation as coming to a head as a result of too much hubris, both in Russia and it’s ‘near abroad.’ Hubris (ancient Greek ὕβρις) is a term to indicate overweening pride, self-confidence, superciliousness, or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution. In ancient Greece, hubris referred to actions that, intentionally or not, shamed and humiliated the victim, and frequently the perpetrator as well. It was most evident in the public and private actions of the powerful and rich.

Russia is the most obvious practitioner. Soaring oil and gas prices have put nearly $600 billion in its hard-currency reserves and our ursine neighbour, adopting a policy of divide and rule, seems to feel that ‘old Europe’ will decide that they care more about trade and energy supplies than they do about the ‘new Europe’ in Russia’s ‘near abroad.’ And there is certainly much that divides east from West. The tone of most eastern European government is not the polite liberal tone of ‘old Europe.’ Whilst quickly adopting fast cars, flashy sunglasses and a plethora of beauty parlours, the ex communist countries have been slow to invest in human resources and social welfare – conditions in children’s homes are made tolerable by the folk who run them (and some do really great work) but there is little policing of standards, residential homes for the old are just as hit and miss; prisons are still seen, in the main, as a place where people are punished and not reformed; the Roma (Gypsies) live in dreadful conditions everywhere. Animal Welfare is in its infancy. Gay rights are poorly understood and downright unsupported in some countries. But there is little political pressure for effective government. Many people vote with their feet – they have waited for freedom, why should they stay for the slow process of sensible, structured development to unfold when the West, paved in gold, is out there? Witness the massive influx of Poles into the UK. The effects of these migrations, the greatest since WWII, are still unfolding. In the Baltic States the exodus (mostly to Finland) is not the only factor involved but it has contributed to an overheating in the economy, already weakened by a capitalist ‘bust’ in the USA. Fewer workers has meant higher wages but without higher production. Imports are up, exports are stagnant. Estonia’s growth rate has been negative for two quarters – a classic recession. There is a flight of foreign investment. This could, of course, be a chance for the country to think carefully about the neo-conservative economic policies (and the fair weather business friends that go with it ) that have proved unsustainable. The banking sector, run by Scandinavia, is solid and the tax system favours business but how will our government persuade folk to 1) stay 2) return from abroad 3) graduate from school. And one of the results of the Ossetian show down must surely be a loss of confidence in Estonia as a secure area for investment.

‘New Europe’ has made political as well as economic mistakes. A friend who knows a member of the Saak’ashvili administration tells that the Georgian president expected the Americans to send troops in the event of war breaking out. But, how could people brought up in the USSR, a militaristic regime where even the feeblest member was instructed how to use a Kalashnikov rifle, be expected to learn Western-style diplomacy overnight? There is not yet a generation in Eastern Europe that has matured under western style democracy; the oldest (from the Czech Republic) is 21 years old. Here in Estonia some hold that the Russian bear is out for the count. The bear is certainly not the animal it was in its Soviet heyday but it’s far from belly up with its paws in the air. Finally, I cannot restrain a personal opinion: I do not have a very high opinion of any of the actual leaders involved with the Russia-Georgia- Estonia triangle. Vladimir Putin is too aggressive (he’s short, like Napoleon), Dmitry Medvedev is a (short) nobody, Saak’ashvili is too hot headed (and his record with regard to human rights tarnished after his violent suppression of the opposition in Georgia last November) and our dear Estonian Andy Ansip (remover of tin men) is best described as dim. And the current leader of the USA is best not mentioned at all, except to say that he makes our Andy seem like Albert Einstein. Oh, for a great statesman or stateswoman of intelligence and vision to lead our dear Europa !

Just how threatening, in military terms, is Russia? Edward Lucas’ book is reassuring. Whilst describing Russia as an intimidating military power with a large army, excellent special forces and some remarkable modern weapons he still opines that ‘even thriller writers find it hard to combine the Kremlin posing a direct military threat to NATO.’ America spends around 25 times more on defense. With regard to the rather worrying stockpiles of nuclear weapons Lucas opines that ‘Once the fear was that Russia, with a surprise attack, could win a war against NATO. Now the question is whether America – at least in theory- could knock out Russia’s entire nuclear arsenal in first strike.’ Lucas speculates that this weakness ‘may make the Kremlin worryingly jittery.’ Is this a reason behind the display of muscle over Georgia?

So. Will the author of ‘Bird Droppings’ and her friends find themselves slurped into Russia? Will anyone care? Most of the friends will leave rather than submit to Russification but I was rather hoping to spend my declining years in Tartu. Oh well. On 14th August a coach load of intrepid Estonians, including the author, rattled their way jauntily into the great maw of the growly bear and if you think we sneaked in with cap in hand, think again. The night before, I am proud to say (although I doubt the wisdom somewhat) the Georgian flag had been raised high at the opening of Tartuffe, the open-air film festival in the town hall square, in support of our friends. In the same way the front of our tour bus was festooned with pennants – ‘Estonia, Slovenia and Poland’ – proclaiming our EU credentials. The trip was wonderful (more later) but so surreal with the TV pouring forth cr*p. I felt rather re-assured that the roads were so bad (it took us four hours to negotiate 200 kilometres from Pskov to Novgorod) that a tank could disappear into the potholes. When I got back the jokes were already beginning in true Estonian gallows humour style - Q: Who won most medals during the Olympic Games in Beijing? A: Russian soldiers in Georgia. And finally, the world’s most famous Ossetian, Valeri Gergiev was due to conduct the Mariinski orchestra in Tallinn in 1st September.

He was replaced by Kristjan Järvi of the famous Estonian musical family. So, an Estonian conductor led a Russian orchestra on the podium of the Estonia concert hall playing world-class music for a civilized world. A fine gesture and a fabulous evening. The audience was ecstatic and conductor and orchestra were given a standing ovation. Where there’s life there is hope! Elagu Eesti! Long live Estonia!
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