Ethnic conflict should not be exploited for political gains

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Last month, the Russian Federation added an unexpected twist to the realm of international politics, currently inundated with news about the U.S. presidential campaign. The country attacked South Ossetia, a region of the former Soviet state of Georgia.

On Aug. 8, Georgian troops began shelling Tskhinvali, the capital of disputed territory South Ossetia, in an attempt to regain control of a territory that they considered intrinsically Georgian. It is estimated that over 2000 people were killed due to this action, prompting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to refer to it as an act of genocide. On the same day, Russian troops crossed the border into South Ossetia and other regions of Georgia. Three days later, Russia began the bombardment of Gori, a strategic Georgian stronghold, causing about 200 deaths as reported by the BBC. By the end of the week, over 150,000 people had been displaced, according to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

But there is more to the story. Georgia, a country over 200 times smaller than the mighty Russian Federation, has been a constant thorn in the side of Russian leaders. Its strategic geographic location between the Caspian and Black seas, coupled with the establishment of a democratic government in 2003, means that South Ossetia has became a hub for foreign investment, primarily from Western nations. At least before the August conflicts, Georgia seemed to be on the path to economic growth.

Despite this economic and political growth, Georgia unfortunately still had a few major issues to resolve. Two of its regions that have a Georgian ethnic minority, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, felt they had culturally more in common with Russia than Georgia. In late 1992, the regions gained autonomy (thanks to copious Russian support) and as such, ethnic conflicts have escalated in the years since. Russia, sensing an opportunity to derail development in Georgia, has conducted various tactical and military practice sessions near the Georgian border, passing them off as random exercises.

Fearing an imminent attack, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made various calls to the international community to try to contain Russian advances in and around South Ossetia. But these efforts were in vain: NATO was already fully extended in Afghanistan, while the U.S. had troops toiling in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. Moreover, the UN had its hands tied because any decision the Security Council makes can be vetoed by Russia because it is one of the permanent members of the council.

To be fair, the U.S. and the European Union did call on Russia to show restraint and use diplomacy in dealing with Georgia, but Russia seemed unperturbed and continued to advance its strong military presence in South Ossetia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was proactive too, urging European leaders to step in and help resolve the dispute.

However, Russia motored on. President Medvedev, Putin’s political puppet, even claimed that the forces were on a demilitarization drive, one that would make South Ossetia a safer place in the future. But it is very hard to believe that any of the locals would have felt safe with tanks and soldiers spread across their land.

Desperate to avoid an onslaught, Saakashvili called upon President Bush, a strategic ally, to provide some military support. But with American forces already overextended in other regions of the world, President Bush dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who handled the situation with much-needed calmness. With surprising willingness, Russia signed a peace deal within a few days, and a larger crisis was averted (although many civilians still lost their lives and land).

However, by the time of the signing of the peace deal, Russia had already managed to achieve the two things that it seemingly set out to do: Warn the U.S. about its military capabilities and remind its own people that it is indeed a powerful nation capable of a strong offense when a situation requires it. With the U.S. expanding its influence in various nations such as India (by signing a controversial civilian nuclear deal that would give India access to American nuclear technology), Colombia (by providing support to the Colombian military in the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician) and Poland (by setting up an interceptor missile defense shield that would both protect Poland and improve American military presence in Eastern Europe), Russia became more threatened by the U.S. and felt that it needed to respond in some way.

In the U.S., the Georgia-Russia conflict got enough airtime to keep everyone talking about it (nonsense such as World War III was even mentioned on various — albeit radical — blogs and online forums). In Russia, the parliament voted to recognize South Ossetia as an independent nation, a move that presented Russia as a nation that freed the people of South Ossetia from the clutches of Georgian tyranny. As a bonus, Russia was also able to use this whole situation to determine its friends and foes by judging their response to its attack on Georgia.

This was a very successful operation for the Russian Federation. It proved to the international community that Russia will not be bossed around by anyone, irrespective of what the humanitarian or military situation is. It also presented the U.S. in an almost helpless light, with its secretary of state having to travel to Georgia so as to not risk losing it as an ally or experiencing international condemnation for its lack of assistance.