Georgia’s Lessons for Asia

President Mikhail Saakashvili

The crisis in and around Georgia

may seem rather remote from most of Asia. Yet

there are issues and lessons from this latest fall-out from the break up of the

Russian/Soviet empire that are relevant in Asia, which still faces border disputes

and ethnic minority issues left over from European and other imperialisms.

Of course, the Russians are proving once again that for

thuggish behavior they have few peers. Putin’s 1999 destruction of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya,

comes to mind, as does the brutalization of Budapest in 1956. Instead of merely pushing

the Georgians back from their attempt to regain control of the Russian-backed

breakaway region of South Ossetia they

launched a brutal onslaught on civilians as well as the Georgian military.

High on oil money, the Russians will get away with all this

as the rest of the world merely issues pious statements. The US is infuriated because it strongly supported Georgia’s

hot-headed President Saakashvili but is unable to give him any practical help. George Bush fulminates against his former pal

Putin and presidential contender John McCain makes bellicose but empty

statements, all to no avail. Europeans

wring their hands and reluctantly admit that strategies such as pipelines through

Georgia and Turkey to avoid Russia

are even more subject to political disruption (by Kurds as well as Russia) than ones through Russia itself.

In the long run this is a very dangerous game for the

Russians to be playing. The patchwork of nationalities in the Caucasus

are often at each others’ throats, but they do not have any great love for

Russian overlordship, actual or attempted. Chechnya

could again revolt against Moscow, predominantly

Muslim Dagestan and Ingushetia have potential trouble as do the various

republics in southern and eastern Russia where minorities are the


Even the Ossetians, for whom the Russians now claim to be

fighting, are themselves a minority and other minority and border issues also have

an impact on larger neighbors, Turkey

and Iran and the smaller

independent Caucasus republics, Armenia

and Azerbaijan.

Despite Chechnya, post-Soviet federalism

has not been a failure and has been helped by Soviet-era infrastructure

integration. But underlying tensions remain and the demographics favor the

minorities as Russian numbers start to decline.

But the west has barely begun to admit that it also bears

plenty of responsibility for the problems in the Balkans and Caucasus that followed

the Soviet break-up and the collapse of Yugoslavia into warring states.

Europe in effect encouraged the emergence of multi-states from the single

entity that a wiser Europe devised after World

War I. Then Yugoslavia

was created from bits of the defunct Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires. It

made a lot of sense. It may have had three main religions – Catholic and

Orthodox Christian and Muslim and two scripts (Roman and Cyrillic) ‑ but the

spoken language and social mores had much in common. Yet after the death of Marshall

Tito and the fall of Communism in Europe it

rapidly degenerated into civil war and genocide.

A united Europe not only made scant efforts to hold it

together, but in the name of “freedom of choice” last year furthered the

process of Balkanization by supporting Kosovo’s break from Serbia, creating

eight states (Bosnia is in effect two) from the former Yugoslavia, an act that infuriated

Russia, which warned of serious consequences. Those have now begun to unfold in


“Self-determination” is a powerful concept at the root of

all independence movements. But drawing lines between a theoretical right and a

practical reality is very difficult. In post-colonial Asia

newly independent nations have naturally focused on maintaining whatever

territorial borders they inherited. Re-alignment of some borders might have

made a lot of sense – for example, Thailand

and Malaysia would both be

stronger if Thailand

has lost its three Malay-Muslim southern provinces, as almost happened in 1945.

It would still make sense now – but is politically impossible.

Even the tiniest of border adjustments can take years to

negotiate – as witness the China-Russia dispute over a small island in the Issuri River.

In addition, minorities often get short shrift a nationalistic majority makes

second class citizens of minorities who yearn for their own self-determination.

Serbia, Israel and Burma are all countries that have

excelled in this regard.

In Asia there is no

European Union supporting the break-up of others in the name of

self-determination. But do not imagine that similar centripetal forces could not

emerge in Asia. For the foreseeable future, China may be

able to keep the lid on the demands of Tibetans and Uighurs, but sooner of

later some other power will want to promote their demands for strategic

reasons. And given Beijing’s crude approach to

these minorities, animosities run deep and can become endless sources of

trouble for China.

Can China

loosen a centralism rooted in its history of bureaucratic rule and Han

chauvinism as well as more recent Communist Party domination?

Burma’s irredentist problems are vastly greater, with minorities

comprising perhaps 40 percent of the population. The military regime has had

some success in limiting the activities of the numerous separatists groups –

Shan, Karen etc. What is unclear is how far any future government in Rangoon, democratic or

not, would deal with these issues. What sort of federal system would hold the

country together while allowing large measures of autonomy? Or are the Shan,

for example, as entitled to their own state as the Georgians or the Kosovans?

Even India,

with its multiplicity of languages and religions, has trouble with minorities,

particularly in the northeastern hill regions. But overall de-centralism does

seem to work quite well in India, at least in terms of maintaining political

unity even at cost of efficient government. Indonesia may be finding the same now

– and not only in dealing with Aceh. Meanwhile, Timor Leste is showing that

even with oil, independent mini-states can create more problems than they

solve. Nor do divisions reluctantly conceded necessarily lance the boils. Ethiopia has been in almost continuous war with Eritrea ever

since the latter gained independence in 1993 after the collapse of the Marxist

regime in Addis Adaba.

Indeed, Africa has

countless border and tribal issues to contend with. So it is of no help at all

that the west, led by movie stars and singers, gets incensed about Darfur with

scant understanding of the ethnic and economic complexities there or the

history of the Darfur Sultanate, which was incorporated into Sudan in 1916. China is attacked for supplying arms to Khartoum while humanitarian activists turn a blind eye to

the supplies provided to the rebel groups via Chad. The most likely sources of

funds are the French, who have long viewed Chad

as a client ex-colony, and Israel,

eager to keep up a war that the western media likes to present as demonic Arabs

fighting innocent black Africans.

Even when small, newly independent states are not at war

with each other or oppressing minorities, they find cooperation very difficult.

The ex-Soviet Central Asian ‘stans all have economic problems – mostly

centering on power and water -- and each can make life for the others more

difficult, or together they can work out a balance of interests. Thus far there

has been mostly stalemate.

Yet the most dysfunctional ‘stan of all, Afghanistan,

was once almost a model of a loose federation of tribes and tongues held

together by a king and a desire to keep foreign powers at a distance.

The Caucasus region is an

extreme example of the collision of post-empire self-determination and multi-ethnic

geography. But for that very reason the issues in Georgia

and with neighbors big and small deserve close watching in Asia

if only as examples of what not to do.