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
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.
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?
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.