The Framing of the Georgian Conflict

by Chris Borgen

Although the Russian invasion of Georgia this summer has receded from the front pages, it is nonetheless the topic of vigorous debate. At stake is not only how we frame our response to the situation in Georgia, but also how we view our ongoing relationship with Russia.

For example, Edward Lucas, the Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist has posted to his blog a sharp critique of the EU’s policy towards Russia, post Georgian conflict. The essay had originally appeared int he Sunday Telegraph. it begins:

So it is business as usual with Russia. And what a bad business it is. Britain’s decision to allow France to lead the European Union back into normal relations with Vladimir Putin’s ex-KGB regime in Russia is one of the most startling volte-faces in our country’s recent diplomatic history. It has left our allies in Eastern Europe – Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – aghast at our duplicity. “Our last European hope just —-ed us. We should have known. For we are but a small faraway country about which they know nothing,” a senior official in the region wrote in a despairing email after The Daily Telegraph broke the news on Friday.

European unity after the war in Georgia was never terribly impressive – a mild public rebuke and the suspension of talks on a new “partnership and co-operation agreement” until Russia met the conditions of the loosely worded truce brokered by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Russia has met some of those conditions – but not all. EU monitors are still unable to inspect the war zone properly. If they could, they would see evidence of ethnic cleansing in the two separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They would also see that Russia has increased its military presence. The message to the Kremlin is clear: you can invade a neighbouring country, threaten Europe’s energy supplies, and the EU will do nothing serious about it…

You can read the rest here.  Lucas’ analysis has been in the “new cold war” vein; that is, after all, the title of his book. While I am hopeful that we can manage our relationship with Russia so that we may be competitors but not enemies, I also think that Lucas is an insightful analyst who notices things than many others don’t (or at least notices them first…).

Some of the comments to his post (and his responses to them) are also very interesting. The crux of the critique of Lucas’s argument is the concern that the tide may be turning on the Georgian version of how the fighting began. For example, a recent New York Times article began:

Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the longstanding Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression.

Instead, the accounts suggest that Georgia’s inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.

The accounts are neither fully conclusive nor broad enough to settle the many lingering disputes over blame in a war that hardened relations between the Kremlin and the West. But they raise questions about the accuracy and honesty of Georgia’s insistence that its shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, was a precise operation. Georgia has variously defended the shelling as necessary to stop heavy Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages, bring order to the region or counter a Russian invasion.

It is important to keep in mind that there are other issues at stake, such as (a) whether or not the Russian military action was actually an aggression or an act of self-defense or a treaty-based right; (b) whether the Russian military action was proportionate; and, (c) the big ticket question as to whether or not South Ossetia should be recognized as an independent state. These new reports are part of an ongoing battle to frame the debate–or “control the narrative” as public diplomacy folks like to say– over South Ossetia:

Each side has fresh lists of grievances about the other, which they insist are decisive. But both sides also have a record of misstatement and exaggeration, which includes circulating casualty estimates that have not withstood independent examination. With the international standing of both Russia and Georgia damaged, the public relations battle has been intensive.

Lucas and others have consistently argued that Russia and the South Ossetian separatists have goaded the Georgian leadership for months (if not years), making hair-trigger responses (or over-responses) more likely. Such behavior of stoking crisis should not be ratified. At the same time, the Georgians have inflicted a wound on their own credibility if they indiscriminately shelled. In particular, this can be used as evidence (rightly or wrongly) that South Ossetians are likely to suffer human rights abuses at Russian hands and that a peaceful reunification is not politically possible.

The current phase of the conflict over South Ossetia is not on the battlefield but in the arena of public opinion, in trying to shape perceptions that will in turn frame what will be viewed as a reasonable or unreasonable final settlement.

http://opiniojuris.org/2008/11/15/the-framing-of-the-georgian-conflict/

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