August 20, 2008

Congratulations to Rohullah Nikpai who won bronze in men's taikwondo (-58 kg), the first ever medal for Afghanistan. Somehow despite everything that is going on in the world and in their country, Afghanistan has still managed to send four athletes to this Olympic Games. (A fifth, Mehboba Ahdyar, sought political asylum in Norway instead.)

It may seem odd that I have not been writing at all about the Georgia situation, yet it seems to me that there is little to write about, and less for the world to say about it. As with so many such situations, this one is not black and white. In fact to me the entire situation, right down to the refusal to acknowledge Georgia's borders until the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is resolved, bears a striking resemblance to the happenings between Serbia, NATO, and Kosovo ... inverted. In other words, Russia is taking the role of NATO, Georgia that of Kosovo, and the allegiances of the two breakaway provinces are expected to fall into line with Russia. Even the greater alliances are perfectly inverted: Serbia with Russia, Georgia with the United States: which is the only reason the public figures in Georgia have been able to keep milking the public relations aspects of this situation as they have. Certainly Serbia was given no such breaks in the English-speaking parts of the world.

The part that may have gotten drowned in the rest of the rhetoric is that Georgia attacked first, into a region that had been in dispute for decades if not centuries. (Although, to be certain, Russia was very careful to give them enough rope.)

Ethnically, the people in these regions are mixed, but most are closer to Russia than to the Georgian ethnicities, to the point that many of them held Russian passports. Not for the first time, the question arises of just how independent a region relatively small in population can be when bordered by a great power. We should already know these lessons, from countries as diverse as Belgium and Canada.

(After the United States and Great Britain, it was Georgia which sent the most troops into Iraq. At the time, the composition of the Coalition of the Willing raised eyebrows. Now, it might be worth noting anew that the majority of nations who allowed themselves to be pulled with the United States into a war in Iraq also have some powerful neighbours on their borders: and may have future expectations of the country with which they allied.)

Yet the calls of crisis, here, are utterly unnecessary. To do more than bandy words is to flirt with an utterly unnecessary escalation of conflict. We don't need military intervention, we don't need mutual expulsion of diplomats, we don't need an Olympic boycott in the distant year (2016?) when Moscow again holds an Olympics. (That would not be a tradition we want to establish.) We already know that the propaganda and even casualty lists offered by all sides have been greatly exaggerated, as is very typical among those speaking not to their opponent but to a world stage, seeking world sympathy. In some ways we would probably want Dmitry Medvedev to be shown to have a rather greater degree of real power; but on the other hand, Vladimir Putin is both a known quality and very competent. (If he claims that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the great disasters of the century: for Russia in the short term, it was. It took Putin his entire two terms to bring it back to something in the vicinity of what it had been before.) Given time and especially space, this situation will resolve itself, perhaps with two new independent countries, more likely with two autonomous regions ... which these two provinces pretty much were already.

Still, as always for all military actions, be they declared wars or not, it is always easiest for a politician to declare an action, and hardest on those who live in the area. Because I don't see the need to fan the flames of crisis does not mean that I am indifferent to the consequences of war. By not fanning those flames, perhaps I can contribute to minimising those consequences as well.

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