Analysis: What is the conflict in Georgia really about?

Russia is fighting for greater control. For Georgia it's about staking out an independent position.

Georgian soldiers 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Georgian soldiers 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
"Timing has nothing to do with it. We're defending Georgian citizens on Georgian soil," said Lasha Zhianov, chairman of the Georgian parliament's foreign relations committee. When Georgian troops marched into the South Ossetia capital, they were laying claim to a region which has been part of Georgia for many decades. South Ossetia has an autonomous government protected by Russia, which rules over a population ethnically distinct from the Georgian majority. South Ossetia's total population does not exceed 70,000 people, who live in villages scattered through the tiny, mountainous province. The hostilities between Georgia and Russia, which both sides claim have included aerial bombardment by the other side, are not about South Ossetia itself. For Russia the fighting is for greater control and influence over countries in its "near abroad." For Georgia it's about staking out an independent position. But the conflict is also significant to a number of international audiences. Georgia and Russia have been in a state of detente for years now - so what drove the Georgian government of Mikhail Saakashailli to set a match to the tinder-box against such an overwhelmingly dominant opponent? Zhianov maintains Georgia was merely defending its territorial integrity, but leaves unexplained the simple fact that Georgia started the fight this time around. The answer, many Georgian observers say, lies in the American election cycle. The Bush White House has been a close friend to Georgia, a country that is host to one of the world's most important oil pipelines and which lies close to the border corridor to both Afghanistan and Iran. With the possibility that the Bush administration will be replaced by one with a less aggressive foreign policy, Georgia might believe that its ability to resist Russia's ambitions of regional dominance will be severely weakened when Bush leaves office. Iran, too, is watching closely and asking itself whether the American military, a dominant force in the region, is backed by the political stomach for confrontation. The question in this conflict is not whether either Georgia or Russia is correct - Georgia's arguments against dissolution along ethnic lines are identical to those made by Russia regarding Kosovo and Chechnya - rather, the question is whether or not the West is still a relevant presence in the Caucasus and, by extension, all of central Asia. Some watching the events unfold believe that granting Russia control over its near abroad - including tiny Georgia - is a fitting price to pay for Russian cooperation on the more urgent question, Iran. But if the world's strategy for containing the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions is to effect a psychological and political change in Teheran, the perception of Western and American weakness in coming to Georgia's defense achieves the opposite.