Essay: Georgia on our mind

Territorial integrity or self-determination? The one sacred principle of international life - national self-interest - decides

1508-halkin.jpg (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has been sent Googling by South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Although one may always have thought that these were names invented for an old Tom Lehrer song or a Peter Sellers movie, now that Russian and Georgian tanks are shelling them, we know they must be real. But who lives there? In the past, you would have had to scour your address book for a friend with the Encyclopedia Britannica. Now, there's practically nothing you can't find out about the Abkhazians or the Ossetians by pressing "Find," "Page Up" and "Page Down." This includes such facts as "until the early 1990s, the Abkhazians were best known for leading unusually long and active lives," and "an Ossetian was always very sensitive and intolerant to someone verbally offending his mother, sister or deceased relatives. Such an insult was almost unavoidably followed by a murder and a vendetta." Since these are quotes from semi-official Abkhazian and Ossetian publications, I hope I won't be accused of making fun of two little peoples. If I'm making fun of anything, it's my - our - own ignorance. All over the world are small nations and ethnic groups of which we know nothing, yet that are - rightly so - every bit as important to themselves as we are to ourselves. It's too bad we only hear about them when they starve or go to war. Actually, much of the gleanable information about the Abkhazians and Ossetians is well-presented and interesting. They're both people, like the Georgians, with deep roots in the Caucasus, which has always been one of the most culturally and linguistically fractured areas of the world. And they both have reasonably good cases that should make us think twice before coming to any simple conclusions about the Russian-Georgian military conflict of the past several days. IT'S NATURAL for Americans, or Israelis, to side with the Georgians. They're a small country fighting a very big one with a nasty record of pushing small countries around. Moreover, they have a government that's pro-American and pro-Israeli, and that's proud of belonging to Europe and the West at a time when Europe and the West are no longer so proud of themselves. One's first instinct is to wholly identify with them against the Russians. But the Abkhazians and the Ossetians are even smaller people who feel they've been pushed around by the Georgians. In fact, it's a sheer accident of history that they find themselves in Georgia in the first place. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established after the Bolshevik Revolution, which itself followed hundreds of years of czarist expansion, all of Russia was divided into 15 or 16 (the number fluctuated) "union republics" along national and ethnic lines. But since the number of different national and ethnic groups in Russia ran into the hundreds, most of these were given separate "autonomous republics" that were incorporated into the "union republics" for reasons of bureaucratic efficiency. This is how both Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia came to be part of Georgia. It's not very different from how imperialist powers drew borders elsewhere in the world - particularly in Africa, where different tribal groups were thrown together in the same countries by the whims of colonial secretaries and foreign offices that weren't even able in those days to Google them. It didn't matter very much as long as the USSR was a going concern, because since everyone was taking orders from Moscow, the "autonomous republics" were as free as the "union republics." But suddenly one day the USSR broke up, Georgia became an independent country, and the Abkhazians and Ossetians were now expected to take orders from Tbilisi. You can't expect them to have liked it, especially as the Georgians wished to Georgianize South Ossetia and Abkhazia far more than the Russians ever wished to Russify them. AND INDEED, why shouldn't Abkhazia and South Ossetia have the right to secede from Georgia and go back to being part of Russia as they would like to be? Because of the lines some Soviet commissar arbitrarily drew on a map back in the 1920s? The standard answer, of course, is that how boundaries came to be drawn no longer matters. They are there and must be internationally respected. Unless we consider them sacred, wars of conquest will never stop and stronger nations will go on taking land from weaker ones. Needless to say, however, the "sacred principle" of national sovereignty and territorial integrity clashes with another "sacred principle" of modern international life, that of the right to self-determination. And when that happens, principles cease to matter. When it came to Kosovo, which in the days of communist Yugoslavia had been an autonomous republic within Serbia on the Soviet model, the United States and Europe were all for self-determination. When it comes to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they are all for territorial integrity. You can't blame the Russians, who know something about hypocrisy, for finding this hypocritical. Here in Israel, we know something about hypocrisy, too. Self-determination is internationally sacred for the Palestinians, but it isn't for the Kurds, the southern Sudanese, the Tamils of Sri Lanka and dozens of other peoples. After all, the territorial integrity of Iraq, Sudan and Sri Lanka must be respected. In the end, Georgia will take its lumps over Abkhazia and South Ossetia because, while America and Europe may care about Georgian sovereignty, they care even more about avoiding war or severe tension with Russia. The only truly sacred principle of international life continues to be, as it always has been, national self-interest. The Georgians, who should have known better, are going to learn that lesson the hard way now. The writer is a veteran essayist, author and translator. His column is published in collaboration with The New York Sun.