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Last Saturday, hundreds of Georgians in T-shirts emblazoned with the red crosses of the Georgian flag linked hands along New York City’s Fifth Avenue to protest the Russian attack on Georgia.
The five-day conflict in the second week of August was caused by Russia recognizing the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as countries independent of Georgia. The two rebel regions have been autonomous since Georgia declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
In clear violation of the U.N. ceasefire over the region, Russian forces pushed deep into Georgia to deter an attack on South Ossetia. According to the Associated Press, this is the first time Russia has sent its forces into combat abroad since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. One Georgian Cornell alumnus believes that the attack was merely an excuse to demonstrate Russian power.
“The Russians gave the impression that their intention was to protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgians, but as you can see, it really wasn’t their purpose. They wanted to establish control over these two regions, and this is one of the first moves to show the world they are capable of doing so,” said Ioseb Mutsubidze ’08.
The war has affected nearly all of Georgia, causing hundreds of civilian casualties and displacing over 100,000 people, according to the united Nations refugee agency.
“My region [Telavi, appx. 1 ½ hours North East of the capital Tbilisi] in terms of military operations hasn’t been that affected, but it was affected economically,” Mutsubidze said. “This conflict is not just about these two regions, it affects all of Georgia one way or another. For example, the refugees are coming to stay in our areas, and they need to be helped.”
Russia’s decision to recognize the two states has drawn harsh criticism from Western countries. The conflict has also heightened tension in the international community, straining Russia-U.S. relations and challenging the notion of stability in the former USSR.
“I’ve been following this conflict on my own for some time now. Since 1990 when Russia started to take control of these regions, they’ve been trying to provoke this into happening. This was the first time the provocation actually had an effect,” Mutsubidze said.
According to Mutsubidze, the situation was not unexpected. Over a decade of tension preceded the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but the outbreak of war came as a surprise.
“[The secession] was expected, but the war was not. Before, Russians would drop a bomb here or there, or fly a plane through Georgian airspace. In response, the Georgians would go the U.N. and try to deal with the situation diplomatically,” Mutsubidze said. “This time, the Georgians responded with force. They did military response to military response.”
Many believe that this attack will not be the last move made by Russia in the region. Mutsubidze believes that this may be an attempt by Russia to redeem its image as a superpower.
“Ultimately, I think Russians have imperialistic ambitions in the region. For centuries it has been a superpower. It has gone from the USSR, to being questioned, especially by the U.S. and western countries. It wanted to show the world it could do this,” Mutsubidze said.
Several political analysts have voiced concerns over the security of former USSR block countries like Ukraine and Moldova.
“What is clear from the West and NATO is that as soon as there is war or an encounter, no one will lift a hand to help. So if this happens to Moldova and Ukraine, [the West] may not help,” Mutsubidze said. “Even if Russia took over the capital, no one will do anything because the U.S. is very stretched right now. In any case, these things shouldn’t be solved with war.”
For Valerie Dvinova ’11, a Russian student, the attack may have been an attempt by Russia to regain stability and control over the region.
“To me, it seems that Russia feels they have a need to demonstrate power to avoid situations like the Chechen conflict. It goes back to the mentality that allowing one area to secede will cause either an attack on them, or for other regions to also seek independence,” Dvinova said.
Both Russian and Georgian citizens are unhappy how the media has portrayed the situation, and with how the situation has unfolded.
“Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not always as they are being portrayed. The media-driven idea is that these two regions want to break away and be free like Kosovo and Tibet, but the situation here is radically different,” Mutsubidze said.
Dvinova believes that the media may be unfairly portraying Russian citizens as party to the attack.
“Some Russians take it personally when people say that ‘Russians are doing this,’ because there is so much more than the media shows. While I believe that Russia is doing the wrong thing by bombing innocent people, it’s really a decision that the government has made,” Dvinova said.
Dvinova and Mutsubidze expressed concern over the populations of both countries.
“This has nothing to do with the people of Russia,” Dvinova said. “Most Russian people don’t agree at all, they are mad at their government for killing innocent people.”
Mutsubidze said, “I think the citizens are suffering because of their leaders. I think the future is really uncertain for Georgia.”